BY TOBI AWORINDE
Prof. Attahiru Jega’s position as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission may be under threat, writes TOBI AWORINDE
The fight for the ouster and retention of Prof. Attahiru Jega as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission took a dramatic turn on Wednesday with Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, and the All Progressives Congress, embroiled in a war of words.
The controversy began a few weeks ago, during the week leading up to the Saturday, February 7 postponement of the general elections earlier scheduled for February 14 and 28.
Supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan, under the aegis of the Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly, called for the resignation and arrest of Jega.
The group, led by a former Information Minister, Chief Edwin Clark, included another former Minister of Information, Walter Ofonagoro; a former Governor of Anambra State, Dr. Chuwuemeka Ezeife; a former commissioner in Bayelsa State, Mr. Whisky Ayakeme; Dr. Cairo Ojugboh; and Senator Femi Okunronmu.
They demanded the postponement of the February elections and accused Jega of hobnobbing with members of the Northern Elders’ Forum in a bid to rig Jonathan out of the polls.
To this, the Chief Press Secretary to the INEC chairman, Mr. Kayode Idowu, said he had no comment to make, while a source at the commission dismissed all the allegations, saying that the integrity of Jega remained intact.
Prominent northern groups and individuals, however, vowed to resist any attempt by the Federal Government to sack Jega.
A National Executive Council member of the Arewa Consultative Forum, Mr. Mohammed Abdulrahman, said, “Any attempt by the Federal Government, colluding with the PDP, to postpone the elections or sack Prof. Attahiru Jega and replace him with a pliant alternative will only increase the challenges this current administration under President Goodluck Jonathan is facing.”
Corroborating Abdulrahman, the past National Publicity Secretary of the ACF, Mr. Anthony Sani, warned Nigerians not to rule out the possibility of the removal of Jega, just as the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (now the Emir of Kano), Lamido Sanusi, was removed from office.
Similarly, the National Coordinator, Coalition of Northern Politicians, Academics, Professionals and Businessmen, Dr. Junaid Mohammed, described as “insidious and self-serving” the southern leaders’ call for Jega’s resignation. He stated that Jega could not be forcefully removed, adding that even the National Assembly could not remove him without a two-third majority.
In the same vein, the Tanko Yakassai-led Northern Elders Council said, “The provision in the constitution for the removal of the chairman of the commission is clear. The Senate can begin the process, but they cannot tell him to resign.”
The NEF also said it was surprised that the Presidency had become jittery over the elections. The Deputy Chairman of the Maitama Sule-led forum, Dr. Paul Unongo, noted that the INEC chairman supervised the 2011 elections, eventually declaring Buhari, a fellow northerner, the loser and Jonathan the winner.
A lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Ibadan, Dr. Idowu Johnson, in an interview with SUNDAY PUNCH, agreed that Jega had proven to be non-partisan.
He said, “Look at Jega’s performance from the 2011 general elections he conducted and Jonathan won by a landslide. If he could conduct that kind of election, I see no reason why the trust won’t be there for him to conduct another.
“The constitution is very clear about the role of the INEC chairman. For the fact that there were run-off elections in Ekiti, Osun and Anambra states and again nobody complained, we have to give Jega kudos for doing such a good job.
“Based on the Act that brought Jega in, he is no more a civil servant. Therefore, there is no way a civil servant should be served a notice to go on leave. On that ground, he must be allowed to continue with the conduct of the election and hand over so that by June, he can leave office.”
Similarly, the Head of Department, Political Science, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Prof. Jonah Onuoha, told SUNDAY PUNCH that Jega had earned the confidence of Nigerians and that it would be morally wrong to send him on pre-retirement leave at this time.
According to him, since Jega came in, he has done well and until now, both the All Progressives Congress and the PDP have not had a problem with him. He added that the controversy surrounding Jega’s position as INEC Chairman is apparently because of the fear of the ruling party that it may lose the election if he remains.
“The issue is therefore more political than we can imagine. Jonathan has no right to remove him without due process. INEC is a public service and not a civil service and therefore cannot be guided by civil service rules. Inherently, removing Jega will raise a lot of questions about the security of the elections that will take place in just a few weeks.
“The international community and local civil society organisations would believe Jega was removed just to rig the elections. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the President and the ruling party to allow Jega to do his job, while we monitor him,” Onuoha noted.
