Four years ago or so, former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, lamented in far away America what he said was the thankless job of conducting Nigeria’s elections. “With due respect,” he said on a visit to “God’s own country” in April 2010, “if Jesus could come to the world and be the chairman of INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission), any election he conducts would be disputed.”
The problem, however, he said, was not so much INEC itself as the Nigerian politician. So if anyone needed reform at all, he concluded, it was the Nigerian politician rather than INEC. “One thing that we need to reform in our society,” he said, “is the politician. We need to reform politicians.”
I have a feeling that Professor Attahiru Jega, the INEC chairman, couldn’t have agreed more with Obasanjo about the frustrations of his job as he is forced to retreat from his announcement in August that his commission will increase the country’s 119,973 polling units created since 1996, by 30,000 – 21,615 of them in the North and the remaining 8,412 in the South.
Obasanjo’s lamentation then was in defence of the terrible record of Professor Maurice Iwu, Jega’s predecessor, in his conduct of the 2007 elections which was more or less universally condemned as hardly free, fair and credible. Obasanjo had replaced the late Mr Abel Goubadia, whose conduct of the 2003 election was adjudged even worse than that of 2007, with Iwu as INEC’s chairman in 2005.
Obasanjo’s remarks were widely condemned by the Christian clergy as blasphemous but I believed that the condemnations were based on a misunderstanding of his motive, which, as a Christian, could never have been to question Jesus Christ’s powers. However, whatever anyone would’ve said about his motive, there was no doubt that he was dead on target about the need for Nigerian politicians to reform their ways, if ever the country is to experience a universally adjudged free, fair and credible election.
When Jega announced his plans for the additional 30,000 polling units, he said INEC was motivated by the need to make voting easy for everyone by ensuring no polling unit served more than 500 voters. As Professor Lai Olurode, a National Commissioner, explained to the audience of a media interactive organised in Osogbo, capital of Osun State, by the state’s chapter of Association of Veteran Journalists last month, many polling units in the country had served as many as 3,000 voters.
It so happened that the vast majority of these overstretched polling units were in the North. In the 2011 elections for, example, millions of voters in the region, including this reporter, had to walk or drive at least one kilometre to vote. In perhaps what is possibly the most notorious case in the country, most voters in Rigasa, a sprawling suburb in Igabi Local Government, Kaduna State, with a population possibly bigger than that of Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, had to walk for more than two kilometres to vote. Rigasa had only 12 polling units for all its vast size and population.
Hence INEC’s decision to create more of them in the North by a ratio of slightly two and a half to those in the South. The arithmetic was simple. You simply divided the existing voting population of each state by 500. Equity demanded the increase in the numbers allocated to the North be much higher than those for the South. However, big as they seemed, the allocation hardly changed the ratio of the adult population between the two regions which has been roughly 55% to 45 since censuses started in the country in early 20th century.
But then with the Nigerian politician nothing is ever simple. No sooner did Jega announce INEC’s plan to increase the polling units and the ratio of the increase between the North and the South, than all hell was let loose by politicians who saw the decision not only as a grand conspiracy to rig next year’s presidential election against President Goodluck Jonathan as the candidate from the South. They also saw INEC’s decision as a repudiation of their cardinal belief that their region has always been more populous than the North.
As is all too often the case in the country, where the politicians go, the media soon follow. Typical was the New Telegraph of September 26 which asked Jega to “Cancel the new polling units now!”
The plan, the newspaper said, “would only create more political crisis in the country.” Why? Because, it said, “As of today, Nigeria’s exact population figure cannot be ascertained; it has been a matter of conjecture.”
The newspaper said in one breath that the argument of which of the country’s two regions was more populous “can never be won or lost” but in the next breath went on to contradict itself by asking INEC to put its plan on hold till after next year’s election and “after the controversies surrounding the nation’s actual population have been properly addressed.” How it is possible to do so when the editors at the newspaper had made up their minds that the battle for a universally acceptable census is a futile one, it did not say.
Still the editors have a point about the seeming futility of battling for a universally acceptable census in the country. During President Obasanjo’s battle to run for his second term against opposition from the North, Southern organisations like Afenifere and Ohaneze, and Alliance for Democracy as essentially a South-West party, told him they will support him only subject to his making the possession of a national identity card a condition for voting in 2003. Their motive was apparent; it would for once confirm their beliefs, in the words of the late Afenifere leader, Senator Abraham Adesanya, that the North had always made up its population by counting its sheep, cattle and goats.
The demand was downright unconstitutional and illegal, as was later pointed out to Obasanjo by INEC. But he accepted it all the same and went ahead to conduct it, ahead of the elections. He even voted 25 billion Naira for it, as against 3 billion for Agriculture. However, even though he went through with it he had to drop its use as a condition for voting when it became obvious that only a small number of the ID cards could be issued to those registered before the elections.
At the end of the exercise the figures suggested an even slightly wider margin of the population of the North over the South’s; whereas the 1991 census put the ratio between the regions at 53.23 for the North as against 46.77 for the South, the ID card exercise put the figures at 54.5 and 45.5 respectively.
It is noteworthy that although the 1991 exercise had its sceptics, several notable Southerners, including Nobel Literature, Wole Soyinka, late former Chief Justice, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola who conducted the 1973 census under General Yakubu Gowon, and the late Professor Sam Aluko, the well-regarded and outspoken economist, all hailed the count as credible. It is also noteworthy that the ID card exercise was conducted by a president from the South, under a minister of Internal Affairs, the supervising ministry, Chief Sunday Afolabi, an Afenifere chieftain, and with the late Mr Deji Omotade, also a Southerner, in charge of the Department of National Civic Registration (DNCR), the parastatal which conducted the exercise.
If, in spite of the evidence of the compulsory National ID card registration exercise, some people chose to believe that the North is still a barren half-empty region, it’s hard, if not impossible, to see what else will shift them from their beliefs.
In joining the chorus of those against the new polling units, the Vanguard which has been in the vanguard of a campaign of vitriol against Jega, said in its editorial of October 7 that INEC must stop its plan because it “has been rejected by the generality of Nigerians.” Really? Obviously among Vanguard’s “generality of Nigerians” must be South-East PDP, a creature strange to the constitution of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, Afenifere, Ohaneze, the Middle-Belt Forum, the Unity Party of Nigeria, the Senate leadership and even the security services which Sunday Vanguard (November 9), obviously acting on highly privileged information, claimed had written a letter to Jega warning him of the “potential dangers of his action.”
As the newspaper knows all too well, none of these organisations, including the Senate leadership, truly represent the generality of Nigerians, as they are either self-selected, or had rigged themselves into power, or are more loyal to the powers that be than to the State.
However, even though the combination of all those who have attacked Jega hardly represent the true generality of Nigerians, INEC’s decision on November 11 to postpone the creation of additional 30,000 polling units until after next year’s election, shows their power to blackmail and cow those they disagree with into submission is truly immense.
It is a power that bodes ill for a free, fair and credible election next year – and probably long after.No tags for this post.