The Federal Government on Friday further compounded fears in some quarters that the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega, could be sacked before the general elections.
In an answer to enquiries on government’s stand on allegation that the INEC boss would soon be asked to proceed on a terminal leave, the Federal Government through the Minister of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, Chief Edem Duke, gave a rather ambiguous answer.
He said the exit of Jega from the chairmanship of the INEC would take a natural course. Duke, who is also the supervising Minister of Information, spoke with journalists at the headquarters of the Ministry of Information in Abuja on Friday.
While answering a question on whether the Federal Government planned to send Jaga on terminal leave before the expiration of his tenure in June, Duke said Jega would not be sacked as President Goodluck Jonathan had pledged, but added that his exit from the electoral body would be a natural sequence.
The minister said, “On the issue of the INEC chairman, I align myself with what the President said that he has no plan to sack the INEC chairman.
“That is not to say that if it is time for the INEC chairman to naturally exit his office, then the natural course of things will not take place.
“It is like saying a civil servant has done 35 years or achieved the age of 60; we now begin to say that he must not retire or he must retire. I think all of that is in the terrain of the Presidency and he has spoken. I have nothing to add to that.”
Duke added, “I will also like to say once on that issue. I recall that for several weeks now; people keep threatening the President on the shift in the date of the poll. You begin to wonder that parties have a couple of extra weeks in order to reinvigorate their campaigns and try to reach as many voters as possible. Rather than do that, you begin to identify imaginary pockets of unlikely developments and then focus your attention on them and then when you lose election, you begin to complain.”
But members of the All Progressives Congress in the Senate and the Northern Elders Forum said that they would resist alleged plot to sack the INEC boss.
The senators had on Thursday alleged that there was a fresh plot by the Federal Government to prevent Jega from superintending over the forthcoming general elections.
The Northern Elders Forum warned against attempts to remove Jega and insisted that the elections must hold within the timeline allowed by the law.
The APC senators, led by George Akume, told a news conference in Abuja that they heard from a reliable source that the Head of Service would direct Jega to proceed on his pre-retirement leave next week.
“We have received information from a very credible source that next week, the INEC Chairman will be given a letter from the Office of the Head of the Civil Service to proceed on a terminal leave,” they said.
The opposition senators alleged that the Federal Government was trying to use a circular from the HoS dated August 11, 2010 to place Jega on compulsory pre-retirement leave.
They threatened to resist any attempt by the presidency to either suspend or remove Jega before the March 28 presidential election.
Some of the senators, who spoke with one of our correspondents on the issue on Friday, said they would employ legal and constitutional means to ensure that Jega conducts the next general elections.
Akume said President Goodluck Jonathan has the right to remove Jega, but could not unilaterally do so without seeking the permission of the National Assembly through a two-third majority.
He, however, said that Jonathan does not have the legal powers to suspend the INEC boss under whatever guise.
He said, “Section 157(1) clearly states that the President can only remove Jega with the vote of 2/3 majority of all senators. Under whatever guise whether suspension, retirement or voluntary leave, he cannot be removed.
Akume said, “ Section 157 (1) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the President cannot remove the INEC Chairman from office without getting approval of the Upper Chamber.
“Section 157 (1) of the constitution reads: “…a person holding any of the offices to which this section applies may only be removed from that office by the president acting on an address supported by two-thirds majority of the Senate praying that he be so removed for inability to discharge the functions of the office.”
He said, “We will resist any attempt by the presidency to sack jega for any sinister reasons. We will continue to say no to impunity and any attempt to undermine the credibility of the forthcoming general elections. We would never accept.
“We condemn what the Federal Government is trying to do. We will rise up and defend our democracy. This is the Road to Golgotha, the road to Armageddon. These people want to destroy this country completely and we will resist it.
“We are waiting for the president to bring the notice before the National Assembly and we will decide on its legality or otherwise.”
Also Senator Ahmed Lawan, (APC Yobe North), admitted that the President has the constitutional powers to remove Jega if he so wishes but that there is a procedure contained in the constitution.
He said, “The National Assembly must pass a resolution backed by two-third majority of members either giving accent to the request or not. That is the only way that the Chairman of the INEC could be removed. The President cannot do it alone.”
Senator Babafemi Ojudu, (APC Ekiti Central) said, “The President cannot suspend Jega because he has no such powers in the constitution. There is no law which empowers the President to suspend anyone who was legally appointed to occupy a position for a period of time.”
Ojudu said his colleagues were raising the alarm because the information about the plot to sack Jega was made available to them hence they would not ignore it.
He said, “We have met, and we are still going to meet over the issue. We are watching and already considering all lawful and constitutional options even pre-emptive strategies to make sure that this democracy is not truncated through Jega’s sack”
Addressing a press conference, the spokesman for the Northern Elders Forum, Prof. Ango Abdullahi, said that sacking Jega now would be a recipe for disaster.
Abdullahi said, “With regards to Jega’s tenure, any attempt at this last minute by this government or its agency to remove the INEC chairman is a clear message that the Presidency is determined to rig the presidential election in which its sees Jega as an impediment simply because he thinks that the commission must follow the rules for a free and fair and credible election.”
While lamenting that the February elections were postponed on “flimsy, clumsy and indefensible” reasons, he said the electoral body had for several months now been consistent and emphatic on its readiness to organise and conduct the 2015 elections in February.
He noted that the insecurity excuse given for the postponement of the elections must “fail because only a small fraction of the security personnel in the country are directly engaged in the fight against insurgency within the North-Eastern enclave of the country.”
Abdullahi said, “Assuming that the soldiers are needed, we need to know that of the about 180,000 soldiers in uniform only about 20,000 are currently in the North-East of the country.”
Meanwhile, most national and resident electoral commissioners have expressed their support for Jega over his readiness to conduct the polls.
They asked him to reject alleged plan by the Presidency to send him on terminal leave.
Saturday PUNCH reliably learnt that the commissioners were disturbed that the removal of Jega would erode the credibility of the polls.
One of the national commissioners, who spoke with Saturday PUNCH on condition of anonymity, said there was no way the results of the elections would be fair, if the polls were not conducted by the commission’s current chairman.
He said, “The whole world is watching us. Anyone who’s thinking about sacking Jega is not working for the interest of the country.
“Yes, there are plans and attempts at dividing us, but we need to remain resolute in this task. We should not allow anyone to put the country into shame.”
Asked if there was division among the ranks of the officers, he said it was possible as witnessed during the meetings on the postponement of the elections.
Another national officer, who spoke on the issue said, “We are all the same. There is no seniority among us. We are all national officers.”
It was learnt that not many commissioners were happy with the predicament of the chairman.
Investigations by Saturday PUNCH showed that those in this category included commissioners that supported the postponement of the elections and some who were against the use of card readers and permanent voter cards for the elections.
Jega’s term ends on June 30, 2015 but the All Progressives Congress on Thursday alleged that the Federal Government planned to send him on a three-month terminal leave starting from next week.
The chairman, who spoke to The PUNCH through his Chief Press Secretary, Mr. Kayode Idowu, had on Thursday said he had yet to receive any letter asking him to proceed on terminal leave.
Also, Idowu told one of our correspondents on Friday that the electoral body was not prepared to join any conversation on the chairman’s exit.
He said the commission is absolutely focused on preparation for elections. “It is the last thing on the mind of the chairman now,” he added.
An INEC commissioner, who confided in Saturday PUNCH, identified, “the move to send the chairman on leave as one of the reasons that forced INEC to shift the elections to March 28 and April 11.”