By Felix Oboagwina
Professor Mahmood Yakubu achieved a new national record when he received President Muhammadu Buhari’s endorsement for a second term as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). By the rolling over the tenure of Yakubu as INEC boss for another five years, the former professor of Political History and International Studies from the Nigerian Defence Academy becomes the first head of an electoral agency to achieve tenure elongation in post-independence Nigeria. All his 11 predecessors served just one term. Thus, of all the country’s 12 electoral chairmen since independence, Yakubu becomes the first to serve two terms, having been appointed by Buhari in 2015 to succeed Professor Attahiru Jega.
Although he may not share Professor Jega’s Ivory-Tower popularity, the eloquent erudition of Professor Humphrey Nwosu, the dignified ambience of Justice Victor Ovie-Whiskey, nor the international clout of Professor Maurice Iwu, Professor Yakubu has unquestionably carved his imprint into the country’s electoral process.
On his watch, INEC conducted the very controversial 2019 elections. Under him too, the commission witnessed two questionable appointments. Towards the last presidential election, the commission had appointed an INEC National Commissioner who happens to be a relation of the president, Hajiya Amina Bala-Zakari, to head the Collation Centre for the presidential election. She had acted as the commission’s chairman in the transition period between Jega’s exit and Yakubu’s appointment; but the president never presented her name for the mandatory senate confirmation. Zakari’s new appointment as collation director came across as insensitive and improper.. Opposition parties smelt a rat. However, Yakubu did not budge.
Another INEC appointment happened last month that quickly stirred up controversy. The president announced Ms. Lauretta Onochie, his Special Assistant on Social Media, as a National Commissioner with the electoral body. This appointment led to an uproar from the civil society as well as political parties that immediately demanded its revocation. Officially, Yakubu has yet to speak on the matter publicly.
At some point, critics dubbed Yakubu “Mr. Inconclusive,” an annotation to the spate of hung elections that INEC under him conducted with results delayed beyond the electoral cycle. It began with the first governorship elections Yakubu organised in Bayelsa and Kogi in 2016 that the commission ruled inconclusive. Suspicions were rife that in such keenly contested polls, INEC had deliberately suspended the conclusion of elections and the announcement of results to afford the ruling party breathing space to resuscitate its chances in the unfinished elections. This scenario played out in Osun State in September 2018, when the PDP candidate led the poll, but at the conclusion of the rescheduled inconclusive election, INEC declared the APC rival overall winner. In 2019, for the first time in the country’s electoral journey, the general polls witnessed a further rash of inconclusive governorship elections. This affected seven states. Ironically, apart from Plateau and Kano, all the others were states where the opposition had held incumbent governorship. They included: Sokoto, Bauchi, Adamawa, Benue, Kano, Plateau, Rivers and Kano.
Defending the incident, Yakubu told media executives, “First, what is an inconclusive election? It’s an election in which a winner has not emerged at first ballot; that is essentially what it is. So now you mobilise and remedy the problem and make a declaration… There are two sections of the Electoral Act that we need to focus on. The first one is Section 26, which says, ‘In the event of violence or natural disaster, INEC should not proceed with an election; and if the total number of registered persons in the place affected is more than the margin of lead where you have conducted the election, then don’t make a declaration until you go back and complete the election.’ Section 53 of the Electoral Act is very clear, in the event of over-voting; INEC is prohibited by law from making a declaration. The law says, Don’t make return until you go back to those polling units and you conduct election where the number of registered voters will make a difference to the margin of lead. I’m yet to hear any Nigerian say this commission has declared any election inconclusive outside the law.”
Although the era of hung elections cast a slur on his credential, the INEC chairman soon got a chance to demonstrate that he could maintain a principled and objective stand on his national assignment. In the governorship elections of Zamfara and Rivers states where intra-party squabbles prevented APC from posting candidates within the statutory timeframe, he chose to stand by the law. Insisting on maintaining due process, INEC refused to accept APC’s late filing for the two states. The party sought redress in court, but it lost all the way to the Supreme Court that endorsed the commission’s stand.
However, by far the most controversial case Yakubu faced revolved on the 2019 presidential election. PDP and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had asked the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal to rule that contrary to the result that INEC announced in favour of Buhari, the commission should present the results stored in a central server into which field collation officers purportedly sent outcomes from all over the nation to Abuja. The litigants insisted that the commission bypassed the server, which supposedly gave Atiku an overall winning lead of 1,615,302 votes, to announce a different result manually that gave victory to Buhari. INEC denied the existence of any such server.
If so, why had INEC trained personnel on direct transfer of results from polling units and card-reader machines to the supposed server? Why had at least one INEC official gone on television to say that the election results would flow directly from the field to the commission’s Situation Room and IT Centre in Abuja? Finally, the court delivered a verdict upholding INEC’s position that it possessed no such server.
Despite wallowing in all such past controversies, however, Yakubu may have found saving grace for his career in the last two governorship elections INEC conducted. In Edo, the commission conducted what has been adjudged a free and fair election reflective of the true wishes of the electorate. Governor Godwin Obaseki who had left the ruling party at the Centre for the opposition PDP won the September 29 election. INEC repeated the feat in the Ondo governorship election of October 10 that saw the incumbent Governor Rotimi Akeredolu winning the poll. Those last two elections certainly upped Yakubu’s reputation. Why change a winning team?
Even then, sceptics still believe Yakubu returned to INEC due to Buhari’s nepotistic leaning towards northern appointees. However, such thinking is faulted by the fact that the president had also rolled over the appointment of the CBN Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, when it expired in 2019.
Meanwhile, the returnee INEC boss has his job cut out for him. Yakubu may just be the man for this season to build INEC into a 21st Century institution. In the general clamour for reducing the cost of governance due to present harsh economic realities, Nigerians want to see the commission take cost-cutting measures. A huge chunk of its current budget goes into costly litigations, whose blame gets pinned on shoddy handling of elections, an area it needs to work on. Electoral manipulation remains a headache. INEC’s energies must go beyond prosecuting the “small fries” in the electoral manipulation process. So far, not a single National INEC Commissioner, nor a Resident Electoral Commissioner, nor a State Electoral Commissioner, nor a politician of note has been apprehended and prosecuted for electoral fraud. Nigerians would want the commission to go after the big fishes, the well-heeled Barracudas of electoral rigging and manipulation.
The commission has so far paid lip service to upgrading to electronic voting. The new system of voting will also provide the basis for answering the clamour to grant Nigerians outside these shores some inclusiveness in the electoral process through Diaspora Voting, a routing for many countries. This will begin with the availability of a legal framework to accommodate technology as already provided for in the Electoral Act 2019 that Buhari has so far sidestepped. Riding on his cordial relationship with the president that has seen him win a second term at INEC, Yakubu may begin to push for the signing of that legislation, lying on the president’s table since 2019 when the National Assembly passed it to him. Should he achieve a full-blown technology-driven electoral process, Professor Yakubu will be setting another record at INEC.
- Oboagwina is a journalist and he wrote from Lagos.