Prof. Ropo Sekoni: Who Is Afraid of a Female INEC Chair?

Even as an acting chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mrs. Amina B. Zakari has gotten more than her fair share of bashing, particularly from the political party under which she was invited to serve as commissioner for over four years. From the caustic character of the opposition to the current acting chair of INEC, particularly by spokespersons for the PDP and other surrogates, it is clear that the opposition to the Kazaure woman may be a strategy to discourage President Buhari from offering Mrs. Zakari a substantive appointment. In a democracy, citizens are free to express support for or opposition to candidates nominated to sensitive positions in the polity, particularly a position that has to do with management of elections, the immediate source of political power. What is worrisome about the attack of PDP opinion leaders on Mrs. Zakari is its stridency and virulency.

Is it strange that there are many attacks on the acting INEC chair? Not particularly so in a democracy. Members of political parties who are used to being in power are likely to feel uneasy when an opposition political party comes to power and makes new appointments to sensitive positions. It is also not totally expected that some INEC members who served as commissioners with Mrs. Zakari may feel left out by such acting appointment, wondering why they were not selected, more so that there is nothing in the electoral act that prevents the president from appointing retired members of INEC or citizens who in fact have had nothing to do with INEC. If there were such colleagues on the electoral commission, it would be natural to expect that they had as much chance as Mrs. Zakari to be appointed acting chair. Many of such persons, if they exist, are likely to act alone or in the company of political party members who believe that the appointment of Zakari is likely to deconstruct their vision of and strategy for power.

Even members of the commission who are not necessarily colleagues of Zakari may have reasons to feel left out, especially staff members who had worked with or under the new acting chair and have found her style too straight and too hard to be compromised for their liking. In addition, staff members who had been disciplined by the woman in the course of her duty as head of Planning and Strategy Unit of the Commission are not likely to take kindly to her acting appointment and the possibility of a substantive appointment. Such folks are also likely to hide under the canopy of a political party that is as brazen as PDP has been on Buhari’s appointment of Zakari.

As for the PDP, nobody should be surprised that it is as outspoken in its opposition to Zakari as it has been. The PDP is a political party that was in power for sixteen straight years. It is natural for it to feel destabilised by the pattern and result of the last national and state elections. It should be expected that the PDP, which has never been in opposition since the advent of the current post-military governance, can feel like a fish out of water and consequently find every action carried out by the new party in power to signal a conspiracy against its coming back to power.

What is surprising is that it was the former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who appointed Mrs. Zakari an INEC commissioner. Zakari was a commissioner when Jonathan got elected as president in 2011. While on the Commission for about four years, there was no evidence known to the public that Zakari acted in any untoward manner. INEC’s records indicate that the woman was never cited in any complaint about partiality before and after the 2011 presidential election which Dr. Jonathan won. Yet, the PDP has been virulent in its opposition to the woman even in her capacity as acting chair.

Some of the complaints from PDP have accused President Buhari of nepotism, on the strength of the belief within the opposition that Mrs. Zakari is a relation or ‘kinswoman’ of President Buhari. Some of Zakari’s and Buhari’s detractors have claimed, without any hard or incontrovertible evidence, that the female acting chair is a sister-in-law of President Buhari. In other critiques, the opposition party has also stated that Zakari had been nominated by an APC governor. Others even identify the woman as a card-carrying member of APC. At the time Mrs. Zakari was appointed INEC commissioner, was she a member of PDP? Since when did PDP party leaders realise that Mrs. Zakari had joined APC and why did the party not blow the whistle then? This accusation sounds like calling a dog a bad name in order to justify hanging it.

Others in the opposition party have even said that it was wrong of President Buhari to have appointed Mrs. Zakari, on the ground that the electoral law frowns on appointing a retired or retiring member of the Commission to an acting position. This is despite the fact that Mr. Soyebi was given a similar appointment while he was a member of the electoral agency and that Mr. Umeadi once acted in an acting capacity after the exit of Prof. Maurice Iwu. Isn’t what is good for the goose also good for the gander anymore?

