‘Elections in Nigeria have improved’
As Nigerians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a President and National Assembly members, Sentell F. Barnes, Resident Programme Director of the International Republican Institute, insists that the country is moving in the right direction in its democratic journey. He urges citizens to come out in their numbers to vote peacefully to elect their leaders. Barnes, who has been in Abuja and will observe the elections, spoke with The Guardian team comprising Igho Akeregha, Bureau Chief, Matthew Ogune and Sodiq Omolaoye.
How is your organisation involved in the electoral process?
Right now, we have a joint delegation with the National Democratic Institute (NDI). We have been doing pre-election assessment mission.
One in July, September, December and now we have a delegation of about 40 people who will go out to observe the 2019 elections.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) has been in Nigeria since 1999, working with political parties, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and other stakeholders to improve Nigeria’s democracy and also to ensure that other marginalized groups are actively involved in the process. So we have been doing a lot of work around elections in the country.
Is the IRI an offshoot of the Republican Party in the United States?
Back in the 1980s, the United States was engaging with countries about building democracies.
It created several organisations and two of those organisations were the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI). They wanted them to have policy and connections, and they want them to go into the world and build democracies.
We are connected to the Republican party and her leadership and we are in various countries. We are pushing the idea of democracy and freedom.
With our sister organisation, the NDI, we are working with civil society organisations. We complement each other in the various countries we are in.
What do you expect as Nigeria goes to the ballot tomorrow?
I am expecting to see every registered Nigerian go out and exercise their constitutional right to vote in a democratic process.
Is the IRI concerned about the rhetorics in the run-up to the elections and are you building capacity for those seeking offices?
We recognise that when it comes to elections and campaigns, tension can be high. But we also want people to recognise that just like what former President Goodluck Jonathan said in 2015 and repeated by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar at the signing of the second peace agreement in Abuja that ‘his ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian’, what we want people to do is to focus on what the candidates are offering and putting on the table. On the issue of capacity building, we are trying and doing our best.
Many Nigerians have expressed concerns about the possibility of using technology to compromise the electoral process, are you also worried?
Well, people should always be concerned.
We should always be concerned about how information is moved from one place to another especially as we bring technology into our action but, at the end of the day, we need to ensure that the electoral umpire has all the tools it needs to ensure that information is moving in a secure manner.
Election is delicate, we have heard issues in the US and elsewhere.
The most important part is to ensure that information gets to the right sources and it is protected.
We are moving into a technologically crazy world so we need to stay ahead, ensure we are not left behind and information is protected.
Some Nigerians are worried about how much longer organisations like the IRI, NDI and others who are supporting the country will remain on this role, how do you react to this?
I have to be careful on how I say this. I have been here for five years.
I hope Nigeria is able to really take the necessary steps to secure its democracy so that organisations like mine and the NDI are no longer relevant.
If Nigeria is able to secure her democracy, it won’t need us. The goal is Nigeria sending people out to other countries to be a better democracy. That is what we want to see. I want to see Nigeria send out her own people to other countries to help them secure and strengthen their democracy.
We hope Nigerians go out to vote without violence. I just want every Nigerian to see the greater good of being a Nigerian. I know that with unity, Nigeria will be greater.
Are you concerned about the recent comment made by the governor of Kaduna state concerning foreigners who interfere in the elections?
It was an unfortunate comment. I will like to see him retract those comments. I think it is important to understand that whether you are talking about the US, Nigeria or any other country, it is good to have foreign eyes in our country to look into what we are doing and to expose the problems we have.
I don’t think we should be trying to shut down foreign observers. So I just hope he retracts.
Is there any effort to use informal diplomatic channels to get him to retract his statement?
We are just a non-governmental organization and that can only be done at the diplomatic level, so I cannot speak on that.
Where is the IRI active in the country?
We are everywhere. We have people in all the geo-political zones and reach all over the country.
After today’s elections, what would be your next plan?
After the election, we will release a preliminary statement on Monday and then as soon as possible we will release a detailed report from when we came into the country, pre-election assessment to the presidential and governorship elections.
So the reports would be released for the public to see.