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Smearing The Electoral Umpire

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Immediately after polls close on February 16, 2019 – the 72 hours that follow, or however long it will take to collate the results – will be the most crucial in the months-long process to elect a new president. And for the two leading candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, those moments will be one of their most tensed, with every passing minute seeming like eternity. Without prejudice to the remaining presidential candidates, one of these two candidates will likely emerge winner of the election. 

For that short period of time after polls close, Amina Zakari, a national commissioner at the Independent National Electoral Commission, will be in charge of logistics at the venue for the collation of results. That will definitely be a huge task for her. But it is one that the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) feels she shouldn’t be placed in over her alleged family ties with President Buhari, the APC candidate. The task placed on her by the chairman of the electoral body, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, has become a bone of contention between the leading politicalparties. And the response of the opposition almost suggests that she is all that stands between them and victory in February. But how much harm can Amina Zakari really do?

Only four years ago, logistics at the collation center and those behind it proved to be the deciding factor in the turnout of the election. To be more specific, it was the security attached to the then INEC chairman Attahiru Jega, that thwarted moves by Peter Orubebe, who was an agent of the PDP, to disrupt the announcement of the election results. While no one involved in the incident has publicly acknowledged what transpired in those critical hours, it is still widely known that the then Inspector General of Police, Suleiman Abba, was central to thwarting Orubebe and his party’s plans.

The relevant question as it relates to the upcoming 2019 presidential election is whether the IGP, as a political appointee, betrayed a President Goodluck Jonathan and was he right in refusing to partake in attempts to break the law? Even more significant is whether political appointees, for all practical purposes, have any real independence from the wishes and orders of the president?

INEC is a particularly sensitive institution and a seat at the commission demands a very high degree of independence from the appointing authority who is often a participant in the electoral process. That raises questions on whether the constitutional responsibility to appoint officials to INEC should reside with the president, knowing he will only appoint people he trusts. And if the responsibility to appoint INEC commissioners was not the president’s, will it guarantee the absence of bias?

The need for independence of electoral commissioners has been amplified by the allegedfamily ties between the president and Amina Zakari. The allegation by the PDP is that she is Buhari’s niece. And their demand is that Prof. Yakubu immediately reverse course and remove her from heading the committee at the collation center.

For the PDP, putting Zakari in charge of the collation center is nothing less than a declaration of intent by the ruling APC to rig the 2019 election. The only problem is that the party is making demands based on a false premise. As it has been confirmed by all parties involved, Amina Zakari is not Buhari’s niece. By any definition of the word, she is not Buhari. At the very most, your spouse’s niece is also your niece. That is not the case here. It would have given more credence to the opposition’s demand if they had been more truthful about the nature of the relationship between Zakari and Buhari. To have the chairman of INEC take such a drastic step like sidelining a national commissioner, the PDP has to make a better case. They had previously demanded her dismissal based on the same falsehood that she is Buhari’s niece.

The party is now spreading information that Zakari was appointed to the commission by President Goodluck Jonathan back in 2010 on the recommendation of Buhari. This is not an argument that holds water. Jonathan should have said so then if it was truly about transparency in the electoral system. And unless the information comes directly from the horse’s mouth, it can’t be taken seriously. Buhari himself has denied it. Beyond the fact that she was appointed by a PDP government, she also served as an assistant to a PDP president. Then all of a sudden, Zakari is the biggest threat to the PDP and supposedly stands in the way of the party’s victory at the February elections.

Zakari’s presence at INEC first sparked outrage when Buhari appointed her as acting chairman of the commission back in 2015. Before that time, no one cared who she was or who she shared blood with. More and more, the PDP hinges its arguments on conspiracy theories and on a wide range of topics, which are mostly lacking in facts. The issues in contention also change on a daily basis. The inconsistency in messaging and the inability of the opposition to stay focused on any particular topic makes it impossible to take their allegations seriously.

The PDP has also expressed a lack of confidence in the chairman of the commission, even going as far as suggesting he was working hand-in-hand with the ruling party. It is not logical for the opposition to keep attacking the electoral umpire for seemingly trivial reasons, particularly when no laws have been broken and no process compromised, unless theygenuinely believe they have already lost the election and are looking to disrupt the process.

What it appears like is that Zakari is not the target of the PDP. The real intention, it seems, is to discredit the entire commission and make the public lose faith in the electoral process before voting day. The moment Amina Zakari is replaced or Yakubu backtracks in entrusting her with organizing the collation center, the PDP would have achieved its goal in undermining the electoral process. Every suspicion they have harbored, every allegation made, will take on a new significance. Zakari is after all only one of several commissioners. And since she cannot work in isolation, it only shows she is a symbol and the PDP is picking on her to discredit the entire electoral institution. It is possible that all of this is not the intention of the opposition. But it is what their strategy is leading towards.

The strategy is basically like shooting yourself in the foot. Who is going to go out and vote when the PDP has made the electorate believe that their votes won’t count and that Amina Zakari will only end up manipulating the results. Just for having close ties with the president, the opposition has labeled her asuntrustworthy, ignoring her many years of service that have so far been without blemish.

The facts that have been lost in all of the controversy surrounding her appointment to the collation committee of the presidential election is that she has no powers under the constitution or the electoral act to make an independent declaration of the results. The law only recognizes the commission’s chairman as the chief returning officer of the presidential election. The chairman has also been categorical that he doesn’t intend to share that responsibility with anyone.

Even at that, the commission’s chairman also has limited authority when it comes to declared results by a returning officer at the state level. By law, there is no winner until he declares the results. But in reality the results will be known before he does that because they would have been declared by the returning officers in the 36 states and Yakubu cannot change what each of the returning officers declares.

Long gone are the days when a President Olusegun Obasanjo will insist that INEC declare the presidential election in favour of his chosen candidate when the collation of the results is yet to be concluded. Going back to those days is not an option.

– Shuaibu, who writes from Abuja, was a former Editor of LEADERSHIP

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