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Big Challenges Await Nominee for Nigerian Electoral Commission

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan delivers a speech in Port Harcourt on 14 May 2010

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan delivers a speech in Port Harcourt on 14 May 2010

If confirmed, President Jonathan's choice to head commission will have less than one year to organize elections

With less than one year to go before voting in Nigeria, the political science professor nominated to head the country's electoral commission faces a host of challenges from regaining public confidence, to the logistics of organizing a nationwide vote in Africa's most populous country.

Nigeria's Senate says it will move quickly to open confirmation hearings for 10 new, national electoral commissioners and President Goodluck Jonathan's nominee to head the commission, Bayero University vice chancellor Attahiru Jega.

Senator Ayogu Eze told reporters that with everyone in Nigeria emphasizing the need for credible and transparent elections next year, that transparency will begin with the screening of the new electoral officials. Eze says anyone in Nigeria who has anything against any of these nominees should come forward as part of an evaluation that he says will be televised live.

If confirmed, Jega and his commission will have less than one year to organize staggered local government, state, and presidential elections.

President Jonathan chose Jega to replace Maurice Iwu, whom he dismissed as electoral chief in April. Iwu is widely blamed for 2007 elections that were marred by ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation. The misconduct in that vote was so widespread that the man who won, President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, immediately promised to enact electoral reforms.

Little has changed. With President Yar'Adua's death last month, Mr. Jonathan assumed the presidency and again set electoral reform as a top priority. But there is concern that change could be meaningless without strong leadership atop the Independent National Electoral Commission.

Civil society leader Deaconess Awani Akande questions whether political science professor Jega is up to the challenges of day-to-day politics.

"Politics is not the issue of being a professor," said Akande. "You can be a professor and [if] you are not politically professional, then you will be a failure. Even the greatest failure so far."

Akande says the problem with the last vote was not Iwu's leadership, but a general lack of knowledge among voters about how elections are properly conducted. She says lawmakers should reject Jega's nomination, reappoint Iwu, and better educate the electorate.

"Nigeria today what we need is enlightenment, education, awareness politically," added Akande. "And so, if they are to allow the former electoral body to remain and then create a forum to educate the electorate, I think it will be the best for this country. Because we are ignorant of having proper knowledge about elections in this country. And because of the ignorance that we are facing, it is depriving us of many good things."

Political scientist Isitoah Ozoemene says Iwu had to go. The challenge now is recalibrating Nigerian politics so close to the next election.

"The man who has been handling the affairs of this body has not been credible," said Ozoemene. "He has not done a good job, so he has to leave. That gives room for us to have a new person. And again, we need a new orientation because in this country, politics is seen as a do-or-die affair. Everybody wants to win. All the executives want to come back again. All members of House of Assembly and Senate, they all want to come back again. When people have that mindset, they go against the rules. So we need a new chairman. We need that reorientation."

Because state governors, parliamentary leaders, and former heads of state in the National Council of State have already unanimously endorsed Jega's choice, Ozoemene says there is no question he will be approved by parliament.

Jega would be the first northern Nigerian to head the electoral commission. The country's north/south divide is a volatile political dynamic with President Jonathan considering a campaign that would violate an informal regional power-sharing deal. That deal stipulates that the next ruling-party presidential nominee will be from northern Nigeria to finish out what would have been President Yar'Adua's second term. Mr. Jonathan is from the south.