These days, I wish someone would shout very loudly close to my ears and my failing sense of hearing, “Yah. I finally got you. This was just an April Fools’ joke,” to the mind-boggling, terrible and stupidly infantile news that have become a daily staple of Benue State. As much as I would have wished that the senseless news were just a joke, I know that they are real. They are not fake news. They reflect a rudderless Benue in the throes of confusion and without any sense of direction. Alarmingly, our level of tolerance for sheer incompetence and our apathetic attitude to public affairs in the state seem to have no limit. When one thinks that nothing worse would happen again, a new level of low quickly rears its head. We have come to expect incompetence in the handling of public affairs. No matter the degree of ineptitude displayed by our officials, ranging from Gov. Ortom to our legislators and councilors, we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well. What do you expect? This is Benue.” If anyone pushes hard against this nonchalant attitude, the person is accused of being a naysayer or being a tool of the political opposition. Or the baffling retort, “Leave Ortom alone. The election is over.”
I had expected that there would be a major public outcry, a wholesale condemnation of the news on Monday, October 21st, 2019, that the Benue State Independent Electoral Commission (BSIEC) has postponed the earlier-scheduled local government elections from November 30, 2019, to the “first quarter of 2020.” But there was none. Not a whimper of protests or condemnation for the gross ineptitude of BSIEC. Even the representatives of the political parties that Joseph Tersoo Loko, the chairman of BSIEC, gathered at a “Stakeholders Forum” did not call for Loko’s head for his sheer incompetency. Instead, the news report had it that they commended “the Chairman and his Commission for having a rethink” over the new date of the election. Say, what? A man has just called you to tell you that he was so inept he could not read the provisions of the Electoral Act on when to fix an election and you are commending him? He also gave you a nebulous date for when the rescheduled election would take place and you did not find anything wrong in this? The first quarter of 2020 stretches from January 1st, 2020 to March 31st, 2020! Chairman Loko could not pick any date out of the three month or 90-day span of the first quarter of 2020 and his assembled guests were full of praises for him? Parties, candidates and voters are in the dark about when exactly the election would hold and yet the “stakeholders” summoned before Chairman Loko commended him and his commission?
According to Chairman Loko, he called the party representatives together to “inform stakeholders on preparations so far, to also intimate them that the Commission has taken note of the contradiction on the timetable released on September 23rd, 2019.” Several things bothered me about this snippet of news. First of all, who, in Benue, is not a stakeholder in local government elections? How are political parties greater stakeholders than the citizens of Benue? In a democracy, every citizen is automatically a stakeholder in public affairs. BSIEC cannot call for a forum of stakeholders and limit participation in the forum to representatives of the political parties. Second, and even more bothersome, neither Chairman Loko nor any other member of the Commission bothered to read the clear provisions of the Electoral Act before fixing a date for the election? Now, the excuse for the postponement is that the announced timetable violated Section 30 of the 2010 Electoral Act which mandates a ninety-day notice before an election can hold in Nigeria. The Commission had apparently relied only on the Benue State Electoral Law which specifies a twenty-one day notice for an election. It is baffling that the Commission would rely only on the state Electoral Law which clearly conflicts with the federal law. To think that the Commission did not read the federal law or know that the state law cannot override the federal law speaks volumes about the competence of the Commission to organize a fair, free and credible election. If the Commission could bungle something as simple as knowing when to give a notice of an election,
how and why should we trust it to hold a credible election as an unbiased umpire? If something as elemental as giving notice of an election was beyond the capacity of the Commission, how will it handle the more intricate task of the logistics of the polling places and electoral materials? Was the November date teleguided for the Commission by the Ortom administration and BSIEC was claiming it as its own? Was this just sheer incompetence or does the whole thing reek of evil intentions and lies as we have come to expect from the Ortom administration? The Commission needs to provide credible answers to these and other questions?
Not only that, despite the clear provisions of the Electoral Act, Chairman Loko is still not sure what to do. According to the news report, the election was postponed to the first quarter of 2020 for the Commission to “accommodate and seek further clarifications on the provisions of the existing Electoral Laws.” From whom is the Commission going to seek the “further clarifications”? The Commission does not have lawyers in its employment? Whoever is going to give the Commission “accommodation and further clarification” needs 70 clear days to do that? Even first year law students of the Benue State University do not need more than a few hours to tell the Commission what the laws are on giving notice of an election. The Commission already said that the federal Electoral Act mandates a ninety-day notice before an election can hold. What further clarification does the Commission need?
The news report also carried a plea from the “stakeholders” that the Commission should reduce or eliminate the fees that it requires candidates for the elections to pay. Why would candidates pay an electoral commission that is funded by the public treasury? Is the Commission starved of funds? Is this a burden that the Ortom administration is deliberately imposing on candidates to weed out candidates it does not want to win? Are the fees going to create a pot of gold for itchy fingers to fleece us further? Something smells fishy. This is unfortunate because a compromised or an incompetent electoral body cannot inspire confidence on how it conducts an election. Local governments are the tiers of the government closest to the citizens. Elections to local government councils must therefore be transparent, free, fair and credible. An electoral body that cannot guarantee these requirements makes a mockery of our democracy.
With its bungling of the simplistic and most mundane aspect of an election in giving notice of a forthcoming election, I do not have any confidence that Chairman Loko and his commission will deliver credible local government elections in “the first quarter of 2020.” Benue, who did this to us?