Controversy over the role of academics in 2015 election

Nigeria’s recent general election witnessed high involvement of vice-chancellors as returning officials and new graduates as polling officers. The election was judged to be free and fair, but the participation of the university community has been enmeshed in controversy.

There were 35 vice-chancellors involved as returning officers. They presided over the counting of votes taken to collation centres. At the national collation centre in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, the vice-chancellors read – in the full glare of private and public television – the details of their findings followed by the announcement of results.

While the vast majority of lecturers approved, some believed university leaders should play a lesser role in order to preserve academic integrity.

Professor heads the electoral commission

Four years ago Professor Attahiru Jega, former vice-chancellor of Ado Bayero University in Kano, was appointed chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission, or INEC.

One of the innovations he undertook was to involve the university community in the electoral process. He drew up a roadmap and one of the highlights was appointing serving vice-chancellors as collation and returning officers.

Jega also convinced the commission to recruit new university graduates as polling agents. These fresh graduates are members of the National Youth Service Corps, a 40-year project that obliges all graduates to do a compulsory year of national service in any part of the country.

The 2011 general elections were judged by local and international observers to be marred by irregularities and violence in some parts of Nigeria. Some graduates lost their lives, as polling agents, during that election.

The university community became concerned about the role of academics in the political process.

“The integrity of academics was put to question in that election not because those involved from the university were men and women with questionable characters. But our involvement in that process cast a slur on our image,” said a professor who did not want to be named because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

The concerns of Jega’s ‘constituency’ – the university community – were relayed to him. The former national president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, a union held in high esteem in Nigeria, was also worried about his own image and integrity.

Electoral reforms a success

According to reliable sources, Jega commissioned some academics to come up with proposals for reforming the electoral process.

While the lecturers suggested that the university community should continue to be involved in the process, they also believed it was necessary to act emphatically against voting fraud.

The small committee created by Jega suggested that every Nigerian who registered for an election must have a permanent voter card, or PVC. There should also be biometric card readers – machines that could detect fraudulent voter cards.

Jega got the commission to accept and implement the PVC and the card readers.

This year’s general election was held on 28 and 29 March. Afterwards, the assessment of the university community was that the election process had radically changed.

“Both local and international observers have adjudged the recently concluded elections as free and fair. There is a tremendous improvement in the conduct of elections. We must congratulate Professor Attahiru Jega and his team for implementing the reforms suggested,” said Salihu Bappa, a lecturer in dramatic arts at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria.

He dwelt extensively on the use of PVC and the card readers. “No country on the African continent has ever put the card readers to use. One must congratulate the devotion and patience of the graduates who were trained to handle the card readers. They prevented the use of cloned PVCs which were detected by the card reader,” Salihu Bappa observed.

On 31 March, before the overall results of the presidential contest were announced, outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan accepted the outcome and sent a congratulatory message to new President Muhammadu Buhari.

“This is the first time in the history of Nigeria that a sitting president would organise, lose an election, accept the results and congratulate the winner,” John Lamido remarked.

“Many observers failed to realise the fact that Goodluck Jonathan is also from the university. The culture of humility, integrity and honour are the hallmarks of Nigeria’s university community.”

In the end, the input and involvement of the university community in this year’s general elections appears to have added value and credibility to the process.

According to reliable sources, the African Union is to send experts to Nigeria to study the application of digital knowledge in the electoral process. It is possible that the Nigerian experience may be ‘exported’ to other African countries, to help in the conduct of their polls.