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‘Non-prosecution of offenders encourages persistent electoral fraud’

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Ezike. PHOTO: CHANNELTV

Executive Director of Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Ibuchukwu Ohabuenyi Ezike, says until the country begins to punish electoral offenders, the hope for improvement in the conduct of elections will remain a mirage.

Since 2003, problems like extreme violence, ballot box snatching, late arrival of electoral materials, vote buying, voter apathy and intimidation, among others, have characterised the country’s electoral process. Why has it been so?
The problems are reoccurring because we have had military dictators who transited from military dictatorship to civilian administration as our leaders. In 1999, you saw what happened at the Jos convention of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Even when Dr Ogbonnaya Onu won the All Peoples Party’s (APP) primary, they said that they wanted all the presidential candidates to come from the South West to assuage the feeling of the people over the annulment of June 12 presidential election. So, you see that there was no true democratic process that brought in the civilian administration in 1999.

Obasanjo was a military dictator who was just put on agbada and he became the president in 1999. So, the military midwifed a corrupt political system.

So, when the civilian administration came in, we saw a situation where five members of the state House of Assembly impeached a governor. The executive was dictating to the National Assembly and the judiciary; and it continued like that. It was only when Yar’Adua took over as the president, being a true civilian, that we saw a difference. He confessed to Nigerians and the world that the election that brought him to power was fraudulent and that he was going to change the system. Until he died, he was committed to building a truly democratic nation.

When Jonathan took over, the dynamics also continued. He pledged to conduct a free and fair election in 2015 and did just said. He declared that his ambition was not worth the blood of any Nigerian. And when he lost the election, he promptly called his opponent to concede defeat. But what we are experiencing now is a re-enactment of the 1999 to 2007 era.

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Are you suggesting that the country’s electoral system has regressed instead of improving?
What I am saying is that between 2007 and 2015 when true civilians ruled the country, the country had a semblance of true democracy. We saw what Yar’Adua did in the Niger Delta. He moved in there and stopped restiveness in the region. He established the amnesty programme to assuage the feelings of the people of the area. And when Jonathan took over, he performed better than what we are seeing today and what we saw between 1999 and 2007. So, if we had allowed the process that obtained from 2007 to 2015 to continue, we would have made gains in our electoral process. But these former military officers are not helping the system.

So you want Nigerians to stop voting for ex-military officers as civilian presidents?
Of course yes. The ones we have had have not demonstrated that they are democratic, because they disrupt and destroy all the machineries of democratic governance.

How do you think that INEC can be strengthened to deliver credible elections that will be fairly acceptable to all the parties going forward?
INEC cannot deliver credible elections when they are under the apron strings of the executive. The executive appoints the chairman and national commissioners and determines what they do. So, if we continue to allow the executive to appoint the head of the electoral umpire, the person would always tend to work towards the whims and caprices of the person who appointed him/her to office.

So, the National Assembly should amend the law regulating the appointment of the Chairman of INEC and even the National Commissioners. The watchdog of the electoral process is the electoral umpire. If the electoral umpire gets it wrong, the entire process goes wrong; but if they get it right, the entire process goes right.

So, the president with the supervision of the National Assembly should appoint the chairman of INEC and all the national commissioners.

But that is what obtains currently because the Senate screens and approves those nominated for the positions by the president?
No, no, no! Who punishes the INEC chairman if he misbehaves? Is it not the president? Does the National Assembly have a hand in punishing or ensuring that the chairman of INEC and the national commissioners sustain their offices even if the president does not like them? The Senate just has a hand in screening; that is not what we mean.

Our proposal is that the chairman of INEC and the national commissioners should be responsible to both the National Assembly and the executive. No one organ should have the power to sack them. In other words, before you sack the chairman of INEC, it must go through legislative process. The executive must send the offences of the chairman of INEC or any commissioner it wants to sack to the National Assembly for scrutiny. We need to ensure that they don’t fear the executive while handling their responsibilities. If we allow the president to be calling them to Aso Rock to dictate to them, then the mess will continue.

Electoral violence is on the increase and even more brazen these days as a result of the desperation of politicians. How can this be discouraged?
It can only be discouraged when we have credible security agencies and judicial system to arrest, prosecute and punish offenders. Look at the role our security agencies play during elections. A situation where security personnel help politicians to rig elections is inimical to the system. Are we saying that political thugs are stronger than our security operatives that are being trained, equipped and sustained by tax payers’ money? No! It is because of conspiracy between the security agencies and politicians. If we continue to witness this, the country won’t get it right and we won’t move forward. We will just continue to move round a circle.

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Also, politics has become a profession in Nigeria. Across the country, councilors rarely go for sitting but at the end of the month they get their emoluments. The same thing happens in the state assemblies. There is no robust discussion agitating the minds of members of the parliament. What they are thinking about is not what will come to their constituents but what will go into their private pockets. That is why you see a governor who is leaving office contesting to go to the Senate. So, the plum resources to plunder are why they are killing people to be there. And we must find a way of cutting it down.

The other thing is that there is no separation of powers; there is no strengthening of the institutions. If the judiciary can stand their feet and tell a president or governor that he is wrong, and take a decision against him, he will know that it is no longer business as usual.

You accused security agencies of conniving with INEC officials to thwart the people’s will. To what extent should security operatives be involved in the conduct elections?
What they should do is to protect the voters, the electoral materials, electoral officers and ensure that nobody buys votes or rigs elections. And anybody who does so should be arrested and brought to book. We are yet to see any person who committed electoral violence or malpractice that has been prosecuted and convicted. What they do is to do these things and tell you to go to court because they know they have already ‘taken care’ of the courts. So, the security agencies should be able to deal with anybody who violates the electoral laws. If the governorship elections in the two states of Kogi and Bayelsa could be this violent and we had enough police, DSS, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) and other paramilitary operatives, to secure lives and property there, then there is danger in 2023 and beyond.

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