APGA Chairman, Umeh

Chief Victor Umeh, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), believes that the recent appointment of Prof. Attahiru Jega as the Chairman of the Independent National

Electoral Commission (INEC), does not call for celebration. He said Jega’s touted integrity, notwithstanding the fact that the appointment was made by the President and not the National Judicial Council (NJC), raises no hope about a credible election next year. Umeh, who was in Lagos last weekend, spoke with journalists and says the opposition will continue to be in disarray, as long as genuine electoral reforms are not carried out.

How do you see the appointment of Prof. Attahiru Jega as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission? Does it solve some of the fears being expressed on the conduct of elections in the country, considering the criticisms that led to the exit of Prof. Maurice Iwu?

Well, one thing that is clear is that nothing has changed in absolute terms. The appointment of new people into the electoral commission followed the same old pattern where the President retained the powers to appoint officials of the INEC. If the president had been appointing the INEC officials in the past and we never succeeded to have credible elections, what hope will anybody have in the present arrangement? The only thing is that we have reduced the whole arrangement to a gambling chance, whereby people who had been so appointed now, may want to do the right thing or do the same thing the previous people did. It is now a game of chance. What we had campaigned for, was an electoral reform that would guarantee credible elections. One of the pillars of that reform was the removal of powers of appointment of electoral officials from the president of Nigeria. So long as that was not accepted, Nigerians will continue to have hope that those appointed will do the right thing. There is no guarantee that they will do it because there is no control of what they do. That was why I said nothing has changed as to what they will do in 2011. If they turn out to do what the people wanted,tat will last for a while. A new president might come and do what Obasanjo did and we go back to the same process. So it is a game of chance and I do not have any hope in a game of chance.

You would have preferred a situation where the National Assembly or the National Judicial Council made the appointments?

That is what I am saying. The NJC is the best suited institution to do the appointments in a manner that it would shore up public confidence. One, members of the NJC, even if they have their choices, would not take part in any election. It is terrible that a president, who may end up contesting in an election, is choosing the people who will conduct the elections. Nigerians in their own gullible nature, have lost sight of the fact that the people who are choosing, may end up disappointing them. There is a possibility that they may disappoint them. Applauding the appointments now is very premature. You cannot applaud anybody for an assignment that has not been done. Applauding the integrity of few members of the commission that have been appointed now, would lead to a loss of right to complain when they decide not to be on the side of the Nigerian people. It is better we treat them now as the president’s men. If they choose to be on the side of the Nigerian people and conduct credible election, we can then decide to applaud them. If they disappoint Nigerians, we will know they have played the same role their predecessors played given the influence of thos who appointed them.

What agenda would you as the APGA National Chairman, set for the INEC chairman, considering that there is nothing anybody could do now about his appointment?

