Several weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I offered two seemingly minor suggestions to Professor Jega on what to do to clean up the Nigerian electoral process -- make security a priority and install cameras in polling stations. A couple of folks accused me of not understanding Jega's approach when he began scaling down expectations of a free and fair election in Nigeria, notwithstanding that I was one of those people cheering him on to succeed.
At the time, the high court had just nullified the 2007 gubernatorial election in Delta State and ordered a re-run within 90 days of the court's ruling, primarily between PDP's Emmanuel Uduaghan and DPP's Great Ogboru. So I waited to see what would happen in Delta State. Maybe Jega's approach there would prove me wrong -- that he did not, after all, scale down our expectations. Maybe Jega would use Delta to signal a free and fair general election in 2011. So we all waited.
The wait is now over. The signs are already coming out. About a week or so ago, Jega's INEC decreed that the Delta State re-run would hold on January 6, 2011. So far so good. Although several folks in Delta State cried foul, January 6 was actually within the 90-day deadline of the court, and INEC had every authority to set that date. Meanwhile, some people thought that INEC's sudden announcement of January 6 barely two weeks before that date was some kind of a sinister move by Uduaghan's PDP to rig the election. I was not one of those people. I saw the wisdom in getting on with the re-run to allow INEC to concentrate on the upcoming general elections. So I reserved my judgment -- in fact, I actually judged INEC's scheduling as a sign of good things to come. But then things got weird. The true signs began to develop and/or acquire real meanings.
Sign No. 1: Augustine Ovie Omo-Agege entered the election. Before now and in 2007, when the elections were held, Omo-Agege was a staunch PDP member -- he was actually in Ibori's government -- and had challenged Uduaghan in the PDP primaries that produced Uduaghan as the PDP candidate in the general election. This is important because by the court's ordering of a re-run the expectation of legal minds was that only those who ran in the general, not party primary, elections could participate in a "re-run." In fact, Godsday Orubebe could not run because Uduaghan was the PDP flag-bearer in 2007, but Omo-Agege, who hitherto was actually Uduaghan's Secretary of State, entered the race.
The maneuver ultimately was for Agege to join the Republican Party of Nigeria and replace the 2007 candidate, who had since passed. INEC even saw to that replacement. Some accused INEC of poke-nosing in internal party politics, while others laid more egregious charges of nepotism against INEC, as Agege's sister was one of INEC's top officials. Indeed, the deputy to the late gubernatorial candidate in 2007 has since gone for redress in court, as she argues that she should have replaced the late candidate. Although I do not personally blame Agege for entering the race if the RPN and INEC allowed him -- this write-up is not about Agege (indeed, I believe Agege means well, but, of course, I may be biased because Agege was my classmate in secondary school) -- but INEC failed to handle the controversy in a professional manner. Jega did nothing, as Iwu would have done nothing, to satisfactorily correct the situation and/or abide by the court's order.
Sign No. 2: Absolutely worse than Sign No. 1, barely two weeks before the re-run on January 6, INEC has no voter registers in at least 11 of the 25 local government areas of the state. INEC now claims that they cannot "find" the voter registers in those 11 local government areas, most of which are areas that observers have concluded would go for Great Ogboru, the DPP candidate challenging the PDP candidate, Emmanuel Uduaghan. For example, INEC does not have voter registers for Aniocha South, Bomadi, Burutu, Ika North East, Ika South, Isoko North, Isoko South, Ndokwa East, Ndokwa West, Oshimili South and Patani Local Government Areas.
Now I ask you, how can the agency charged with voter registration and keeping a voter register for every local government area claim that they cannot "find" voter registers in 11 of 25 local government areas? What do they mean by they cannot "find them"? Find what? Are you serious? Where are they supposed to "find them"? Where did they look? Eh? Really? Who had them? Who lost them? Where were they lost? Who searched for them? Was there a search party? Were they on horsebacks when they were looking for them? Were search dogs involved in the search? So why did they schedule the election to hold on January 6 if they could not "find" them? Mind you, one of the reasons for nullifying the 2007 election was because Ogboru was able to show that there was no election because INEC did not produce the voter registers for certain local government areas. So is INEC supposed to hold a re-run without correcting the reason for the re-run in the first place?
Why not conduct fresh voter registration in Delta State before the re-run? Isn't the absence of voter registers the most obvious prelude to rigging? Don't we all know that the most common approach to rigging is the idea of stuffing ballot boxes without knowing the identities of voters or how many voters were registered and could legitimately put ballots in those boxes? So far, Jega has done nothing. Please tell me again, how is Jega showing that he is different from Iwu?
Sign No 3: Even with the registers that INEC produced -- the ones they miraculously "found" -- sources have reported that INEC allowed certain folks access to those registers, whereupon those folks recreated the list by removing the names of those suspected to support their opponents. If the sources are correct, whether the recreation was done by PDP, DPP, ACN, or the RPN, it must not stand. Where are we, in the animal farm? What kind of election agency gives a voter register to political parties or contestants to recreate? Even if the idea is for the parties to have the opportunity to raise concerns over "ghost voters," why should they be allowed to alter the registers? Again, this is Jega's INEC, not Iwu's. Jega has been mute on the matter.
As we all know, and Candidate Barrack Obama correctly pointed out -- pundits insinuated Obama said it about Sarah Palin -- "you can put a lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig." Jega as a lipstick on INEC does not change the fact that it is still the same dirty INEC that Iwu left for us. Nothing has changed, despite having all these months to do so. INEC is still the same even under Jega -- as far as Delta State is concerned anyway. Why not? After all, the same commissioners and top officials that Iwu left are still in INEC today.
There is still time to change, however. The time is now -- with the Delta State elections. INEC cannot expect us to believe that the upcoming general elections would be different when it cannot even "find" voter registers in 11 of 25 local government areas in a small state like Delta State. More importantly, Deltans should not be subjected to a different standard from the rest of the country.
If the idea is for INEC to use Delta State as a rallying cry for more money needed to conduct voter registration in all of the country by pointing to the failure of the Delta State re-run, they must think twice. Nigerians are smarter than that, and deserve better. They cannot use their own incompetence in Delta State to advocate the redundant need for competence in the 2011 general elections. They must correct the Delta State situation now -- produce the voter registers, give the parties the opportunity to raise concerns about the forgery of the registers (not the opportunity to alter them), conduct a proper voter registration (for God's sake, use the new machines!), if needed, and apply the rules equally. Until then, a pig is a pig, lipstick or no lipstick.