By Tonnie Iredia
Many years back, some analysts imagined that they make suggestions that could sanitize Nigeria’s political system and reverse the country’s poor elections. Today, many would readily agree that our elections are incurably bad notwithstanding that those who benefit from the process openly applaud the fake outcomes of the contests. Although the situation deteriorates daily, certain issues have helped people to overcome the urge to despair. One of such issues concerns the inclusion of supposed men of integrity- university vice-chancellors who serve in the election process as returning officers. Two other issues- the battle ready posture of our security framework and the premature opinionated positive reports of the media and observer groups all play significant roles.
On the eve of every Nigerian election, the citizens get to hear of the battle readiness of our security agencies. The total number of deployments from each relevant agency alone can give the impression that for once, the unwholesome behaviour of our political actors and some voters would not recur. Interestingly, tough talks on how no one would be allowed to get away with any malpractice are mere songs. In 2016, the then Deputy Inspector-General of Police in charge of Operations, DIG Sontoye Wakama vowed in Port Harcourt on the eve of the Rivers Governorship rerun that: “we are not here to plead; we are not here to beg; we are not here to beseech or to request; we are here to tell you that, should there be any problem, wherever it rises from, we will deal with that problem with the full weight of the law.” As reassuring as the riot act sounded, we now know from history that several thousands of security operatives led by a Deputy Inspector-General of Police could not stop the snatching of ballot boxes.
On their part, media and election observers have unwittingly joined fake assurance singers on Nigerian elections. On voting day, broadcasting stations transmit eyewitness accounts of proceedings just as many election monitors and observers both local and international are similarly accredited to observe the events. Their reports on a general note often confirm peaceful and hitch-free exercises with only a few reflections of hitches associated with the functioning of INEC’s temperamental card readers. Such reports which erroneously see peace and progress as coterminous are no longer rational these days when the manipulation of elections has shifted from voting to collation centres where only a few people can witness the events. What happens there are a far cry from opinionated ‘positive’ media and observer reports that make some people have false hope of a likely degree of free and fair elections.
The other unfortunate aspect of our elections which is our main concern today is the trend whereby INEC appoints vice-chancellors of Nigerian universities as returning officers. The innovation which was introduced by Professor Attahiru Jega immediate past chairman of the commission to bring some degree of integrity to the process has since proven to be exceedingly superfluous. Whereas some vice chancellors may be men of integrity, it is simplistic to think that they all are. The last time my little cousin identified his vice chancellor on television, the man looked like a male usher; nothing near the stature of the late Professor Adeoye Lambo our vice-chancellor in my days in school at Ibadan whose presence made every one perceive, merit, intellect, charisma, self-esteem etc rolled into one. Today, some vice-chancellors are ethnic heroes elevated essentially through prescriptive criteria. No wonder some of them now think it is better to be a minister, even if it is the funny one called minister of state. And one channel of doing that is to be made a returning officer who would declare a ‘winner’ by reading whatever figures are presented by relevant actors.
In reality however, only the unexposed would attach credibility to a Nigerian election simply because the results of the contest were declared by a vice-chancellor. Only last July, there were media reports that Prof. Samuel Oye Bandele, vice-chancellor of Ekiti State University (EKSU), had to publicly deny being arrested or detained by the police over his alleged involvement in electoral malpractice during the recent Ekiti governorship election. The allegation may have been false but the fact that people thought such an act could be done by a vice chancellor is instructive.
Besides, it is unfair to expect university vice-chancellors to be able to stop election malpractices when stopping examination malpractices in their universities has remained an ordeal. Indeed, even the best of vice-chancellors is not likely to perform well in Nigeria’s convoluted political environment. The dramatic performance of Prof John Etu Efeotor, vice-chancellor, Federal University of Petroleum Resources who served as returning officer for Rivers State in the Presidential and National Assembly elections of 2015 confirms this point. Efeotor who did not appear literate enough to see or read his own report during the collation of results told the nation that he wrote the results under special conditions.
No one knows if Efeotor’s conditions are same as those of other returning officers. During the recent Osun governorship election, especially during the rerun, the returning officer, Prof Joseph Fawupe vice-chancellor of the Federal University of Technology, Akure looked stressed-up on television ( perhaps due to poor camera work) and I wondered if returning officers in our elections know that the law gives them super powers. Many people are probably unaware that a returning officer can overrule a presiding officer. For instance, although the law says a ballot paper, which does not bear the official mark, shall not be counted, such a ballot paper according to our electoral law can still be counted “if the returning officer is satisfied” that the ballot paper was from a book of ballot papers furnished to the particular polling unit.
Apart from the power of review by an election tribunal, our electoral law expressly provides that the decisions of a returning officer shall be final on questions relating to a) unmarked ballot paper; b) rejected ballot paper; and c) declaration of scores of candidates and the return of a candidate. But what we find these days is that rather than satisfy themselves on the veracity of figures presented to them, returning officers feel that their impartiality rests on their reading such figures as presented. They thereafter abdicate by simply reminding all aggrieved persons to proceed to election tribunals. Unfortunately, that does not show that the post of returning officer is of any particular value. Any robot without any degree of discretion and initiative can play the role. If so, why deceive us into believing that supposed men of integrity are available for the role?