By Philips Akpoviri.
I saw it coming much earlier. Yes, as early as the time he reeled out the timetable and surprisingly apportioned a miserably insufficient two - week duration for the registration of the scores of millions of eligible voters. Every sincere Nigerian who is truly true to himself given today's palpable realities cannot expect such a normally monstrous exercise to consume anything less than two months even if the Christian Association of Nigeria were to organize it in collaboration with the Supreme Islamic Council of Nigeria on behalf of INEC. This two months is even without prejudice to the daily execution of the exercise at INEC offices across the country for persons who might have been out of the country, or sick in hospital beds while the registration exercise lasted, and of course those who only just got due for suffrage in reasonable time before the elections.
Nigeria is a typical third world country that is not in a hurry to get out, so it is easy to predict the actions of its poor hungry citizens. They would do just about anything they are asked to do inasmuch as there exist some form of incentives. Once some were made to believe that voters' card is more like a gate pass to one haven, and others offered some few Naira notes, they spent no time in going for it. Whatsoever motivated their patriotism is not so important at this time. Some have spent hours if not days under the scorching Nigerian January sun, others have arrived and stayed at registration centres as early as 4:00am, yet others have out of their extremely meagre resources offered tips to those that appear capable to make their dream of securing this all in important voters card come to pass. These men and women have by miles surpassed the expectations of plenty if not all the occupants of the more enviable strata of the nation's society for whom pitiably we cannot offer the same compliments. Today, let us laud the brave efforts of the poor suffering Nigerian masses.
In sharp contrast, the rich and powerful come to the party even without invitation. They are bourgeoisie in every sense of the word. Every opportunity is a window to acquire more wealth and grow in influence; they do this so cleverly in stealthy and tricky patterns careful enough never to allow the 'event' organizers (INEC in this context) get any inkling of their sinister motives. Professor Jega seems to have found himself in this sorry situation. Some powerful members of our society have successfully though indirectly ambushed him such that if he had the genuine option to hop out of the cockpit, I am sure he would jump at it. This entrapment is even more fearful given the no-holds-barred attacks the dogged comrade gets from bloggers and news makers every hour. But, U-turns are not allowed at this point partly because he has now found himself driving on a narrow, one way drive with pot holes aplenty. He must get to his final destination before he can reasonably consider applying his reverse gear.
Professor Jega was shown and made to believe that a new Nigeria had arrived and had come to stay. A Nigeria whose citizens are truly ready for free and fair elections; a Nigeria whose leaders are readily available and willing to do just about anything good to bring about free and fair elections; a Nigeria whose legislators were available to amend any portion of the nation's constitution or any clause in the electoral act within the shortest possible time frame; a Nigeria where no one would contemplate hijacking ballot boxes and other INEC materials; a Nigeria where thugs specialized in election rigging would be jobless; a Nigeria that was ready to spend as much as 86 billion naira and even more on an election; a Nigeria that was ready to mortgage the future of its upcoming generation by shutting down their schools for weeks; a Nigeria where everyone rhythmically and sonorously choruses ''One Man, One Vote''. Indeed a Nigeria that took the positive risk to appoint his highly reputable and honourable self to lead the new INEC. Unfortunately he was carried away by the superficially perfect dreamland, so he planned his strategies and programs accordingly so much so that he forgot that in Nigeria, to say is not to do.
Hardly had he imported any unit of his rather over-hyped Direct Data Capture machines, than some units mysteriously got missing at nowhere other than the country's biggest and busiest International airport. The poor hardly use the airports let alone know the exact spot where the newly imported machines where stored to steal them. In fact, I doubt if most us ever knew what the machines actually looked like before now. So it goes without saying that the theft is a handiwork of the rich and powerful all of who have been at the forefront in the vanguard for free and fair elections. What transpired thereafter is now history unless you want me to guess what a hungry cat would do with a stolen piece of meat. Professor Jega never anticipated such rude shocks.
