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What is independent about our Electoral Commission?

By Tonnie Iredia
The first Electoral Commission of Nigeria (ECN) was set up in 1958.  The name later changed to the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO). For a while, each of the Commissions operated like a task force that was dissolved  now and again thereby depriving the system of continuity.

Luckily, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) that was set up in 1987 was made a permanent body.  The name of the commission was changed again in 1996 to the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON). In 1998, Government decided not to leave any one in doubt that it wanted a body to handle elections without outside interference. Accordingly, the new electoral body was called the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

It seems obvious that for an electoral agency, to effectively function as an unbiased umpire, it has to be independent. If not,  it would only act out the script of those that can direct it. The issue of what is in a name can arise here.  Must the word ‘independent’  be added to the name of an electoral commission for it to perform well?

That looks like a simplistic question but in African parlance, a name matters. For example, the relationship between Jonathan and Goodluck cannot be wished away. Similarly, our history is replete with stories that ladies who go by the name ‘Patience’ are usually ‘calm and tolerant’.

Indeed, there was an interesting story in my neighbour hood of a child who at birth was named Dick Tiger in admiration of that great Nigerian who won laurels across the globe as a brave and courageous boxer.  When the child grew up, his parents were expelled from the community on account of the belligerence of the boy. So, perhaps there is something in a name after-all.

Against this background, is Jega’s Independent National Electoral Commission an independent body?  This question cannot be accurately answered on the basis of the title of the commission.

We need to also look at other issues like a headline story in the dailies of Wednesday October 13 2010, titled “Senate summons Jega over media comments” The summon, according to the report, seeks to order Jega to appear in the Senate to defend his recent comments about the likelihood of a delayed election process which in the opinion of some Senators can rubbish their image.

We can only hope that not many senators hold the same view. In any case, an optimist is not, likely to subscribe to the idea that Jega’s comment is capable of derogating from the image of the Senate. Our senators being  the truly ‘elected’ representatives of the people no doubt have  an effective feedback mechanism by which they can easily ascertain what their collective image looks like in the perception of Nigerians.

Of course, there are Nigerians who know the worth of our Senators and therefore hold them in high esteem. Such people are aware that quite often; our senators make the huge sacrifice of hurriedly returning from their many vacations to discuss their ever increasing remuneration packages which are usually described as urgent matters of national importance.  So anything Jega likes, let him say; our senators including those indicted by their peers remain ‘distinguished’.

However, it is extremely important to recall that Jega is the chairman of the ‘Independent’ National Electoral Commission (INEC) which Section 158 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) says ‘shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person’.

From the wording of this section, it seems clear that our constitution never envisaged a situation where anyone, group or organization including our most powerful senate can constitute itself into a bully that can summon INEC at will to answer charges.

Even if the Senate has secretly amended the section to exempt itself from those that cannot put INEC under its control, Nigerians ought to disapprove of an attitude whereby our legislature behaves, now and again, like an over-grown Senior Prefect with respect to INEC whose independence is of public interest.

While the legislature is free to seek to reassert itself in the polity because of the distortions to its life-span by many years of military rule , it needs to note that an electoral body cannot function effectively if it is occasionally intimidated and pushed around. To respect and effectively equip INEC to be viable and free is a better option.

Unfortunately that has not been the case. When a new electoral body was established in 1987, there was nothing on ground for it to build upon in terms of manpower, structure and facilities. The staff and assets of the immediate past commission, disbanded some three and a half years earlier had been shared among other government establishments.

The Commission thus had no offices of its own at any level of government or any electoral records to consult. It also had no communication network either in the form of telephone, fax or telex to link its temporary make-shift offices throughout the country.

This created a beggarly culture for the electoral commission which has since then be exploited by the political class. If as we hear, State Governors who have interest in the game which INEC over-sees, provide accommodation and other items for the comfort of Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) in their states, INEC cannot be an independent manager of the election process.

Coming back to the issue in focus, the Senate must not portray even, by body language , an impression which can make people believe that it can order Jega about. It is a dangerous posture which can make minority political parties lose faith in INEC.

For example, the Publicity secretary of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties, Osita Okechukwu said a few days back that the companies which won the contract to supply some machines to INEC ‘were midwifed by Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) barons and handed over to INEC’.

What Jega said for which he was allegedly to be summoned by the senate was a mere opinion in line with his freedom of speech under Section 39 of the constitution. Senators can also express their own views on the subject.

That is not the same thing as bullying a so-called independent body. What is more, our Senate is made up of politicians who serve as players in the game of politics; our INEC on its part, consists of persons of proven integrity who serve as referees in the same game. Who in a game is supposed to have powers to summon the other- the player or the referee? If it is the player, then we do not have a truly independent INEC.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.