After weeks of speculation and several meetings with stakeholders, Jega announced a six-month postponement of the initial election dates of February 14 and 28. He explained that the commission was empowered by Section 26 (1) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) to shift national elections due to some factors.
The postponement, according to the INEC boss, was based on reports from the National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retd.), and other service chiefs that their agencies would be unable to guarantee security of INEC personnel in some parts of the country. He further denied insinuations that the commission was forced to shift the polls, saying INEC had taken the best decision under the prevailing circumstances.
During a presidential media chat on February 11, at a time when speculation was rife that government had perfected plans to remove Jega, Jonathan reassured Nigerians that he had no plan to remove the INEC chairman from office.
Jonathan told a panel of interviewers that he was not desperate to remain in power, adding that such “insinuations and wrong information” were meant to discredit him by his political opponents.
He said, “Let me assure Nigerians that a new government will be formed on May 29.They should not be perturbed about rumours that we are planning to send Jega on a terminal leave and other rubbish being circulated. As of 2011, I made a commitment that if I lose I will go; that should tell you more about my stand on free and fair elections.
“The rumour that I will not hand over or that I am scheming to prolong my tenure are insinuations; they are not true. Those are insinuations; it is quite unfortunate that so much wrong information is floating in the system.”
Johnson, speaking with our correspondent, described Jonathan as straightforward. He said, however, it appeared that there were some people who were pushing him to remove Jega.
“The President seems sincere that he would hand over on May 29 if he loses. During several interviews with Aljazeera and CNN, he told the whole world that nobody would remove Jega and that there is trust in Jega to conduct the elections,” the political expert said.
But Onuoha said Jonathan had assured the nation of several things in the past and done differently. According to him, the President’s word that he would not remove Jega should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“There are signs that show plans are on the ground to remove the INEC chairman and therefore civil society organisations have gathered to ensure that Jega remains. Fayose’s comments in (Thursday’s) papers are that if Jega is removed, the heavens will not fall. That would tell you that they are convinced about what they are going to do,” Onuoha said.
Later in February, members of the APC in the Senate, led by George Akume, alleged that the Head of Service would direct Jega to proceed on a pre-retirement leave next week. The lawmakers alleged that the Federal Government was trying to use a circular from the Head of Service, dated August 11, 2010, to place Jega on compulsory leave.
But the Supervising Minister of Information, Mr. Edem Duke, said the President had no plan to sack Jega.
“On the issue of the INEC chairman, I align myself with what the President said that he has no plan to sack the INEC chairman. That is not to say that if it is time for the INEC chairman to naturally exit his office, then the natural course of things will not take place.
“It is like saying a civil servant has done 35 years or achieved the age of 60; we now begin to say that he must not retire or he must retire,” Duke said.
Investigations by SUNDAY PUNCH, last week, revealed that the Federal Government might have shortlisted four national commissioners to take over from Jega and that he might be asked to hand over to one of them and proceed on a three-month terminal leave.
Sources said the national commissioners that might take over from Jega could come from a list made up of Dr. Mohammed Wali from Sokoto State, Mrs. Amina Zakari from Jigawa State, Colonel Mohammed Kurmi Hammanga (rtd.) from Adamawa State and Dr. Ishmael Igbani from Rivers State.
Last Monday, revelations emerged as to why Jonathan and the national leadership of the ruling PDP were angry with the INEC Chairman.
A week-long investigation revealed that the President and his party were not happy with Jega over his insistence that the commission would use the Permanent Voter Cards for the elections, even though the PVCs had been used for the conduct of the governorship elections in both Ekiti and Osun states, which were won by the PDP and the APC, respectively.
Apart from this, the President and the party were reportedly angry that the commission was going ahead with its decision to use card readers.
Professor of Public Law at the University of Lagos, Oyelowo Oyewo, confirmed these fears to SUNDAY PUNCH. He told our correspondent in a telephone interview that the controversy surrounding Jega was not simply about his performance, but more about his principled stand on the PVCs and the card readers.
“That introduces a paradigm shift in electioneering in Nigeria. The Ekiti and Osun elections were done without PVCs and we saw the outcome in terms of the judicial election petition. It was very easy to quickly dispose of those things because the PVC is based on biometrics and the card reader will be based strictly on cards prepared by INEC.
