Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Few weeks to the much anticipated date of February 16, presidential election, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), as well as other opposition parties, and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) are embroiled in a controversy.
The bone of contention is the appointment of the the INEC National Commissioner, in charge of Health and Welfare, Mrs. Amina Zakari, as the Head of the National Collation Centre for the presidential poll.
Since last Thursday when the INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu named Zakari the chair person of the ad hoc committee, the commission and the opposition political parties have been at loggerheads over the propriety of saddling the National Commissioner, who is said to be a relation of President Muhammadu Buhari, with such a sensitive assignment. President Buhari is the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate for the presidential poll.
Opposition political parties, including the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), which is the umbrella body of the 91 registered political parties in the country, condemned the appointment, stating that it brings to question the credibility and impartiality of INEC in the build up to the presidential poll.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, told journalists in Abuja that the choice of Zakari as head of the National Collation Centre, which would be saddled with the onerous task of collating the results of the presidential election, is an indication that Yakubu has bowed to alleged pressure from the presidency and the ruling party to give an unfair advantage to Buhari in next month’s contest.
According to Ologbondiyan, “in appointing Mrs. Amina Zakari to head the collation of this presidential election, Prof. Yakubu has confirmed that he has been compromised and that he has already succumbed to pressure by the Buhari Presidency and APC to open the way for the self-succession of President Buhari.
“The fact remains that there is no way Amina Zakari will not allocate votes to her blood relation, President Buhari, whom Nigerians have indicated clearly that they are not ready to return to office as President.”
The opposition spokesman added that “for us to have a peaceful election, Mrs. Amina Zakari should not be seen anywhere near any of the 2019 election processes, not to talk of being involved in the collation of presidential results.”
However, speaking on a television programme, the INEC director in charge of Voter Education and Publicity, Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi said the controversy was unnecessary as the National Commissioner, who is in the eye of the storm will not have any role to play in the collation of the presidential election results.
He explained that Zakari was appointed as Head of the National Collation Committee, because she is in charge of welfare in the commission, noting that the role of the collation committee is to be in charge of the International Conference Centre (ICC), venue for the collation of the presidential election results.
“The chairman of INEC by virtue of the Electoral Act is the returning officer of the country for the presidential election. It is he who decides the validity of votes and any issues in the election,” he said.
“The committee is primarily in charge of welfare. She was also very involved in negotiating with the ICC management in 2015 for the use of the facility so her duty is to ensure the facility is ready. She has no role whatsoever with the process of collation,” Osaze-Uzzi explained.
On its part, the presidency said the opposition party is crying wolf when none exists, pointing out that the accusations of impartiality against Zakari was baseless, as she was appointed into INEC by the immediate past administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan.
In a statement, signed by Mallam Shehu Garba, the presidency dismissed claims by the PDP that Zakari is President Buhari’s niece. However, it admitted that a marriage occurred between the extended family of the President and that of the National Commissioner.
“In their desperation, they forget that it was the PDP government that appointed her in the first place and they keep lying, as they have been caught doing on so many issues, by imputing a blood relationship between her and President Muhammadu Buhari.
“President Buhari and Commissioner Amina Zakari don’t share a family relationship. An inter-marriage occurred in their extended families, so the imputation of blood relationship between the president and the electoral commissioner is a simple lie.
“What is even more curious about all the fuss coming from the PDP is that they, as a ruling party picked Mrs. Zakari, judging her by her own merit and made her an electoral commissioner.
“She served so well with distinction as can be verified from the records that President Buhari approved the recommendation that she be reappointed, as he did other PDP nominees for second-term of four years. PDP, therefore, has no moral right to keep harassing this hardworking mother unless they have a hidden agenda,” the presidential spokesperson stated.
But the major opposition party says President Buhari’s admittance that a marriage occurred between his extended family and the INEC commissioner’s extended is a vindication of its stance that it is immoral for Zakari to be involved in the collation of the presidential results.
“It is totally unethical and immoral for an umpire to insist on officiating a contest even when her impartiality is called to question. Even in the judiciary, judges recuse themselves in cases involving parties they have affinity with. Mrs. Amina Zakari must therefore, recuse herself, if the 2019 presidential election must be credible.
“If, indeed, President Buhari is a man of integrity and is not pushing an ulterior motive with Amina Zakari, why is he insisting that she must be in INEC and that she must be at the collation of presidential result?,” the PDP queried in a statement signed by Ologbondiyan.
Similarly, the presidential candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) Oby Ezekwesili, said it is repugnant for the INEC to appoint Zakari as head of the National Collation Committee.
Ezekwesili said: “Zakari can be assigned another task farther away from tasks that can hinder electoral integrity. Or how else can one describe this repugnant action of placing the president’s niece, Mrs. Amina Zakari, at the head of the centre for collation of election results?
“The president and INEC chairman should know that this extremely repugnant and provocative act of political corruption that seeks to undermine our democracy and destabilise the country shall be resisted by all patriotic Nigerians.
“I caution the INEC chairman and the presidency to reverse this shameful posting immediately and safeguard the integrity of the 2019 elections.”
This is not the first time the embattled INEC commissioner will be a source of friction between the major opposition party and the electoral body. In the past, the PDP had on several instances accused Zakari, who used to oversee the Operations, as well as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Department of INEC, of alleged partiality in the conduct of elections.
The party’s opposition to Zakari’s continued stay in INEC heightened in the aftermath of the Osun governorship election, where the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate was declared winner of the controversial poll.
The PDP had pointedly accused the INEC ICT department, which was then under the supervision of the embattled commissioner of slashing the votes of its candidate, Senator Ademola Adeleke by 4, 740 votes to pave way for the victory of the ruling party’s candidate.
Leaders of the opposition party, including the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, Senate President, Bukola Saraki among others, were to later lead a protest to the INEC over the matter. Apparently in response to the protest, the INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, two weeks after removed Zakari from the ICT department and sent her to oversee the Health and Welfare department of the electoral commission.
However, it is unlikely that INEC would accede to the request of the opposition this time.
Reacting to the development, Zakari, in an interview with the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) denied being a relation of President Buhari. She equally ruled out the possibility of resigning as demanded by the opposition.
Regardless, the PDP is not relenting on its demand that the embattled INEC commissioner should not be part of the conduct of the 2019 polls. Consequently, the opposition party at the weekend called on the National Assembly to begin moves to relieve the embattled INEC commissioner of her duties immediately in the interest of the country’s democracy.
Section 157 of the 1999 constitution (as amended) provides that the chairman and members of the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Federal Civil Service Commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission, the National Judicial Council, the Federal Judicial Service Commission, the Federal Character Commission, the Nigeria Police Council, the National Population Commission, the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission and the Police Service Commission, may “only be removed from that office by the president acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate praying that he be so removed for inability to discharge the functions of the office (whether arising from infirmity of mind or body or any other cause) or for misconduct.”
Although Ologbondiyan said the PDP is already reaching out to its caucus in the National Assembly on the matter, it is however not certain how the Senate will react to the issue when it resumes from its Christmas holiday next Tuesday.
However, analysts say it is imperative for INEC to engage constructively with the political parties, especially on the current controversy, as well as take steps to regain the confidence of the opposition on its impartiality in the presidential poll; that way, they further contend, the outcome of the February 16 presidential election will not be marred by needless controversy.