By Tonnie Iredia

This column- Nigeria Today, opened this month with a call on government to speedily fill all vacant statutory positions in our electoral body to stop her from continuing to operate with half engine, asshe had done in the last 7 months. A few days after the call, a list of nominees which government had previously sent to the Senate for clearance and which had been put on-hold resurfaced.

Although it may have been a coincidence that both actions occurred simultaneously, one is still encouraged to believe that perhaps there are times when those in authority listen to people. In which case, there is merit in drawing attention to issues calling for action.

That call however had a second segment which was a plea for government to not only make appointments but to ensure that any such appointment capable of derogating from the impartiality of INEC is never made. The high level of criticism which greeted the inclusion of Lauretta Onochie, a presidential media aide, in the list seems to show that our second plea was discountenanced.

There are two immediate reasons why the super-criticisms occurred. The first is the general feeling that when constituting an umpire for elections, anything that candiminish public confidence in INEC must be avoided. The second is the long-standing assurances of President Muhammadu Buhari that he would personally distance himself from any breach of the constitution.

Even when the ruling party had crisis with its executive and people proffered simple political solutions, Buhari insisted on following the party’s constitution. On this note, there is the suspicion that the President’s attention was not drawn to an amendment to our constitution which now expressly provides in Paragraph 14 of Part 1 of its Third Schedule that a member of the Independent National Electoral Commission “shall be non-partisan.” Government officials who have defended Onochie’s nomination are probably on the same page with lawyers who are quoting the old law which only required such appointees to simply be persons of proven integrity.

From the provisions of the law stated above, there is no basis for the heated debate in the country over who qualifies to be an electoral commissioner. The only reason for the controversy is a current trend in the country where everything is politicized. In other countries no one needs to find a legal provision for supporting or defending the appointment of a politician to serve as impartial umpire in an election between his party and other parties or other positions requiring institutional neutrality.

In our pioneering days at the National Orientation Agency (NOA), we found that that if a partisan official was appointed to sensitize people on the correct political culture, opposition politicians never listened to such an official hence we canvassed that the Chief Executive of NOA must never be partisan. Although the law reflected that, it has never been obeyed right from the PDP days. Indeed, in all sectors, politicians lobby to appoint non-professionals into technical positions in public organizations thereby deprivingsuch bodies of viability. Is Nigeria the only country with political parties?

Arguments in support and against the nomination of Lauretta Onochie have been taken to a level that makes it look as if it is the only issue at stake right now in our electoral process. Apart from party officials, there are several support groups falling on each other on this subject just to be noticed for patronage. One of them said the other day that impartiality was unnecessary because after all, everybody is a political animal.

He obviously didn’t know the subtle difference between politics and partisanship. Another said anyone could be an electoral commissioner provided he subscribes to the oath of impartiality. As for the learned segment of society, the long period of the judiciary workers’ strike may have rendered some redundant making them opt to comment on every topic within several media discussion slots.

Almost every lawyer in Nigeria purporting to throw light on the subject is now described by the media as a constitutional lawyer; some are probably unconstitutional. In reality however, we are only distracting INEC with a fundamental topic that requires no contentions if only we can allow our societal institutions to do their work.

The impartiality of an election umpire is too critical to be subjected to debate.But we can hardly prevent that considering the number of people who are so carefree about the implications of a compromised INEC. In 2019, different groups had to cry out to the Senate to disallow one Raheem Olalekan who was nominated to represent Osun state. As it turned out, he was an active member of the APC in his local community.

His colleague Alalibo Johnson representing Bayelsa state was cleared and deployed as Resident Electoral Commissioner in Edo state. During the governorship elections in the state, there were petitions that he had earlier been involved in partisan politics. INEC issued a formal state which instead of denying the allegation blamed the public for not providing the information at the appropriate time.

We insist that it is never late to deal with any electoral commissioner who presents a likelihood of bias. It was for such reason we supported the redeployment of a rather hardworkingofficial- Amina Zakari before the 2019 presidential election.

The crusade against politically tainted though prospective election personnel is not restricted to the Buhari era. During the Goodluck Jonathan administration, the Independent Election Monitoring Group(IEMG) urged the President to withdraw the nomination of Ambassador Lawrence Nwuruku as a National Electoral Commissioner.  It also called on the Senate to not confirm Nwuruku’s nomination because it breached Section 156 of the 1999 Constitution as amended which seeks to insulate the commission from undue political pressures.

The group which was incidentally led at the time by popular activist, Festus Okoye persuasively argued that “the injection of a person with clear partisan inclination into the top hierarchy of INEC will create an unfortunate atmosphere of suspicion and fear as other commissioners may perceive such a person as a mole deliberately planted by the government to checkmate independent decisions and initiatives.”

There is therefore nothing special about public disapproval of the nomination of Onochie who had become famous as the president’s defender and attacker of the opposition. Of course, if she is eventually appointed it would be a minus for the current administration just as it would entrench public disbelief in the ability of the Senate to have the guts to check the executive branch.

While the fight against the nomination is rational, I believe the campaign against her should not have been so ferocious because we need to remember that belonging to a political party is not an offence; it only bars the person from a referee’s position.

The lady is a very widely educated Nigerian both at home and abroad, who has distinguished herself in previous assignments. An educationist, pastor, mother and grandmother, her tweets were always to the point and often helpful in clarifying issues.

For instance, when the Accountant General mistakenly informed the nation that the recovered Ibori loot had been sent to Delta, it was Onochie who promptly corrected the story while at the same time offering explanation for why it was not sent to the state. She is therefore proficient in her job and can be considered for higher positions in government otherwise, with the raging war on social media, her doggedness in her present position is a major plus for government. 

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