Too Close for Comfort

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Ojo Maduekwe writes that the appointment of Amina Zakari to head the Independent National Electoral Commission 2019 elections collation centre is threatening the credibility of the electoral commission, which is already accused as being under the influence of the presidency

The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the presidency are bickering again over the choice of a national commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Amina Zakari, to head the commission’s 2019 elections collation centre.

For the upcoming presidential election, Mrs. Zakari will serve as the Chairperson of INEC Advisory Committee and the Presidential election Collation Centre Committee, supervising affairs at the national collation centre – the International Conference Centre – from where final results of the presidential election will be announced.

The main opposition party, PDP, has criticised Zakari’s appointment. Spokesperson of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation (PPCO), Kola Ologbondiyan, said his party has been reliably informed of a plot by INEC to rig the presidential election in favour of President Muhammadu Buhari, using the “strategic” appointment of Zakari.

In response, the presidency says the PDPs allegations were “baseless accusations”. A statement signed by Garba Shehu, a spokesperson to Buhari, read that, except for an inter-marriage, “President Buhari and Commissioner Amina Zakari don’t share a family relationship.”

Following Zakari’s appointment, the credibility of INEC – largely seen by opposition parties as biased towards the All Progressives Congress (APC) and in favour of Buhari – has again been brought to question.

Reacting to the appointment, presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Oby Ezekwesili, tweeted that, “It is now quite obvious that the INEC Chairman is making decisions that cannot at all be independent”, and went on to query whether the INEC chairman and Buhari were ready for what she said would be a “grave consequence.”

The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) also views the appointment as a plot to rig the presidential election. In a statement by its spokesperson, Ikenga Ugochinyere, CUPP said the appointment, coming barely 24 hours after INEC denied being pressured by APC to rig the election, has exposed it as “a part and parcel of the rigging machinery of the APC.”

The CUPP is an umbrella body that comprises more than 40 opposition parties; which had last year December adopted the candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, as its candidate in the coming presidential election.

In their desperation to score a point, the PDP may have misrepresented the true relationship between Mrs. Zakari and Buhari. The party claims Zakari is a “blood relation (niece)” of the president, an accusation the presidency has denied and which PDP has grudgingly accepted.

Mrs. Zakari is rumoured to be a princess of the Kazaure Emirate in Jigawa State. Her father was the late Emir of Kazaure, Husseini Adamu, and the current Emir Najib Adamu, and the current Minister for Water Resources, Suleiman Adamu, are said to be her brothers.

It is said that Buhari’s elder sister was married to the late Emir, Zakari’s father, and that Zakari was not her biological daughter (but a stepdaughter) as being alleged by those opposed to her appointment.

While Buhari and Zakari both deny being related by blood, controversial second republic politician, Junaid Mohammed, insists that Zakari is Buhari’s niece. “For those who do not know, let it be known (and let me repeat it) that Buhari’s sister, who was married to a prominent Emir in Kazaure, in the present Jigawa State, gave birth to Amina.”

The PDP and the other political parties opposed to her appointment hold the view that though there may not be any blood relationship between Zakari and Buhari, their relationship is still too close for comfort.

Drawing correlation between Zakari’s appointment and what is expected of a judge handling a case where they (the judge) have an affinity with one of the parties to the case, the PDP has asked Mrs. Zakari to “recuse herself, if the 2019 presidential election must be credible.”

In the advent that Zakari refuses to “rescue herself” by stepping down her appointment, or Buhari too does not rescind his decision, CUPP has vowed to “consider very drastic measures including pulling out of the peace accord” to register its disapproval of the appointment.

Though INEC insist that Zakari’s role during the election would involve nothing more than the handling of “facilities such as power, access to the internet, live transmission for national and international media, as well as accreditation for access to the ICC and security of the venue,” critics worry the commission might make a volte-face days to the election.

Some critics of the president allege that Zakari would be open to carrying out any instruction from the presidency to ensure the government, wherein her brother is a minister, is returned to power. According to them, Zakari was too much invested in the election not to be biased.

Zakari’s first known political dealings with Buhari was as a lead consultant with Afri-Project Consortium, a defunct company that handled Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) projects under Buhari. Also between 1994 and 1999, Zakari was said to have been in charge of the PTF health projects.

There are also those who feel that judging by Buhari’s disposition towards those whom he considers loyal to him, even if INEC were independent, Zakari holding such “strategic” position during the presidential election, might erode the electoral commission’s neutrality.

On the other hand, supporters of Zakari have argued that it was actually a PDP government headed by former President Goodluck Jonathan that appointed Zakari into INEC. In 2011, she was appointed a national electoral commissioner, representing the North-west. Also, in 2015 when former INEC chairman, Attahiru Jega, on retiring handed over to Ahmed Wali, Buhari overruled Jega and replaced Wali with Zakari, before later appointing the current chairman.

Supporters of Buhari and the APC might ask, what does family relations have to do with free, fair and credible elections?

The answer is simple. In a situation where an unpopular president, desperately seeking re-election, has his relation (blood or not) occupying a strategic position in an allegedly biased electoral body, that relationship becomes the thin line between a credible election and a rigged one.