By Tonnie Iredia
An electoral commission is a body charged with the management of elections in a community. Although how it is composed is not necessarily uniform everywhere,ample effort is usually made in all cases by the body as soon it is inaugurated to guarantee fairness in the conduct of elections. The common trend is for the entity to consists of persons who have no partisan political inclinations and can thus be regarded as likely to be impartial in the handling of all matters relating to elections. In some jurisdictions however, the body is made up of representatives of political parties such that each of them has its interest guaranteed. Nigeria operates the former in which the body is seen as an impartial umpire, whose members may not be easily persuaded to support one group of actors against the other. In fact, Section 156 of our constitution prohibits a member of a political party from becoming a member of the electoral body, known in Nigeria as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
But there are recent indications that except great care is exercised, INEC may soon have some electoral commissioners who by virtue of their past political interests, are notlikely to be impartial. This followed the recent nomination of three Nigerians to be appointed as Resident Electoral Commissioners. They are Raheem Olalekan (Osun), Umar Gajiram (Borno) and Dr Alalibo Johnson(Bayelsa). Of the 3 nominees, the one most likely to have a problem is the Osun representative who is alleged to be a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). When confronted last week at the screening session by the Senate committee on INEC, Raheem could not in earnest remove from himself, the said toga of partisanship. According to Senator Kabiru Gaya, chairman of the screening committee, Raheem was requested to return a few days later, to answer more questions.
Against the unwholesome behaviour of the political class, the appointment of tainted officials would no doubt derogate from the fragile credibility of INEC. Accordingly, a nominee with even tangential evidence of partisanship should not be considered. Like Caesar’s wife, every top INEC official especially at the level of a commissioner should be above board. Such appointees must not only be non-partisan but be manifestly seen to be so. For this reason, both the nominating authority- the President and the confirming body- the Senate, must ensure due diligence in the appointment of electoral commissioners. This they can do by making sure all prospective nominees are taken through rigorous security checks on their activities particularly past events. There is also a need to take cognizance of what the public in the immediate environment feels or says about each nominee. It is for these reasons that we do not support the appointment of Raheem Olalekan, a well-known politician in his area, as a Resident Electoral Commissioner.
We are in fact not saying anything different from what analysts said in the past when persons suspected to be engaged in party maneuvers were similarly nominated for such sensitive electoral positions.During the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan,the Independent Election Monitoring Groups, IEMG urged the President to withdraw the nomination of Ambassador Lawrence Nwuruku as a National Electoral Commissioner. The group sent a similar appeal to the Senate not to confirm the said nomination of Nwuruku 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 at the time led by renowned 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.”
On its part, INEC has never hidden its disdain for anything capable of confirming the general suspicion that some of its officials are surrogates of vested partisan interests. A few months ago, the Commission stoutly rejected an attempt by Frankland Briyai the then Resident Electoral Commissioner for Cross River State, to resign his appointment so as to contest the Bayelsa state governorship election on the platform of the ruling APC.Festus Okoye, NationalCommissioner in charge of Information and Voter Education publicly condemned Briyai’s action.He made 2 strong points; namely a) that the REC’s expression of partisan interest was unacceptable because the Constitution precludes National and Resident Electoral Commissioners from belonging to Political Parties; and b) that Briyai used INEC premises and facilities for such declarationcontrary to the Code of Conduct subscribed to by all INEC officials.
To showher high degree of displeasure, the Commission promptly withdrew all powers and functions delegated to Briyai as Commissioner and mandated, the Administrative Secretary of INEC Cross River State to oversee the office and take over the functions and duties of the REC. Although, a group of youthful sympathizers ofBriyaisought to make the point that he had a right to resign from one job to another,not many could subscribe to the infantile reasoning as anything that can expose INEC to further knocks in our politically volatile clime, ought to be avoided. In earnest, she has far more battle to fight than the ordinary person can imagine. First, she has to contend with the effects of rancorous party primaries and the use of private armies by politicians to terrorize their opponents. Ironically, the convention has been for politicians who are ordinarily players in the game of politics to treat the referee of the game with utter disrespect. In the case of next Saturday’s elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states for instance, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) says she already has due diligence report on each electoral commissioner, threateningthat in order to avoid issues “capable of triggering crisis and jeopardizing the credibility of the electoral process”INEC officials known to be of questionable character should not be deployed.Anyone who has followed Nigerian elections knows that the APC would have used similar intemperate language if she was the opposition party.
Again, INEC has to deal with huge distractions to the election process from security operatives whose duty is normally to secure the process. At the same time, several judicial pronouncements which are made during the election process quite often disrupt the order and tempo of activities.To deal with the cumulative effects of these issues, INEC deserves some level of serenity which inappropriate insider behaviour should not be allowed to truncate. It is therefore important to not compel her to accommodate partisan personnel that would irreparably damage her image. From the issues raised in the petition against Raheem Olalekan, it is ill-advisable to pressurize his clearance to serve in INEC when the same ruling party can find a less contentious position for him elsewhere.
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