By Deji Elumoye and Chuks Okocha in Abuja
A sense of outrage yesterday greeted President Muhammadu Buhari’s nomination of one his media aides, Ms. Lauretta Onochie, as a national commissioner representing the South-south in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) with social critics saying it was a provocative assault on the 1999 Constitution as altered.
In the fray were the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Senate minority caucus, and former Senator Dino Melaye.
Buhari had yesterday asked the Senate to confirm the appointment of Onochie, Prof. Muhammad Kallah, Katsina State (North-west); and Prof. Kunle Cornelius Ajayi, Ekiti State (South-west); as national commissioners.
He also requested confirmation of Mr. Saidu Ahmad, Jigawa State as a resident commissioner.
Onochie, from Delta State, is the special assistant to the president on Social Media.
The letter dated October 12, 2020, was read by the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan.
The president in a separate letter to the upper chamber requested the confirmation of the appointment of three Executive Directors of the Board of the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency.
He said the request for confirmation was in accordance with the provision of Section 2(3) of the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency (Amendment) Act 2007.
The nominees are Mr. Ifeanyi Kammelu (Executive Director, South-east); Mr. Muhammad Bizi (Executive Director, North-east); and Prof. Abubakar Ismail (Executive Director, North-west).
In a swift reaction to Onochie’s nomination, the PDP described the appointment of the presidential media aide, a card-carrying member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), as a highly provocative assault on the nation’s constitution and democratic process.
Addressing a pressing conference in Abuja yesterday, the National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said the president’s nomination of his personal staff as INEC national commissioner supports the position of the PDP that Buhari’s statements of leaving a legacy of credible polls were mere glib talks on electoral sanctity and clearly demonstrates that he has no plans whatsoever to leave a legacy of credible polls.
According to the PDP spokesman, “This ugly development is another shameful attempt to plant unscrupulous elements in INEC in order to corrupt and further desecrate the sanctity of the commission, undermine our electoral system and destabilise our democratic process ahead of the 2023 general election.
“We had hoped that, as Mr. President had professed in the past, he is truly running his second and final term in office. If that were so, then Lauretta Onochie’s nomination as INEC national commissioner clearly points to a totally different direction,” he said.
Ologbondiyan said that being a card-carrying member of the APC as records shows (from Ward 5 Onicha Olona, Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta state), Onochie’s nomination is in clear violation of paragraph 14 of the 3rd schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which forbids a person involved in partisan politics to hold office as a member of INEC.
He asked the president to withdraw the nomination.
Also reacting to the appointment, a senior lawyer, Mallam Ahmed Raji (SAN), told THISDAY that any person occupying an office in INEC according to constitutional provisions must not belong to any political party.
“INEC as an institution is expected to be non-partisan in composition and performance. The relevant provisions of the constitution attest to this. Having regards to the position currently occupied by the highly respected lady of substance, I do not think the proposed appointment/nomination is in line with both the letters and spirit of our constitution.
“The great lady of substance is eminently qualified to be the head of NAN, VON, FRCN or NTA but not a body like INEC,” Raji explained.
Another SAN, Mr. John Baiyeshea, argued that there must first be a proof of evidence that the said nominee is a card-carrying member of a political party or the APC as in the instant case.
“There is no legal impediment that can disturb or adversely affect the nomination of that aide for the position,” he argued.
Reacting to item F, paragraph 14 of the third schedule of the 1999 Constitution that forbids a card carrying member from being appointed into INEC, Baiyeshea said: “If they can show that she is a member of APC, that may be a strong point against her. But many of such presidential aides are not necessarily card-carrying members of political parties.
“That’s why I remarked in my comment above that the issue of partisanship may mar her confirmation. But it is one thing for a person to express partisan views, and it is another thing for the person to be a member of a party.
“I also remarked above that her confirmation hearing will likely be controversial.”
A coalition led by human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), Alliance on Surviving COVID-19 and Beyond (ASCAB), faulted Onochie’s nomination.
ASCAB in statement signed by the learned silk, reminded the president that going by the letters of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), a card-carrying member of a registered political party or a well-known supporter of a particular political party is constitutionally disqualified from the membership of INEC.
It said as an unrepentant member of the ruling party, Onochie has consistently attacked members of other political parties, making her partisan and unqualified to be a member of INEC.
“In appointing the members of the INEC the president is required to consult with the Council of State pursuant to section 154 (3) of the Constitution; Paragraph B of Part 1 of the 3rd Schedule to the Constitution provides that ‘The Council of State shall have power to advise the president in the exercise of his powers with respect to (iv) the Independent National Electoral Commission, including the appointment of the members of the commission.’
“Pursuant to section 154 (1) of the Constitution, the appointment of the members of the Independent National Electoral Commission shall be subject to confirmation by the Senate; Paragraph 14 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the Constitution as amended by Section 30, Act No 1 of 2010, a member of the Independent National Electoral Commission shall be non-partisan.”
The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room asked Buhari to withdraw the nomination of Onochie.
Convener of Situation Room, Mr. Clement Nwankwo, said in a statement yesterday that the nomination is an attempt to weaken the efforts to build a credible electoral process in Nigeria.
Quoting the 1999 Constitution, Nwankwo said paragraph 14 forbids a “partisan politician” as a member of the electoral body.
He urged the Senate to disregard her nomination if the president fails to withdraw it.
He also asked the Senate to investigate the other nominees as they might have been nominated based on “self-serving interest.”
“The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room is concerned about the nomination of Ms. Lauretta Onochie, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Social Media as National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) representing the South-south,” the statement read.
It added: “Ms. Onochie is a known partisan supporter of President Muhammadu Buhari and his ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).
“Item F, paragraph 14 of the third schedule of 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) forbids a partisan politician as a member of INEC – a body charged under the Constitution to unbiasedly conduct of free and fair elections.”
The Senate Minority Caucus also yesterday said the president flouted the nation’s constitution with the appointment of his media aide as a national commissioner of the INEC.
The opposition senators in a statement in Abuja and signed by their leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, however, asked Buhari to withdraw the nomination. They noted that the president, by nominating Onochie, has willfully gone against the constitution that he swore to uphold.
A three-time member of the National Assembly, Senator Dino Melaye, joined in asking Buhari to immediately rescind the nomination of Onochie for the same reason as other critics.