In Conversation with Professor Attahiru Jega (Former Chairman of INEC): Lessons Learnt from Nigeria’s 2011 & 2015 General Elections

Editor’s Note: The following article contains excerpts from an interview that was conducted on 3 March 2017 by Mary-Jean Nleya (a freelance writer and the Founder/Editor of The Global Communiqué, a current affairs media start-up). You may listen to the full interview here.

On 3 March 2017, Professor Attahiru Jega, the inaugural African Initiative for Governance Visiting Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government and former chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (“INEC”) between 2010 and 2015, shared some insights that he learnt while he was at the helm of INEC.

Question: Can you please tell us a bit about your work at INEC?

Jega: I was privileged to have been appointed the chairman of INEC and to have spent five years in that position. During that period, my team and I did our best to bring integrity to the electoral process in Nigeria – one of the countries that have gained notoriety for its weak and substandard electoral system. The consequences of poor elections are enormous. They affect the stability of the country, legitimacy of the elected government, and real governance in terms of meeting the aspirations of the people. Hence, it is important that Nigeria gets out of the cycle of poorly conducted elections and conduct elections with integrity. We gained the support and encouragement of many Nigerian stakeholders and development partners. In the space of five years, we conducted elections in 2011 – within a period of nine months of coming into office – and we raised the bar regarding integrity of the elections. We had four years to plan for the 2015 general elections and within that time, we put some policies and programmes in place and planned carefully. We conducted the 2015 general elections which was widely acclaimed as, not only the best in the history of Nigeria, but comparable to some of the best elections in Africa.

Question: Given that you only had a couple of months to prepare for the 2011 general elections, what lessons did you learn from conducting the elections which helped you in the 2015 elections that was widely acclaimed internationally?

Jega: One of the key lessons that we learnt was that planning is essential to bringing about credible elections. Nine months before the 2011 general elections were not sufficient to do rigorous planning. However, we identified the key challenges and substantially addressed them before the 2011 general elections. It was after the 2011 general elections that we devoted time and energy to rigorous planning and meticulous execution of those plans. Regarding planning, it was necessary to engage in strategic and specific planning exercises. Our main vision was to have an electoral commission in Nigeria that is the best in Africa. That framework and the meticulous implementation of our aspirations evolved from a bottoms-up approach in terms of ensuring that all stakeholders, including the staff of INEC at the local and federal level, were involved. We also had validation workshops with critical stakeholders. This helped us to have elections with integrity in 2015 and to reposition INEC towards becoming the best in Africa. One key message we kept emphasizing on was that credible elections are the business of everybody, and not just the responsibility of INEC. Hence, all hands needed to be on deck to deliver credible elections. That message sunk in and many critical stakeholders went out of their ways to contribute to making the elections credible.  I must point out here that politicians, in the Nigerian context, have a mind-set of winning elections by hook or by crook. Their overriding objective is to treat elections like a ‘do-or-die affair’. However, there were some honest politicians who wanted a good electoral process but many of them wanted to win by hook or by crook. The challenge for INEC was how to devise policies, programmes, and means of staying a step ahead of the dubious politicians because they tried to use every opportunity they got to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. Relating with the politicians was also a herculean task. However, we related with civil society organisations that had in the first place advocated for electoral reforms and whose advocacy laid the ground work for electoral reforms after the 2007 elections and the reconstitution of the electoral commission which brought us into INEC. That partnership with credible civil society organisations and other stakeholders was, to a large extent, responsible for the success of the 2011 and 2015 general elections.

Question: Given the backdrop against which you were executing your mandate in INEC, how did you gain the confidence of the public and ensure that in this timeframe (i.e., 2011 and 2015) and going forward, the public gains confidence in Nigeria’s electoral process?

Jega: A lesson we learnt quite early in INEC is that electoral success can only be predicated on open and transparent conduct of elections, and gaining the confidence of all stakeholders. When my administration joined INEC in June 2010, it had a negative image of being an electoral commission that was closed and opaque because it did not share necessary information and it was too cosy with the incumbent government. It was a herculean task for us to clean INEC of that negative image, to motivate the staff to put in their best efforts, to move away from bad practices of the past, and begin to act transparently in partnership with a range of stakeholders. By being open, transparent and inclusive, we gained the trust and confidence of different stakeholders. It is said that “once bitten twice shy”, so many Nigerians (because of the very poor conduct of previous elections) were cynical and skeptical about INEC conducting elections with integrity. Indeed, many people wanted to give us a chance but they were not sure that we would be able to take INEC out of the cycle of bad elections. We gave it our best. The more we gained trust and confidence of the stakeholders, the more we became more confident and able to deliver on some of the things we did.

