Professor Attahiru Jega: Nigeria’s Champion for Democracy
By Adam Gallagher, Editor and Writer
Nigeria’s 2015 general elections marked a watershed moment in the country’s history with the first opposition candidate defeating an incumbent President in democratic elections. Given the country's tumultuous history of coups and military rule, a phone call from then-incumbent President Goodluck Johnathon on March 28 to congratulate opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari represented a resounding statement about the development of democracy in Nigeria since its transition in 1999. Buhari’s inauguration on May 29, 2015 completed the first democratic transfer of power in Africa’s largest country by population and its biggest economy. Politicians and political parties, security forces and citizens alike have all been applauded, and rightly so, by international observers for their role in the success of the 2015 elections. Behind the scenes, however, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and its former Chairman Professor Attahiru Jega conducted a remarkably credible and transparent electoral process in the face of many challenges. Since being nominated to lead the INEC in 2010, the integrity and professionalism of Professor Jega and the commission has been an important force for democracy in Nigeria.
Professor Jega was appointed to head the INEC at a particularly troubling time for the commission. Nigeria’s 2007 general elections were marred by fraud and abuse and condemned by international observers; a statement by the European Union said that the 2007 vote fell “short of basic international standards.” On June 8, 2010, Jega was nominated to be the next Chairman of the INEC and unanimously approved. At the time, Jega, a respected political scientist with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, was the president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities known for his opposition to the Babangida’s military government in the early 1990s and his participation as a member of the Electoral Reform Committee that proposed a number of recommendations to improve Nigeria’s electoral process following the problematic 2007 elections.
Within less than a year of taking over the Chairmanship, Professor Jega and the INEC administered general elections in April 2011. Following the turmoil of the 2007 elections, Chairman Jega recognized the importance of credible and transparent elections in 2011. “Should this coming election fail, the peace, unity and stability of Nigeria can be compromised. I’m determined not to fail,” Jega said ahead of the 2011 vote. Although violence erupted as opposition supporters refused to accept the election results, domestic and international observers deemed the polls to be largely free and fair. According to the National Democratic Institute’s observer report, “Nigeria’s 2011 general elections … were significantly more transparent and credible than the three preceding polls … these polls represented a key milestone in the country’s democratic development.” Under Chairman Jega’s leadership, the INEC introduced two critical reforms that were key to the success of the 2011 elections. First, the INEC compiled an entirely new voter registry, as the previous registry was mistrusted and inaccurate. Secondly, the INEC implemented a modified open ballot system, requiring voters to be accredited at the polls prior to voting, which helped to limit fraud and multiple voting.
Nigeria’s 2015 general elections were originally scheduled to take place on February 14, but the INEC decided to postpone the polls by six weeks. The delay was controversial and led some to accuse the ruling People's Democratic Party of meddling in the electoral process. At an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. on June 11, Professor Jega explained that the six-week delay was ultimately integral to the success of the elections. According to Jega, the INEC used the six-week window to fine-tune the electoral process and it allowed voters to acquire uncollected Permanent Voter’s Cards. Furthermore, the Nigerian military and intelligence apparatus met with the INEC and said it had an important window of opportunity to take on the terrorist group Boko Haram, which would limit the presence of security forces at the polls. At CSIS, Jega asserted that the delay adhered to the Nigerian Constitution and, despite accusations to the contrary, did not advantage one party or candidate over the other. "We decided not to put the lives of 750,000 election workers at risk and ignore the army's warning," Jega averred.
Overall, the 2015 general elections have been hailed by domestic and international observers. Although security was a major concern, voting proceeded smoothly on Election Day. The introduction of new technologies had a mixed track record in the 2015 polls, but contingencies put in place by the INEC helped to mitigate problems before they arose. At CSIS, Professor Jega said that the INEC engaged with all stakeholders in the lead up to the elections in an effort to not just improve on the 2011 elections, but to conduct the most credible and transparent elections possible. Under Chairman Jega’s leadership, the INEC’s efforts led to an important moment for democracy in Africa.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has awarded Professor Jega with its 2015 Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award to honor his unwavering commitment to protecting and promoting Nigerians’ right to have vote and a voice. “Chairman Jega’s leadership was instrumental to Nigeria’s successful general elections in 2015,” said IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney. “He deserves full credit for his efforts to increase the credibility and transparency of the electoral process under extreme logistical challenges,” added Sweeney.
Professor Jega officially stepped down as Chairman of the INEC on June 30 and has said he will return to academia. While at CSIS, Jega reflected on his tenure at the INEC and said that the commission had been significantly developed as an institution over the last five years and humbly gave credit to all its staff and commissioners. Without a doubt, the INEC became a much more professional and efficient election management body with Jega at the helm. Following two successful electoral cycles, Jega’s legacy will be the public’s increased trust in elections and the INEC.
“How goes Nigeria, so goes the rest of Africa,” is a famous saying depicting the country’s importance on the continent. With a slate of important elections in Africa in 2015 and 2016, democracy observers can only hope this maxim rings true. Credible and transparent elections that reflect the will of African citizens are a vital component of democratic consolidation. However, as Professor Jega noted at CSIS, “Good elections are important, but not enough for effective governance and socio-economic development, they are only the starting point.” The work of Professor Jega and the INEC has provided Nigeria with such a starting point for further democratic development and provided a model for other African states in elections to come.