Meanwhile, the DDC machines were said to have been manufactured in the United Stated, but the importation, delivery, and distribution were managed by local companies which of course are owned by the rich and powerful. The same people Jega had gullibly come to trust.
That dust was still up in the air when the Delta gubernatorial rerun popped up. This 'small election' which according to Professor Jega had to be rushed without so much preparations because of the impending voters registration exercise, exposed several loopholes that still exist in the system which were hitherto believed to have been abolished together with Professor Iwu. How can a state in Nigeria, Niger Delta in particular bear by far more eligible voters in the rural riverine areas, and far less in the active urban cities? Then the ballot box snatching, the thuggery, the mysterious dearth of materials, just to mention a few. These crimes no doubt were orchestrated and funded obviously by some very rich and powerful personalities who have equally been posing as saints ready for a new era. Again, our dear Professor Jega was surprised to experience the true reality of the responsibilities he has graciously agreed to shoulder. Although he initially failed to fully appreciate the flaws in his first Delta state’s post-election remarks, he would later correct his impression in his interview with the BBC much later.
It serves no purpose for me to outline the several sore points in the ongoing voters' registration exercise since reports and blogs on this are already ubiquitous. But as hopeless as the process seems, we are at least sure that at the conclusion of registration by February 5 2011, over forty million people which represents more than half of Nigeria’s voting population shall have been registered. Admittedly and unfortunately so, some eligible Nigerians will stay disenfranchised, yet still it is by far the highest figure ever recorded as much as the history books show. The 1993 presidential election was notable for among other good points; the very high turnout of voters yet the total was not up to fifteen million as Chief MKO Abiola won with under nine million votes in total; in fact, eight million three hundred and twenty three thousand three hundred and five (8,323,305) votes to keep facts precise. Again, my honest intention is not to celebrate failure neither is it to hold brief for Prof Jega whom I have never met, rather it is to put views in context.
However, sincerely speaking, the task of organizing a good voters' registration exercise and by extension credible elections go beyond the strength, thinking scope, and efforts of one man. As much as I agree that he being the chief umpire, the bulk stops at his desk, it is imperative to understand that if we must get the desired electoral product for which we crave, there are a few other mandatory reactants in the electoral equation which are not controlled by Jega, chief amongst which is security. I mean human security. The time is too short, and the nation too underdeveloped to rely on state-of-the art security apparatus. We can consider doing that after this round.
The importance of the security component cannot be over-emphasized. Our elections together with all the associated pre-, intra-, or post- processes cannot come out good if we short-circuit or isolate the inevitable role of competent and incorruptible security operatives. Their presence is mandatory in the importation of the materials into Nigeria, the major distribution of the materials from Abuja to the state capitals, from the state capitals to the various Local Government Areas, from there to the several registration points. Yet, their job does not end there, as they have to protect the materials and personnel all through the exercise and guard them daily until they are safely moved back to wherever they are safely stored. This same tortuous cycle if not even longer would be required by these security personnel as requested by INEC during every single stage of the election itself until a winner is announced. In fact, I make bold to say that security is the single most important component in the equation. If these security personnel were to be lazy, or corrupt, or deployed late to location, or quite commonly insufficient in number, Jega would be at the mercy of their Military, Para-military or Force superiors whom the officers always take orders from. He cannot even help himself. And this is the painful reality in our country today.
In the light of the foregoing, I have made up my mind not to expect a flawless outcome from Prof Jega and his INEC team in April 2011, but at least let us allow him lay the foundation this time. Definitely, the April 2011 would almost certainly disappoint anyone who still expects a truly free and fair elections, but it is plausible to imagine free and fair elections in any other round after April 2011 if we can launch an effective collective damage control mechanism. Because having lost the template that produced the near perfect 1993 elections, we just cannot afford to tow the misleading paths of 1999, 2003, and 2007 by failing to lay the first sets of bricks to serve as a cornerstone for future elections - we just have to prepare a good new template at any reasonable cost today.