For example, when we came into INEC and discovered that, apart from the negative image, the commission was disorganized, the business processes were chaotic, the structure was over-bloated, there was so much internal rancour and bureaucratic in-fighting, and there was no institutional memory (in terms of record keeping). We recognized early that whatever we did to restore a positive image for the commission had to be complemented with restructuring and reorganization to bring it into an efficient and effective electoral body that can conduct credible elections. We also realized that in nine months before the 2011 general elections, there was no time to do thorough structural reorganisation, so what we did was minimal adjustments by what we call, ‘putting square pegs in square holes’, moving staff and assessing their competencies and abilities. We identified those who had clear disciplinary cases (whether relating to corrupt practices in the conduct of elections in the past or other disciplinary issues) and we quickly showed them the way out. We had no time to recruit new employees but the repositioning efforts helped us to bring remarkable improvements before the 2011 general elections. After the 2011 elections, we got a top management consulting firm to advise us on how to reorganise and restructure the commission. We also engaged in in-house review with the support of an independent body constituted by a range of stakeholders, and we trained the staff with the support of development partners. In hindsight, we probably did not do as much as was required because getting people to change their attitude is a tough exercise, so I believe that this is one of the outstanding issues for the new INEC administration to pursue before the next general election in 2019.

Question: Following up from your reference to being “open” and making sure that the INEC was more transparent, can you cite some examples of situations when INEC was publicly viewed as more “open”?

Jega: One clear example is that in the past, there was no history of an open platform where the commission met with all political parties and engaged with them freely, sought their input on the policies of the commission, and listened to their criticisms. Hence, there was a lot of pent-up anger built in, particularly in the opposition parties that believed that the commission was too cosy in its relationship with the incumbent government. However, we created a regular platform of quarterly meetings with all chairmen and secretaries of every political party, and during these meetings, policies that are considered by the commission were discussed but the final decision was ultimately the responsibility of the commission – after considering all criticisms. By adopting this approach, policies were infrequently criticised. This strategy was also useful for the commission and it assisted stakeholders with the process of acquiring information on the extent of preparedness of the commission regarding election processes.

We did the same thing with security agencies as well because Nigeria has systemic security challenges including insurgency in the Niger-Delta region, Boko Haram phenomenon in the north-eastern part of the country, and the challenges of kidnapping and armed robbery. Whilst preparing for elections, we took these factors into consideration and recognized that security agencies had a critical role to play in the process. This realisation helped the commission to minimise inter-service rivalries; to develop a coordinated approach in providing security and securing the electoral process, both the staff and the materials of the commission; and to develop a more efficient participation of security agencies in the electoral process.

We also took a similar approach with the media. We organised regular meetings with media outlets because we wanted them to play a role in voters’ education, sensitization and public enlightenment. Since Nigeria has a high level of illiteracy and a large percentage of people living in the rural areas, it was important for us to explore all means of getting information about the electoral process, across to people. It was an extensive engagement with different stakeholders that added value in conducting elections with integrity. It is important for the new administration to build upon this ‘open approach’ framework.

Question: The work that you have done and the feedback that you received are commendable; but this was not in any way an easy endeavour. There were public incidents when you were challenged on many different occasions. There was an incident when you were called on to resign, and you said that you would not resign because you had work to do. There was also an incident where you were called “tribalistic” and “partial”. History did not judge your predecessor favourably, but at the time you did not know how history would judge you. How did you maintain your resolve to continue with your work in a commission that had a negative image, despite the criticisms that you faced?

Jega: With the benefit of hindsight, my term as chairman of an electoral commission in a country like Nigeria, which is very diverse and large, and which has a lot of religious and ethnic mobilisation brought into the conduct of elections, was very challenging. Having accepted to do the job, I had to prepare my mind to withstand the challenges which came with the job. I knew that it was going to be difficult, but I also knew that it was not impossible. There were many frustrating moments when I felt like just throwing in the towel and walking away; but I knew that I could not do that. I believe that when both sides, the government side and the oppositions’ side, are criticizing you, then you must be doing something right.

A month or so before the election, pressure was mounted on me to resign and that was because we decided to use technology – i.e., the card readers. We got money from the government to introduce this technology because we believed that the card readers were going to minimize irregularities that had been occurring in the Nigerian electoral process. However, an event occurred a month or so before the 2015 elections and some politicians realized that the technology was going to prevent them from doing what they had been doing previously to undermine the integrity of the election. When they failed to persuade INEC to disregard the technology, they started demanding that I should resign on the basis that I was leading the commission astray, that I was ethnic and tribalistic, and that I was doing those things to favour a party or candidate. At that point, I knew what was at play and I knew that it would be irresponsible on my part to disengage a month or two before the 2015 general elections – an election that I had spent four years preparing for. Hence, I resisted the criticisms and showcased the contradictions and illegalities of what some politicians were agitating for.

