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‘2019 Should reverse political power equation against selfish, overbearing politicians’

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Lai Olurode, Professor of Sociology at the University of Lagos and former National Commissioner with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

Lai Olurode, Professor of Sociology at the University of Lagos and former National Commissioner with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) takes a panoramic view of the electoral process preparatory to the 2019 general election and declares, ‘the forthcoming elections present an opportunity to weaken politicians who treat popular yearnings of the grassroots with disdain.’ He spoke on other issues connected to the unfolding democratisation processes in Nigeria and Africa.

Despite Nigeria’s huge population and huge funding of political activities, the level of inclusiveness and citizen’s participation in electoral process remains low, what do you think is responsible for this and how can it be tackled?

First of all, all over the world, the continent of Africa inclusive, the process of leadership recruitment is no longer arbitrary. It’s no longer through the barrel of the gun with apologies to Ruth First of blessed memory.

Democratization processes that are unfolding in Africa have come to be decisive. Apart from even, let’s say Cameroon, where you can say you have dictatorship and some of the countries in North Africa, most of the countries in Africa today are at one level of democratization or the other with serious efforts being made at democratic consolidation.

What do I mean? A curious mind may ask ‘where are the manifestations or indicators of democratization in Africa?’ Permit me to make reference to some key indicators – elections are now held regularly in most of the countries.

The elections may not be perfect – of course, perfect elections are difficult to come by in the world. Even the election that brought Donald Trump to power cannot be said to be clean or credible enough; up till today, the role of Russia in the election remains controversial with insinuations that the computer system was hacked or programmed to generate favourable outcome for the Republicans. Also, political parties now exist in most of the countries.

Before, political parties in African countries, where you had military dictatorship, were outlawed.

During the era of a military head of State in Nigeria, universities were told: ‘you should not discuss politics in the university.

Even if you are teaching political science, you should not discuss politics except in your staff clubs. Political discussions are forbidden on campuses’. We had documented this in some of the writings.

Tunji Dare of The Guardian that time had asked rhetorically, ‘what should a political science professor be discussing if they can’t discuss politics?’

Now, primary elections, even if fundamentally flawed are also held regularly. Political parties have constitutions; they have procedures for selecting leaders and candidates.

Also, some of their activities are regulated by the Constitution and The Electoral Act. Electoral umpires, election management bodies, had become institutionalized all over Africa. They are saddled with the responsibility of recruiting leaders – of making sure that elections are held and that those elections are held regularly and also they confer credibility and accountability on the electoral system.

So, these are positive signals that democratization has come to stay in Africa, outstanding challenges are, however, acknowledged.

Also, as well, campaign finances are well regulated by the electoral act. So, there is what you can call the institutionalization of political process; it’s no longer where anybody can sit down in his room now and decide ‘this is the way I want the party to go.’

Efforts to build consensus are being made as the grassroots mobilize to counter hegemony, arbitrariness and dictatorial tendencies.

Nigeria presents a classical example of pluralism in all its ramifications, you have proliferation of political parties, which also creates an opening where if a political party undermines the law that set it up, people are free to use other platforms to pursue their political objectives.

So, dictatorship is being checkmated through these positive signs of democratization in Africa.

What this partly expresses is that leadership recruitment is no longer by inheritance or by fiat; it is open to competition, it is not status determined but achievement oriented, you must earn and compete for leadership by working for it; you must fight for it; you must work for it; you must convince people that your programmes are superior.

Attempts by political godfathers to anoint their in- laws or cousins continue to be resisted.

So, where you have multi-party democracy, you have people that are citizens that can no longer be taken for granted as subjects.

An examination of the political setting in 2015 and today, reveals that political parties are fractured and torn apart by internal crisis largely occasioned by the absence of internal party democracy.

It is uncertain whether major political parties would have enough stamina to fight the enemies from without by the time the enemies from within are decimated and crushed. Litigation arising from primary election fiasco and imbroglio are pending in courts.

The ruling was definitely more challenged today than in 2015. Certainly, 2019 cannot be a walk-over, a close political contest ever in our history may be in the offing. The days are gone where you say that ‘I am going to have a landslide victory’.

So, the probability component of elections is now increasingly manifesting in place of certainty. Election umpires are more trusted today in Africa than in 2007 or at the commencement of the current wave of democratization.

