The man Jega

THE NATION Newspaper- Dada Aladelokun

So screaming the newspaper headline was: ‘Firebrand ex-union chief now INEC chair!’ A sensation of hope swept through the nerves of most Nigerians who had known the man Attahiru Jega, both as a rare breed of an academic and implacable activist of impeccable credentials.

It was in August, last year. He got the baton to sit atop the nation’s electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in preparation for the 2011 elections. To many who had known him as a man with mule-like stubbornness in matters of principle, they saw in him the one with the liver to ward off pressures from the powers-that-be who might want him to call a spade by another name in electoral decisions.

Indeed, President Goodluck Jonathan got Jega’s teeming admirers’ thumbs-up on his appointment because to them, it was not for fun that the INEC boss was made a very prominent member of the Justice Muhammed Uwais-led Electoral Reforms Committee.

A Political Scientist, the 54-year-old Prof. Attahiru Jega (OFR) became the Vice-Chancellor of the Bayero University, Kano (BUK) in 2005. It was there the unquenchable fire of activism in him got better noticed. Unionism, to him, had become a way of life when the chairmanship of the Academic Staff Union of the Universities (ASUU) fell on his shoulders.

Before then, as a unionist in the university, occasions came when the union has axe to grind with authorities. He is reputed to have employed his intellectual prowess to iron out issues, thus dousing any tension that might have ensued. Beyond campus matters, Jega and his colleagues had major a cause to confront the Federal Government without soiling his name.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that ex-Military President Ibrahim Babangida was among the few that pleaded with Nigerians for understanding last week after the botched National Assembly polls organised by the Jega-led INEC. He was ASUU president during the Babangida-led military regime. The latter couldn’t find in Jega a bosom friend. Reason: The INEC boss and his executive joined forces with the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) put him and his cabinet on their toes.

While serving as a Vice-Chancellor, Jega, as revealed by those who know him quite well, never severed his ties with mass organisations, especially, Labour. In 2008, he was part of the parley of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the NLC held in Kano. It was right there that the NLC made its maiden public demand for N52, 200 as national minimum wage.

It is perhaps incontrovertible that his track record as a consummate unionist and uncompromising activist laid the substratum for his spontaneous acceptance when the federal government considered him the best man for the INEC job. Yes, for what he stood for and how he carried himself on the task Jega, to a good number of his admirers, was (and is still) seen as a radical, a non-conformist and a full-blooded progressive. Reason: The hard struggles he led against successive military governments without tainting his image. For all that, he commanded public trust, more so as to many, he had a name to protect. But it was not without murmurs by skeptics and even doubting Thomases of the deepest dye who thought otherwise. Not a few discerning Nigerians raised their voices to caution that ASUU and INEC are different institutions with varied complexities. Many argued that as a body of egg-heads, ASUU could be run with an unbending authority that members might willingly align with. They added that ASUU politics was not rooted in confounding deceits, intrigues and deadly antics.

The General Secretary of NLC, Comrade John Odah, numbers among Jega’s saving grace at the moment. He maintained that the INEC boss was on top of the issues, noting that with his pedigree in public service, he would not allow anybody smear his record.

Not a few others maintained that if the system allows him to work, he has the capacity, honesty and patriotism required to oversee honest elections in this country.

The noise subsided and Nigerians agreed, though grudgingly, to give him a chance. Thus, the stage was set, so to say, for Jega to show the world, what he had in store as an organiser and indeed, an administrator.

What seemed the maiden litmus test for him and his lieutenants came with challenges. It was his first task in office. He had to organise a voter registration. For it, he proposed a budget. But Nigerians cried foul. Reason: The budget, to them, a whopping N87 billion, appeared overly outrageous. It was to instantly precipitate his running battle with the National Assembly.

However, he evinced his trademark unbending principle, insisting that he would not settle for anything less in order to actualise his dream to conduct a stainless exercise. He won the battle, though through what many saw as a subtle blackmail of his opponents, the federal lawmakers.

Good for him, he was already enjoying the backing of Nigerians who were eagerly desirous of a credible exercise. Yes, Nigerians would not have blinked an eye should the government gave Jega a blank cheque at the moment!

Not long after, he stirred the hornet’s nest which drew another battle line between him and the lawmakers. How? He presented a supplementary budget of about N10 billion which drew the ire of the legislators. But again, with public trust and sympathy behind him and his men, he had the last laugh.

Nigerians jubilated. They saw the heartening situation as something to make a song and dance about. Though the National Assembly surrendered grudgingly, it got rousing applause from the public.

Then to Nigerians, nothing under the sun should stand between the INEC boss and the actualisation of his promises. To them, because he had been well enabled, he would have to tell any excuse for any failure to the marines.

However, before one could say Jack, public confidence in Jega and indeed, the body began to wane, especially with the questionable manner it handled the procurement of equipment for the voter registration exercise.

Easily disposed to forgiving, Nigerians still gave Jega and his men the benefit of doubts. To them, no matter what happened, they expected a good laugh at the end of the exercise.

But a shocker came from Jega and his men last Saturday. It was through the widely adjudged "show of national shame," which has since thrown most of his admirers into stupor. The National Assembly polls that should open the elections failed to hold no thanks to shoddy preparations by INEC.

He has since been grappling with a gale of condemnations. But he has beaten his chest, assuring that no matter the odds, Nigerians would have the cause to clap for him after the entire exercise which was postponed till this morning.

While some still doubt his ability to hold a hitch-free election today, many have asked him to resign should the failure of last Saturday rear its ugly head again. Now, will he shut his critics’ mouths today? Will he succeed in earning for himself the reputation of being a dependable activist-unionist and astute administrator? Certainly, he has a date with history!


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