Past electoral umpires: How will history judge them?

2011-04-09
THE NATION Newspaper- Emmanuel Oladesu

Nigeria has produced 11 chairmen of electoral commission at the centre. Many of them were electoral vampires, judging by their records of performance as chief umpires. Although they are men of note who reached the zenith of their careers before assuming the reins at the national headquarters.

The umpires are the pioneer electoral officer, E.E.Esua, 196; Michael Ani, Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO), 1978; Ovie Whiskey, 1983; Eme Awa, National Electoral Commission (NEC), 1988; Humphrey Nwosu, 1989; Okon Uya, 1993; Dagogo Jack, 1984; Ephraim Akpata, 1999; Abel Guobadia, 2000; Maurice Iwu, 2005 and Attahiru Jega, 2010.

Two of them: Whiskey and Akpata are jurists. Another three: Esua, Ani and Jack were top civil servants. Awa, Uya, Guobadia, Iwu and Jega made their marks in the academic.


E. E. Esua:

For decades, Esua, the quintessential unionist in the education sector, made his mark as an astute administrator. He was reputed for hard work, commitment and discipline. In the teachers circle, he is still adored as a role model. He was the indefatigable Secretary-General of Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) and right hand man of the early education statesmen, including Rev. Israel Oludotun Ransom-Kuti, Dr Alvan Ikoku and Archdeacon J.O.Lucas.

However, historians have described him as a man of limited electoral experience. The challenge of the office overwhelmed him. It appeared that the experience he garnered as the NUT scribe proved insufficient for him to navigate the difficult electoral ship of state.

The 1964 federal election which Esua conducted was a disaster. in the fierce battle for power were regionally inclined party coordinated by regional leaders; some of who fuelled embers of religion and ethnicity. In the days of hot regional politics, the electoral agency operated within the armpit of the power that be. This raised serious questions about its neutrality and independence.

Ultimately,barely four years after the departure of the colonial masters, serious doubts were expressed about the capacity of the early leaders to manage effectively the post-independence challenge of change of government through the ballot box.

The major parties in the race were Action Group(AG), led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was serving a 10-year jail-term, Northern Peoples Congress (NPC), led by the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, and National Council of Nigerian citizens (NCNC), led by Dr. Michael Okpara.

It was clear that none of the three parties could single-handedly command majority in the Parliament. NPC was formerly in alliance with the NCNC, but it found a new partner in Ladoke Akintola’s Nigeria National Democratic Party (NNDP), which was bent on uprooting AG from Western Region, its stronghold. The United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), comprising AG, NCNC and other smaller parties vowed to resist the onslaught at the federal parliamentary elections. Although the alliance was more popular, NNDP carried the day and Akintola entered the State House through the back door.

People waited till 1965 regional elections to vent their anger on Akintola Government. Challenging him to a duel was Dauda Adegbenro, an Egba politician, who was AG leader. Under the parliamentary system, he wanted to displace Akintola as Premier and the odds favoured his party. When the poll was rigged in favour of NNDP, hell was let loose.

The region was in turmoil. Smokes billowed in cities and towns; from Mushin to Ado-Ekiti, from Ibadan to Okitipupa, from Ilesa to Akokoland. When a post-mortem was conducted on the dead dispensation, it was discovered that rigging was the precursor to trouble.

In the areas where UPGA was popular, there was shortage of materials. Police was used to harass and hound opposition into detention. Many credible opposition figures had to flee their homes. Election results were falsified and bitterness was engendered. Akintola gained notoriety as the symbol of perfidy and the masses moved against him. In the days of Esua, there was no electoral sanity and the covetous military men capitalised on the uproar to enthrone their illegal government.


Michael Ani:

In the First Republic, the Westminster model had collapsed and Michael Ani, who emerged as the Chairman of Federal Electoral Commission in 1978, had a brief to conduct elections under the presidential system. The octopus electoral agency succeeded in confronting the voters with its rigging magic. It was not a tribute to his illustrious career as a highly respected technocrat.

Before he took the appointment, Ani was a federal Permanent Secretary. His assignment was to act as referee for five formidable political parties on the track, namely the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), led by Chief Adisa Akinloye, Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) led by Awo, Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) led by Zik, Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) led by Aminu Kano and Great Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP) led by Waziri Ibrahim.

The presidential candidates were giants of history. Shehu Shagari of NPN was a federal parliamentarian and minister in the First Republic, state and federal commissioner under military regime and member of the Constituent Assembly. He was a colleague of Ibrahim, Minister of Health under Balewa Government.

