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IT was in October 2020 that President Muhammadu Buhari nominated four commissioners for inclusion in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). But, out of the five nominees whose names were sent via a letter to the Nigeria Senate including, Lauretta Onochie, Kunle Ajayi, Seidu Ahmed and Mohammed Sani, that of Onochie raised much dust.

Nigerians were bitter with the President, wondering what he intended to achieve by appointing his Personal Assistant on Social Media as a member of the nation’s electoral umpire.

Many of those that raised their voices against the nomination, especially the Nigeria Bar of Association, were riled by the act of impunity by the President, particularly the implication of Onochie’s appointment on the country’s electoral process.

It was further recalled how President Buhari stonewalled the reforms of the electoral process by his reluctance and outright refusal to assent to the 2010 Electoral Act as amended by the Eighth plenary of the National Assembly.
Although the Ninth National Assembly assured that passage of the Electoral Act was its priority legislative assignment, two years after the lawmakers came on board Nigeria is yet to have an updated Electoral Act.

It was therefore against that background that two years to the next general election, President Buhari insisted on renewing the submission of the names of his Personal Assistant on New Media, Onochie, to the Senate for confirmation after it was stepped down eight months ago.

In his letter seeking confirmation for the nominee, which was read by the President of Senate, Ahmed Lawan, President Buhari remarked that the appointment was in line with paragraph 14 of Part 1f of the first schedule of the 1999 Constitution.

And just like it happened last year, when her named propped up at the Senate sitting, Nigerians were incensed at the possibility of having a well known card-carrying member of a political party-All Progressives Congress (APC)-as INEC commissioner. This is just as the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), maintained that Ms. Onochie has no business in INEC as one of its commissioners.

Civil society groups also weighed in on the matter, expressing outrage that having the President’s aide and APC chieftain in INEC would remove every semblance of public confidence in the Commission, particularly the 2023 general elections.

In virtually all the voices of opposition to Onochie’s nomination, much stress was laid on Section 14(2a) of the Third Schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). The section stipulates: “A member of the commission shall be non-partisan and a person of unquestionable integrity.”

But, either the Presidency was oblivious to the constitutional wedge or desirous of rubbing in its control on the Senate, Onochie’s name made it back to the Red Chamber. And the sparks began to fly once more.

Contest of law, loyalty
NO sooner than the letter introducing the subject matter reached the Senate President’s table that the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) raised strong objections, warning that it would consider litigation to impress it upon the Presidency that the rule of law must be observed on the issue.  

Even as the NBA picked holes on Onochie’s fitness to serve as INEC commissioner, it noted that the President ought and should have consulted with stakeholders so as to avoid the imperatives of ego and sentiments. While urging the Senate to decline clearance for the President’s aide, the NBA, through a letter addressed to Chairman of Senate Committee on INEC, Alhaji Kabiru Gaya (APC, Kano) said the nominee’s political affiliation violates her appointment to the sensitive office.

NBA’s Head of Public Interest and Development Law, Mr. Monday Ubani, who signed the letter demanded that Onochie should be dropped on the premise of her political bias. Citing the need to observe due process, NBA expressed doubts as to whether the Council of State was consulted before Ms. Onochie was nominated in line with Section 154 (3) of the Constitution.

He argued: “By law, the council has the authority to advise the President as he exercises his power over INEC and any appointment in the electoral commission. Most importantly, Paragraph 14 of Part I of the Third Schedule of the Constitution (as amended) in Section 30 Number 1 of 2020, says a member of INEC should be ‘non-partisan.

“Can Ms. Lauretta Onochie be regarded by anyone in Nigeria, knowing her antecedent as the Special Assistant to the President, as ‘non-partisan’ under the Nigerian context? The right answer is No.”

Last year, precisely on   October 12, 2020, the Senate spurned her nomination in response to massive protest by some Senators, who noted her active partisan political participation.

A source confided in The Guardian that after Mrs. Amina Zakari bowed out of INEC, President Buhari sees Onochie as a loyal ally that would fill the void created. “President Buhari reposes much confidence in women and he is interested in pushing the few that have always been around him. That is why he is insisting on having the Delta-born lady to be in INEC,” the source stated.