In serious democracies, political party leaders are generally knowledgeable of the constitution. The constitution is clear on who can appoint the chair of a commission. It is the sitting president that has the power to do so. He or she is also endowed with the power to appoint an acting chair of all commissions when exigency of the moment requires that he/she appoints an acting rather than a substantive chair. Section 318(2) of the 1999 Constitution on the matter of appointment of chairman of commissions affirms that “Whenever it is provided that any authority or person has power to make, recommend, or approve an appointment to an office, such power shall be construed as including the power to make, recommend, or approve a person for such appointment, whether on promotion or otherwise, or to act in any such office.”

It will be surprising if leaders of PDP are unaware of this specific provision in the same constitution that the party had used to rule Nigeria for the past sixteen years. An interpretation of the ferocious opposition of PDP supporters to the acting appointment given to Mrs. Zakari is that the PDP and other critics of her appointment chose to make a mountain out of a mole hill as a way of priming PDP senators to stand against the appointment of Zakari as substantive chair of INEC, should President Buhari choose to do so, having had good reasons from Zakari’s performance to give her a substantive appointment.

Given the plan of action announced to the public by Mrs. Zakari, no serious politician should expect PDP partisans to feel happy with her acting position. Mrs. Zakari has promised to strengthen INEC and increase the credibility of the electoral process in two areas of election management that should unsettle members of any party that had gotten to power largely through manipulation of elections. She seems inflexible on keeping and improving the commission’s policy on using technology to enhance transparency of the electoral process. It is not news to citizens that the coming to power of another party after sixteen years of the same party in power is traceable more to the use of the electronic card reader than to any other factor. The acting INEC chair has also expressed commitment to the continuous registration of voters. With a combination of ensuring franchise for every eligible citizen and protecting the vote of each citizen through effective electronic monitoring, there is no doubt that Mrs. Zakari is in a position to make manipulation of election in Nigeria a thing of the past. Given the promise of PDP to rule continuously for 60 years and the sudden reality of being pushed out of power after sixteen years, it should be expected that many of the party’s desperate leaders are liable to feel disoriented after the sudden electoral shock of its recent loss of power. Otherwise, why would the same party that appointed Mrs. Zakari and did not have any problems with her performance at INEC be the most mordant of critics of her appointment?

Just as every text also has a subtext, it is conceivable that opponents of Zakari’s current designation have a subtext to the text of their opposition. Could that subtext be that PDP and other opponents of Mrs. Zakari are afraid of letting a woman occupy a post that had been reserved for men since 1959? Whatever anybody wants to say against former President Jonathan’s politics, it is unlikely that anyone can honestly accuse him of being phallocentric to the point of not wanting women in sensitive positions. He, more than anyone else, gave sensitive national positions to women: Ministry of Finance and Coordination of the Economy, Ministry of the country’s economic heartbeat, Petroleum, Ministry of Aviation, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It is thus an irony that members of Jonathan’s party can be mortally opposed (just a few months after the departure of Jonathan from office) to having a woman as acting chair or substantive chair of INEC, more so a woman appointed by Jonathan as president. If there is any party that should applaud President Buhari for choosing a woman as acting chair of INEC, it should be the PDP. It is a party that had been privileged to observe Mrs. Zakari closely as a competent INEC commissioner for years and of which the party should be proud for bringing this woman of integrity to the notice of President Buhari and of the nation in her acting capacity as chair of INEC.

It is salutary that the view of PDP hawks on Zakari’s appointment does not represent the view of majority of Nigerians and of the majority of the political parties. Mrs. Zakari should not feel intimidated by the unfriendly opposition to her appointment by members of the party that appointed her commissioner. President Buhari should also not feel discouraged about recommending the acting chair for substantive appointment, if he finds out that she is capable of doing the job well. This is the century of gender democracy. And PDP or any party for that matter should not campaign against appointment of a woman as head of INEC, after over 50 years of male domination of this commission.

Ropo Sekoni is a retired Professor of Comparative literature, and Chair of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Reporting.

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