The integrity of a person who is appointed into a public office is actually important. But in terms of political considerations, it is not actually important. One is that if you compare Jega with Iwu, they appear to have common background. One, they are eminent scholars in their own rights. In their choosing fields, they are both professors. They both activism background. When Jega was the National Chairman of ASUU, Iwu was National Vice Chairman and also Chairman of the University of Nigeria Nsukka chapter. So, if both of them worked together under the administration of Ibrahim Babangida and achieved what Nigerians now consider a reference point for Jega,why did Iwu not succeed. The issue is about the intention of the person who appointed them into public office. That is critical. Obasanjo, who appointed Maurice Iwu, hhad evil plans for Nigeria. He had scant regards for democracy and he ensured that he used that to mess Iwu’s record up. That’s what happened. Iwu was fiercely loyal to the Obasanjo government. Because of that grim hold Obasanjo had on him, Iwu was given so many dirty jobs to do. The defence this time around, may apply some restraints in manipulating Jega. He has promised credible elections since he assumed office, but Obasanjo turned his own into a do-or-die affair. So the environment influenced the outcome in 2007. In the present circumstance, Jonathan has promised credible elections and he has gone ahead to appoint a person who Nigerians believe has the requisite integrity, particularly as he served in the Justice Uwais panel. But it doesn’t end there. He has been appointed by a person and Nigerians must not disregard that. That guarantee of complete detachment from the person who appointed him, may not be there. Apart from that, he is not the only one Jonathan has appointed. He has appointed 10 other National Commissioners, who are going to work with him. Those 10 other Commissioners, has anybody bothered to ask about their own background? Yes, we know about Dr. Ismail Igbani, who is a forthright person. I must acknowlege it because I have had reasons to deal with him before. Gen. A B Maman, people have also forgotten that he was a member of the PDP. Though he is a principled person, he was a member of the PDP. The first assignment they gave him was to conduct the governorship primaries of the PDP in Anambra State in 1998. when Prof. A B C Nwosu won the primaries and the national leadership canceled it, he did not take it kindly with them. He fought them. On that regard, I can say he has a measure of integrity. But he is a member of the PDP, which is also important, unless he has resigned his membership. Then Ambassador Anka from Zamfara State, worked under Babangida as a minister. Apart from those, we do not know about the others. We don’t even know those who nominated them. If you put these National Commissioners aside, we have 37 State Electoral Commissioners. Nobody is now asking, who are these people? Who nominated them? Were they nominated by the Governors of their state? If so, what is the hope that we have? The RECs are key actors in the conduct of elections because they conduct elections in their states. The INEC Chairman, who will be in Abuja, will only act as the returning officer in a federal election like Presidential election. He will only act on returns sent to him from the RECs from the states. There is no magic he will do to check what will happen at the states. If these RECs were appointed by the governors, the Federal Government can concede the INEC chairman to the wishes of the Nigerian People and use the RECs to do their business. So Nigerians need to open their eyes wide. The INEC Chairman is the last man in a relay race. What he sees is what he uses to announce results. He is not going to do anything on the field. Because the PDP and the Presidency are working with some strategists, they divert attention with the appointment of Jega. They are not talking of the other people in the states. They choose a very prominent pro-democracy activist, Barr. Mike Iginni and appointed him because Nigerians are used to Iginni condemning bad things on television. His name has been added to give credibility to the list but nobody knows the pedigree of the RECs appointed. They were appointed by Governors. If that is the situation, it only shows that a tree cannot make a forest. Iginni might be sent to Bayelsa that has only seven local government areas. He will prefer to die on duty to make sure nobody changes the results in those eight local government areas. He may even choose to take the result to Abuja personally. He exudes such passion. But by the time he arrives Abuja with his results, the other people would have done the damage with their own results from other states and that would go as the official result. So, nobody is looking deeply into the profile of others. It is better to be cautious and put them under pressure to deliver for Nigerians. I don’t see why somebody should be applauded because he has been given an opportunity to provide service. He will be judged by the quality of service he provide. The content of his character will be part of the judge. It is important to re-emphasize that the electoral reform has not been done. It is not what you achieve with one round of agitation. Britain that has been an established democracy is still talking about electoral reform till today. So, it shows we have not started. What we can do is to charge Jega to ensure that credible election is conducted in Nigeria, so that he will wash off his hand. From that day, he will enter into contract with the Nigerian people. On their swearing in day, the president should charge them to give Nigerians a credible election. By that he would have washed off his hands and they will know that that bis the job they ought to do.

Will the appointment of the INEC officials remove manipulation from the PDP, the largest political party, desperate to hold onto the presidency?

We would have been surer that the people so appointed are more credible if the NJC was saddled with the responsibility of appointing them. The confidence would have been higher because the NJC is also a human institution. But where a person who is thinking of contesting is appointing them, instead of thinking of how to deploy security on the day of election to ensure that the election succeeds. What the government has done is to let people know it has clear intentions. But those of us who are deep participants in the process know that a solution has not been found. Over time, we will go back to the same discussion. Everybody is demanding electoral reform. What we presently have now is not electoral reform. The individual is not the key to the reform, but the process.

But what is your take on the general constitutional amendment. In a few weeks, the state assemblies will return the amended copies sent to them by the National Assembly. What do you think of some of the recommendations in the amendments?