“That means it will eliminate electoral malpractice, which we know has always existed in our election process. Those who have gained access to power by electoral malpractice will not have such access. It will mean that persons will get to office by virtue of being voted for. And I think some people are not comfortable with it this time around.”
Oyewo stated that every president that has been produced by the PDP has acknowledged that he got there through a faulty electoral process. The law professor noted that the “high watermark” of that was the swearing-in speech of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, who immediately set up an electoral reform committee known as the Justice Mohammed Uwais Panel.
The report, Oyewo said, confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that the country’s electoral system is fraught with electoral malpractice.
“That is what has informed the escalation of security, in terms of introducing biometrics into the system. In terms of getting rid of the perceived weaknesses in our electoral system, I think Jega has done well by bringing this biometric element into it. I believe if he is given the opportunity without all this flack that he is receiving, particularly from the ruling party, it will be for the good of the Nigerian people,” he said.
Last week Tuesday, the House of Representatives warned the Federal Government against tampering with the existing “arrangements” for the March 28 elections, particularly the removal of Jega.
The House noted that changing the election plans either by further extending the dates or removing Jega would only lead to a magnitude of violence worse than what was witnessed after the 2011 polls.
The Reps drew the attention of the political class, the Federal Government, state governments and security agencies to warnings of unavoidable violence already issued by eminent Nigerians and groups, both on the international and local scenes.
In a related development, the APC, among other allegations, claimed that Jonathan was planning another poll shift and making moves to sack Jega.
The Special Adviser to the President, Dr. Reuben Abati, described the allegations as baseless, false and meaningless.
The battle for Jega’s fate, however, turned sour on Wednesday, with Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, and the APC engaging in a war of words.
Fayose began the verbal onslaught when he described the claim by the APC of a plot by the Presidency to fire Jega, as “mere comedy.” The governor, in a statement by his Special Assistant on Public Communications and New Media, Lere Olayinka, advised the opposition party to stop acting as if Nigeria belonged to it.
“President Goodluck Jonathan can sack Jega if he wishes and if he does, heavens will not fall. By turning themselves to advocates and defenders of the INEC chairman, the APC and its agents have shown that they have a deal with Jega to manipulate the elections,” he said.
The governor described Jega as partisan, saying, “By his actions and utterances, Jega had already demonstrated his support of the APC. For instance, how can Jega explain the 80 per cent distribution of Permanent Voter Cards in Boko Haram-ravaged Borno and Yobe states while less than 40 per cent was distributed in Lagos as of February 7 that the election was postponed?”
“It is the President that can determine whether or not Jega will go on the mandatory three months’ terminal leave which should commence on March 8, and if the President decides that the INEC chairman should go on terminal leave, what can the APC loudmouths do?
But the APC National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Lai Mohammed, berated the governor, saying his views were inconsequential, since he was not the appointer of Jega.
“Fayose knows he can’t win any free and fair election. This is why he’s crying more than the bereaved. He’s afraid that the truth has come out. No matter how long it takes, the truth will prevail,” Mohammed said.
But Oyewo said only through due process could Jega be removed. He described the legal provision of terminal leave as the Achilles heel in the process.
“The terminal leave is not a mandatory procedure. It is a practice that allows for succession. That is, if somebody is coming in, the person going out gives the person the opportunity to understudy him and be able to respond to him while he is still in service. The essence is for a seamless transition. But we don’t talk about terminal leave when someone has an election to conduct, which was shifted. It would be as if it was devised to trap an independent public office holder into the terminal leave zone.
“If we won’t change a commander-in-chief during a time of war, why should we change an INEC chairman during an election? Interestingly, all the Inspector-Generals of Police have stayed beyond the tenure they were supposed to serve,” the professor said.
A constitutional lawyer, Fred Agbaje, however said an employee appointed for a definite period could still be removed and paid the accrued or outstanding salary, plus other terminal benefits, in accordance with the conditions of employment.
“The rule is that the employer has a right of ‘hire and fire.’ That the employer cannot exercise his right, on the ground of protection of tenure, is to stand the age-long rule of hire and fire on its head. The heavens will not fall upon the employer’s exercise of his labour right. The worker’s unqualified right is to approach the court for a judicial remedy, particularly where the employer has chosen the path of arbitrariness. The cases of removed-court- reinstated university lecturers on grounds of statutory protection stands on a different legal pedestal,” Agbaje said.
Culled from PUNCH