Dr. Attahiru Jega, chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), was born in 1957 in Kebbi State. In 1984 he obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University, and afterwards occupied a variety of academic positions in Nigeria, most recently the vice-chancellorship at Bayero University Kano. Jega stepped into his current role with INEC last spring, and has become the main symbol of Nigeria’s elections. As with any symbol, people struggle to define what the symbol means.
In the context of Nigeria’s delayed elections, blaming or defending Jega has become a symbolic contest over the integrity of the elections themselves. For example, Northern Muslim elites I spoke with in Kano last summer frequently told me that Jega was their bellwhether for the legitimacy of the vote: if Jega resigned, they would know the elections were flawed; if he stayed, they would know the process was clean. Jega has also served to personify the work of Nigerian electoral reform for onlookers overseas: US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson recently called Jega “a person of integrity,” linking Jega’s personal reputation with the outcome of the entire electoral process.
Attaching such expectations and meanings to Jega’s actions magnifies the pressure he is under as an individual. Maggie Fick summarizes Jega’s predicament following the electoral delay:
Jega now finds himself between a rock and a hard place — if he resigns in the coming weeks (as was suggested by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission), he would be making a statement about the attempts of the political elite to discreetly undermine him, but he would forfeit the chance to attempt broader reforms within the electoral commission after the vote. Either way, the elections are coming, and it is clear that the consequences of the 2011 vote will not be inconsequential. Nigeria is a giant on the African continent: It is a diplomatic leader in regional crises from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, most recently, the Ivory Coast. And, as Africa’s largest oil and gas producer, it’s the undeniable economic motor of the region. The outcome of these elections will set the tone for a whopping 27 votes set to take place on the continent this year. No wonder the International Crisis Group recently warned that if Nigeria’s elections do not “reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999,” the impact ill be felt locally and internationally.
There is a lot riding on these elections.
Pressure on Jega has increased – and the contest over his symbolic meaning has intensified – with recent calls from civil society groups and some opposition parties for his resignation. As rumors multiply, allegations are circulating that “powerful Nigerians” such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo have been maneuvering behind the scenes to oust Jega. Reports say that Jega nearly resigned during a “tempestuous meeting” on Saturday that pitted the INEC chairman against security officials who supposedly demanded – and were denied – a greater role in managing the elections.
Whatever the truth of such rumors, and whatever the content of Saturday’s meeting, the stories about Jega emphasize how he has become the focal point of competing claims about what is going on with the elections. The dominant view seems to portray Jega as the champion of the people against the machinations of elites, but counter-narratives are working to discredit Jega as weak, incompetent, or partisan.
The rumors and accusations have prompted public commentary by leaders from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), including President Goodluck Jonathan. Former military leader and current presidential candidate General Muhammadu Buhari‘s spokesman has charged that Jonathan, the PDP, and pro-PDP agents within INEC “deliberately engineered the delay and non availability of the critical materials as an act of sabotage to discredit Jega,” and alleged that Jonathan was pressuring Jega to resign. In response, Jonathan has publicly proclaimed continued support for Jega. I would guess that Jonathan understands well that if Jega leaves now, it will not only damage the credibility of the elections, but also Jonathan’s reputation.
Nigerians will return to the polls Saturday. The world will be watching. And many people, inside and outside Nigeria, will be watching Jega – pinning hopes on him, scrutinizing his words and deeds, and pointing to him as a symbol of what is right or wrong with the elections, and with Nigeria. I do not envy him that position. Whatever happens now, I compliment him for having shown considerable grace under considerable pressure.