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Olurode: 2019 showed us era of impunity and imposition is over


Prof. Lai Olurode

• We Need Electoral Technology, But Let’s Not Forget To Reform Our Minds
Prof. Lai Olurode, Dean, Faculty of Social Science, University of Lagos, was a national commissioner of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, he discussed aspects of voter apathy in the last election and what Nigerian leaders should do to win public goodwill.

As an academic and a former national INEC officer, what are your inferences from the demographic data of the last election?
The first point in regards to the statistics thrown up in the last election was that the Northwest had the largest amount of people captured during registration. The Northwest was also able to retain its dominance of electoral statistics, when it comes to the number of people that voted in the election.

The Northwest was closely followed by the Southwest in terms of contributions to both the voter register and the number of people that came out to cast their vote. But when you look at the total number of votes rejected in that election, I have some worries, because the region that parades as the most literate, the Southwest, did not reflect it in terms of voter apathy and number of wasted votes.

I think the Southwest returned the largest quantum of wasted votes, followed by the Southeast. The Southwest had more rejected votes in 2011 and 2015 and also the same quantity with Southeast in 2015, which is five percent of the total rejected votes.So, where we need to do more intensive and aggressive voter education are the South, Southeast and Southwest. People may explain this by other factors, which may be hidden from the electoral statistics.

The other issue is with regard to the quantum of people registered to vote. The 2019 election was a decline for Northwest, which alone registered 27 per cent of the total quantum of voters in 2011, 26 per cent in 2015 and 24 per cent in 2019. That shows the Northwest fell by three per cent from 27 per cent in 2011, to 24 per cent in 2019.

The Southwest increased from 19 per cent in 2011 to 20 per cent in 2015, and less than 20 per cent at 19.4 per cent in 2019. The Southeast increased from 10 per cent in 2011, to 11 per cent in 2015 and increased to 12 per cent in 2019. The North central maintained a fairly distinct figure with 16 per cent in 2011 and 2015,and fell slightly to 15.9 per cent in 2019. They did not do badly between 2011 and 2015.

To what would you ascribe the tendency for voters to stay away and the different voting figures we got from different zones and states?
I think what probably we should be looking at is the degree of impunity in the land and nomination of candidates. For instance, APC’s political culture in Imo State would probably have been different from what it was, if the people had been given a voice and allowed to take active part in the primary election and within the party structure, so that they have a say.

What I think the electoral statistics threw up was a rejection of impunity, imposition and annulment of people’s wishes; that they have no say in leadership. But the electorate is saying they are very resolute. In spite of all the turbulence that greeted the 2019 elections, I think we can say it was a mixed bag. Nigerians know what they want and they are very discriminatory in their voting. People wanted to assert themselves against all odds.

Look at the Southwest; you cannot have a more divided house. In fact, it was a game up for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) than for the All Progressives Party (APC) in the Southwest. And what was it that people were resisting, as happened in some states in the Southeast? —The level of impunity, and I think it will happen again in 2023. There is a lesson for politicians to learn, if they would learn at all: That the era of imposition is diminishing.

We held the National Assembly and presidential election on the same day, but look at how Nigerians voted. They discriminated among candidates. In some cases, they voted for Buhari because he is very strong on the ground of ethics, but in the same party, it was clear they did not vote the candidate for National Assembly. They voted for different political parties based on the candidates.

So, it was an assessment of the profile of a candidate that became significant, indicating the people’s voting behaviour. Hence, you have a set of Nigerians, who despite their low level of education were able to discriminate among individuals, as well as among political parties.  The bandwagon effect, people thought was going to resonate and be decisive did not work.

Look at some of the state elections. Different election figures were thrown up. The 2019 election had its challenges, but at the same time, I think it humbled some people that thought they were untouchable, that they are the godfathers.

So, there is a lesson for godfathers: They should recognise that voters have a level of autonomy to take action they think will be of interest to them, even though a lot of money was spent to stir intimidation. But in spite of the money culture, people were still able to checkmate some very powerful politicians that were out just to intimidate others.

