I am inclined to believe that the assurances of the Chairman of INEC to conduct free and credible polls next year are a measure of his convictions.
Few months ago, the fate of the 2019 general elections was frighteningly in the balance. The legal framework, that is, the enabling law, which is the Electoral Act, remains unsigned into law. The other framework, which is the budget for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was a subject of intense debate until last week. Of course, things about money are not small matters. And until two weeks ago, the lawmakers were on a long vacation. All these factors made many to wonder whether indeed, the elections would take place. Many still have doubts.
But thank goodness, reason prevailed last week on INEC’s budget for the conduct of the elections, as the Senate has approved N189bn that the electoral umpire requested for. This is beside an additional N45bn for security contingency and other logistics support for security personnel that will be involved in the elections. Contrary to what many had thought, both chambers of the National Assembly acted in clear bipartisanship in passing this key funding legislation for INEC. There wasn’t much filibuster on the issue. The lawmakers were all agreed on one thing: the absolute need for the electoral commission to deliver free, fair, credible and transparent elections next year. Lack of adequate funding for INEC has often been cited as one of the major reasons why those charged with the conduct of elections have compromised themselves at the crucial moments when their impartiality and professional competence were required most.
And now that that important framework of funds has been met, INEC must realise that, to ‘whom much is given, much is also expected.’ The N189bn is the largest budget for general elections in the country’s democratic history. It represents about 73 percent of the total budget for the elections. It is also N241bn higher than the total N450bn spent on the conduct of general elections since 1999. However, one grey area remains to be sorted out regarding where the N189bn will be sourced. The Senate differs with the presidency on the matter.
While the Senate said the funds should be sourced from the President’s security vote, President Muhammadu Buhari had in his letter to the leadership of the National Assembly requested that the money be taken from the N500bn constituency projects, which the lawmakers allegedly inserted into the 2018 budget. In his letter to NASS in July, the President had said that the INEC budget be approved in two tranches of N143bn this year, and N45bn in the 2019 budget. But the Senate recommended in its report that the N189bn for the elections should be vired from recurrent and capital components of the Special Intervention Programme (SIP) captured in the Service Wide Votes of the 2018 Appropriation Act. The earlier this conflict is resolved, the better. With barely four months to the elections, time is of the essence.
Undoubtedly, the burden on INEC in the 2019 elections is enormous. The stakes are even higher now than any time in this democratic dispensation. It’s therefore necessary that issues that are outside the scope of the electoral commission should not be allowed to impact negatively on the smooth conduct of the elections. Again, this has become necessary because, in the end, it’s the electoral umpire that gets the blame when things go wrong. In that regard, any attempt to frustrate INEC from getting the money it requires, and in time, will play into the traps of critics who want the elections to be postponed.
Perhaps never in our contemporary political history have we seen an electoral agency and its leadership so maligned, their integrity so impugned as it is done these days. In fact, it has become the pastime of many Nigerians invoke curses on INEC and its top officials. I am inclined to believe that the assurances of the Chairman of INEC, Mahmood Yakubu, to conduct free and credible polls next year in which “all votes must count”, are a measure of his convictions.
But good intentions are not enough. INEC must acquit itself beyond any doubt that it is truly independent and ready to take no orders from “above”, capable of compromising the outcome of the elections. There are still doubts that the commission passed the litmus test in the Osun governorship election held last month. Many also believe that the integrity of some INEC officials came far short of expectation.
Ultimate success in elections goes beyond the assurance of the man at the top, Yakubu. A lot of other factors come into play. For instance, can we vouch for the commitment and sincerity of Mr. President to deliver a credible and transparent election next year, according to his promise to the international community last week? Will he, indeed, concede defeat if he loses the presidential election in February as his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan did in 2015? It gladdens the heart each time President Buhari praised Jonathan for what he (Jonathan did in 2015. That is what has defined Jonathan presidency and his legacy, regardless of his missteps. It must be said that Buhari remains the biggest beneficiary of Jonathan’s administration’s handling of the 2015 presidential election. Buhari, therefore, owes Nigeria and the global community, an unquestioned, untainted and generally acceptable elections next year. The President’s sincerity of purpose in delivering a free and transparent poll is the unseen hand among the challenges that confront INEC in 2019.
Election is like a football match; it is not a squad. Two people are enough to form a squad, but like football, it takes more than 22 players to guarantee success on the pitch. INEC is like the referee and his assistants in a game played by desperate politicians wearing different colours. Therefore, the enforcement of the rules without partiality is a key factor for success. What makes Yakubu’s job more burdensome is that he is the captain of a team and Head of Administration. He takes the blame when the team fails to perform. The best he can do is draw up the blueprint, but the actual implementation of that blueprint is most times, outside his control. But that’s never an excuse.
It bears repeating that how much security agents are able to imbibe the tenets of professionalism, neutrality and impartiality in the course of discharging their duties during the elections is something we should not take our eyes off. Their partisanship, especially that of the police during the supplementary election in Osun, is to say the least, most unbecoming of, and unprofessional of a responsible police force. When such a thing happens, voters will be thinking more about everyday issues and wondering whether voting is worth the effort. Together with violence, rigging, insecurity and vote buying, the danger ahead of 2919, INEC needs every support it can get, within and outside the country to achieve success in our electoral process.
As the European Union (EU) warned recently, “the struggle to achieve democracy gives it a special value and places responsibility on all of us to support the democratic process”. Altogether, INEC needs reminding that an umpire can only earn its reputation and public confidence based on its ability to deliver a free, credible and transparent elections that its integrity does not come under any clouds of suspicion. That critical moment is few months away to be tested.