Since the appointment of Professor Attahiru Jega as INEC Chairman, there has been a certain euphoria that at long last ‘a Daniel has come to judgment’. The former Vice Chancellor of Bayero University Kano has variously been feted as ‘a man of integrity’, ‘incorruptible’ and ‘an activist’ who is unlikely to compromise his position. His recent demand for N74 billion for a new voters’ register, in a manner of take-it-or-leave-it, is however rightly raising furores: One, beyond the hype, there is a legitimate question of whether Jega is really suitable for the job. His claim to fame lies principally in his being an ‘activist’ and leading the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) through a successful nationwide strike during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida. While no one will deny that Jega was successful as ASUU president and is deservedly respected as an honest man, there is however a whole world of difference between being an agitator and being an administrator. It is actually axiomatic that most ‘social critics’, ‘activists’ and labour leaders are poor administrators and rarely make good leaders. For instance two of the most famous labour leaders of the last 50 years – Frederick Chiluba of Zambia and Lech Walesa of Poland - failed as president of their respective countries. Nearer home, while Balarabe Musa, a radical activist, was unable to deal pragmatically with an NPN-dominated House of Assembly as Governor of Kaduna State during the Second Republic and was subsequently impeached, Peter Obi, a relatively honest businessman, has been able to govern Anambra state with a State House of Assembly in which his APGA party has virtually no representation. In this sense, being an ‘activist’ could actually be an albatross in performing the job of INEC chairman because while ‘activists’ and ‘social critics’ tend to be good with logic and in identifying the ills of a system, they are often less endowed with the acumen of how to fix the problems they are clever at identifying.
Two, though Jega was Vice Chancellor of Bayero University Kano when he was appointed INEC chairman, it is debatable whether his brief tenure in that position gave him sufficient administrative experience to run an agency as complex as INEC. There is often an unfortunate tendency in our country to appoint people with long academic qualifications but little administrative experience into management positions that they are practically unprepared for. It is for instance not uncommon to appoint a Professor who had never managed a N5 million budget in his life or knew what balance sheet means to head an agency whose budget runs into billions of Naira. Often forgotten is that being a Professor or a PhD is a very theoretical enterprise that has very little bearing to cognate experience even in one’s field of specialisation. I would have preferred that the euphoria that surrounded the appointment of Jega was based on his achievements as the chairman or director of an organisation similar in complexity or in its budget as INEC.
Three, the issues surrounding Professor Jega’s demand for N74 billion raise a vital question of whether we would perhaps have been better off appointing as INEC chairman someone who had cognate experience in a senior position at INEC. One of our banes as a country is the lack of policy continuity. We have been told that since 2008 Iwu’s INEC maintained a policy of ‘continuous voter registration’, which was reportedly in place in all the headquarters of the local governments in Nigeria. We were also told that just before Iwu was sent on disengagement leave that INEC had concluded plans to detail their staff to various markets to register voters and help in voter education. Additionally, we are aware that Iwu’s INEC had held regular seminars, retreats and consultations with civil societies and had also set up elaborate staff training and development programme, including the establishment of the Electoral Institute in 2005. The impression one got from Jega’s demand was that nothing was available on the ground - with Iwu’s voter register said to have only ten percent reliability. Even if we discount for Iwu’s tendency to sound very re-assuring only to disappoint big time and his inappropriate emotional intelligence in the face of criticisms, one gets the impression that INEC under him invested well in staff training and development. Would someone with relevant experience of working in INEC have found a way of continuing from where Iwu stopped at less cost? It is germane to note that before he was sent on retirement leave, Iwu had even rolled out a time table for the conduct of the elections in January 2011, with rumours that he was asking for N5 billion to ‘clean up the voters’ register’. True, Iwu might have had an ulterior motive with that move, but it is baffling at the innuendo suggesting that all the money ploughed into INEC under its previous bosses had been wasted. This tends to be a typical ‘academic outsider’s’ reflex.
Five, there are concerns that Jega may be buckling under the pressure of high expectations, and therefore looking for alibi in the self knowledge that he is unlikely meet those public expectations. This could be gleaned from the threats he had been unleashing on us recently: he asked for N74 billion Naira before August 11 or he would not guarantee free and fair elections; he had indirectly suggested postponing the elections because the recent amendments to the Electoral Act had put tremendous pressure on INEC; he also wants due process requirements in procurement to be by-passed for INEC to enable it meet the deadline. If all these are conceded, what stops Jega from waking up on the eve of the election with a demand for N200 trillion Naira to re-equip the Nigerian police - or he cannot guarantee us free and fair elections?
Six, perhaps the burden of expectations on Professor Jega could be lightened if we begin an honest discussion of the benchmarks for assessing our own ‘free and fair’ election. For instance, in the US which has been a democracy for donkey years, there are still vociferous problems with voter registration and voting irregularities. In the last presidential elections in the USA for instance, ACCORN, a community organizing group thought to be sympathetic to Obama, was accused by the Republican National Committee of generating phoney voter registration cards in at least eight states. In the UK, which is one of the oldest democracies in the world, many people who turned out to vote at the last election could not do so because of long queues or unavailability of voting materials. However, despite these shortcomings, the elections in these countries are usually regarded as ‘free and fair’. What will be the benchmarks for our own ‘free and fair’ elections?
Seven, there is an inherent danger in acceding to all of Jega’s requests under an implied notion of emergency because virtually all other sectors of our political economy are equally under such emergency – from healthcare, electricity and roads to transport. I am not necessarily arguing that Jega’s request should not be attended to, but using a sort of blackmail to preclude debates and discussions on these could legitimately trigger agitations from other agencies and sectors of the economy, on how much they must be given before they can do their job.
It is part of the Nigerian condition that our yesterday has a way of being better than our today. Otherwise who will ever think that in less than two months of being INEC Chairman, Jega seems to be already making Maurice Iwu to look good?
The article was completed before the Senate passed the sum of N89.5 billion for the new voters’ register and conduct of the 2011 elections on Tuesday, August 10, 2010.