Daily Trust

President Buhari’s nomination of Lauretta Onochie to INEC is explicitly unconstitu­tional


President Buhari’s nomination of his Special Assistant on Social Media as a National Commission­er for the National Electoral Commission (INEC) was something of a surprise. Hearing the President’s nomination­s to the INEC read to the Senate on Tuesday, I first thought there must be a mix-up. After all, another set of nominees for the Federal Roads Maintenanc­e Agency was presented first. Sadly, I was wrong.

Now I am not naïve: I am well aware that any political leader will seek to place themselves and their party at an advantage. This action falls into that category. But Onochie is explicitly disqualifi­ed by the constituti­on from taking a seat on the board of INEC. I had never imagined that President Buhari would put his signature on something so brazenly unconstitu­tional. Even with the chilling demystific­ation of the last five years, I still thought he’s better than this.

Our constituti­on couldn’t be more clear that INEC is an independen­t body. That is precisely why the framers of the 1999 Constituti­on included that very word in the agency’s name. Past electoral bodies did not include ‘independen­t’ in their name, because they were not: the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) that conducted the 1979 and the controvers­ial 1983 elections, the National Electoral Commission (NEC), which managed the three-year transition programme that ended with the annulled 1993 elections, and the National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) that was establishe­d by General Sani Abacha to spearhead his transition programme that was aborted by his death in 1998. Having seen the result of electoral watchdogs becoming an extension of the ruling party’s secretaria­t and seeking to lay a solid foundation for a strong democracy, the framers of the 1999 Constituti­on deliberate­ly and purposeful­ly inserted “independen­t” into the name of the new commission for the first time in our constituti­onal history.

They wanted it engraved in the minds of every Nigerian that INEC is always expected to be free from all kinds of interferen­ce. To ensure this intention didn’t end up as so much worthless paper, the framers went further, making copious provisions to shield the body from unscrupulo­us politician­s and civil servants. Section 154 requires the president to consult the Council of State before appointing the chairman and members of INEC and subjects such appointmen­t to confirmati­on by the Senate. Section 155 stipulates five years as the statutory tenure of chairperso­n and members and Section 157 provides that they can only be removed for reasons specifical­ly outlined by the constituti­on, and that such removal must be supported by a two-thirds majority of the Senate. The constituti­on further provided that INEC shall not be subjected to the direction or control of any other authority or person.

Having experience­d substantia­l delays from the executive branch in the disburseme­nt of funds to INEC during the 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections, it was thought that the body needed and deserved even stronger autonomy. Thus, the First Alteration of the Constituti­on in 2010 included provisions that gave INEC financial freedom by disbursing its funds directly from the Consolidat­ed

Revenue Fund so no arm of government could control its budget. If fact, President Yar’Adua’s Electoral Reform Committee, upon whose recommenda­tions the 2010 amendments were made, even suggested that the power to appoint INEC’s chair and members should be transferre­d from the president to the National Judicial Council, but that proposal was stillborn.

All of this was made to ensure that this fundamenta­l character of any worthy umpire was guaranteed to INEC not only in statute books but also, and most importantl­y, in practice. The other bedfellow is neutrality. The constituti­on sought to ensure that the INEC is nonpartisa­n because it will be a contradict­ion in terms for the referee to also be a competitor. In fact, the third schedule to the First Alteration went to the extent of expressly declaring that any person to be appointed to INEC shall be “non-partisan”.

It is this provision that puts the argument against Lauretta Onochie beyond any doubt. She’s not only a card-carrying member of the ruling party but also a serving appointee of the president. And, as the mouthpiece of the president on social media, she has used her position to attack not only the opposition, but also other Nigerians critical of her boss. While the legitimacy of these attacks is fair debate, what is undebatabl­e is her partisansh­ip. If being registered as a party member, publicly campaignin­g for it and being appointed by it isn’t enough evidence of partisansh­ip, nothing can be.

Stocking INEC with politician­s is extremely dangerous to its independen­ce, image and most importantl­y to Nigeria’s democracy. More than any other body, INEC must be shielded from even the remotest appearance of impropriet­y or bias. President Buhari has repeatedly assured Nigerians and the internatio­nal community that he’s committed to free and fair elections. His nominating a member of his party and his special assistant to the board of the electoral watchdog undermines these pledges, as action speaks louder than words. The president should withdraw Lauretta Onochie in the interest of his legacy and Nigeria’s democracy.

If the president refuses to replace this nominee, the National Assembly should reject her. I know this is a tough call for the President of the Senate and the majority of his colleagues who are members of the ruling political party, but they need to remember their own constituti­onal duties and put the country before the party. Rejecting this candidate is not only the right thing, but also setting a worthy example for generation­s yet unborn. If they elect to put partisan interest before the rule of law and constituti­onalism, they have put our democracy on a dangerous course and will have themselves to blame if a future president appoints their family and friends to INEC.

If both the president and the Senate fail to do the right thing, civil liberty and prodemocra­cy groups and individual­s must rise to the occasion by bringing a legal challenge against this unconstitu­tionally. We cannot fold our arms as politician­s jeopardise our right to freely and transparen­tly choose our leaders. If we choose to give this a pass, we’ve assented to the most stripped bastardisa­tion of our democracy yet and have paved the way for worse.

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