By Donu Kgbara
EARLIER on this week, Professor Attahiru Jega, the new Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), publicly reminded his 37 Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) of the need to conduct themselves appropriately while they are preparing for the 2011 polls in various states.

According to Jega: “The practice by the RECs in the past of going cap-in-hand to state governments for assistance is to be discouraged because it is capable of undermining your independence. RECs are advised to get in touch with the national headquarters to address whatever problems they may face…

“…Even in instances where financial assistance is freely offered…approval for accepting such assistance must be obtained from the Commission. You will agree with me that such measures are essential in ensuring confidence in your work”.
Fine words indeed. But are they strong enough?

I have never met anyone who has anything bad to say about Jega. He is so often described – by serious individuals who have high standards – as a no-nonsense champion of truth that I tend to believe that he is a man of integrity.

But it bothers me that he chose to use such mild language and appears willing to tolerate compromises that should, in my opinion, be avoided at all costs.

Should RECs who are tempted to collect money from state governments that have vested interests in electoral outcomes merely be politely “discouraged”?

Shouldn’t Jega be breathing fire-and-brimstone like the sternest of preachers and putting the fear of God into his RECs? Shouldn’t he be explicitly and unequivocally banning them from going down such a blatantly undemocratic path?

Then there’s the fact that Jega gently “advised” the RECs to contact their HQ if they ever have difficulties accessing crucial resources…instead of telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they will be sacked and disgraced out of office pronto if they are caught carrying on like lone rangers and quietly solving their real or imagined cashflow problems through the back door.

Jega should have made it crystal clear that RECs must ALWAYS patiently wait for their legitimate needs to be met by the organisation that hired them.

Also, what is all this talk about RECs requiring approval for accepting external help? Why should they even think that such requests will be considered?

Are there ANY circumstances under which it can be morally justifiable for RECs to seek approval, get approval and wind up depending on  politicians for funding or logistical support? How can it ever be OK for INEC staff to get into cosy pecuniary relationships with the candidates they are supposed to be monitoring?

I DO know ruthlessly principled (or just plain ungrateful!) characters who are capable of biting the hands that feed them, but this personality type is rare.

Let’s face it: Most mere mortals aren’t tough, saintly or brave enough to adopt a coldly objective attitude towards folks who have provided them with perks.

Even when you know that the largesse a benefactor is bestowing on you was stolen or illegally hijacked from a budget that was meant for another purpose, it is  extremely hard to stand as firm as a rock and flatly refuse to be manipulated

The minute people reach out to us and save us from inconvenience or lack, most of us start to fondly or deferentially regard them as friends or masters; and we instinctively gear ourselves up mentally to return the goodwill we have received.

Meanwhile, Donald Duke, the ex-Governor of Cross River State, appears ready to distance himself from the vote-faking skulduggery of which he and other leaders have been repeatedly accused; and he recently gave a speech that contained useful insights into the way elections are subverted in this country.

Duke, in response to civil rights activists who regard Jega as a potential Messiah and blame his predecessor (Prof. Maurice Iwu) for the massive rigging that soured the 2007 polls, said that the identity of the INEC Chairman is not particularly important because chairmen cannot entirely control the process.

What Duke was trying to say is that so many people are involved in the process that the big guy who runs the show from Abuja cannot exert much influence over dubious activities that take place in the states and at the grassroots level.  There are six zonal INEC Commissioners, 37 RECs, one electoral officer per local government area and one presiding officer per polling booth (and there are roughly 120,000 polling booths). The Police Force also plays a key role.

Multiple malfunctions can occur in any part of this vast network. For example, RECs sometimes unethically invite governors who have provided them with welfare packages – or governors from whom they want favours – to nominate presiding officers. Inevitably, the governor selects his personal cronies and party faithfuls, who then proceed to handle this task in a totally biased manner.

I don’t envy Jega. The poor man will have to contend with corrupt INEC officials, bribed policemen, theft of ballot boxes, intimidation of voters, violence being wreaked on the relatively weak opponents of incumbents, situations in which one person fraudulently thumb-prints several ballot papers and unproductive but powerful politicians who cannot stomach the idea of losing.

My advice to Jega is very simple:
Dear Sir, Nigeria is probably still too backward for anyone to completely eradicate rigging. But you can maximize your chances of doing a reasonable job and retaining your excellent reputation if you  don’t mince words when you are addressing your subordinates and  tell Mr President that you MUST get enough funds with which to pay ALL of your operational bills promptly and fully.

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