Gbenga Aruleba, anchor of AIT’s popular Focus Nigeria TV talk-shop is not known to be a pro-Yar’adua commentator. His anchoring of the daily discussion programme, where rabid critics and allied cynics have a field day writing-off the Yar’adua Presidency relentlessly, bears this out. If anything, Gbenga Aruleba’s solo preamble to the discussions leave no doubt about his pessimistic posture on the prospects of the Presidency under Yar’adua. It was therefore significant, to say the least, hearing him assessing President Yar’adua with such acclaim during his recent programme. As a matter of fact, it was not only Gbenga Aruleba and his ilk that got literally swept off their feet by that unscheduled presidential media briefing. From subsequent broadcasts of the briefing, we witnessed similar sobriety among the State House press corps who listened with rapt attention as the President spoke with exceptional conviction and coherent grasp of the issues he addressed.
We were not privileged to know the reasons why, but, coming at a time of deep reflection and mounting concerns about the state of the nation, what with the biting fuel scarcity and the sinister simmering of the Ekiti palaver, President Yaradua’s sense of timing was reassuring. No matter the timing, however, it was really the substance rather than the style which made the greater impact, considering the public anxiety to get some insight into “government thinking” on the issues of concern. The presidential briefing turned out to be more effective in assuaging public anxiety over his grasp as well as grip on the issues and the challenge of governance, than any and indeed all previous preachments by supposedly competent and informed aides.
The issue of electoral reform was of particular interest because, until the President spoke, anyone would believe that there is indeed a hidden agenda in the Presidency’s rejection of some of the “popular” recommendations of the Uwais Committee, especially on the appointment of INEC’s chairman. In the heat of political hysteria over the government’s White Paper on the Uwais Report, the armchair critics and associated (fifth) columnists, many of whom flaunted “expertise” in the science of politics, canvassed the appointment of INEC’s head by the National Judicial Council(NJC), as a way out of the conundrum of presidential manipulation of the polls.
But President Yaradua’s explanations of the rationale for rejecting this “popular” option exposed the amazing illiteracy or deliberate mischief of our self-righteous political pundits on an issue as basic to modern democracy as separation of powers. In his typically humble manner of speaking, the President wondered how such an undemocratic prescription could be rammed down our system in this day and age when the suitability and effectiveness of separation of powers is beyond contention. Indeed, as the President declared, charging the NJC with the appointment of the head of INEC is not only in conflict with the constitutional principle of separation of powers, but worse still, also drags the judiciary straight into the muddy waters of partisan politics. The proponents of this dreadful option did not even think it would require a major amendment of the constitution, even if it made any sense. The crux of the matter, as President Yaradua rightly unravelled, is not the appointing authority but the integrity of the appointees and their commitment to exercising the independence granted INEC by law. No more, no less!
Even more poignant was the President’s emphasis on the correct perception of electoral reform as a multi-faceted process, rather than one quick fix formula for the much talked about free and fair elections. In this context, it bears restating that President Yar’adua never made any bones about the flaws and abuses that characterized elections in Nigeria, yes, including the one that ushered him into office in 2007. Far from seeking to defend his election, or abandoning the office of President as some really cheeky pundits “eagerly yearned for,” the President decided to initiate a thorough and objective review of the existing electoral system, as the logical and necessary first step towards reform. The Uwais Report is the prized outcome of that initiative, which has been widely accepted as a good foundation for reform. However, as the President tutored, the report is a government document which has to be further processed into a White Paper and Executive Bills, for submission to the National Assembly as the constitutionally proclaimed law-making arm of government. You cannot translate electoral reforms into “free and fair elections” without introducing new legislation and amending existing ones, both of which are designated as legislative functions. Believe it or not, this is the norm in all democracies of the world, but in Nigeria our analysts have maintained that a White Paper is unnecessary, and passing the matter to the Legislature is a waste of time. How untrue!
Badmus writes from 32 Apongbon Street, Ebute Metta Street, Lagos