Aminu Kano, leader of Talakawas, was a member of House of Representatives, he was also a federal commissioner under Gowon Administration, like Shagari and Awo, first Premier of Western Region and later, Leader of Opposition in Federal Parliament. Zik, his counterpart in Eastern Region, had served as ceremonial President of Nigeria.

The state elections were conducted without much stress. But the Head of State, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, had set the tone for the presidential poll when he declared that the best presidential material would not win the race. The 12 two third saga which the outcome of the election generated was judicially resolved. But the controversy lingered till the demise of the Second Republic.

Ani served his term fully, but the controversy dented his hard- earned image as an umpire.


Ovie Whiskey:

An eminent jurist, Whiskey rode to office on the back of an unblemished record as the chief judge of Bendel State. He succeeded Ani, the great technocrat. But he later built on the rot left behind by his predecessor. NPN leaders had indicated their desires to win the 1983 elections by landslide and the onus was on FEDECO to make it happen. Soon, State Electoral Commissioners started to dance to the tune of the ruling party at the centre. On poll day, voters in Ondo, Oyo, Anambra, Bornu and Kaduna States were jolted from their delusions about free and fair elections. The electoral commission was heavily bribed by the ruling party. In concert with the police, results were falsified and winners became losers.

In Ondo State, Akin Omoboriowo of NPN was suddenly declared winner of the governorship election, instead of Adekunle Ajasin, who won the election. In Oyo State, Bola Ige was dealt a terrible blow by FEDECO, which pronounced Omololu Olunloyo the victor. Reminiscent of the explosion in the Old West, people took to the streets in violent protest, which claimed the lives of UPN defectors to NPN, including Olaiya Fagbamigbe, a staunch Awoist and frontline publisher, Tunde Agunbiade, member of House of Assembly and Agbayewa of Akure, educationist and a leader of NPN. In flames was the FEDECO Office in Akure and houses of NPN stalwart. Ajasin was later restored to his office by the Supreme Court.

By 1983, many Nigerians had lost confidence in FEDECO and Whiskey. But there were indications that he would have completed his tenure, if the military did not sack the civilian regime. The reputation of many electoral officers was dented and it has affected that social image in the public.


Eme Awa:

Awa was a seasoned political scientist who knew his onions. But he was asked to preside over the electoral commission during the administration of Military President Ibrahim babangida, a great dribbler. When he was appointed, many scholars in the land hailed the choice of the University of Nigeria (UNN) Professor of Political Science. He was perceived as a man of integrity and a refined gentleman. He lived to expectation.

The lot to conduct the zero-party elections for local governments fell on him, the grassroots polls were largely free and fair. What was tested at the election was the worth of independent candidacy. But it was the beginning of dubious political experimentation and manipulation by Babangida., who played on the intelligence of Nigerians. Awa was already an old man and he wanted to make history when he held fort as electoral chief. He tried to frustrate IBB’s attempt to toy with the process by refusing to cooperate with the President when his suggestions were at variance with the process.

His removal was sudden. Many felt that he was shoved aside because he insisted on the path of honour. Outside office, the former electoral commission chairman kept sealed lips. He said if he opened his mouth, Nigeria would be on fire. He passed on at 71 without releasing his memoir detailing his tenure as electoral helmsman.


Humphrey Nwosu:

He was the academic disciple of Prof. Awa, who was brilliant like his teacher. He became the chairman of the electoral body at a more challenging period. The Maradona had started showing signs of reluctance to leave Aso Rock. He became a terror to the old political warhorse, banning and unbanning them at will, hounding them into detention and inciting old brigade against the new breed he had created in his own image. Nwosu was not unaware of this lip service to the handover programme.

But, he endowed the office with visibility and vigour. He enlivened the atmosphere with his hilarious defense of the elongated, multiple experimentation by the military leader. The first blunder he committed was the fusing of political associations formed by politicians of various shades and colours into two seeminly ideological parties-social Democratic Party (SDP)and National Republican Convention (NRC), which aptly captured the expression of a little to the right and a little to the left.

The two platforms lacked democratic credential. Scholars who hailed their existence, nevertheless, opined that two party system was ideal because the picture of previous alliances in previous dispensations recommended the model. But others contended that the two parties were imposed and their manifesto were fashioned out by the military.

