Jega: The Conquest of Cynicism

Dan Agbese


By Dan Agbese  |

PROFESSOR Attahiru Jega now wears a new social tag as, in former chairman of INEC. In the days and weeks to come, relief would continue to wash over him. I am sure he would pinch himself, wondering how he survived in the nation’s most dangerous waters. The piranhas tried hard but failed to sink their teeth into him. Few men in that job had faced greater and more insidious challenges than Jega. It was a turbulent tenure. But the man left the commission with grace – and on his own terms, i.e. not to seek the renewal of his tenure.

Jega has every reason to hold his head high. He came and he saw and he conquered what had defeated many men before him. He is the only one so far among the long line of chairmen from Chief Michael Ani in 1978/79 and a host of professors in between, to leave the job without seeing his integrity looking like a piece of rag.

I hope Jega would take some rest and then write a book on his experience in the commission reputed for killing reputations. We would like to hear about the contrived controversy about the e-reader and how he withstood the pressures especially in the last extra six weeks that Jonathan believed he needed to win the presidential election; the pressure on his family; the fears of his family, his relations and friends of his personal safety. His book would be a best seller. I offer to market it.

Jega has earned his pips and deserves to be celebrated as one of our authentic heroes. Even his worst detractors would admit that he has a) changed the face of our electoral system; b) raised the bar in the conduct of our elections c) shown that the conduct of free, fair, credible and transparent elections are not anathema to our democratic process or beyond Nigerians and d) demonstrated that one man with unimpeachable integrity and courage can make a crowd. His commissioners trusted him and gave him full and unqualified support. It encouraged him to take on the high and the mighty in the presidency, the security agencies, the political parties and assorted characters on our political stage.

I pity his successors. They will walk in his shadows for a long time to come.

In the first few months of his assumption of office, we invited Jega to the then high profile personality interview, the Newswatch Summit. In those early days, he showed some diffidence in his approach to the many problems in the commission that had sunk many a chairman. It seemed to me that he was torn between an intellectual approach and the street-smart approach, the latter a paean to realpolitik Nigeriana.

There was something he did not reckon with – his job was not simply to devise whatever means he considered necessary and legal to help him conduct fair, free and credible elections but to also satisfy vested financial interests. He did not know that the commission had become a feeding trough for the presidency, the national assembly and the security agencies, the politicians and their business compradors, among many others. This was a major part of its problems and its past failures under chairmen who mixed their metaphor about money and service.

The budget of the commission, Jega soon realised and spoke candidly about it to us, had to take care of these interests in order not to impede the work of the commission. In effect, the jumbo budgets of the commission were less jumbo than you might have thought.

However, even that early in his tenure, he showed his one obsession: his tenure would be a watershed between the past and the present. He was determined to show that Nigerians could conduct free, fair and credible elections. No foreigners needed; no babalawo needed. You could hear it in his voice and you could feel it in his moderated exuberance. It was not Eureka, however. The 2011 general elections, the first he conducted, nearly took him down the path to INEC Golgotha.

Jega proved his mettle in the 2015 general elections, the best so far after the June 12, 1993, presidential election. Few people knew the troubles he went through; the odds he had to scale and the nay-sayers he had to defy paddling through the murky waters and arriving at the shore.

He briefed our media forum in Abuja on July 1 last year on his preparations for this year’s elections. Jega knew as much as anyone else, that he had become everyone’s whipping boy. The politicians were after him and the press was generally unsupportive. For a little over two hours, he spoke passionately about what he was doing so “we can get it right this time.” He toyed with even using ballot papers of a different colour at each polling booth.

In the end, what clinched it for him was the e-card reader. It also turned out to be the last ditch battle between him and the politicians. Jega won. The card reader did not eliminate rigging (no one expected that much in its first outing) but it proved a formidable barrier against vote distribution among the political parties. And the votes of the people counted. The card reader has become the guardian of our electoral system and Jega’s single most important legacy in the commission.

At end of his briefing at our forum, I wrote him a short email message. I wrote: “I found the meticulous briefing most illuminating. I dare say you have been a victim of a generally poor press. Not entirely the fault of the press or yours. I locate the fault in a) the public scepticism that attends all efforts, such as yours, by a few individuals, such as you, to make our country proud of its own and b) the inherent laziness in much of the press that blinds it to honest efforts by some individuals to make an honest difference. I am sure you cannot be on the roof top crowing but I am sure if more people know truly how far you have gone to clean up and sanitize the admittedly rotten system you inherited, they would be more appreciative of your determination against all odds to live up to your well earned reputation as a man of integrity. What is more, they would be more sympathetic as you navigate the piranha waters of our national politics. You need to strike a good balance between a possible reluctance on your part to hug the limelight and the need to keep the public fully informed.”

I went on to express my sincere hope that by the end of his tenure he “…. would have succeeded where others failed.”

The rest, as they say, is now history.

—  Jul 20, 2015 @ 01:00 GMT


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