Professor Jega cuts a figure of an upright, brave, determined and independent man who has been let down by some influential personalities whom he had erroneously assumed to be vibrating on the same wavelength with him and genuinely serious with the huge task at hand. He appears betrayed even by a few members of his very own constituency - the intellectuals, the true electoral reform crusaders; he has been let down by Nigeria’s seemingly perennial national logistics challenge as the movement of machines, personnel, and other materials that ought to take few hours have so far been observed to take several days and even got lost in transit. The good man, Jega has been disappointed by some of his lieutenants and subordinates at INEC some of whom have now advertized their sheer incompetence and others their regrettable inability to stay true to their oath of independence and impartiality. Lastly, he has been let down by the nation's security system that had hitherto promised to guarantee security through and through but reportedly failed miserably both in the opprobrious airport DDC machines theft, the Delta re-run, and the voters’ registration exercise thus far.
But with so much pressure on Professor Jega some as harsh as calling for his resignation, we might end up boxing ourselves to a corner that would leave us helpless, hopeless and even further vulnerable to the riggers among us. Hence, I subscribe to the school of thoughts that tends to plead with all Nigerians who have lost faith in Professor Jega that though they have the right to opine what they wish to, and give up faith in whomsoever they wish, but in the interest of our national goal, they should not inject any more pressure into the already over-pressurized Professor Jega for he is a vital element in the fulfilment of our collective destinies.
At this juncture, rather than continue to lambast Jega, Nigerians should re-direct their vexation at any element in the process that is either inept, unrepentantly corrupt or deliberately acting as an obstruction to the realization of our much cherished goal of credible elections. Let us all stand up against the burglars of our due rights, expose those who registered or seek to register more than once, discourage our friends who collect bribes before they register or vote, let us as much as we possibly can report anyone seen stealing INEC materials. It is high time we started putting the modern features in our sophisticated mobile phones to good use - let us start snapping, capturing and uploading the pictures and videos of the criminal scenes and the offenders anonymously on to the web space, we have to start spreading the names of confirmed corrupt INEC and security officials provided we are one hundred percent certain of their guilty of the crime and the correct names of the guilty officials; let us put Facebook, Twitter, Nairaland, SaharaReporters, NigeriaVillageSquare, Youtube, MySpace and the likes to optimal use to advance our good cause; let us continue to write to force the bad eggs in our midst to leave us alone. Fellow Nigerians let us further ramp up the few wise risks we have been taking. Let us sound it clear that the Nigerian political environment is now a kitchen - let those who cannot withstand the heat, kindly excuse us.
I vehemently disagree with the proponents of the notion that Jega has so far failed because of incompetence or worse still, that he has compromised his integrity, at least until the damning facts become bare (if they ever will), but I agree with commentators who presently advocate for an audit into INEC's books. It is a brilliant idea to particularly probe Jega's INEC in the face of the astonishing volume of money that has so far been pumped in. But, that can wait until after the elections. For now, let us pre-occupy ourselves to set aside all the attacks on Jega, concentrate on the task of pushing the other factors to play their own roles correctly, and at the same time inundate Jega's desk with a litany of suggestions and if possible, intelligent leads that would help avoid any more pitfalls.
Finally, let us encourage Professor Jega to continue his job but this time, with his eyes opened wider, brains thinking faster, and strategies spread broader, wide, fast and broad enough to catch up with the ever dynamic counter-machinations of the sworn enemies of the state who are hell bent on destroying the dogged comrade Professor's enviable reputation to pave the way to rig themselves and their cronies (back) to power. Otherwise, he will remain an inert reactant in the electoral equation, may be not because he lacks the will but because the challenges will overwhelm him and we shall all suffer the effects together maybe forever. For this reason, we cannot afford any more flaws, it is time for collective damage control, I have already likened the true Nigerians involved in this noble cause as archaic locomotives, once we have started, we just have to move on.
May God bless Nigeria my dear country.
PHILIPS AKPOVIRI, a Social Commentator and Political Analyst writes in from South Korea.