What is your view on the attempt by the National Assembly to reorder sequence of elections such that each segment stands on its own and then calls to downsize the number of political parties?
What I think we need to be looking at now is whether individuals and political parties should stand on their own. In 2015, many people rode on the crest of Muhammadu Buhari, because people saw him as somebody with ethical standard in terms of morals and they wanted somebody to uplift the political ethics and moral to a high pedestal.

So, many people queued behind him and rode into power in 2015 and by 2019, most of that had become clear and people stood on their own. What I think what we can do to allay such fears is to see if it is possible to hold all elections in one day, because if you say we should hold national election on one day, presidential election on another day, House of Assembly on another day and governorship election on another day, that would be four elections on four different days. This will require a lot of money.

Already, we are spending billions on elections and people are asking whether we need to spend so much, when people are hungry. Not only that, there is need to fix infrastructure and security is down. Of course, there is no alternative to doing election or allowing people to exercise their freedom, but I think we need to strengthen the institutions.

For me, holding the election on the same day would take care of all that, but whether Nigerians are literate enough politically or whether our level of electoral literacy would be able to handle that effectively to prevent more wasted votes is the major challenge.

The bandwagon effect should be minimised to the barest minimum, but there are consequences. Many people are illiterate and to handle the ballot paper is challenging. For instance, the ability to hold the ballot paper correctly and thumb print correctly could be challenging.

On the number of political parties, there are two theoretical approaches to solving the issue. The first is to leave political parties to the philosophy of survival of the fittest. If they can swim, they swim well and if they cannot swim, they get drowned. The Balarabe Musa versus INEC case was the albatross, which I think was good, but you see, the effect on number of parties.

The other approach is to have a set of conditions parties must fulfil, which was the practice before, and the book of the law said you cannot impose any other qualification other than as specified in the relevant section of the constitution on how to form political parties.

So, what I think we should do is to find a middle way, some sort of balance. If it is not going to be contested and if it will be in line with the constitution, and I think many countries do this, is for INEC to look at the profile of parties, and see if you have never won any election in any party. It is the size and length of the ballot and the difficulty of so many parties with several logos that could hinder identification items, and people end up voting for a different political party other than the one they have in mind.

If you want to be on the ballot, you must have won at least a seat in your state House of Assembly, or you must have participated and won election at the local government level. If you have not won a ballot on the House of Assembly, you cannot be on the presidential election.

You and I can decide to form a political party, but that should not give anybody sleepless nights. It is our money and our membership. What I suspect is that people are using political parties to strike deals. For instance, let’s say 10 to 15 political parties have supported Mr. A, then they hold a rally or a press conference, rent crowd and pay them so that after the job is done, they strike a deal and be paid by a major political party that is desperate for them to adopt their party for governorship or presidential election.

I think there is an urgent need to sanitise the balloting system, and the only way you can do that is to ensure there are qualifications for parties to have their logos to appear on the ballot paper. Win the election at the local government, House of Assembly, because presidential election is a serious thing.

People would say, ‘how do you know he is not capable of winning?’ Election is not about being definite, it is not about certainty; rather, it is about probability. You can look at the profile of the parties; you can also look at the crowd control to decide whether they stand a good chance of winning presidential election. Through that, we can minimise the number of political parties that will appear on the ballot and thereby sanitise the electoral system. That will make it easy for an average illiterate voter to make a choice. Otherwise, you shall negatively affect the choice making of an average Nigerian voter.

Against the background of prevalent use of ATM cards, do you think the country has long to wait for electronic voting?
It is a very good question and thought provoking. The introduction of technology into our electoral process continues to sanitise two things. One, we now have a cleaner voter register. You cannot compare the register we had in 2007 with that of 2011. This is due to the introduction of biometrics. So now, we are at a level where we now have a manageable number of people on our voter register.

For any election, the database of the voter register is crucial. Once you don’t get your register right, then there will be issues. In those days, we had names like Mike Tyson and so on. We had challenges of double registration and under-age registration. Definitely, the register INEC now parades is better than what we had in 2011 and 1999.