But, in rewarding loyalty, it would be seen how the Senators, majority of whom belong to the governing APC would navigate their way through the constitutional huddles raised by Nigerians, particularly the NBA. Would the APC Senators save the President’s ego or bow to the intendments of the Constitution on this issue of Ms. Onochie’s recommendation for INEC?

That dilemma was discernible last Wednesday, when Senate Leader, Dr. Yahaya Abdullahi (APC, Kebbi North) conveyed President Buhari’s letter asking the lawmakers to confirm the nominees. In a voice subdued by the reality of the moment, Senator Abdullahi invited his colleagues “to consider the request of Mr. President on the confirmation of the nomination of the following persons for appointment as commissioners of INEC in accordance with paragraph 14 part I(F) of the third schedule to the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.

“The nominees are: Prof. Muhammad Sani Kallah (Commissioner Katsina); Lauretta Onochie (Commissioner Delta), Prof. Kunle Cornelius Ajayi (Commissioner Ekiti); Saidu Babura Ahmad (Commissioner Jigawa); Prof. Sani Muhammad Adam (Commissioner North Central) and Dr. Baba Bila (Commissioner North East).”

Rising to the tricky occasion, the Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe (PDP, Abia South) wondered aloud why no other nominee was chosen by the President to replace Onochie after the first failed excursion. Perfunctorily seconding the motion, Abaribe observed, “We have dealt with the matter of the nomination of Lauretta Onochie. So, we feel surprised the same name has resurfaced no longer as a national commissioner, but as Delta State commissioner.
“Reluctantly, I second the motion that these nominations be referred to the appropriate committee for action. We shall meet in Philippi.”

The Senate President in familiar manner had tried to rationalise Onochie’s nomination by explaining that instead of Resident Electoral Commissioner, the Presidential aide was being appointed as INEC national commissioner to represent Delta State.

Yet, as a ranking Senator, it was obvious that Abaribe knows that the final showdown would come after the Senate Committee on INEC concludes its work. The allusion to Philippi therefore, is a veiled reference to the clash of constitution and Presidential consideration, which propelled the second missionary journey of the Delta nominee.

The job of sifting through the various arguments marshalled by those opposed to Onochie’s nomination, as well as petitions by civil society groups, including NBA and the Situation Room falls on the committee, which is expected to submit its report for confirmation or rejection thereafter.

Senator Abdullahi’s voice was not smooth while reading out the presidential communication, perhaps out of quiet reflection on the fact that the instant confirmation exercise was contrary to the practice adopted by the Ahmed Lawan-led Senate, which completes screening and confirmation within weeks. But, on account of Onochie, the current exercise is taking almost one year.

Impartial umpire
SPEAKING when the INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, visited the Presidential Villa to render update on the scale of damage and destruction visited on the commission’s offices across the country, President Buhari assured that he would provide the electoral umpire all it needs to deliver credible polls.
The President emphasised that there should be no speculations as to whether he would leave office at the end of his tenure on May 29, 2023, stressing that he does not subscribe to fraud in any form.
If the President’s concerns about the survival of democracy after his tenure are real, this is the time to clean up the Electoral Act, and that includes putting men and women of integrity into INEC. Bulldozing the way for Onochie in the Senate in the hope of gaining unfair advantage for any party at the 2023 polls is an old, crooked route Nigerians don’t want to experience.

For the NASS, this is another opportunity to correct an execute arm that is bent on over-hyping its advantages. It happened to former acting chairman of the EFCC, Ibrahim Magu, when the Presidency refused to surrender his nomination to the due process of NASS screening, and at the end of the day, Magu was ditched and his efforts of five years plus were wasted.

If the Presidency and the NASS leadership think they can force their way with Onochie’s nomination, they should also prepare to meet Nigerians in the court of law.
For now, civic groups and opposition parties are insisting that the President must withdraw Onochie’s ‘undemocratic’ nomination on grounds that it could impair the impartiality expected of INEC and credibility of forthcoming elections.
As a certified member of APC, Ms. Onochie openly worked for President Buhari and APC’s interest during previous general elections in 2015 and 2019, a closeness the constitution abhors.
It could be argued that what ultimately happens to Ms. Onochie’s nomination at the Senate would serve as a backcloth to examine what the Presidency and National Assembly intends to do about the Electoral Act amendment and other issues connected to reforming the electoral process for credible polls.

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