Look at Osun State, for instance, in the 2014 governorship election, the All Progressives Congress (APC) won by more than 100,000 votes.

In 2018, APC was looking for just 1000 votes. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) won the election in the first round with less than 500 votes. That shows us that people have alternative platforms for participation.

It is possible that had it not been for internal crisis, APC could have had it at the first round.

In Ekiti as well, it was a narrow escape. It was apparent that the house of APC there was divided, some worked against the party.

If you take the people for granted, protest votes await you. Political parties are poorly managed and administered in Nigeria. Too much insults are thrown at party members.

The issue of vote buying remains strong. How can it be tackled?

The point is that there are phases in the democratization process. The fact that you even now know that you have to buy votes is obviously an indicator that you recognize and concede that people have the right to decide where their vote should go and you want to sway them to your side, not persuasion or superior appeals to policy or logic but through fraudulent means. So, that’s another level, which I think, with time we should be able to challenge.

Transactions in freedom take diffferent modes. A lot of money was spent in the last elections in Ekiti and Osun states. This ugly trend had been with Nigeria for a long time.

The role of the money culture in our elections is narrowing in its significance. I’m not sure money really worked for the people that used money; it didn’t determine the final outcome.

The average voter is becoming wiser and may make those competing for his votes to spend themselves out and may still not vote for either of the big spenders.

The fact that there was a stalemate showed that there was a limit to the use of vote buying, because people also have conscience. Voters are also conscious individuals who do not merely live for materialism alone but higher values.

In 2019, people may collect money from these politicians, but they may be disappointed at the election outcome.

What I think INEC should do very strongly is to make sure that the secrecy component of elections is protected and preserved. In Osun State, INEC did far better than what it did in Ekiti State.

How do you mean?

In Ekiti State, it was a free-for-all vote buying. An average voter was expected to display the political party that he had chosen before he could go back and collect his instrument for stomach infrastructure.

It’s a clear case of vote buying, but INEC, I think, re-configured the voting arena in Osun State. They made sure that you were not going to take your exit as soon as you thumb printed; the ballot boxes were not too far from where you thumb printed; and the voters were told not to showcase the party they voted.

What INEC should continue to do is to protect the integrity of the ballot, especially its secrecy component.

Once that is guaranteed, voters are assured, even the greedy and hungry ones among electors can still go ahead, collect money in exchange for votes and still vote his conscience. There are positive indications that we are making progress with our democratization.

Again, what I think impresses me most in Ekiti State: when people were collecting money, there was this voter who was approached to exchange his vote for money, his reply was instructive of an ethical voter: ‘what is N5,000 in my life? I don’t need your money.’

Increasingly, that’s the way I think the media should go, seek that bold elector, celebrate and embolden him. He deserves an award.

Tell them: what do you need money for? They can’t give you enough money to educate your children, to feed you for a week, even a day.

The best they can give you is probably N5,000! What is N5,000 in the life of an average voter in this country? It’s not going to go far? So let people show that determination and shame money bag. People should not transact in votes to mortgage and ruin their future and compromise good governance.

And I think something is wrong with the way we do elections; the way we decide on winners.

Look at the elections of 2015 in Nigeria, PDP and APC, of course, the margin of defeat in 2015 was different from the margin of defeat in 2011. In 2011, Jonathan defeated Buhari by over 10 million votes.

In 2015, it had narrowed down; Buhari defeated Jonathan by over 2.5 million votes.

A common guess is that 2019 elections are going to be so competitive that the margin of defeat may be in thousands rather than millions, and I hope there is not going to be a re-run or curious inconclusiveness.

I suspect, from what we are seeing on ground, the two seemingly dominant parties have almost equally penetrated the political landscape and the states in the country. So, minority parties may finally determine the direction of the country.

Many votes may be wasted or voided because of paucity of voter education and confusing party logo. What do I mean by votes would be wasted? You have proliferation of parties. You have 87 or so candidates contesting for the presidency of this country.

Of course, you can see they are not strong parties. But at least, their family members would vote for them.

Like it happened in Osun State, in the last election, a previously unknown party, suddenly appeared on the landscape but with strong appeals to cries of marginalization, cheating and regional sentiment. The Action Democratic Party garnered about 50,000 votes.

