Election: We won’t go far without election offences commission – Nwankwo

 From Ihenacho Nwosu, Abuja

The Convener, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room  and Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre [PLAC], Mr Clement Nwankwo,  is one of Nigeria’s foremost rights activists. He does not skirt around on any issue.

In this interview, Nwankwo, a lawyer, accused political leaders of engaging in what he called voyage of aggrandizement.

He Also spoke passionately  on issues concerning next month’s general elections, focusing specifically on campaign spending by political parties and contestants, need for Election Offences Commission and desperation of politicians. 

The activist also shared his thoughts on tetchy  matters like Executive/National Assembly tango , non-signing of the new Electoral Act by President Muhammadu Buhari  and state of Nigeria’s democracy . Excerpts:

The 2019 election is just few weeks away,  so far are you impressed with the way things are going? 

INEC has told us that they are preparing well,  we are following up on their explanations of preparedness. We do know that they have released the voters’ register for the elections in compliance to the law.  They have handed this over to the political parties. We are following  with them to know exactly where things are, we know that a lot of permanent voters cards are uncollected by some voters.  We are also following the commission  in terms of the step by step processes that they have  outlined. We know that the logistics of organizing any election is very intense , so,  we would like to see how those logistics have panned out. INEC is supposed to produce sensitive materials for the election and we would  like to see evidence that these sensitive materials are being produced at this stage . The timeline indicates that the certainty of candidates are already determined . There  are up to 72 presidential candidates, we have different levels of election. We  are keeping an eye on what they are doing,  not just what they are saying in order  to be able to make an assessment of how ready they are and if they are not ready we will raise those concerns.


The opposition believes that INEC  is not moving in the direction that gives hope and  confidence of having a credible poll. Do you subscribe to their claims?

I think that it is often  the responsibility of INEC to assure everyone that they are  independent in their processes and in the way they carry out their elections. I think  INEC  has to continuously address these issues.  Of course, it is not  important to raise a red herring  or even cry when there is no basis for it, but each time they raise concerns, INEC has to address them. There is an important need for INEC  to give everyone the assurance that they are on top of issues and that they have the capacity to carry out elections.


Are you in agreement with views in some circles that politicians are desperate  to win at all costs?

Apparently, the electorate is also very important and  I think that people need to be very careful how they carryout their campaigns. In some states we  have noticed the amount of resources being put into campaigns. This raises questions about  whether state resource are being used for campaigns. This  cuts across national and state levels. State resources should not be used for electoral campaign. We saw what happened in 2015 and how  people were being brought to account. Incumbents at this point are supposed to understand that they will be held accountable if they are to use state fund for the election. This is  one of the manifestations of desperation.  We also know that another manifestation of desperation is the attempt to buy votes, voters and also coerce state institutions to influence  election outcome to their  advantage. All of these are signs of desperation and should not be allowed  to happen. 


You were one of the key election observers in Osun and Ekiti  governorship polls, you witnessed the vote buying and even state instutions trying to manipulate the process , why do you think these happened?

In Osun, Ekiti, Edo and Anambra, it was evident that state resources were  being used,  and it was also evident that there were a lot of votes buying .Of course,  Ekiti was a major playout of this and Osun as well. And it is not just one party. In Edo State,  it cuts across the two main political parties that contested the election in the state. I think it is a major concern and this country has to go back to the suggestion made by the electoral committee headed by Justice Mohammadu Uwais  that should be created an election offenses commission that takes on the responsibility of policing the electoral environment  and makes ensure that abuses such as these are brought to a halt. 


With protests and complaints  here and there about the role the police are playing and even the opposition  calling for the removal of former IGP, are you concerned about the activities of security agents ahead of the 2019 election?

I think there is a major concern about  the role of the security services.The electoral law is very clear on what the role of security agents should be. It is something that we need to amplify. First of all, the Army has no role in elections other than as requested by INEC like accompanying the commission’s sensitive materials. The practice that you have the Army turning up anytime there is an election at boarders of states or mounting road blocks is unconstitutional and going into 2019 elections we must challenge this. The role of the Army is in the barracks or protecting the territorial integrity of the country not in conducting elections .That role must be put to a halt by INEC and by the government. With respect to the police they also need to understand that their deployment for the elections must be as designated and approve by INEC, that is what Section 29 sub-section (3) of the Electoral Act as amended  provides. These security agencies must understand  that they cannot operate illegally,  they must be approved by INEC  because it is only INEC that approves the involvement of security agencies in elections . This is something that we need to escalate as we go to the elections. So,  the situation where security agencies are busy running around the electoral environment and trying to create or run bottlenecks themselves around elections is completely illegal and they should be brought to account and held responsible for violations of electoral processes .


