Academics in Nigerian universities who served as Returning Officers in this year’s general election put up what many have considered disgraceful performance. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had recruited them believing that as men and women of the Ivory Tower, they would apply the same academic rigour to the electioneering exercise and give credibility to the process to the satisfaction of Nigerians. Thus, the university teachers went through the crucible of integrity test during the elections and many believe they came out far short of the people’s expectations.
Although the electoral umpire had always involved university lecturers in the conduct of elections in the country, the practice became pronounced under the tenure of former INEC chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, especially in the conduct of the 2015 general election. A former national chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Jega heavily turned to his university constituency to recruit his colleagues to perform the essential duty of announcing election results. In opting for people from his professional constituency, his expectation was that his fellow academics would discharge such national duty with the required integrity university men and women are known for all over the world; as beacons of light, integrity and unwavering commitment where the highest standards are required for society’s good.
Jega’s successor, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, also a former university don, chose to build on the legacy of his predecessor by appointing university dons as returning officers. However, there appears to have been a deviation from what obtained under Jega. Many Nigerians believe that some of these lecturers allowed themselves to be compromised during the 2019 general election given the number of inconclusive polls and other ‘organised’ errors recorded during the exercise.
For instance, in Kogi State during the National Assembly election, a returning officer cleverly added ‘zero’ to blow out of proportion the election result in favour of a particular candidate. But for the vigilance and prompt intervention of observant electorate and party officials, an illegal victory would have been awarded to an undeserving candidate.
In Plateau State, the Vice Chancellor of University of Agriculture allegedly scampered into a waiting car bearing government’s plate number in an effort to zoom away with the results, but for the prompt intervention of everyone present who blocked the get-away car and brought the shame-faced don back to his duty post.
Vice Chancellor of Federal University, Gashau, Gombe State, Prof. Andrew Haruna, as returning officer in Adamawa State, declared the governorship election inconclusive. Also, Vice Chancellor of Moddibo Adama University of Technology, Adamawa State, Prof. Kyari Mohammed, also declared the election inconclusive in Bauchi State. A Federal High Court also voided the returning officer’s inconclusive order for a winner to be announced after days of anxious waiting.
Vice Chancellor of University of Jos, Prof. Sebastian Maimako, also declared the governorship election result inconclusive in Benue State. A rerun was undertaken before result could be announced. Vice Chancellor of Federal University, Jigawa State, Prof. Fatima Muktar, also declared election in Sokoto State inconclusive. A rerun in some polling units eventually produced a winner in the incumbent governor, Aminu Tambuwal.
Kano State produced the acid test for the Vice Chancellor of Federal University, Birnin-Kebbi, Prof. Bello Shehu, who declared the governorship election in the state inconclusive. A rerun was conducted in some polling units after which the incumbent governor, Umar Ganduje, was announced winner. But the rerun was tainted by extreme violence, which many believe stopped the electorate from exercising their free will. The veracity of Shehu’s action in Kano would be tested when the tribunal later makes its pronouncement as to who the true winner is between APC’s incumbent governor Umar Ganduje and opposition PDP’s Abba Kabiru Yusuf. Yusuf is at the tribunal to contest Ganduje’s victory from Prof. Shehu’s inconclusive pronouncement.
INEC’s Returning Officer in Imo State, Professor Innocent Ibeawuchi, declared the incumbent governor of the state Rochas Okorocha victor in the senatorial district election. Although Ibeawuchi had since claimed he was held hostage and forced to Okorocha winner. Okorocha is yet to get his certificate of return and headed to the court to compel INEC to do the needful, but INEC insists it would not reward bad behaviour.
Also in Abia State, Professor Benjamin Ozurumba as returning officer announced former governor Orji Uzo Kalu as winner of the Abia North Senatorial District clearly in breach of INEC’s provisions, which caused elections to be declared inconclusive in many parts of the country. The margin between Kalu and Mao Ohuabunwa is 10,400 votes whereas cancelled votes amounted to 38,000 votes, which would have warranted inconclusive election, but Ozurumba went ahead to declare a victor for the election.
Deputy Vice Chancellor of Federal University, Otuoke, Prof. Teddy Adias, also declared Rivers State’s elections inconclusive. This was, however, largely seen as the right call because of the violence and bloodletting that characterised the process. When the process eventually ended, even the losers could only exercise knee-jerk protests against the victors.
One noticeable feature of the performances of these university dons was their body language that did not show clout and charisma and the measured confidence academics are known for in the performance of their duty. In their pronouncements and reeling out of election results, it was as though they came unprepared for the job. A lot of them stammered through the figures they read out. It got worse when party agents challenged them on the veracity of their figures and how they arrived at them.
Indeed, across the country there are sundry tales of woes regarding the conduct of these men and women of the academia. While those who emerged victories have since collected their certificates of return, losers are cursing the electoral process that short-changed and robbed them of victory.
These perceived abnormalities perhaps prompted Jega who had the privilege of taking Nigeria through two general elections in 2011 and 2015, to accuse politicians of aligning with lecturers to compromise the integrity of the election. While speaking at a recent event in Kano, Jega said: “Look at what happened during the last elections and the stories of irregularities being spread even in the four walls of Bayero University, Kano (BUK). The politicians, through crooked means, got alliances with lecturers in the university to compromise the system and they perpetrated all sorts of irregularities, which paved way for a faulty process for the continued entrenchment of bad people in governance.
“Maybe I’m preaching to the converted or I am talking nonsense. But frankly speaking, I am beginning to think that we are not taking the obligations of scholarship and intellectual engagement with the seriousness it deserves.”Jega further stated: “I think the major crisis in Nigeria’s democracy is that our electoral integrity has been under assault, compromised and undermined by those who have control over the process.”
Since he made those pronouncements, some eminent Nigerians have also called on INEC to stop involving university dons in the conduct of elections. The senator representing Kaduna Central at the Senate, Shehu Sani, via his verified Twitter handle @ShehuSani recently said the results of the 2019 elections were enough reasons university lecturers should henceforth decline to be involved in the conduct of elections in the country. “In the light of the new revelations, university lecturers should pull out from participating in the conduct of national elections to save the reputation and protect the moral sanctity of the academia,” Sani said. “The Ivory Tower shouldn’t be smeared with political feaces.”