However, the newbreed lacked the experience needed for political scrutiny. They embraced the two parties without grudges, either to scorn at the old brigade or convey the impression of readiness to be co-travelers with the military regime to doom. By the time the ban imposed on the old breed was lifted, the scramble for the political space intensified between the two blocs.

Old politicians and human rights activists did not repose confidence in Nwosu, who was perceived as a stooge in the hand of IBB. The electoral agency, which was often tele-guided by the military President, shifted the election time-table more than twice. A difficult and lengthy electoral procedure, Option A4 was introduced for the selection of candidates. But the politicians, who were determined in their mission to halt the military regime, passed the acid test.

Contrary to expectation, Nwosu was working assiduously to write his name in the letters of gold. Against all odds, he conducted the freest, fairest and credible presidential elections in the country. Throughout the country, the exercise was peaceful. Up to now, the 1993 presidential elections won by the SDP candidate, the late chief Moshood Abiola, is a model election and a reference point. It was annulled by IBB without justification. It was his greatest foul play.

To Nigerians, the cancellation of the election results amounted to deprivation, unwarranted banishment of solid politico-human rights and flagrant seizure of a nation’s collective passport to make a genuine flight to the horizon of democracy and progress. The cruel act signaled renewed hostility to the boring military regime and discredited the image of the former President.

The results were on air when the midwife, IBB halted further announcement. Nwosu, it was said, was summoned to the office of a top military officer and physically assaulted. He did not return to his office as NEC chair. For 14 years, he kept mum. But when he eventually opened up, the book he wrote told a glaring lie against his tenure and his person.


Okon Uya:

Nwosu was replaced by the eminent professor of History, Uya. He had a curious mandate to conduct another election within three months. Uya, it was said, had written a policy paper for IBB on the Egyptian model of political succession. In the Arab country, the military had emerged as a durable and formidable power bloc. After a long stay in power, military commanders who welded political authority transmuted into civilian leaders by conducting elections with pre-determined results.

But the annulment had robbed IBB of honour and integrity. At the height of his military glory, he had become a shadow of his former dreadful self because he failed to quit when the ovation was loudest. In shame, he embraced the only plausible option. IBB ‘stepped aside’ without resolving the controversy he created and the pains he unleashed. As he handed over to an interim contraception headed by the boardroom politician, Chief Ernest Shonekan, the tenure of Uya also came to an end. He was the only umpire who did not conduct any election.


Dagogo-Jack:

A former Deputy Governor of Rivers State, Dagogo-Jack was appointed by the Military Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, who sacked the inept Shonekan Interim Government. His agency was named National Electoral Commission (NECON). Five parties were formed and Abacha hijacked them. The late Chief Ige described them aptly as five fingers of a leprous hand. The parties endorsed the Head of State for the civilian presidency. But Dagogo-Jack’s ability could not be put to test as Abacha died mysteriously before the presidential elections.


Ephraim Akpata:

A highly celebrated jurist, Akpata was appointed by Abdulsalami Abubakar Administration in 1998. It was a hurried transition process. The military refused to directly interfere in the programme. Three parties-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), All Nigeria Peoples Party (APP) and Alliance for Democracy (AD), which was formed after the date for party formation had expired-were involved in the exercise.

The election revealed a lot about the plurality of Nigeria. The three parties won in their respective strongholds. Complaints were minimal The petition by the APP/AD flagbearer, Chief Olu Falae, was perceived as a weak complaint. Monumental abuses were not heaped on Akpata, a former Supreme Court judge. He died in active service.


Abel Guobadia:

Up came Dr. Guobadia, a former Physics teacher at the University of Ibadan and one-time commissioner in Bendel State. He was said to have been tipped for the post by the influential politician, Chief Tony Anenih. Under Guobadia, many Nigerians voted in vain. The poll was massively rigged across the country. Poll confident Southwest was routed by PDP, with the aid of INEC and security agents. The victims did not react. But after the polls, Guobadia’s service came to a close. Reflecting at a lecture in Lagos which he chaired, the former INEC boss said the commission was under-funded when he presided, adding that many innovations were also frustrated.


Maurice Iwu:

So far, Prof. Iwu is the most controversial electoral chief Nigeria ever had. The Chemistry professor took over from Guobadia. There was a public outcry when

he was nominated, which former President Obasanjo ignored. At that stage, many observers contented that he was promoted to the position to conduct election for PDP alone.

 

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