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The moral baggage of Lauretta Onochie’s appointment as INEC commissioner

The moral baggage of Lauretta Onochie’s appointment as INEC commissioner
October 15
11:38 2020

Any other time, it would have been taken as a good humour. But for a President that has perfected the art of acting unconstitutionally, and sometimes outrightly insensitive particularly with appointments, the nomination of one of the most rabid attack dogs of Muhammadu Buhari, on social media, as a National Commissioner of no less an institution than the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) fits into a scurrilous pattern that is both confounding and unacceptable, especially at this time. And the reason is not hard to seek: principles matter.

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In an emerging democracy like ours where elections remain a thug of war and the results routinely challenged at election courts, the choice of who makes critical decisions in election management is critical in the overall perception of the independence of the electoral body as a neutral, and non partisan umpire. And so when a President appoints a ranking member of his political party who’s known to all and sundry as a media hand and ruling party megaphone into such critical position, what it tells the country, and its peoples, is that they can go to hell, beyond the credibility crisis it creates for the electoral commission.

Some have argued that the woman in question is qualified for the job and so should be allowed to reap the fruits of her political loyalty. Qualified? The draftsman of the Constitution did not mince words at Item F, paragraph 14(2)(c), that a member of INEC “must be nonpartisan and a person of unquestionable integrity”. And the logic is simple. It accords with one of the fundamental pillars of  natural justice: no man should be a judge in his own cause. On both counts, Lauretta Onochie is guilty as charged.

Not only is she a card carrying member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC); an original sin as it were, her all round integrity for such an elevated office that frowns at undue loyalties to political assets, is also suspect having had her political palm kernels crushed for her by “benevolent spirits” in the corridors of power and to whom she’s probably perpetually indebted. Having her in such a position, is to put her in a compromising situation where her best judgement may be punctuated by bias. I don’t think this is what the electoral body, still smarting from two good outings in Edo and Ondo States respectively, needs at this time.

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We may recall that the current situation mirrors the Hajia Amina Zakari drama early last year when she, as the President’s cousin was appointed the chairperson of the Presidential Election Collation Centre and Advisory Committee.  At that time, in my essay entitled, “Jurisprudential cost of Amina Zakari’s appointment”, I wrote, “No one disputes the fact that Hajia Amina Zakari’s appointment is based on merit, having served creditably well in many capacities and rising to the distinguished position of a national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission in 2010. However, electioneering anywhere in the world is a serious business often fraught with too many suspicion and mutual distrust. A sure way, then, to limit or entirely avoid the incidence of such suspicion, is to involve completely neutral hands without any form of bias or prejudice in the entire process and especially at the collation centres which is determinative of the outcome of any election”.

Yet, Onochie’s case presents even more concerns. Whereas Amina Zakari was already an INEC Commissioner before she was appointed in that ad hoc capacity by the Chairman of the Commission, Prof. Yakubu Mohammed, Onochie’s appointment is coming from the President of the Federation and she’s expected to serve for at least a minimum of 5 years if she gets the nod of the National Assembly.

It bears stating that the exercise of executive powers is a political discretion, as it is a moral obligation. Unfortunately, Muhammadu Buhari is one president who has no regard for such courtesies. And he has shown this impetuosity on more than one occasion. Whether in his lopsided appointments with scant regard for the Federal Character principle, the Ibrahim Magu affair, or his keeping of the Service Chiefs almost on end, despite all entreaties to the contrary, a golden thread to be seen is the total disregard for matters of competence, constitutionality, morality, acceptance and good conscience in the method of this administration. And here, we go again.

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But if by any chance, the President acted in good faith in the choice of this nominee, I imagine that the public outcry against nominating her since the announcement should awaken him to how much of a faux pas it is, and which should be remedied at once by an immediate withdrawal of the nominee. If however he is inclined to shifting that burden to members of the National Assembly who will be expected to screen the nominee, it is unclear how this particular Senate who have themselves admitted the toga of rubber stamps of Aso Rock, would receive the nominee. My guess is that, she would earn their vote of confidence somehow. But at what cost to the Nation?

In the past week, Nigerian youths have taken over the streets of all the major cities across the country in protests against police brutality and demanding for police reforms. That protest has since led to the disbandment of the controversial arm of the Police, F-SARS. Yet, the mob is not assuaged. Like Oliver Twist, they’re asking for more. And all they need is more justification to continue. Already, there are so many of them: ASUU strike, hike in electricity tariff, fuel prices, general state of government neglect, unemployment, increasing poverty and political corruption. It would therefore be a most costly mistake to give this restive youth one more reason to continue in their endless agitations despite what history teaches us about this. I hope the Lauretta Onochie situation does not become the short fuse that eventually throws open the gates of this raging revolution.

And if there’s one President who should not be caught dead in this current fiasco, it is Muhammadu Buhari himself. In 2015, he benefited from the independent and benign climate at INEC by winning a popular victory at the ballot against the then incumbent Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. If there’s one thing he must do, it is to preserve that clement atmosphere, instead of creating a needless moral crisis for the Commission with this controversial appointment.

Through and through, Onochie does not fit the bill. And having her willy-nilly tantamount to forcing square pegs in round holes. I advise on a lighter note that the media aide continues her lessons in civics and home economics for the wizkids and dumbkids of this world.

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Raymond Nkannebe, a Lawyer and Public Policy Analyst, write from Lagos. He tweets @raynkah.

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