Some of the leading political parties, having being demystified and decimated, are not going into to 2019 the way they were in 2015; the formidability of 2015 has largely been punctured. I foresee a very tough terrain, in terms of victory, for all the key political stakeholders.

Of course, the role of the power of incumbency cannot be diminished. Incumbency remains a factor in Nigeria’s elections.

It’s a conundrum of a sort and it is expected to become full blown in 2019 as it had been in previous elections.

But what gladdens my heart most is that the Nigerian typical voter is not completely apathetic, always thinking that the next election will be better. Look at what an average Nigerian voter goes through on a typical election day.

Look at even what they go through to get their permanent voter’s card; it’s like an ordeal. Look at the days they spend, the weeks they spend, to get their voter’s card.

Community assets are mobilized for electoral umpire to be able to do their work. They mobilize assets for INEC – canopies, generators, if the INEC generator is not working – to be able to do their work.

It’s that determination and voter’s resilience, which is a formidable social capital in any election.

I think election for us is more exciting in Nigeria than in America or any of the developed democracies; it’s like a carnival.

I have the rare opportunity of playing critical roles in the elections of 2011 and 2015. Those elections and others had taught me a lesson in community mobilization.

When people see a threat to their citizenship, the Iyalojas of this world; the market men and market women; the ordinary artisans, on their own, could mobilize and could dedicate a lot of resources to the election project, just because they felt that they have to say no to political rascals and desperate at engaging in transactions in freedom.

But it’s being said that ‘No to political rascals’ has little or no effect, in the sense that those political rascals would still remain in power in the next four years?

The way things are, if a matter is in court, you never know; because the court would say the matter is pre-judicial. So, there is a lesson for everybody; a lesson in the sense that people should not be taken for granted.

It must be conceded to them that they have a right to say ‘No’ – that they have the power to say ‘this is where we want to go’.

So, we must respect their rights. Because, if you are disempowered, at the level of the political party, and either way you are going to lose, regardless of your position, then what’s the point of belonging or being loyal to that political party? Political godfathers must be nursing the backlash of imposition and unguided statements by now.

There should be no overlords or reckless acts of impunity which reduce people to simply cretins.

I think people should take the bull by the horn. They should make sure they contribute to the running of political parties. They should de-emphasize the role of money.

The money culture is too rampant and dignity is lost when materialism is worshipped. The price we are paying for power is too much.

We get people to power and after elections they become overlords; they become political barons. We can’t go on like this. It is not sustainable. We throw too much resources into election.

Once they win that election, the first thing any rational human being would want to do is to recoup that money you have put in.

Let people know that they can volunteer their services. They can even give part of what they have so that they can be free; so that nobody can dictate to them how they can vote.

Some of these politicians in power are deliberately impoverishing Nigerians so that Nigerians would continue to rely on their handout. It’s not right.

It’s unethical to starve people to the point of selling off their votes. It’s callous and God will punish who brought innocent Nigerians to this point of desperation. We must have a measure of ethics, of ethical dose in political participation.

How much of value would that ethical arsenal bring to 2019 polls?

As has been explicitly stated before, the political settings today have changed. 2015 is not 2019.

Definitely, the political climate, the political temperature, the political environment and all the key factors that saw to the outcome of 2015 had almost shifted grounds. Those who remained physically where they were in 2015 may not be in spirit.

Only someone not politically savvy would say that those factors are still intact. There has been decimation and demystification of individuals and parties.

Let’s take some individual key players. Some of them still see Buhari as Buhari; Buhari perhaps remains solid.

In terms of profile, whether he has the same profile that he had in 2015 is difficult to say, especially in the perception of the public.

What can we say of Atiku? What was his image then and what is it now? Has he more enemies now than in 2015 or has his image plummeted? But, definitely, the only stakeholder, I think that added more value would be INEC and some civil society groups.

All the other stakeholders in the election enterprise are in tatters. I’m not sure that APC generated so much controversy in its primaries, in 2015, as it generated in the recent exercise.

Definitely, the answer is ‘No’. And PDP as well was not as formidable, in 2015, when it had tremendous power of incumbency. PDP had gained in some respects. As we can see, a lot of movements has occurred and it continues.

