Friday, December 05, 2008

A medal for Maurice Iwu?

IT used to be said that Nigerian politicians speak first and then think later. Everything Vice President Goodluck Jonathan said about the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Maurice Iwu, last Sunday in Okigwe exemplified the garrulous character of our political leaders. On Sunday last week, Jonathan attended a thanksgiving church service and ceremony which were organised to venerate Iwu, in Okigwe, Imo State. Despite public condemnations that trailed the irregularities that marred the 2007 elections conducted by INEC under Iwu's leadership, it's hard to believe that some people would still find something to crow about Iwu, a man whose name symbolises electoral catastrophe.

What was remarkable about last Sunday's event was not the presence of Jonathan and other prominent people but what Jonathan said about Iwu and the immaculate manner in which the man conducted the 2007 general elections. Those comments, tactless and awful as they were, constitute the subject of this analysis. As a measure of the level of contempt the government holds for everyone who condemned the massive and open rigging of the 2007 elections, Jonathan said the federal government would not be moved by such criticisms. Of course, the government has no regard for public opinion.

Politicians who benefit from elections manipulated to favour the party in government would never admit that there were flaws in the elections. From Olusegun Obasanjo to Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, from Goodluck Jonathan to Maurice Iwu, from Ahmadu Ali (former chairman of the People's Democratic Party -- PDP) to Vincent Ogbulafor (current PDP chairman), the deceptive catchphrase used to validate the invalid 2007 elections is that no election is perfect anywhere in the world. That reckless statement makes electoral fraud seem like an acceptable part of our political culture.

When politicians talk about imperfect elections, they forget to make reference to the degree of imperfection. There were so many irregularities in the 2007 elections that it would be irresponsible to accept the outcomes as normal features of imperfect elections. The blemishes that undermine our electoral processes include audacious hijacking of ballot boxes, criminal manipulation of election results in favour of candidates from a certain political party, election eve stuffing of ballot boxes with illegal ballot papers, denial of voters' rights and privileges through such acts as deliberate late opening of voting centres, absence of authentic voters' registers and deliberate provision of insufficient ballot papers.

When elections are conducted in more organised societies, the citizens go to the polling centres to fulfil their civic obligations in an atmosphere devoid of intimidation and threats to life and property. When we conduct our own elections, the atmosphere is charged with destructive emotion. We hear nothing but war chants signifying do-or-die politics. Certain candidates are marked out for elimination -- a codeword for assassination -- while others openly violate the rules and get away untouched. It is in this environment that some voters approach ballot centres armed with guns and machetes, amulets and other personal protective devices such as turtles, lizards, snakes, monkeys and butterflies.

It is ironic that Vice President Jonathan would suggest that Maurice Iwu should be knighted for the way he (Iwu) conducted last year's elections. How could anyone who witnessed the fraud that passed off as national elections in 2007 recommend a medal for the chief umpire of those elections? On reflection, it is easy to understand why Jonathan praised Iwu last Sunday. The electoral indiscretions committed by INEC in concert with PDP thugs were responsible for the "landslide" victories registered by the PDP in many constituencies across the country.

Unfortunately, Jonathan's assessment of last year's elections is at odds with the facts. Across the country, election petitions' tribunals and appeal courts have been overturning the results of the elections. Most recently in Edo State, the appeal court ruled that the government of Oserheimen Osunbor was illegally hoisted on the people of the state. Consequently, the court ordered the Osunbor government to make way for the enthronement of Adams Oshiomhole, the rightful winner of the governorship election. What this and other judgments exposed was the criminal involvement of INEC in the massive fraud that marred the 2007 elections and subsequently destroyed public confidence in INEC as an impartial election umpire. When Jonathan said that the umpires of the 2007 elections should be lauded because they endured the hardships of the elections in the interest of the nation's democracy, he seemed to under-estimate the intellectual capacity of Nigerians to understand when election umpires have swindled an entire nation. The main reason why Jonathan wants us to extol Iwu in spite of the man's shambolic performance in the 2007 elections is that Jonathan and the PDP are direct beneficiaries of an unsound and massively rigged election.

Jonathan also exposed his shameless role as an apologist for Iwu when he said: "The assignment of overseeing the conduct of election by INEC is quite a challenging one. If you look at the whole of the country, there are 36 states, except Abuja where elections are conducted by the body headed by one man." Of course, elections are always challenging. Of course, Maurice Iwu understood the challenges involved in conducting national elections. Of course, he knew there were 36 states in Nigeria. Of course, he was appointed well in advance of the elections. Of course, he weighed his options carefully and accepted his appointment. Finally of course, the job was not forced on Iwu.

The number of states in Nigeria has never been raised by any election officer (past or present) as a major reason why free and fair elections continue to elude us. Iwu has never mentioned publicly that the number of states in the country was the main reason why the 2007 elections were riddled with discrepancies. Some countries have more people and more voting centres and more states than Nigeria and yet are able to conduct relatively freer and fairer elections.

If anyone is still in doubt about the widespread irregularities that tarnished the credibility of the elections, the report submitted by the European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission should serve as a sad reminder. According to Max van den Berg, the EU chief observer: "We feel extremely disappointed that things were worse in 2007 than they were in 2003... Our report contains two clear messages. First, that the 2007 election process was not credible and, in view of the lack of transparency and evidence of fraud, there can be no confidence in the results. Second, that an urgent and comprehensive reform is required to improve the framework and conduct of future elections."

In a more emphatic tone, van den Berg said: "The elections were marred by very poor organisation; lack of essential transparency; widespread and procedural irregularities; substantial evidence of fraud; widespread voter disenfranchisement; lack of equal conditions for political parties and candidates; and numerous incidents of violence." The report of the EU team must have been rubbished by the federal government and the PDP hierarchy because it represented a direct indictment of the election results. There are two more reasons why the federal government would have rejected election reports submitted by foreign election observer teams. The first reason is based on national pride. We are often told that foreign election observers have no divine rights to teach the Nigerian government how to conduct free and fair elections. The second reason is based on the notion that foreign countries which do not invite Nigerians to observe elections in their countries should not expect Nigeria to invite them when we conduct our own elections.

Of all the provocative remarks that Jonathan made in Okigwe last Sunday, none was more ludicrous and infantile than his point that Maurice Iwu should be praised because he made unspecified sacrifices that resulted in a successful changeover from one civilian government to another. We've heard this argument before. Olusegun Obasanjo and other PDP fanatics said so before now. But, there is still no basis for anyone to canvass national honour of any kind for Iwu.

To be sure, it was not Iwu who made possible the successful switch from one civilian government to another. The changeover would have occurred without Iwu. The successful changeover occurred essentially because voters chose to accept the electoral abuses committed by INEC rather than fight for their rights. To attribute to Iwu the successful transition of power from one government to another is to cast further insults on voters who had watched as INEC engaged in manipulation of election results to suit INEC's preferred candidates