Question: In 2015, Ventures Africa, an African business and policy news digital platform, described you as the “radical choice that Nigeria’s electoral commission needed following the 2007 elections”. Is a “radical choice” a fair characterisation of you and the role you played in INEC?

Jega: These are perceptions, which one can consider as complimentary in the Nigerian context. The conventional, conservative and traditional nature of Nigerian politics was such that it was amenable to all the irregularities that had occurred. I think that I gained the appellation of being a ‘radical’ because I was the president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities between 1988 and 1994. During this time, we waged series of successful struggles against the military regime by demanding significant reforms and improvements in the Nigerian tertiary education sector. At the end, we successfully got the public to recognize the merits of our struggle. Even though the Union was under proscription, the government negotiated with us in 1992, and introduced comprehensive reform measures which improved tertiary education in Nigeria, including the setting up of the Education Tax Fund which is the major source of funding for tertiary education in Nigeria. The way in which we conducted that struggle got me branded as a ‘radical’. It also helped when I was appointed to lead INEC because people looked back and said perhaps there could be a pedigree which could bring reforms and improvement into the electoral process.

Question: In 2015, you were awarded the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award. Past recipients include the US’ former president Ronald Reagan and two other Africans – Maimuna Mwidau from Kenya and Judge Johann Krigler from South Africa. Nancy Pelosi of the US was also one of the 2015 recipients. Can you please tell us a little about what this award is, what it means to you, and what it means for electoral integrity in West Africa as well as the entire African continent?

Jega: The award was a tremendous honour for me. I truly appreciate it and will remain forever grateful to have been considered and honoured in such a way. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems is a credible international organisation that has been intervening and providing support to many electoral commissions worldwide: in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, South East Asia. The organisation contributes positively to improving credibility and integrity of elections. In Nigeria, their support was very timely and significant in adding value. For the five years I was in INEC, they worked closely with us and, I suppose, were also able to monitor our performance and see the challenges we faced, how we addressed them, and the integrity we brought to the electoral process. I suppose that was what gave them the basis to select me as a recipient of the award.

Most African countries have embraced democracy and according to scholars and theorists of democratisation, there is a clear link between democracy and development. But what is constraining development in Africa and many third world countries is the poor conduct of elections – i.e., the lack of integrity in the way elections are conducted and the multiplicity of irregularities that characterise the conduct of elections. These factors are obstructive and contribute to the instability of governments that have been elected. A focused effort and a genuine concern for conducting elections with integrity is an important item to be placed in the agenda of African countries and the third world, in general. As I quite often recognise, and as many scholars have said, there is no African exceptionalism when it comes to poor conduct of elections. A mere look at what happened in the US in 2000 and the nature of the US campaigns in 2016 clearly illustrates this point. However, in several developing countries, poorly conducted elections affect stability, generate tension, cause violence and conflict, lead to chaos in the governance process and undermine regimes with negative consequences. An effort to promote electoral integrity is a commendable effort, and to have been recognized as one of those who have made efforts to bring electoral integrity in Nigeria (with good lessons for other African countries) is a great honour.

Question: Do you have any advice for countries that will be engaged in elections soon on the African continent, like Rwanda; Kenya; DRC and some others?

Jega:  We hope and pray that when they conduct their elections, they will bring additional integrity to the conduct of elections such that there will be positive impact on stability and an improvement in good democratic governance in their countries. My message for the incumbent governments in these countries is that they should recognise that electoral commissions are not just any government agency that can be incorporated in the incumbent regime’s governing agenda. They should be relatively independent and well-financed, and they should be given the freedom to organise and conduct elections with integrity. To the electoral commissions, it is important to emphasise that they need to be focused, to plan very well, and to meticulously implement these plans. They also need to ensure that they are non-partisan, impartial and create a levelled-playing field for all contestants and political parties. This is an important step towards bringing about elections with integrity. I also encourage the chairmen and members of the electoral commissions to take lessons from Nigeria’s experience and do more than what we did in Nigeria and how Ghana conducted their elections.

Question: Will you ever run for an elected office in Nigeria?

Jega: No. I do not have plans or intention of getting into an elected office. I was an academic when I was appointed as the INEC chairman and I have gone back to my university. I believe there is so much that I can do, like imparting knowledge and experience, and mentoring young academics. This is my preoccupation for now.