It was excitement galore across the country and across political divide as the Senate on July 13, 2021 unanimously rejected Lauretta Onochie as one of the national commissioners nominated by President Muhammadu Buhari for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Prior to her rejection, there had been widespread demonstration and clamour by the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) like the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room and United Nigerian Movement (UNM) on why the lawmakers should not confirm her nomination for the interest of democracy.
Precisely on October 12, 2020, Buhari, in his letter, listed Onochie (Delta), Muhammad Sani Kallah (Katsina), Kunle Cornelius Ajayi (Ekiti), Saidu Babura Ahmad (Jigawa), Sani Muhammad Adam (North Central) and Baba Bila (North East) as INEC national commissioners.
Out of the six candidates, Onochie’s nomination was vehemently opposed on the ground that she has been a card carrying member and remains an APC staunch supporter.
In fact, the uproar that greeted her nomination was based on clear breach of the constitution. For instance, Section 1 (A) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) forbids anyone enjoying the membership of any political party from taking INEC’s job. Being the current Special Assistant to the President on Social Media has already violated this constitutional provision.
In view of the deluge of petitions against her, many had thought that the Kabiru Gaya-led Senate Committee on INEC would have disqualified her during the screening stage, but when the committee submitted its report and the recommendation put to a voice vote by the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, it was a resounding nay!
The lawmakers, however, went on to confirm Muhammed Kallah (representing Katsina State), Kunle Ajayi (Ekiti), Seidu Ahmad (Jigawa State), Baba Bila (Northeast) and Abdullahi Zuru (Northwest).
The committee recommended that Muhammed Adam’s confirmation be stepped down pending further legislative action by the committee.
Gaya explained that the committee rejected Onochie’s nomination because May Agbamuche-Mbu currently represents Delta state as a national commissioner of INEC.
So, it was not surprising when the Centre for Transparency Advocacy (CTA), Coalition of Northern Groups (CNG) and Democracy Vanguard of the Citizenship Civic Awareness Centre (CCAC), among others expressed support for her rejection.
Beyond rhetoric, what this portends is that there is still hope for Nigeria’s democracy despite the hues and cries. It also shows that the lawmakers could put national interest over and above partisanship.
Former governor of Ekiti state, Ayo Fayose, commended the Senate for listening to Nigerians by rejecting Onochie’s nomination as INEC national commissioner.
According to him, ”This portends great hope for democracy and I hope the National Assembly can go further by subjecting itself more to what represents the interest of Nigerians.”
Now that the senators have exposed Buhari’s blunder by rejecting Onochie, do we envisage a situation whereby Onochie will be re-nominated and subsequently confirmed as INEC national commissioner by the same lawmakers who rejected her? This is the question on the lips of many.
We have seen this play out before with the former acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, who was re-nominated after the Senate declined to confirm him on two occasions largely due to petition against him by the State Security Service (SSS).
The 8th Senate, which was not under Buhari’s beck and call, vehemently refused to confirm Magu, insisting that the president nominate someone else. Unfortunately, that was never the case as Magu remained in acting capacity until he was ignominously removed with allegation of corruption on his neck.
Fillers from the grapevine have it that Buhari might re-nominate Ms Lauretta Onochie for the same position and the lawmakers might subsequently confirm her as the President of the Senate had earlier said that they would always do the bidding of the president because it is good for the country when he hosted the Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, Itse Sagay on a courtesy visit in November 2019.
According to Lawan, “Any request that comes from Buhari is good for the nation and the Senate will take immediate action on them.
“I want to assure you that any request that comes from Mr. President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place in terms of appointments or legislation and the Senate will act expeditiously to ensure that we play our part in the confirmation or passing of legislation appropriately.”
Such nomination or appointment that is at variance with the law is generally seen as a way of compensating some political aides as Buhari’s administration begins to wind down.
An Abuja-based analyst, Jide Ojo was of the opinion that the implication of allowing Onochie get the job will erode public confidence in 2023 election and will be too disastrous for the country’s democracy. He argued that the same debacle that resulted in the removal of the Chief Justice of the Federation, Walter Onnoghen to the build-up to the 2019 general election will be hanging on the 2023 election if Onochie is confirmed.
“I want to commend the Senate, particularly the Senate Committee on INEC. It shows that they are a listening committee and the Senate of the people of Nigeria are susceptible to public opinion.
“I think they gave Lauretta Onochie a soft-landing by saying her nomination was rejected by federal character principles alone. I also read a contradictory statement by one of the aides to the Senate President that said she was disqualified based on partisanship. But in the interview granted by Kabiru Gaya, he said she was disqualified based on federal character.
“The implication is that it will erode public confidence in 2023 election and will be too disastrous. You see, perception and reality may not be the same but they are very close. Just like what happened in 2019 when the Chief Justice of Nigeria was removed barely one month to the election. It was believed as part of the gang up to undermine the election and that is still hanging on this administration that it orchestrated the removal. The same debacle will be hanging on the 2023 election if Onochie is confirmed
“It shows that public opinion is very weighty in considering public policy and I think it is something we should be allowed to use more effectively rather than protest. We can galvanise public opinion through different media. Some lawyers wrote petition to the relevant committee.
“I think in that wise, not every issue we should take to the street. Beyond and above that, this administration will do well by looking beyond Onochie (I am not passing a judgement on her). They should perish the thought of her re-nomination because there are many eminent Nigerians from the region that can do the job without attracting any controversy.
“One thing that is striking about her is the partisanship of Onochie
and partisanship does not necessarily mean you are a card carrying member of a party; it means that you are bias in your actions and decisions.”
In appointing the members of the INEC, the 1999 Constitution (as amended) requires the President to consult with the Council of State pursuant to Section 154 (3) of the constitution.
In addition, Paragraph B of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the constitution provides that: “The Council of State shall have the power to advise the president in the exercise of his powers with respect to (iv) the Independent National Electoral Commission including the appointment of the members of the commission.
The constitution adds that pursuant to Section 154 (1) of the constitution, the appointment of the members of the Independent National Electoral Commission shall be subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Paragraph 14 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule of the constitution (as amended) by Section 30, Act No 1 of 2010, clearly stated that a member of the Independent National Electoral Commission “shall be non-partisan”.
Interestingly, some eminent Nigerians have spoken dispassionately about the consequences of confirming Onochie as a national commissioner of INEC. One of them is former INEC Chairman, Attahiru Jega, who warned the Senate against confirming the appointment of Onochie.
Jega argued that Buhari could withdraw Onochie’s nomination and replace her with another female from her state, adding that there are many other eligible women for the job.
“This kind of controversy is really avoidable. Any person who generated such a controversy; the appointing authorities should be careful because you don’t want to appoint anybody that can raise suspicions or doubts or can lead to a loss of trust of the electoral management body,” Jega noted.
Undoubtedly, some aggrieve Nigerians are likely to go to court if Buhari makes the mistake of re-nominating Onochie just like he did with Ibrahim Magu.
But many Nigerians still believe that the last may not have been heard on the matter as Buhari is capable of forcing the rubber-stamp Senate to “eat their words”. “Tomorrow” as they say “is pregnant”.