Lauretta Onochie As Metaphor

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Azu Ishiekwene

The refusal of the Senate to confirm Lauretta Onochie, President Muhammadu Buhari’s nominee as national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), is a triumph of public opinion. 

But the Senate has tried to disguise it otherwise. In response to growing criticisms that the National Assembly has become Buhari’s rubber stamp, the Senate has framed the rejection as a violation of the Federal Character principle, and more important, as proof of its legislative independence.  

The truth is nuanced. It is correct to say that the nonsensical conundrum of where they were born versus where their partner comes from is just one of the many indignities that women – especially women in politics – have to deal with. 

Recently, for example, when Justice Akon Ikpeme was nominated by the National Judicial Commission (NJC) as judge of Cross River State, the matter, as far as politicians were concerned, was not her competence. Instead, they reminded us that though Ikpeme is married to a Cross Riverian, she is from Akwa Ibom State by birth. Her “crime”, they said, was her place of marriage. 

The same controversy trailed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala during President Goodluck Jonathan’s era, when she was nominated as finance minister, before she was eventually confirmed.

In both cases, it took the combined and persistent efforts of all persons of goodwill to extricate the nominees from the web of needless controversy.

Onochie’s case is slightly different, of course. Her case is not just slightly different, it was complicated first by her toxic exuberance on social media, and also by the shambolic secretarial work of those who documented her nomination. 

If they had done any shred of home work at all – except of course, if they set her up to fail – they ought to have seen that May Agbamuche-Mbu who currently occupies one of the two slots for the South South, was recommended as a candidate of Delta State, even though her husband is from Cross River. 

What’s more pathetic? The only vacancy for the South South that currently exists was occupied by Mustapha Lecky, from Edo – a fact which could only be hidden in plain sight by incompetent paperwork. 

Onochie tried to wriggle out during her screening by claiming that Agbamuche-Mbu was nominated on the ticket of Cross River, but it was her word against that of a Committee determined to show that it still has some mojo left.

She even said, with a straight face, that she had quit politics three years ago, giving the impression that her principal had to use Google maps to find her current address. But the screening committee was not convinced.

Public opinion is perfectly entitled to ignore the Senate’s framing and to claim victory for Onochie’s rejection. But we must also be careful not to fall for the single-plot story. What lies beneath is not pretty.

The fact that the government even thought of presenting Onochie at all is not just an indication of how bad the electoral system is, it is also an indication of how rotten it promises to get if the public is not looking. Onochie is proof of an electoral system badly in need of redemption from desperate politicians.

In spite of the best efforts of the current INEC leadership to provide free, fair and transparent elections, and to further reduce cases of court-decided elections, you don’t have to try to see danger lights flashing. Onochie is just a metaphor.

While we’re splitting hairs over the nominee, who is just one of the 12 national electoral commissioners, the states, with 37 resident electoral commissioners, promise nastier surprises. 

Twenty-seven out of the 37 resident electoral commissioners appointed by Buhari in 2017 would be due for replacement in August next year, about six months before the next general elections. 

Assuming they are appointed at that time and there are no problems whatsoever with their nominations – an unlikely possibility – it would take something of a miracle for them to settle down quickly before elections start.

That means just on the eve of the general elections, a government that is on its way out will have the liberty of choosing, from its bucket list of Lauretta Onochies, umpires with nearly zero experience to manage the next elections. 

We have seen from Lauretta Onochie that the appointment would hardly be on the basis of who is competent or who will serve the best interest of the country. It will not be about who would protect voter’s rights or defend the integrity of the system. The sole consideration would be availability and willingness to help the ruling party win elections, willy-nilly.

With less than six months to prepare, nominees who would assume office with a good heart tinged with partisanship and an empty pocket, would also have to contend with political pressures and temptations beyond their capacity. The consequences for the integrity of the elections are better imagined.

Whether this situation was unintended or it was the result of malicious negligence, it is part of the price that the country has to pay for the tardiness of Buhari’s early years when it took months for the government to make vital appointments – tardiness that was spotty at first, but which has since become systemic. 

Lauretta Onochie is only a metaphor, a symptom of the disease. Have you stopped to ask what it is about the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), that is now drawing politicians to its fold in their numbers? 

Have you wondered why a party that has no Board of Trustees, no governance structure, or anything remotely resembling a consistent system of rules and not even a single organised meeting in nearly two years, is turning out to be the biggest draw for politicians?

It’s simple. One, as I said last week, is that it is the platform which the resurgent Congress for Progressives Change (CPC) wing of the party considers the most viable option to retain power; and two, which is linked to one, is that the APC is the party that controls the security services. The party in power not only gets to decide who it nominates to manage the electoral system, it also decides how security, which is vital to electoral success, is deployed. 

Forget that when it was in opposition, the APC dragged the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to court over the use of soldiers in the governorship elections in Ekiti. That is past tense. Now APC is in power and those defecting to the party in droves understand that one sure way to secure their electoral fortunes is to align with the party in power, which guarantees that the security services will be at their disposal at the next poll.

All the noise by politicians that they’re defecting because of lack of internal democracy or that they are doing so to emulate the patriotic spirit of John Brown makes no sense. Don’t be fooled. The only thing that separates APC from PDP is who is in power. Everything else is the same difference, an elaborate plot on the road to a palace coup. 

It would be interesting to see how the National Assembly treats what is perhaps the most consequential provision in the electoral amendment act – electronic transmission of votes from the wards. 

My guess is that given what happened in Edo State where the electronic voting was deployed, with significant success, but to the displeasure of the ruling party at the centre, nationwide support for it would depend on how politicians fancy their chances in the poll. 

The opposition party which is in a relatively weaker position will, of course, support it. But it is doubtful if the ruling party, which has the majority in the National Assembly, will see any merit in electronic transmission of results, when security services can be deployed to do the job with brutal efficiency.

Lauretta Onochie is a red herring, a distraction. She was presented to confuse the public and divert attention from the deeper, systemic problems threatening the integrity of the next general elections. 

If attention does not shift quickly back to the main issues, we would have successfully written an electoral story doomed to fail from the start, while nitpicking over a semicolon called Lauretta Onochie. 

If we can’t smell the coffee now, we probably never will.

Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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