This man gets to decide if Africa’s biggest election will run smoothly or ends in recriminations

The Umpire
The Umpire
Image: AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga
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As nearly 70 million Nigerians go to vote in the presidential elections tomorrow all the focus will rightly be on the conduct of the two main rivals president Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the challenger General Muhammadu Buhari of All Progressives Congress (APC)

But this election season nearly as many people will be watching professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, the beleaguered chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

With a democratic system in just its 15th year since military rule ended, the job of electoral chief in Nigeria is always a difficult one. It is more so this time with a closely fought battle between the two leading contenders. For the first time in Nigeria’s political history an incumbent could lose to a challenger.

The world outside Nigeria really became aware of Jega on February 7, when, under pressure from the security services, he delayed the hotly anticipated February 14 elections for 6 weeks to allow time to combat Boko Haram insurgents. Given many feel Buhari’s APC had gained strong momentum to win back at the time, it has become an uphill task for Jega to convince Nigerians he isn’t under the influence of the president, the man who appointed him in the first place.

In Nigeria, the constitution says the nomination of this highly sensitive role be made by the president.  This means whoever is chairman of INEC will always be vulnerable to accusations of bias in favor of the ‘boss’ who appointed them.

Jega, a political science professor from northern Nigeria, was appointed four years ago. His term ends soon after the new president is expected to be sworn in this May. Long regarded as a competent and humble scholar, many in the usually combative Nigerian establishment believed he was the right person for the position at the start.

They don’t seem to think so now.

Quietly Efficient

In 2011, Jega was new and wanted to prove a point, especially after the disaster of his predecessor, Prof. Maurice Iwu, who was relieved of the position. Jega wasn’t the issue. The politicians were. He made less noise and went about his duties. Voters turned out in their thousands and chose President Jonathan. Buhari, his main opponent at the time had no choice because of the overwhelming emotional support for Jonathan who succeeded the late President Yar’adua. Jega was heralded as doing a good job. The atmosphere favoured him. Elections were thought to be transparent, even though that didn’t stop Buhari from contesting the result in court..

Fast forward to 2015. The tide has changed. Jonathan’s ratings have plummeted. The euphoria has long since dissipated. Buhari is enjoying all the positive sentiments. This has made it rather awkward for Jega, caught between the devil and the blue sea.

Even those who don’t doubt Jega’s integrity question whether he’s street-wise enough to navigate the demands of political parties. He has shown he does. It was always going to be a thankless job, and he needed to be decisive at all times.

Jega admitted some mistakes after the 2011 elections and promised 2015 would be better set up. For him, it was always going to be about conducting credible elections. He had big plans, and a massive budget was made available to back him up. He introduced extra 30,000 polling units, Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) and Card Reader. These led to controversies, prompting the two main political parties to take sides. Jega was never going to satisfy either side.

The ruling PDP party has called for his sack, while the APC party was dead against it. Jega became the issue that made front page news. Rumors were rife that he was going to get the sack; I didn’t think it would happen, and it hasn’t. Especially when the president had announced March 28th was sacrosanct.

PDP supporters believe he is in bed with Buhari, a fellow northerner, against President Jonathan who is from the south. This has enraged PDP supporters. APC supporters aren’t completely sure of him either. They believe his allegiance would always be to President Jonathan who nominated him.

While there’s no evidence of that, it will always be difficult for whoever holds this job to change that perception.