By Olusola Agbaje
THE news of the resolution by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) at its last retreat in Calabar to seek time extension for the forthcoming elections in January 2011 did not come to me as a surprise.
I had harboured a silent fear that the Commission might run into the problem of time going by the way and manner the leadership transition was effected at the Commission: there was uncertainty over the expiration date of the tenure of the Chairman, Professor Maurice Iwu.
Before Professor Attahiru Jega stepped in the saddle as Chairman of the Commission, Iwu had put in place a tentative time-table, fixing two probable election dates: one for January and the other for April 2011. The time-table was to be dependent on how fast the National Assembly would amend the Electoral Act so that the stipulated timelines for electoral activities do not become too tight to comply with.
There was also the issue of how quickly the Federal Government would appoint a successor for Iwu if he was not to be retained. And after Jega was appointed, the concern shifted to expeditious release of fund to the Commission to kick-start its electoral activities, especially the review of the voters’ register.
I remember the position canvassed by former Minister of Works and Housing and one-time Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Tony Anenih on July 26, 2010 in Port-Harcourt, on the issue of the time available for INEC.
In a speech delivered at the South-South Consultative Forum, the full text of which was published in many newspapers, Anenih succinctly captured my silent fear when, on that auspicious occasion, he prophetically highlighted the dangers of not allowing INEC enough time for the conduct of the election.
Having spoken extensively on the purpose of the Port Harcourt Forum, which was to drum support of other zones, especially the North, for President Goodluck Jonathan’s presidential aspiration in 2011, he drew attention to INEC’s timetable for the 2011 elections.
Consider his statements: “…You will notice that I have deliberately left out talking about zoning because the issue has been battered beyond recognition. However, before I conclude this address, I cannot but comment on a matter of urgent national importance, which is the forthcoming election…
“The proposal to hold elections in January 2011, portends danger. If this is done, there can be no guarantee for a free and fair election. My fears are based on the reality of the situation as it relates to preparations for the 2011 elections. Even Prof. Attahiru Jega, in his characteristic manner, has given a hint on the sad state of the existing voters’ register.
“Furthermore, according to the Nation Newspaper of July 24, 2010, Jega was quoted as saying: “In the course of our retreat in Uyo, we closely looked through the existing voters’ register, sampling over 100 polling units from randomly selected 19 states. What we found were massive inadequacies, including underage registrants, hundreds of blank or blurred photographs and multiple registrations by the same persons…”.
Anenih, therefore, posited thus: “This clearly emphasizes the need for a new voters’ registration before the elections. It was in this context that INEC invited applications about four weeks ago from those interested in being employed to carry out the voters registration.
“I do not think that the prospective employees have been recruited yet. Furthermore, we need time for their training after recruitment as well as the process of enlightenment. Who should be held responsible if INEC, out of pressure, rushes to hold the elections in January, without adequate preparations? Such action could be risky and disastrous.
Anenih concluded that: “Prof. Jega is a highly respected Nigerian and this is the time in the history of the country for him to pray, plan and perform. He needs time and money; he should make these demands and government should grant his requests”.
As it happened, Jega actually made his request for funds and the Executive, acting in concert with the Federal Legislature, approved for the Commission a whopping N89 billion to take care of the scheduled electoral activities.
However, despite the release of funds, anxiety has continued to heighten in the polity over the time frame for the election, especially after the National Assembly passed the amended Electoral Act 2010 which effectively circumscribed the time of election such that it must be held not later than January 2011.
It thus became apparent that the counsel by Anenih, a senior and experienced political warhorse, on the unrealistic nature of the January date for election, was wise, after all. Indeed, as it has turned out, the words of our elders are indeed the words of wisdom.
In fact, other persons and groups had also reinforced his position. For instance, the National Chairman of the PDP, Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo, had reportedly said at the last but one meeting of political parties with the INEC that there was the need for extension in the polls timetable in the overall interest of unity and sovereignty of the country. He was reportedly ignored.
At the last meeting with INEC on Tuesday (September 21, 2010), Nwodo reinforced his earlier position and was applauded. Read him: “We believe that we have someone who can do the job; we must give him time to do the job.
“The staggered election cannot be implemented. It is very difficult to implement. The staggered presidential primaries are not possible and the gubernatorial election is not possible. We would like to do it in one day… If we did not reply to your timetable, we would not have been able to meet the guidelines of our party; if we did not respond on behalf of INEC.
“We have a problem and it is (the) time to meet the mandatory 21 days’ notice… What is sacrosanct is that the tenure of this Government should not be extended. Whatever time you want between now and April 2011, please give us that timetable.”
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) also on August, this year, called for extension of the 2011 election timetable, saying that the January date was not feasible because enough plans had not been made for the exercise. National President of the Congress, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, declared this in Abuja during a courtesy visit by the Country Director of the International Republican Institute (IRI), Dr. Mourtada Deme.
He said that the union had told the INEC boss, despite his (Jega’s) optimism that the January date was realistic, that the election would not hold because the time was too short. The National Democratic Party (NDP) had also called on the Commission to shift the election date. The calls struck the cord of consensus.
It is gratifying that the INEC and the political parties have now agreed to the election holding in April or thereabout, which was the second option put in place by Iwu before he bowed out. If that will bolster credible election and if that will ensure that the exercise is adequately prepared for, it should be supported.
But it should be pointed out that as the Electoral Act 2010 is returned to the National Assembly for amendment to accommodate the extension of time for the conduct of the 2011 general elections, the Executive and the Federal Legislature should take the opportunity to review and expunge where imperative all other provisions that are capable of inhibiting free, fair and credible elections in 2011.
· Agbaje wrote this piece from Ibadan.