By Tonnie Iredia
One simple mistake great men make is the assumption that almost everyone specifically selected to perform a task with them, is likely to have about the same faith and commitment to the successful execution of the common task.
One area where that mistake has become glaring in the last few years in Nigeria is the conduct of elections. When Professor Attahiru Jega was appointed Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC in 2010, he had imagined that integrity issues which had long plagued elections in the country would easily be surmounted if he invited his colleagues from different Nigerian universities to join him in improving the integrity of the nation’s electoral process.
He followed up with that reasoning by using universities as the haven of saints from where he picked Returning and Collation officers. At the end of the day, Jega recorded some successes which many probably thought were attributable to our university men of integrity.
Today, those in that school of thought must have dwindled considerably as many people now appreciate that although a university is an environment where great minds can be found, many small and wobbled minds also abound there especially in today’s Nigeria where many people are easily susceptible to material inducements.
In truth, the bad eggs in our university system have so badly dented the image of the system that it has become easier to talk about universities as part of our electoral dilemma rather than the solution.
Rivers state governor, Nyesom Wike, last week spoke the minds of many Nigerians, when he called on university authorities to restore the good old days of the university system.
Wike spoke in the Rivers state capital when a delegation of the university of Port Harcourt led by its acting Vice Chancellor, Professor Stephen Okodudu, paid him a courtesy visit. The ivory tower in the words of the governor had become a place “where lecturers align with mainstream politicians in order to manipulate the electoral process.”
Wike’s views were neither contentious nor new. In an address delivered at the 10th anniversary celebration of Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, former President Goodluck Jonathan charged university lecturers to protect the integrity of the nation’s democracy by resisting the entreaties and pressure from politicians to rig elections in their favour.
He reminded the lecturers of the dangers of getting involved in election malpractices because of its wider implications for the future of the country which might adversely influence the youths. Any well-meaning Nigerian, who has followed recent developments in our elections would, with reasonable ease, recognize that Wike and Jonathan’s admonitions were not false alarms.
For example, during the last Presidential and National Assembly elections, INEC had to remove a Professor of Physics at the University of Jos as the Collation Officer assigned to Bokkos Local Government Area of Plateau state.
According to INEC, “we had to remove him because he was drunk and could not perform the assignment.” At about the same time, another drama played out in Imo state, where a Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, Federal University of Technology Owerri, who served as Returning officer for Imo West Senatorial District, was unable to complete the declaration of results for the senatorial election.
The Professor after announcing 9 out of 12 results alleged that thugs of the leading candidate put pressure on him to conclude the process. Although INEC accepted the Professor’s claim,
some other people believed that delay in concluding the assignment could have led to what happened during the Anambra senatorial election of 2011 when the Returning officer suddenly disappeared and was replaced by INEC before re-emerging to announce controversial results. The then Resident Electoral Commissioner, the Returning officer who absconded and his replacement were all members of the ivory tower.
There was also the story of a Professor of Law at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University who served as returning officer for the election into the Anambra South senatorial seat and who began courageously by declaring the election inconclusive only to later reverse himself and declare a winner.
One of the points which supports the appointment of Professors as Returning or Collation officers is the high level of knowledge they can bring to bear on the process. Unfortunately, in this case, the learned Professor of Law did not seem to be aware that once a declaration was made by the relevant Returning officer only an election tribunal could reverse it.
In other words, at the point the Professor was making a second declaration, he had become ‘functus officio’ – a legal term which refers to an official whose legal mandate had expired.
In 2015, there was the celebrated case of the Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun who served as Returning officer for Rivers state.
Although an outstanding academic who had previously served as Professor and Director of the Centre for Petroleum Geosciences at the University of Port Harcourt, he was unable to read out his own compiled figures during the national collation exercise in Abuja.
Not even the lamp which the then INEC chairman directed to be provided to aid his vision helped matters. The man was reported to have explained that the results were written under special circumstances.
However, many who watched the hilarious event on national television must have observed the great difference between academic excellence and the ordeal of conducting elections in Nigeria.
Certainly, Professor Attahiru Jega who started the scheme of honest reliance on the men of integrity in our universities must have since had a lot of regrets notwithstanding the encomiums he poured on his university colleagues at a dinner organized in his honour by the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities at the end of his tenure.
The former INEC boss is no doubt now aware that Nigeria’s electoral system is a phenomenon under assault. Speaking the other day at the annual conference of the Fulbright Alumni Association of Nigeria at Bayero University Kano (BUK), Jega said the BUK lecturers who worked with politicians to perpetrate “all sorts of irregularities” betrayed the confidence reposed on them by compromising the electoral process.
He actually asserted that politicians used university lecturers to commit irregularities during the elections, particularly in Kano state. Painfully, no one appears to have listened to Jega’s cries this time around. Indeed, nothing has been heard of the call by former Kaduna Senator, Shehu Sani for a thorough investigations into the complicity of university lecturers in rigging elections as alleged by Jega.
It is therefore time to join Governor Wike and other well-meaning Nigerians to call on our universities to do something about the shameful role of their senior academics who serve as unworthy ambassadors during elections.
We also call on INEC to halt the thought that some intellectuals can do much about our convoluted analogue electoral system. Instead, Jega’s successor should seek to improve on our elections by deploying technology to sanitize the process.
The new portal for viewing results at every polling unit is good if well implemented. Many other devices that can open-up the electoral system to frustrate our numerous election riggers are also welcome.