The second area we are to improve on technology is the introduction of card reader, which has minimised fraud. In 2011, INEC used the temporary voter cards (TVC). In 2015, we used the permanent voter card (PVC), which means you can swipe it and it cannot be regulated. So, if it is fake, it would not be read by the card reader machine and therefore you will not be able to vote.

So, we have minimised the role of human agents, because once your name is not in the register, no matter how fraudulent you are, you will not be able to vote. You won’t also be allowed to participate in the electoral process.
However, can you completely eliminate human element in the electoral process? Or can you say by electronic voting you would have checkmated the role of human beings in the electoral process? The answer is no. Look at what happened in Imo State, where the Returning Officer was alleged to have been held hostage and was forced under duress, to make a return that he/she ought not to.

Since human beings will still make the announcements, if you did electronic voting, people can still manipulate the results. In a nutshell, we should not see electronic voting as the answer to all questions. I think we still need to interrogate the mindset of the average Nigerian politician, who does not believe that voters have their own mind and can make choices.I think it is the mindset that is ruining us. If these people are able to hijack the electronic machine, burn INEC office and do not mind burning your electronic machine, what won’t they be capable of? Even if the data has been sent electronically, they would want to make a mess of it.

I also think we need to reform our electoral process. We shall continue to introduce technology, but we should not abandon the need to reform the human mind, which is versatile.We need to give good education and good health to our people. We should not say the human mind cannot be reformed and then rely solely on an inanimate object to drive our electoral process.

The Southwest did not have a presidential candidate in the last election. Do you think this affected the rate of PVC collection in the region?
I have read somewhere that Southwest may be interested in becoming the next president for the country. The greatest challenge and obstacle I see, which can deny it of that opportunity just like any other region is the degree of impunity across the land. That is why I said there are limits to the extent to which we can draw inferences from the electoral statistics. We have to go behind those statistics.

If you take an average of 100 votes, maybe 50 per cent was driven by intimidation or money. Efforts were made to falsify people’s voting behaviour through money, which is not in consonance with their heart.There was one voter in Ekiti State, who when they tried to bribe him with N7, 000, asked what is the worth of N7, 000 in the life of his children, in his family’s health and in terms of having good roads? So, he told them to keep the money.

How and when did Nigeria descend to this level? But now, Nigerians will not just vote for you because they cannot mortgage their freedom; they cannot mortgage their today for their freedom tomorrow. Nigerians have become more sophisticated and money cannot solve one-quarter of the problems in the electoral process.

Since the time of National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) in Lagos, when Alhaji Lateef Jakande ordered his people to vote for the NRC candidate, Sir Michael Otedola, this had been the practice. Alongside Abubakar Rimi and Sam Mbakwe, Jakande was under incarceration somewhere in Badagry. And because the two candidates, Femi Agbalajobi and Dapo Sarumi could not agree and had factionalised the party, Jakande threw his ethics in and Lagosians exercised their powers and sophistication. In spite of everything, they voted for the candidate Jakande endorsed.

What I am saying is that in 2023 election, the big men in politics would be disappointed, because Nigerians are becoming smarter. Look at what happened in Kwara State, which can be replicated as happened in Imo State, when they told Okorocha enough is enough. It could be done in any part of the country.Nigerians should be given the freedom to choose their leaders, and the right to participate in the electoral process. You need to see how first time voters in 2015 were excited to know they could exercise their voting rights. Money cannot do that for them. I have seen people who returned money given them by politicians. Money cannot answer all political questions, especially where there are people who want to guard their freedom. Their participation cannot be reduced to money.

Do you think there is any formula that can make political parties, especially major ones to really respect their laws and be democratic?
What I noticed in the last election was that people felt they were denied their rights of participation. Where the big party men thought they could settle, some people refused to be settled with money, believing that they would not starve to death.

If they feel frustrated, we must not make the mistake that belonging to a new party does not determine winning, which is not the only reason for joining a political party. It is about making a point that we are tired of opposition; that we are tired of insult, of being reduced to nothing. They want to be part of ownership.  They also want to say they have paid their dues. People want to volunteer. I do not want people to give me money to volunteer for my party.