What the National Assembly did was filial things to give you the impression that they were doing something. When we mobilised people to the National Assembly and had public sittings, they were not deaf. They were told in clear terms that the pillar of this reforms was the appointment of the electoral officials by the NJC. Yar’Adua that promised electoral reform, by setting up committees that started the process, suddenly, even when he was very sick defended the power of appointment of those officials by the presidency with the last energy in him; that it is an executive function. The National Assembly was totally impervious to anybody’s view on that issue. It became clear that they knew the advantages they have by retaining that power with the president who is a member of their party, know full well that those so appointed, will play very critical roles in the conduct of elections. They decided to keep that to themselves because agreeing to cede that to the NJC means that the PDP will be exposed to the whims of the electorate, who I can tell you are very angry with the dismal performance of the party. If you allow Nigerians to vote, the PDP will be packing its luggage. That is true. That was why they decided to kill it. As for the state assemblies that they are sending it, the PDP controls 28 states, and they need only 24 of those states to give a final seal to what they have done. I predict that the state assemblies will pass this under 24 hours and return them because it is a family business. The electoral reform is the family business of the PDP and anything that will remove the PDP will not be accepted. I know that there is a way God works on his people. Next year, if these people fail to do the right thing, the agitation for electoral reform will become bloody. It will not be anything that will be left for chance again. It will be bloody and will threaten the existence of the nation and the sustenance of democracy as a system of government here. That is why some of us are not singing the praises of anybody now. The president has made a promise. Maybe, he has good intentions as a person, but the body language does not support that promise. Nothing stops him from sending an amendment bill to the National Assembly that judging from what has happened in this electoral reform, let this people be appointed by the NJC. If he sends it, that is when I will clap for him. History records people who do unusual things, not people who do the normal things. It doesn’t matter the time it will take us, we will wait, even if it means shifting the handover date to October 1st, 2011, so long as we do the right, Nigerians will not mind.

Are you saying the opposition parties will support the shifting of the handover date to October 1st?

With this arrangement put in place by the PDP; the President is a member of the PDP and these policies are driven by the PDP. If the PDP continues to appoint electoral officials for Nigeria, what is the hope of the opposition parties that they can take over in 2011? it is remote. So, if the concession that we will make, so that a neutral organ will appoint electoral officials and we have credible elections, then Nigerians should be better for it if we have to shift handover to October. By then, we would have put the country on a pedestal where we can monitor some lapses that will continue to give impetus for more reforms to take place. But the way we are now, the only thing we know now is that Jonathan has said it is not a do-or-die affair; he is not interested in who will become the president of Nigeria next year. That he wants the votes of Nigerians to count.

But knowing full well that if Nigerians vote the PDP will lose, why has it been difficult for the opposition to pull together and run the PDP. We have heard of Mega Party, alliances and mergers but all have failed. Next year, 59 political parties will go into a fight against the PDP.

People who have made this argument do not understand the point we have continued to make about having a truly independent electoral commission to conduct election. Even if all the political parties come together and become one and face the PDP, the same thing will happen. Even if there are only two parties, the same thing will happen. The only thing that will change that is if the field is level. Right now, the field is not level. What has anybody done in the past when they announce results? You go to the street and protest? They roll out tanks and disperse everybody. Over time, everything will end. I attended one of the sessions of the Mega Party Movement and I told them that we were putting the cart before the horse. Let us fight for electoral reform first. If we get the electoral reform, the appointment of the people is left for the NJC, you can now come together and pull your resources together to fight the PDP. Then, you will have a better platform to fight. The Mega Party that was said to be registered, all the opposition parties, not one of them made contributions on the selection of these people who will conduct elections. It is still a one way traffic. That is not to say that we will surrender. Why we have continued to march on and persist that the right things be done is that over time, people who are opposed to change will get to an elastic limit, where they can no longer hold on and they will cave in. we need people to continue to point out that these things are not working well. It will get to a point where Nigerian people will revolt and say they are tired of all these things. That it is either we do it right or forget it. If we cannot get reform by merely demanding it, we will get it by fighting. There may be sacrifices, there will be martyrs and there may be bloodshed but we will get it at the end of the day. People who enjoy the status quo, will never yield to change. You will force them to accept it. The Nigerian people that I know, if they get a raw deal in 2011, will stop talking about opposition parties and treat the issue as a national emergency before we can get the reform. The Nigerian Labour Congress that is in a position to partner with the opposition parties, did not do its work. The NLC gave the Federal Government an ultimatum to sack Iwu or they will stop going to work. They were chasing shadow, an individual, who was a victim of the process that brought him out. That NLC should have told the National Assembly that if you people cannot change the process and allow the NJC appoint these officials, we will stop going to work. That is the type of stalemate that can bring that type of reform. Because they didn’t do it, the problem is still persisting. The organised labour should partner with the people in a way that the government will understand that if they did not yield to the Nigerian people, government will collapse.

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