There has been a lot of controversies surrounding the Independent National Electoral Commission as the elections approach and this is normal. Many people are genuinely concerned about the question whether the announced plans for the conduct of free, fair and credible elections are proceeding smoothly or whether there are attempts to scuttle the plans and return Nigeria to the dark days of State rigged elections. Others are deliberately spreading rumours of rigging plans to smear the image of the Electoral Commission and cause disaffection around the elections for their own purposes.
The climate created by the likelihood of a close contest between the two leading candidates for the presidency would always cause concern for the opposition candidate who would assume that the powers of incumbency would be used to rig them out. This assumption would not be completely unfounded after all its common knowledge that the 1964, 1983, 2003 and 2007 elections were heavily rigged by incumbent ruling parties to the detriment of the opposition. Nonetheless, at this time, I would like to draw our attention to the other fact that since the 2011 general elections there has been steady improvement in the integrity of our elections and that numerous processes have been put in place to ensure that our elections are indeed free, fair and credible.
The biggest controversy over the past couple of weeks has been the appointment of Commissioner Amina Zakari to chair the internal INEC committee in charge of the collation centre. The appointment immediately led to wild allegations that she was being put there to rig the elections in favour of President Buhari who was alleged to be her uncle. This allegation is in my view frivolous and mischievous. The parties that led the charge are very much aware that presidential elections are collated at the local government and State levels. They also know that returning officers are drawn from universities and not from within INEC except for the returning officer of the presidential election who is the INEC chair and not the chair of the committee handling the collation centre.
Nigerians also have very clear memories of how the collation centre functioned in 2015 when returning officers from the States came to the collation centre and read out their numbers themselves on live television. The national returning officer therefore received the State results at the same time as all Nigerians watching the event so the idea that Amina Zakary would hoodwink all Nigerians and enter fake results is simply ridiculous.
The irony is that if the opposition party is against Amina Zakari, they should have congratulated Professor Mahmoud Yakubu for removing her from the most powerful INEC committee on Operations and logistics; where she was replaced by Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu to the much less influential committee on health and welfare. Her chairing the collation centre committee is therefore directly in line with her commissionership duties of ensuring catering, health and sitting arrangements to the representatives of the 91 political parties and other stakeholders that would be at the venue. Her INEC commissionership had duly received Senate approval so it would be unreasonable to say that she should not perform assigned INEC responsibilities.
The controversy over Amina Zakari was worsened by the presidency itself when they released a press statement that she has no blood relationship with President Buhari. She herself said the same thing when interviewed by the BBC. The statements then imposed the next question anyone would ask, what exactly is her relationship to the President. Trust Nigerians, they do their research fast. We all now know that the President’s senior sister was married to Amina Zakari’s father before she was born. This means that there is a family relationship and its disingenuous to simply say that there is no blood relationship. We also know today that the family relationship has been sustained because when President Buhari was at the PTF she and her two brothers, one of whom is currently a minister had business relations. The “no blood relationship” insistence simply raised suspicions.
When I was a consultant to the Inter-Party Advisory Committee between 2013-2015 and Amina Zakari was INEC Commissioner in charge of political parties, we worked closely with her. She is very smart, competent and conscientious in her work. The fact that President Buhari’s senior sister was married to her father before she was born should not be the issue. She has been an INEC commissioner since 2010 and if she has done anything wrong or unethical, the charges should be brought forward, investigated and acted upon if true. The family relationship should not be the determining factor and in any case, Senate knew about it before they confirmed her second term.
The other INEC controversy making the rounds is the return to the procedure of voting immediately after accreditation. It would be recalled that in 2015, voters were asked to move away from the polling unit after accreditation and return in the afternoon to vote. After the 2015 elections, both political parties and observer groups requested that INEC should stop the decoupling of accreditation and voting for the simple reason that many people who leave after accreditation do not return. For the 2015 presidential election, 2.3 million people who were accredited did not return to cast their ballot in the afternoon and this should be a matter of concern. INEC listened to the recommendations of observer groups and political parties and since the January 2016 governorship election in Bayelsa State, voters have been able to vote immediately after accreditation. This has had a positive effect on voter assiduity and reduced queues and waiting time. It is therefore surprising to hear some people now saying it’s a new trick to rig the election for someone. Nigerians need to be a bit careful at the type of stories they choose to believe.