The brinkmanship over President Muhammadu Buhari’s nominees for the chairman, and national commissioners for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is expected to shift to the National Assembly from this week.
President Buhari had nominated Professor Mahmood Yakubu for a second term as chairman of the electoral commission, following the expiration of his first term earlier in the month. Also nominated are four persons to replace national electoral commissioners, whose tenures have expired.
Among those appointed as national commissioners are the Special Assistant to the president on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie, who hails from Delta State.
The three other nominees are: Professor Muhammad Sani Kallah, Professor Kunle Cornelius Ajayi and Saidu Babura Ahmad from Kastina, Ekiti and Jigawa states respectively.
It is expected that issues relating to the screening and confirmation of the nominees will occupy the front burner in the Senate, and by extension the National Assembly, as the parliament resumes plenary on Tuesday, after four weeks break to enable heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) appear before the various committees for the defence of their 2021 budget proposals.
The reappointment of Yakubu for a fresh 5-year term, which is said to be generating ripples among top players in the polity, had reportedly triggered an intense power struggle between different interest groups in the ruling party over whether or not the INEC chairman should be confirmed for a second term.
Last weekend, the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), raised the alarm about an alleged plot by some interest groups to surreptitiously stall the screening of Yakubu as chairman of INEC chairman.
The IPAC chairman, Leonard Nzenwa, who stated this at a press briefing, in Abuja, alleged that the mastermind of the plot had contacted IPAC to join the plot. However, Nzenwa said IPAC refused to be part of the gang-up because it believes that the reappointment of the former INEC boss will help the electoral commission to consolidate on its past achievements ahead of the 2023 general elections.
According to him, “as a body, IPAC was approached by persons within the government who wanted to sabotage the nomination in preference for another they believed would favour their ambitions.
“We refused because the stability of the electoral process and ongoing reforms by Professor Yakubu are very promising and when fully implemented, hold the key to unlocking our nation’s electoral challenges.
“These distractions are capable of casting a doubt as to the impartiality and credibility of the 2023 general election.
“ This evil plot to hijack the Election Management Body prior to a general election is novel in our political atmosphere. We must not let this to happen. The President has made a nomination which has enjoyed widespread applause both locally and internationally and the best we all can do is to give support and not let the undertakers to have a job to do.
“These elements and their backers want confusion and crisis to engulf our electoral space. We as the body of all registered political parties have unanimously accepted this nomination and agreed to a speedy screening and nothing can change that.”
Like Yakubu’s reappointment, the nomination of Onochie as a national commissioner in the electoral body has been generating diverse reactions in the polity.
The presidential aide’s nomination had sparked off protests with the opposition and members of the civil society organizations, describing it as inappropriate.
The Peoples Democratic Party( PDP), which is the major opposition party in its immediate reaction to the appointment said Onochie’s appointment is an assault on the country ‘s constitution and the democratic process.
Kola Ologbondiyan, PDP’s National Publicity Secretary, told journalists at a press conference, in Abuja, that the presidential aide is a card carrying member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and therefore ineligible to serve as an official of the electoral body.
Specifically, Ologbondiyan stated that Onochie ‘s nomination was a violation of “paragraph 14 of the 3rd schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which forbids a person involved in partisan politics to hold office as a member of INEC. “
He threatened that the PDP might be challenging the nomination in court, if the President fails to withdraw it.
According to the opposition spokesman, the nomination is a pointer to the kind of electoral commission the Federal Government intends to bequeath to the country ahead of the 2023 general elections.
Ologbondiyan said: “Indeed, from Mr. President’s public promises, one would have thought that he was desirous of leaving a legacy of credible elections. However, this nomination of his( President Buhari’s) personal staff, Lauretta Onchie, as INEC national commissioner, supports the position of the PDP that his statements were mere glib talks on electoral sanctity and clearly demonstrates that he has no plans whatsoever to leave a legacy of credible polls.
“This ugly development is another shameful attempt to plant unscrupulous elements in INEC in order to corrupt and further desecrate the sanctity of the commission, undermine our electoral system and destabilize our democratic process ahead of the 2023 general elections.
“We had hoped that, as Mr. President had professed in the past, he is truly running his second and final term in office. If that were so, then Lauretta Onochie’s nomination as INEC national commissioner clearly points to a totally different direction.”
He added: “Indeed, her nomination dresses up Mr. President as having more than an interest in legacy building and portrays him as one who has a personal candidature interest in the 2023 election. The only way to prove otherwise is to quickly withdraw Onochie’s nomination before the Senate.
“Moreover, being a card-carrying member of the APC as record shows (from Ward 5 Onicha Olona, Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta state), Onochie’s nomination is in clear violation of paragraph 14 of the 3rd schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which forbids a person involved in partisan politics to hold office as a member of INEC.
“It is therefore surprising that having sworn to the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Mr. President is taking actions that are antithetical to the very constitution and democratic governance.
“These actions are deliberate attempts by President Buhari to inflame social tensions, undermine our constitution and desecrate the sanctity of our electoral process, rather than finding solutions to the myriads of problems pervading our country.”
Regardless, the APC thinks the opposition party is crying wolf when none exists. The ruling party in a statement by its Deputy National Publicity Secretary, Yekini Nabena, described PDP’s criticism as “rash, subjective, misplaced and selective “.
The APC said PDP “members” are equally serving as Resident Electoral Commissioners (REC) and National Commissioners in INEC. Consequently, it urged the National Assembly to ignore the opposition against Onochie and clear her as a national commissioner in the electoral body.
The ruling party urged “the patriotic 9th Senate to stick with the facts and issues by ignoring the PDP’s grandstanding, cheap blackmail, baseless and subjective allegations of partisanship it is sponsoring against Ms Onochie. For the PDP, Ms Onochie’s capacity and effectiveness as a public servant and senior social media professional amount to partisanship.
“Since public service now equates ‘partisanship’ we invite the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to equally fault appointment of Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, the current INEC Chairman who was the immediate-past Executive Secretary of the government’s Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND).
“We equally invite the PDP to query the ‘unquestionable integrity’ of brazen PDP apologists such as Festus Okoye, National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee of INEC; Mike Igini, Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) for Akwa Ibom State, among others.
“We challenge the PDP to point to any of its defunct 16-year administrations that defended and guaranteed the Executive arm of government’s non-interference in INEC’s operation and the true independence of the electoral commission as President Buhari’s government has done”.
Nevertheless, Yinka Odumakin, Publicity Secretary of pan Yoruba group,, Afenifere, says Onochie’s nomination must be rejected in the interest of the country.
Odumakin SAID: “It is the peak of insensitivity and provocation by Buhari to bring a partisan fundamentalist as a (National) Commissioner of INEC. If Nigerians don’t resist and reject it, it would mark the final conquest of the country and the beginning of the end of INEC and electoral democracy. Appointing her can only happen in a failed country.”
However, beyond the brickbats, what does the appointment of politically exposed persons portend for the credibility of the electoral process? Would the President withdraw Onochie’s nomination as demanded by the opposition? In the event that he does not, would the PDP make good its threat to challenge the nomination?
At the moment, all eyes are on the Senate to see how it will handle the screening of the nominees into INEC. Already, the PDP caucus in the upper legislative chamber has expressed reservations over the nomination of the presidential aide. It is yet to be seen how the members of the majority party would respond to the issue during the screening.
Analysts say the quest for credible polls in 2023 depend to a large extent on whatever the parliament does or fails to do in respect to screening of the nominees, as the independence of INEC would be dependent on the neutrality of the electoral officials.