My first close contact with then Dr. Attahiru Jega was when, as editor of my university newspaper, I led a team of communications students to interview him as head of the department of political science. Soft-spoken, gentle, and focused, Jega, dressed in shirts and trousers spoke to us in a way that left indelible marks on the impressionable team. Though we later spoke with the vice-chancellor as well, it was Jega that left us most impressed.
Not long afterwards, Jega emerged president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU. It would be a waste of space to recount how the brave academic not only withstood all the military government of the day threw at him, including detention at several locations, but how, eventually and against all odds, triumphed. Years after leaving office, former military president Ibrahim Babangida admitted in private that the only two Nigerians he couldn’t manage to influence were late Gani Fawahenmi and Attahiru Jega, who reportedly declined an offer of ministerial appointment.
Bruised and battered, but with head held high, Jega continued his academic career and eventually become a much respected vice chancellor of Bayero University, Kano. Most people say he maintained the same simplicity and level-headedness that earned him much respect and admiration. It was therefore no surprise that when then believable President Goodluck Jonathan sought to replace the misfit Maurice Iwu as chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, (INEC), Jega stood head and shoulders above all other candidates.
That a sitting president would seek to replace the malleable, and according to some, cash-and-carry Iwu sent hopes soaring. And for the replacement to be someone that our own ‘Maradona’ could not dribble gave all Nigerians hope that for the first time, we would have an electoral umpire that would be fair, firm and decisive. Many civil society groups and good governance organizations sent Jega what would have been the blueprint for free and fair elections.
Part of the recommendation included a wholesale redeployment of the top management of INEC and others who had any form of indictment for electoral fraud or collusion replacing them with fresh, untainted blood. The contention was that working with the same group of people that also worked with Abel Goubadia and Muarice Iwu would be a dangerous trap and an endorsement of the pitiable elections of 2003 and 2007. Nigerians sat back and waited for action from Jega. Alas, it never came.
For some unfathomable reason, Jega not only ignored what many groups thought should be starting point for conducting free and fair elections, but displayed a level of uncertainty that was out of character. It seems that, convinced about his invincibility to the antics of the electoral mafia, or thinking that he could mold them as he had molded a generation of students, Jega opted to work with Iwu’s carryovers. It was a perfect trap: The elephant had fallen unto the laps of the electoral mafia – a clan whose membership range from street thugs, election tribunal members, legal ‘brokers’ to billionaire judges.
Jega failed a number of early tests that should have raised the alarm bells, but so trusting were we that we assumed those early indicators would prepare the professor of political science for the most important assignment in his life: holding free and fair general elections, especially at the presidential level. We wanted candidates to win fairly so that the losing candidate would concede, and thus set precedence for future conduct.
In retrospect, it was not only naïve, but unintelligent to have made those assumptions and think that Jega could single-handedly take on and defeat the electoral mafia. If we thought the 2007 elections were appalling, there are probably no words in political science or history that would adequately describe the conduct of the 2011 elections. In some states, votes cast out-numbered registered voters; some states saw almost 100% turnout, a feat that not even Australia, where voting is compulsory, has ever managed.
Local and international observers and indeed anyone who witnessed what happened in 2011 knew that every electoral law was broken with impunity at all levels. Poor logistics by INEC, intimidation by the police and the military and outright manipulation of election results were open and glaring, but Jega, to the stupefaction of all Nigerians – including diehard members of the electoral mafia – declared the elections free and fair. For someone with Jega’s credibility to defend the legitimacy of the polls was a deadly blow to our democracy.
Still, many were willing to give Jega a chance. The problem of course, is that every election Jega has conducted seems to be more notorious than the previous one. If a single state can task Jega and INEC this much, what hope is there for a successful nationwide election? For many, Jega’s stand that INEC did not have the power to cancel the fraudulent Anambra election for a fresh start is confirmation that Iwu has been reincarnated in Jega. To paraphrase a popular song, ‘Jega, Jaga-jaga, INEC scatter-scatter, voters suffer-suffer’.