APC and PDP should return to the drawing board. They should reach out to people they lost through impunity. Do not take people for granted and treat them like human beings. They deceived people that they did primaries, but we know very well they didn’t.

Look at the votes and those returned. Look at the main election and the turnout of people, especially in Lagos, which was the worst at 18 per cent. It was only in the Southeast we recorded almost 68 per cent voter turnout in 2011, but in 2015, they recorded only 37 per cent and it decreased to 23 per cent in 2019. The Southwest has also declined. And what has brought about this development is the impunity of the so-called political leaders in the west.

If you ask me: what do you sell in the market of politics? The answer is you sell voter turnout. So, if your voter turnout is low, what are you bringing to the table? If Northwest is bringing 44 per cent to the table and says it wants to produce another presidential candidate, and you are bringing only 27 per cent in the Southwest and 23.3 per cent in the Southeast, 27.2 per cent in the South-South, where is your currency? This is your currency to buy power to negotiate with other people.

So, if you drain yourself and politically damage yourself through self-affliction, what are you going to sell in the market place of politics? If you combine Southwest and Southeast, the total figure is slightly above what Northwest brings to the table. So, you have to look inward, because you caused the low turnout, through denying the people voice and they are rebelling to show their resentment.

Do you think message content and ideas would ever play a role in Nigerian elections?
I think whether it is electronic or text message, messaging has a role to play. When I look at the turnout of people during campaigns, which is also about selling party ideas, and I think, considering the level of our literacy, electronic message may seem not to be as effective.

Radio message is probably more effective, but now you have many radio stations. So, it then depends on the one you tuned into. But I think direct messaging seems to be the way out. People want to see, know and have a feel of their candidates. Of course, we know that people can buy crowd for campaigns, but that does not overrule the role of messaging. There is no other way of changing political behaviour or their making good economic decision, which is why direct message is better.

For instance, marketers go to the market, display their wares, and use a microphone like the traditional medicine or herbal medicine seller. People want to listen to you, they want to see you and hear you, and that is why direct messaging is better.

Lack of electricity affects television viewing, making it inappropriate. It is a huge logistic cost, if you want to reach every nook and cranny of the country. So, I would say direct messaging, followed by radio message and television message and then text message.

What do you think makes incumbent governors lose public goodwill?
Theoretically in democratic societies, leaders are recruited through popular mandate. Popular mandate has to be jealously guarded from being drained. Leaders must also bear in mind the imperative of periodic renewal. This implies the importance of connecting rather than disconnect between elected representatives and the general public.

Somehow, some leaders jettison the very path through which they attained people’s confidence. They abandon the grassroots and look elsewhere. Public perception means nothing to them again. So, the ordinary people wait for periodic renewal to express their angst. The venom comes in larger quantity than the affection.

Arguments for and against power shift have started featuring in political discourse. Do you think the ruling APC would repeat PDP’s mistake by jettisoning power shift?
Honestly, politics is more about deceit than sincerity. Recent statistics from 2019 polls had strengthened the electoral dominance of Northwest. Expectedly, the major instrument of purchase in the political market is your voter strength. You need it for negotiation.

There is also the issue of ethics. If at the state level, you had rubbished zoning at the micro level and you executed it without any qualms, would you receive any moral sympathy if zoning were decimated at the larger level?

Moreover, you had impoverished your people politically, making their voices within the political parties not to count and thereby ultimately undermined voter turnout. How will you make up for those whose voices you had drowned and marginalised?
Don’t also forget that President Buhari restored hope to the average voter who felt shortchanged by their political parties, by saying, vote for candidates of your choice. This message will become louder as we approach 2023.

Nigerian voters will certainly fight back and the backlash of impunity will dawn on even exceptionally powerful politicians. To avert irreparable direct and indirect political collateral damage, major actors should return to the drawing board to begin to mend broken fences.

In this article:
INECLai Olurode
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