A lot of re-alignment has taken place and new political alliances are being consummated. Some of the star politicians are back to their vomit. Ideology for them means nothing, it’s simply politics of self survival and convenience.

People’s perceptions of star politicians, of political parties, political economy, security arhitecture, employment, corruption and infracstructure would not be at the 2015 level.

All these will impact the outcome of elections in 2019; a mixed bag of a sort. It’s impenetrable and vulnerable. Tremendous probabilities!

Right now, only 84 million Nigerians have registered for the 2019 polls. How do you think we can reduce this level of voter apathy in Nigeria?

Of course, more Nigerians registered. What brings about this level of voter apathy in Nigeria? One is if I still go to vote what would be the outcome? People engage in self disenfranchisement.

I think people should not be disenchanted. People should not be disillusioned or simply give up in frustration.

The future is simply pregnant and we are ignorant of what it will give birth to. We say, ‘yesterday, my vote didn’t count. Is it going to count tomorrow?’ Tomorrow, it’s not likely to count.

Even if, today, it does not count, you shouldn’t use that standard to read into what is going to happen tomorrow.

People said the same thing to INEC, in 2010, but we had a credible election more than the 2007 election where when voting was going on, results were being written elsewhere.

I don’t think, in today’s Nigeria, people can sit down somewhere and just write results; Nigerians would not accept it.

So, voter apathy can be tackled through, one, continuous voter education. It costs a lot of money to have a slot (voter education advertorial) in most of the newspapers.

To have a slot on any radio station in the country is a lot of money. And you have to be consistent for effect. What I think is missing is enough of volunteerism in Nigeria’s electoral process.

It’s going to be more difficult, in 2019, if you don’t go out there and do voter-to-voter canvassing, there would be a lot of voided ballots,, which we should try to avoid.

So, the parties don’t do much of voter education. They are just greedy for power. They are greedy for votes. They don’t demonstrate the same commitment to educating their supporters.

Who would vote for them? The electorate! If the electorate are ignorant; (if) they don’t know the party symbol – what the party stands for, how would they vote for them? They don’t even let them know ‘these are the things we would do for you when we get there.’ That’s why they spend money to buy votes. They think money is going to do it all for them.

So, everybody needs to be involved. It’s too serious to be left in the hands of politicians alone. They must reach out to people.

If what you do is to get somebody, through superior voter education, from being an illiterate voter to a literate voter, that would be enough.

The other thing that I think is wrong with our system and why you may have voter apathy, is because we waste, deliberately, by our choice, votes.

Look at 2015 election: Buhari won over 50 something percent of the votes and Jonathan won over 40 per cent. Of all that Jonathan won, he was not able to appoint anybody into government.

So, if you have proportional representation, which people are clamouring for, then it means that a party would be accorded offices, according to its electoral strength.

So, the do-or-die; the resort to the slaughter’s slab metaphor will be weakened. If people know very well that even if party A loses in an election, but he wins 30 something percent of the votes, he is going to be asked to nominate 30 something percent of ministers, that would be great.

So, people would be out to go and vote; it doesn’t really matter, because you are going to play a significant role in the process.

But if I know that no matter how much I tried, if I am going to lose, I would lose completely as winner takes all.
The first-past-the-post isn’t good enough.
What are the challenges against proportional representation?

It is the system we operate here. We operate first-past-the-post. If I win by one vote, I form government. I don’t share power with anybody. But clearly, voters have indicated that the difference between my party and the other party is so narrow.

The other party won 51 percent and I won 49 percent, and I’m going to be excluded from power for the next four years, why would I not be desperate to kill, to do anything to make sure I don’t lose the election. That means we have wasted 49 percent of the votes!

How do we begin to incorporate this into our electoral system?

It’s through enactment. It’s the National Assembly that should be favourably disposed to it, while Nigerians should be clamouring for that at every level of government.

I don’t need to go national, I can decide just to stay in my local government, If I know I can win my local government and I would get the seat of the House of Assembly or they would look at what percentage of the scores did I have and they would ask me to nominate ministers in that respect. That would prompt a more stable system that should strengthen participatory democracy – that everybody is a stakeholder.

This guarantees that everyone would have a bite of the pie. Everyone is therefore a winner.


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