A report that some University teachers who served as returning officers were fingered as accessories after the fact of some rigging in 2019 election is very embarrassing and tragic. Alas, if university dons and administrators can't be relied upon to deliver free and fair elections, who else can be trusted, in the circumstances?
One of the strategies, which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) adopted under Professor Attahiru Jega as chairman to guarantee the integrity of the electoral process was the deployment of academics as election officials.
Under this arrangement Vice Chancellors functioned as Returning Officers while other academics played roles in the States. INEC has continued to maintain the policy because of its salutary effects on the electoral process. The raison d'etre was that, as men and women of the Ivory Tower, they would, like Caesar's wife, be above board and join the crusade of ensuring free and fair elections in Nigeria.
Sadly, to some degree, that faith appears to be misplaced. The ubiquitous Nigerian politicians were said to have penetrated some academics and severely compromised them in some states in the last elections. Why and how did some academics descend to such depths of ignominy?
No less a person than Professor Jega (who institutionalised the deal) recently expressed disappointment with university lecturers for "allegedly conniving with politicians to undermine the integrity and outcome of this year's general elections.' He revealed the sordid development while talking about the 2019 elections and university teachers at an event in Bayero University where he was a vice chancellor and still teaches.
If it is true that academics, entrusted with such a sensitive assignment because of their professional calling degenerated into fraudulent practices then the nation is in serious crisis. 'If gold rusts', asks the poet Geoffrey Chaucer 'what then will iron do?' The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) should also look into these allegations and offer guidelines to its members who are invited to preside over election matters.
Elections in Nigeria are like war. Preparation strategies are multiple and scary. They include sourcing for humungous amounts of cash for nefarious reasons, recruiting thugs with the capacity to maim and kill, compromising potential gatekeepers, courting security men and intimidating opponents. Often, politicians make nonsense of the electoral process by buying voters and manipulating election results. They keep in their arsenal what they refer to as 'sokoto' or 'periwinkle' votes by which they mean areas from which the elections can be massively rigged and return fake results. They do not campaign on the basis of achievements or new approaches to winning elections. This is sad and a danger to the spirit of democracy. How come the men and women entrusted with entrenching democracy in the land have become the saboteurs of the ideal? It is a tragedy.
It was against this background that INEC institutionalized the participation of men of the Ivory Tower in electioneering. But beyond using professionals as a check, it is our considered view that the hood does not make the monk. It is true that the Vice Chancellors at the peak of the university idea are expected to be the acme of morality and sound ethical judgment. Their signatures authenticate the certificates awarded to university graduates as men 'of learning and character.' Yet not all academics are men of honour and character, these days. There are despicable and malleable ones among them just as we find in all professions. Besides, these are part of the consequences of some deplorable ways some university vice chancellors get appointed. Once a university chief executive compromises his way to office, he too can be compromised by desperate politicians.
Besides, some of them are highly partisan, having been involved with party affairs. Character was a fundamental to inter-personal and inter-communal relations in most African societies. Citizens were advised not to 'leave their character at home' each time they went out.
It therefore behoves INEC to base appointments of Nigerians on character and integrity. We live in a country where premium is not paid on honesty and a firm commitment to truth. Also, crime does not often receive commensurate punishment. For instance, after the 2015 elections, the Resident Electoral Officer in Kano died with his entire family in a mysterious fire outbreak in his house. Till date no one has been brought to book for arson. Also, in the last elections in Rivers State, a don, Dr. Ferry Gberegbe, an electoral officer in the elections was allegedly shot dead by soldiers. Nobody has been prosecuted for that dastardly act. These experiences make it difficult for operatives to stick out their necks on points of principle.
As a result we are not surprised that academics in some states allegedly danced to the tune of politicians. Politicians are the real problem with elections. As long as politicians have access to idle cash running into billions, officials will be highly susceptible to being compromised. Some academics who served as umpires vowed never to participate next time. The threat of violence was palpable. The professor who served in Imo State as Returning Officer in this 2019 election reportedly complained loudly that he was compelled at gun point to announce false results in the senatorial election. If citizens feel vulnerable in times of desperation they are more likely to toe the path of safety - by compromising.
INEC has four years to prepare for the next general elections. The time to start headhunting credible individuals to conduct the elections as officials is now. INEC should appoint men of integrity from all professions to conduct elections. Defaulters should be punished according to extant laws. If Professor Jega has specific examples where there was collusion to subvert the will of the people he should avail the authorities with evidence to serve as a deterrent to others. It is ridiculous and condescending for an academic to tell the REC that he is willing to do anything the REC wants with election results. Academics should remember that their reputation is at stake. Integrity counts and this is the time for integrity to stand tall in our determination to build a just society. The president should sign the Electoral Reform Act as soon as possible to provide a legal framework for implementation of a wide range of options for the electoral body.