February 24, 2019

Election Heat: Remembering Humphrey Nwosu

Understandably, the postponement of the much-awaited presidential election of Saturday, February 16, 2019 elicited diverse comments from different parts of the country.

•Humphrey Nwosu

The only comment of hope came from some politicians in Zamfara who had been excluded from the contest on account of unending intra party disputes and who now saw the development as a possible window to fulfill their ambition of being listed among the candidates for election on the rescheduled date of February 23, 2019. All other comments which came from every other part of the country were full of condemnation for the electoral body.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the postponement of the election was that it was announced only a few hours to voting.  While many critics felt INEC could have done better which is true, I had this long standing feeling I had developed during the Babangida era when I served as the spokesman of the nation’s electoral body that the electoral umpire in Nigeria would always be blamed anyway for whatever happens. For instance, although Professor Attahiru Jega was applauded by many people for his conduct of the 2015 elections, the then ruling party felt she was betrayed by Jega.

So, while the current INEC chairman Professor Mahmood Yakubu was being condemned for the postponement of last week’s election, what was uppermost in my mind was the fate of Professor Humphrey Nwosu, Chairman of the defunct National Electoral Commission (NEC) which conducted the June 12, 1993 presidential election universally acclaimed to be our best election. Last year, when the Buhari administration decided to honour the heroes of June 12, only the politicians and political activists were selected.

Nothing was said about Humphrey Nwosu the architect of that milestone. This was what prompted my decision to feature the June 12, 1993 election in this column again today to reflect on what Nwosu and his team which included this writer went through in the conduct of the famous election.  While i have had cause in the past to tell the story at many fora, it is not too much to restate it to our compatriots considering that our politicians have a habit of blaming the electoral body for hitches without bothering about how much they always contribute to the ordeal of managing elections in the country

Here is my story. In the middle of the night of June 10, 1993, an Abuja High Court presided over by Justice Bassey Ikpeme, in breach of the relevant decree, ordered the electoral body to put on hold, the presidential election that was some 36 hours away. The plaintiff in the case was an unregistered body known as Association for Better Nigeria (ABN) which consisted of a group of politicians generally believed to have government backing. Nwosu found his way in the morning uninvited to a meeting of the military council to explain the grave consequences of Ikpeme’s indiscrete pronouncement. It was then agreed that NEC could discountenance Ikpeme’s order and continue with its arrangements for the elections.

At the end of voting, when it became clear from majority of the results already collated that the candidate of the then Social democratic Party (SDP) Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola could not be stopped from winning the contest, the then Chief Judge of Abuja, Justice Dahiru Saleh ordered NEC to halt the process. Again, Nwosu stormed the Villa, but this time he found that government had withdrawn support from him.

The then Attorney General of the Federation, (AGF) Clement Akpamgbo who gave Nwosu legal backing earlier, did not only ditch him, but also ensured that a bench warrant to arrest Nwosu issued by the Chief Judge of Abuja was duly served. As from then, Nwosu became labeled as the problem, while his Electoral Commission was formally suspended forthwith. The only other option left to Nwosu was to seek judicial cover from the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division. With no one else behind Nwosu except the Commission’s vibrant Director of Legal Services, Bukhari Bello, NEC drew attention to an earlier judgment by a higher court in which Oguntade JCA as he then was, established two main points.

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The first was that where a court makes an order in a case where it lacked jurisdiction, the order was null and void; and second that it was unnecessary to go on appeal in such circumstance. This suggested that Nwosu had no business obeying the erroneous decisions of the lower courts. Interestingly, NEC was able to produce in Court, the complete result of the election which she had been stopped from announcing and which confirmed the victory of MKO Abiola. The real problem was that some ambitious military fellows aided by a set of compromised politicians wanted to prolong military rule. At this point, government sensing that it might lose the case decided to annul the election few hours to the judgment of the Court of Appeal

Consequently, the winner of the election could not be declared. As far as some Nigerians were concerned, Nwosu’ s electoral commission was to blame for not disobeying the new court order since it was able to disobey the first order without realizing the difference between the two. No one blamed the infamous politicians in the Association for Better Nigeria. Apart from Abiola the leaders of the Social Democratic Party which won the election did not fight for their victory. The National Republican Convention which lost the election did not defend democracy by objecting to the annulment. The only person to blame was Nwosu.

Indeed, there were Nigerians who while condemning last week’s postponement warned that INEC should not behave like Humphrey Nwosu notwithstanding the clear difference between the situation of 1993 and that of last week. Whereas this article does not suggest that Nigeria’s Electoral Commissions are infallible, our people must learn to get the details of our electoral hitches before blaming anyone. And if we must blame, let’s blame everyone who contributed to the problem on ground.

INEC as a human organization cannot be without bad eggs especially as some of the officials are corrupted by our politicians. There is therefore no doubt that Nigerian elections will significantly improve if our politicians become more matured. They need to note for example that as players in a game, resorting to abusing the referee is unsportsmanlike. Our politicians always make noise for or against a subject only for their selfish gain which explains why those applauding last week’s shoot at sight order were the ones who got a court judgment in 2015 that it is illegal to involve the military in elections. The burning of INEC offices and facilities last week was no doubt the handiwork of our politicians. Rancorous party primaries and frivolous litigations are part of what our politicians did to complicate the conduct of the 2019 elections. It is hoped that they will allow Nigeria to outlive the elections.