Sonnie Ekwowusi argues that INEC should bar Amina Zakari from the collation centre for the sake of its credibility

The INEC should understand that “free, fair and credible elections” means that the 2019 election should not only be free, fair and credible but should manifestly be seen by fair-minded and informed members of the public to be free, fair and credible. Appearance is at the heart of the rule against bias or likelihood of bias. Bias may take different forms but the main two forms of bias are actual and apprehended or imputed bias. Imputed bias is assessed objectively, by reference to conclusions that may be reasonably drawn from the actions, utterances and behaviour of umpires such as INEC.

It is not enough for INEC to say that it is organizing a “free, fair and credible elections”: INEC must be seen to be manifestly organizing, through its actions, utterances and behaviour, free, fair and credible elections. Obviously by retaining President Buhari’s niece Amina Zakari as INEC chief collation officer, INEC would not be seen by fair-minded and informed members of the Nigerian public to be organizing free and credible elections. The rule against bias or likelihood of bias is predicated on the perception of the fair-minded and informed members of the public.

The basis for the rule is to maintain public confidence in a public institution such as the judiciary that is vested with the power to adjudicate on any justiciable issue affecting the civil rights and obligations of citizens or electoral bodies such as INEC that organizes elections and oversees the implementation of election procedures. If, for example, an incorruptible judge notices that a law suit involving his niece is about to be brought to his court for his adjudication he would definitely disqualify himself from presiding over such a law suit involving his niece even though he is an incorruptible judge. Why? Because of likelihood of bias. Because members of the public would go away thinking or saying that the incorruptible judge was biased in favour of his niece even though, as I earlier stated, the incorruptible judge is above board.

Applying the same analogy, Amina Zakari cannot preside over the collation of results in an electoral contest in which Buhari her uncle is a major contestant even though she is incorruptible. Therefore INEC has no option but to replace Amina Zakari with another INEC staff. The retention of Amina Zakari would whittle down the remaining confidence of members of the public in INEC. Public perception, whether reasonable or unreasonable, matters in an election as crucial as the 2019 election. You will recall that when Mrs. Amina Zakari was initially appointed the acting INEC chairman the appointment was trailed by criticisms. Why? Because the public knew at that time that Amina Zakari was a relative of President Buhari. Consequently Amina Zakari was dropped and Prof Yakubu appointed in her stead as the substantive INEC Chairman. Now the same Amina Zakari has been retained as the chief collation officer of INEC in an election in which her uncle is a major contestant. Therefore INEC has no option but to ask Amina Zakari to step down as chief INEC collation officer.

The registered political parties under the aegis of the Inter-Party Advisory Council are also alleging that INEC is conspiring with the ruling party APC to recruit pro-APC staff to conduct the 2019 elections. This is a serious allegation which should not be dismissed with a wave of the hand. Rather than dismissing the allegation, the onus is on INEC to supply superior arguments, if any, to rebut or counter the allegation. INEC could begin by publishing in the newspapers the names and designations of all the INEC Resident Electoral Commissioners, returning officers and staffers officiating in the 2019 elections. Of all INEC officials, the RECs are the most powerful and influential.

The RECs are the representatives of INEC at the state level. The role of RECs is critical for the success of any election. The duties of the RECs include monitoring the activities of all INEC ad-hoc staff/RECs as well as provide for proper verification of election results. In fact, the INEC relies heavily on RECs verifications in authenticating the election results on the presupposition that RECs are people of unquestionable integrity. Who are the current RECs officiating in the 2019 election? Are they secret card-carrying members of any political party? Can INEC vouch for the character of the current RECs? The answers to these questions will determine to a large extent whether the 2019 election will be free and fair or not. Unfortunately some of the current RECs for the 2019 election were hurriedly handpicked and appointed by President Buhari. Their integrity is still untested.

Another allegation coming from some quarters is that INEC has tampered with the election guidelines as well as the accreditation methods. Obviously tampering with the election guidelines and methods would lead to massive election rigging. Therefore INEC should not change the goal post. Since President Buhari has refused to assent to the Electoral Bill (as amended), INEC should revert to the 2015 election guidelines and 2015 accreditation method in the conduct of the 2019 election. Some are also complaining that the E-Collation portal has been tampered with in such a way that it no longer shows location, time and date of collation of results. This is also a very serious complaint which must not be overlooked because the validity of the 2019 election is predicated on the credibility of the E-Collation portal.

Therefore unless INEC rectifies the aforesaid fault, the E-Collation portal would be an engine of fraud. If INEC is still contemplating setting up polling booths in Niger Republic, Chad, Mali and other neigbouring countries in other to enable the so-called internally-displaced Nigerians who are outside Nigeria to cast their votes, it must stay action on it. Apart from being illegal and unconstitutional, setting up pooling booths in neigbouring countries is an invitation to mass rigging of the elections. Instead of wasting resources in erecting pooling booths in Niger Republic and others, INEC should use the same resources in ensuring that non-Nigerians, under-age children and foreign Okada riders infiltrating Nigeria through our porous border are not hired to vote in the North-Eastern and North-Central areas of the North.

In my view, the most important issue at the moment in the much-vaunted 2019 election is whether or not INEC is a biased or an unbiased umpire in the conduct of the election. If INEC is biased in favour of President Buhari and the APC, then we have succeeded in wasting our time. Sensing that the Presidential election might be rigged in favour of Buhari, the U.S. Congress last week threatened to sanction the Buhari government or INEC officials that would be complicit in rigging the Presidential election. In a long essay entitled, Points for Concern and Action, elder Statesman Dr. Olusegun Obasanjo calls for action on what he understands as the rigging of the 2019 elections by Buhari and the APC. The aforesaid essay is a must read. In it, Obasanjo stated that democracy becomes a sham when people organizing an election in a democracy are not impartial. Citing the mass rigging that occurred in the last Osun State Gubernatorial election as an example, Obasanjo said that he and many Nigerians have lost confidence in Prof. Mahmood Yakubu led-INEC