By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Just like many Nigerians, I was initially pissed off by the eleventh hour decision taken by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to postpone the presidential and national assembly election scheduled to hold countrywide last Saturday. Millions of Nigerians with the permanent voter cards (PVC) were putting finishing touches to their plans to troop out en-mass to perform their civic duty when rumour, at first, began to do the round that the election might be postponed.
The basis of the rumour was the emergency stakeholders’ meeting convened at the behest of the National Chairman of the INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, about 10 pm last Friday in Abuja. Indeed, the atmospherics in which the very critical electoral process was unfolding had become tentative and the nuanced expressions on the faces of members of the Commission’s leadership guard had further aggravated doubt in the polity over the exercise, thus giving rise to the speculation.
But by the time the meeting ended about 2.30 am, the Commission had let the cat out of the bag: the election had been postponed! The Commission had met minds with stakeholders on the reasons it was unable to proceed with the scheduled process. Its inability was due largely to failure to deliver sensitive materials to some of the states. The Commission had blamed this on bad weathers that had made landing by aircraft conveying sensitive election materials impossible.
There were other reasons cited by the Commission ranging from the fire that gutted some offices of the Commission in Abia, Plateau and Anambra States within the space or interval of a week before the election. In Anambra, in particular, over 4,900 card readers were burnt. Despite the effort by the Commission to improvise and replace damaged items, other unforeseen situations had arisen to cast a pall on the smooth conduct of the election.
I had listened to some parts of the interactions at the session between the Commission and the stakeholders where Yakubu reeled out the various incidents and problems of logistics that had conspired with other acts of sabotage to undermine the poll; and, hence, the decision to postpone the election by a week. Indeed, given the plethora of problems that reared their head on the eve of the exercise, postponement was, in my view, appropriate.
Indeed, the Commission would have done itself and the nation a disservice to muddle through the election when the option to postpone was on the table. The extant laws permit it to act administratively and contingently in such a circumstance. The pressure on the Commission was more of delivering a credible process that would save democracy and bolster its integrity than conducting the election anyhow in a haphazard manner, bungle the process that would have produced a questionable outcome, and become a butt of all manner of criticisms and snide remarks.
On this score, yes, for not caving in to pressure from some probably interested quarters, Yakubu and his team at the INEC must be commended for taking the right decision and keeping their eyes on the ball. The Commission could have gone ahead to fall into the trap of the conspiracy theory of staggered election by alleged fifth columnists in order to achieve some predetermined agenda. But Yakubu and his team shunned that path and option by committing the Commission to the conduct of the national election on the same day.
While the presidential and national assembly election will now hold on Saturday, February 23, the governorship and state houses of assembly election, which was originally scheduled to hold on Saturday, March 2, will hold on Saturday, March 9. The schedules give certainty to the time-table and enable the Commission to apply itself to the precise nature of the exercise. The uniformity in the conduct of the presidential election, in particular, would reinforce the integrity of the process. It is hoped the Commission will get it right next time round (this Saturday).
Although, the decision by the Commission to postpone the exercise had drawn flak from some of the stakeholders, such reactions were justifiable, given the timing of the decision. Announcing the postponement of an election of such magnitude on the D-Day may appear somewhat curious and unjustifiable, the Yakubu-led INEC had, for good reasons, created history as the first to do it in the annals of election conduct in Nigeria.
There are, however, arguments that the postponement did not benefit from the shape, texture and content of the 2015 incident that was due to the soaking tension occasioned by the insecurity that was unleashed by Boko Haram insurgents on the northeast zone. At that time, the prospects of many Nigerians in that axis getting disenfranchised were very high. Some administration officials were even pushing for the postponement of elections in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States where life and property were under real threat.
Even at that, it was not the INEC, which was then under the chair of Professor Attahiru Jega, that called for the postponement. The Commission had, in fact, boasted that it was ready for the election. But the entirety of the nation’s security architecture under the superintendence of the then National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.) had called for the postponement by six weeks to enable the administration decimate and, as much as it was possible, clear the zone and the Sambisa Forest of Boko Haram insurgents so that security could be guaranteed during the series of election.
But, in this instance, the Commission had called for and announced a postponement of the election. Its action was in apple-pie order and within its powers to take, especially in order to deliver on its mandate of conducting free, fair and credible elections. And to the extent of preserving its integrity by delivering elections that are free, fair, transparent and credible to Nigerians and international community, the decision to reschedule has found a justifiable anchorage.
Looking at the face of Professor Yakubu and his very calm disposition as he answered questions from some stakeholders, I remain convinced that he is determined to ensure propriety in the conduct of the critical general election. Something keeps telling me that by postponing the election and, thereby, guarding against a situation of staggered exercise, Yakubu and his team at INEC had saved the nation and our nascent democracy from potential danger.
The tension that had built up had somewhat dissipated. Besides, Yakubu had also shown how well prepared the Commission is for contingencies in terms of prudent management and deployment of funds to meet up with them. In his reaction to the postponement, President Muhammadu Buhari had said that all the funds requested for by the Commission had been released to it and therefore had no excuse not to deliver.
But the good thing is that Yakubu is not asking for fresh funds to be able to conduct the postponed election despite media report that a whopping N120 billion might have gone into the requisite provisions for the rescheduled February 16 election. He is only demanding the cooperation and understanding of stakeholders and Nigerians. To be sure, Yakubu and his team at the INEC are on the cusp of history. Professor Jega and his team wrote their name in gold in 2015 by conducting a general election in which an incumbent president was defeated. The current INEC team has an uphill task to surpass the Jega record.
In essence, Yakubu cannot afford to go below the milestone. His eyes must be on the higher marks. This, perhaps, explains his seeming sure-footed responses to questions and reactions to developments ahead of the election. Yakubu seems unruffled and determined to put national interest over all other interests in the conduct of the general election evidently for posterity. I therefore urge all stakeholders in particular and Nigerians in general to cooperate with the urbane professor to deliver on his onerous assignment.
Equally, significantly, the international community must rein in the Buhari administration and other identified forces in order to ensure that they do not deliberately do anything untoward to undermine the commitment invested by all and sundry in the perfect administration of the electoral process and impair it from yielding positive results that align with reasonable expectations harboured by Nigerians and the world from the general election.
Ojeifo contributed this piece from Abuja via firstname.lastname@example.org