THE Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has requested for an extension of the timetable for the 2011 general elections till April 2011, to enable it prepare better for the elections, its initial advertised timelines having already gone awry leaving no leg-room for adjustments.
This proposal which would require consequential legislative action has already been endorsed by the political parties virtually with no exception and even many of the aspirants are so far enthusiastic that more time will be advisable. There can be no doubt that the extension is in the interest of both INEC and the professional politicians, but there are underlying consequences and possibilities which must be examined to ensure that in the long run, it is the people's interest that prevails. The INEC Chairman had consistently drawn attention to the limitation of time, although he kept promising at the same time that he and his team will do their best under the circumstances. A strategic meeting held in Calabar by INEC officials however came up with the resolution that the timing of the election is practically impossible. The schedule is "too tight", they said.
INEC deserves praise for its new-found honesty, for its earlier resort to ambivalence and double-speak seemed like an exercise in grand deception. Jega, the INEC Chairman must have seen that his so-called perfect alibi would not work after all. The political parties which have quickly endorsed Jega's proposal (they probably pushed him into it, anyway) have also done so for self-serving reasons. The Electoral Act 2010 leaves the political parties very little room for manoeuvre with its very strict deadlines. The parties for example were required to give INEC a 21-day notice of their primaries and conventions, without fail, by September 18, no political party had met that deadline, and there was no clear indication that the various political parties had actually decided on whether to have direct or indirect primaries, or taken a decision on the content of their constitutions, because all of this was still an issue among the various stakeholders.
Section 87 of the Electoral Act 2010 on the mode of conducting primaries had also changed the nature of power relations within the political parties with regard to the selection of delegates. In the Peoples Democratic Party, this was meant to free the sitting President from the stranglehold of the Governors who in previous primaries held sway with their army of assistants and political appointees and all-powerful Godfathers, but in reality, the new structure requiring primaries at ward levels in all the 36 states still made the Presidential aspirants utterly vulnerable, and the process more expensive than hitherto.
Some of the parties, notably the PDP and the Presidency, were desperately looking for a way round this. Even the PDP time-table, which places the Gubernatorial primaries before the presidential, made an interested sitting PDP President vulnerable. It is therefore not surprising that although President Jonathan had signed the Electoral Act 2010, he and his aides had at the same time been asking for an amendment of the Electoral Act 2010 before it takes effect. The President's refusal to append his signature to the amended 1999 Constitution now appears deliberate and strategic. If this hypothesis is true, then our earlier argument that there may be a hidden agenda with regard to the 2011 elections may be provable after all.
So, what is likely to follow and what should be our concerns as citizens? If the emerging consensus that the elections be shifted to April holds sway, then there will be need for a review of the enabling legal framework, particularly the Electoral Act with regard to the timing of elections and the amended 1999 Constitution, on which the INEC September-January timetable is based, as well. Contrived as the controversy over the President's signature with regard to the amended 1999 Constitution may be, it is now an issue that also has to be resolved for Nigeria to move forward on the question of elections. Will the Electoral Act 2010 be amended to fit the 1999 Constitution or the amended version? And should the Supreme Court rule one way or the other when it suits it on the matter of the President's signature, what would be the implications? Is there enough time to embark on another round of constitution amendment? Will it not be safer to repeal the 2010 Electoral Act and use the 2006 Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution? If the professional political class manages to resolve this conundrum, the public must be watchful to ensure that the amendments do not end up as an attempt to re-jig the existing framework to favour particular aspirants following a posteriori realizations; for that would amount to a manipulation of the system to deliver pre-determined outcomes.
But in simpler terms, what all this tells us is that Nigeria is not really prepared for the 2011 elections. When John Campbell, a former US Ambassador wrote on September 12 about the possibility of the failure of the 2011 elections in Nigeria, the current Nigerian ambassador to the US, Professor Adebowale Adefuye wrote a rejoinder telling Campbell he is a prophet of doom writing "an offensive... and jaundiced" article (The Guardian, September 13). Campbell and other commentators along the same lines would now appear to know what they were writing about and Ambassador Adefuye, merely pleasing the Nigerian authorities, fails the diplomacy test particularly with his second rejoinder available online in which he says "may the likes of John Campbell never come our way again." No other general election in Nigeria since 1999 has been prefaced with as much confusion, anxiety and uncertainty as the proposed 2011 general elections. In retrospect, the preparations for the 2007 elections considered one of the worst polls in Nigerian history appear comparable, if not better in terms of certainty. Professor Attahiru Jega is certainly setting the stage for the loss of his own credibility, beginning with the current jagajaga (confusing, mixed up, incoherent) arrangements for the 2011 elections.
This is the situation, not because Jega does not mean well, but because in Nigeria there is very little institutional memory and our various institutions are driven not by traditions but circumstances and individual whims. Jega inherited from Maurice Iwu, an existing institution, but he met so much misalignment between mandate, objective and operational capability, he is having to reconfigure the institution afresh; this is something the Ghanaians next door have not had to do from one election to the other in the last decade. And as Jega and his team encounter new demons in the process of that reconstruction, they are compelled to come up with excuses. In a statement justifying the request for a change in timetable, the INEC Chairman has already offered an explanation in that regard, but there are additional questions that remain unanswered.
If what he is asking for is a leg room, more like elbow room, then why April? Why not February since the main challenge is that of the voter's register? Why not March? A two-month window before the inauguration of new government on May 29, 2011, may give the tribunals and courts a little room to treat election petitions expeditiously. But with the elections in April, Nigeria is more or less back to the situation in 2007. It means that practically nothing has changed. The various promises about electoral reform have come to naught. One major element of the electoral reform proposal was to ensure that election-related litigations are disposed of before swearing in to prevent a situation whereby persons enjoy stolen mandates for up to two or three years before they are found out and dismissed by the courts.
With the elections now likely to be held in April 2011, we are back to that old order, and meeting the challenge of ensuring credible elections has been postponed. The INEC budget was based on the plan to prepare the voters' register within two weeks and to run the election process between now and January 2011. If the target is now April 2011, what happens to the INEC budget for the elections? Is it going to prepare a supplementary budget? Or is additional cost already anticipated in the earlier budget? If new costs will be involved, INEC must take the pains to explain that to the public and state exactly how much is required or may be saved from the existing budget.
Professor Jega has affirmed that whatever happens the hand over date of May 29, 2011 will remain sacrosanct. That is important, lest further credence is given to the suspicion that some politicians are bent on extending their tenure in office for selfish reasons. As it were, so much is being said about the importance of time. But this is not even, now in retrospect, the more pressing issue at stake. It is the quality of the Nigerian process and its leadership. The various political parties that are now jumping on the time-extension bandwagon, were they proper political parties would have been ready for the next elections long ago and would not need to behave as if they too are starting afresh. But this is the Nigerian malady. Fifty years after independence, we are again talking about how to begin to plan for the future.
When the various issues are resolved however, Jega must be reminded that he no longer has any reason to offer additional excuses and he must begin to resist the temptation to sound like another prominent public official who comments on everything from the acting styles of Aki and Paw Paw to the eating habits of bank CEOs and much less on his core mandate. For now, our hopes about the 2011 elections are mixed. If the elections are free and fair, fine, but if not, we already know why.