In football, which we all love down here in Nigeria, if a referee is found to have made a prejudiced decision which clearly and unfairly puts one team at a disadvantage, while favouring the opposing side, he (if found guilty) is promptly disciplined by the appropriate authority.
This was demonstrated in the recently concluded African Cup of Nations which was held in Equatorial Guinea and won by the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire where Mauritian referee Rajindraparsad Seechurn was banned for 6 months by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for a performance described as generally “poor” and unbecoming of a supposed even-handed umpire in the controversial quarter-final duel between hosts Equatorial Guinea and the North African powerhouse Tunisia.
Many of us, especially those who followed the tournament passionately, can still recall what he did. For those of us who were not privileged to witness it due to the actions of those in charge of our country’s power supply or due to other circumstances, let me fill you in. Mr. Seechurn contentiously – and inappropriately too – awarded a stoppage time penalty to Equatorial Guinea after Tunisian defender Ali Maaloul was adjudged to have fouled Equatoguinean striker Ivan Bolado, with Tunisia leading 1-0 at the time.
The hosts subsequently equalized with mere seconds to the end of the encounter as their designated spot kick taker Javier Balboa made no mistake from 12 yards. The stadium was transforming from a football stadium to a riot scene within minutes, leading to the destruction of property valued at millions of dollars by the angry Tunisian supporters. Long story short, at the end of the day, Equatorial Guinea ran out as undeserving winners as the match eventually ended 2-1 in their favour amid chaotic scenes, courtesy of a dubious penalty from a dishonourable referee.
Cast your mind back again, this time to the 2009 UEFA Champions League semi-final clash involving Chelsea and FC Barcelona. The infamous Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebø was found guilty of the same crime – which he would later admit to – making a string of questionable calls that ended up costing the English giants the match and truncating their quest for glory in football’s most prestigious club competition. Though he was not sanctioned, he forced himself into retirement after admitting his mistakes.
This is the rule against the impartiality of erstwhile neutral umpires being enforced, and it is not limited to football. It is a universal rule that holds true for all sporting events, including rugby, cricket, baseball, basketball and even bullfighting, and virtually all human endeavours that involve one form of contest or another. The same rule should apply in Nigeria, to elections conducted in Nigeria; elections are, after all, contests. In the context of Nigerian elections, Jega, in his capacity as the INEC boss, is the referee.
The forthcoming presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections now billed for March 28 and April 11 could potentially be the most heated and controversial elections in the country since the pre-Independence 1959 polls that ushered in the government of Nnamdi Azikiwe’s NCNC and Tafawa Balewa’s NPC. The stakes are high and the tension is so palpable that it could be cut with a knife; nothing should be done to further complicate issues and to jeopardize the unity of this country and the safety of its citizens.
But not everybody, it seems, understands this. In recent days, serious allegations have been levelled against the Independent National Electoral Commission’s chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega. These are allegations of colluding with some members of the All Progressives Congress to tilt the now-postponed presidential election in their favour. The electoral body overseen by Jega has been accused of excesses, including, but not limited to, the selective disenfranchisement of some geopolitical regions whilst favouring other regions, the registration of and issuance of Permanent Voter’s Cards (PVCs) to conspicuously underage voters in the north, the registration of non-Nigerians from neighbouring West and Central African countries, and the deliberate delay in the disbursement of PVCs in selected geopolitical regions, all intended to give one political platform undue advantage over others.
And it doesn't stop there. Over the past week, an audio recording released by Sahara Reporters has been circulating in the social media, purporting to show how politicians conspired with military officials to rig the 2014 Ekiti State election. What does Jega know about this? Nigerians are waiting for his answers.
Though these claims are yet to be substantiated, they are not to be wished away or dismissed by a mere wave of the hand. Election rigging is a crime anywhere and everywhere, and when it involves the very person charged with ensuring that it doesn’t happen, it becomes even more ominous. If eventually he’s found to be culpable, it would be unpardonable.
INEC is one of the most sensitive institutions in this country and it should and must go about its constitutional duties as spelt out by the law which in totality sums up to the conduct of free, credible and impartial polls anywhere and everywhere in Nigeria. If it is found incapable of fulfilling this obligation, then the appropriate authorities will be left with no choice than to sweep out officials found wanting, starting from the head (the chairman) to every single member of the rank and file that has been implicated. There should be no sacred cow, no-one should be deemed untouchable.
For the sake of peace and to douse the already edgy political and socioeconomic atmosphere in Nigeria, it is pertinent for Jega to come clean with these allegations and do the needful. Till today he has neither refuted nor admitted his guilt and it only helps to brew more suspicion. The country is obviously going through difficult times and the Jega conundrum is an unnecessary addition to its quagmire that ought to be dragged no further. It should end now. If we truly clamour for change, we must demand it at all times and in all negative situations and not only when it is in our favour. Jega must clear his name or face the consequences.
Chinedu Rylan George is a writer and socioeconomic commentator, he wrote in via [email protected]