Do you see some flashes of violence in some states as a clear sign that security of electoral enviorement may be the main challenge awaiying next electioin?

There is concern about security even for observers themselves and for citizens.  Citizens  should feel free, the atmosphere around election should be secured,  that is one way you can see people turn up for voting without fear for their own safety. Whether it is violence created by political parties and their supporters, thugs, all of these do not help a large turn out of voters or free expression of the will of voters. So, these are problems to be addressed.  That is why we make our point that the agencies of government responsible for this have to play their role. The security agencies have a role to play, which is maintaining law and order. They should  focus on that role for the elections. 


Do you see the non-signing of the new Electoral Bill into law impacting negatively on next election?

It would have been very good that the president signed the  electoral act.  I think  it was damaging for him that he didn’t sign it because he raised objections four times and  those objections were adressed.  So, he getting  the final copy and saying  it is too late to assent  on it because it will impact on the elections is disappointing. I think that was a completely unacceptable situation and it was damaging to the president because it put his reputation on the line.  It portrayed him as someome who did not want an improvement in electoral process and it also portrayed him as someone who did not want reforms for elections.  I do not know how he came about refusing to sign the final version of the electoral act. He even dictated the amendments that should be made in it. 

Are you saying that the reason he gave for not signing it into law is not tenable to you?

The reason he adduced has absolutely no validity. It is too late,  nobody says it  can have retroactive effect with respect to the law.  The law could have started to take off from the point  of which it was signed.   INEC had, in fact, prepared to deal with several of the issues. Then, the other minor mistakes he said is made is something that can be resolved by the court. Or  he could have signed it and proposed the ammendment of that signed law by the National Assembly and I’m sure they would  have been able to do so immediately. 


 Do you see his not signing the electoral act into law as part of desperation to win the election ?

I think that there is a desperation among politicians and whether it is the ruling party or the opposition party the responsibility of INEC and all stakeholders, including civil societies, is to make sure that whatever the desperations of politicians are,  whatever their win-by-all-means strategy is, there can be a push back from INEC and the civil society to say that they will not yield to their desperation . That is why you have observers – International and  Nigerians – who are going to be keeping a close eye on this election.

From your vintage position of civil society and election observer , would you say INEC has done enough to whip politicians and parties into line in relation to  campaign spending?

INEC  is in a difficult situation, if it begins to police offences by political parties there is no doubt that it would apply sanctions and it would affect those parties ability to participate in the elections. INEC could very easily do this, but it could get accused of taking side. And that is why we have regularly and will continue  to advocate the creation of an Electoral Offences Commission. It is independent from the election conducting body which needs to be independent and non-partisan at all times. The electoral offences commission is meant to apprehend electoral offenders and activities that are offensive of the law and charge them to court and prosecute the cases. So, what the country needs to address violation of election campaign finances or violence in elections or non-fulfillment of election conditions by parties and individuals is an independent body away from INEC that can fulfil that role.


The opposition has repeatedly accused the EFCC and some  federal institutions of being used to gag rivals. What do you make of the allegation? 

All I can say is that institutions of state should  not be used for political purposes, whether it is the security agencies or indeed any other agency,  they should not allow themselves to be thrown into the political ring because there are consequences for it. In 2015 the ruling party was succeeded by the opposition party and it could go back and forth .  If the ruling party has used state institutions to muscle opposition and loses the elections, the recriminations against the individuals heading those state institutions or working with those state institutions that were used  will be high. We  saw that in 2015. Lessons should  be learnt from 2015 because if you don’t have it in 2019, you could  have it in the future that an opposition party could win the election and you go back to the recriminations and the vendetta that comes with that. That is why we have constantly advocated independent state institutions.The police is a  state institution, the army is a state institution, all agencies of government are state institutions and must be insulated from politics. Both the heads and workers of the institutions owe Nigeria a responsibility to keep these institution away from politics. 


Some are of the opinion that our democracy is retogressing , are you in sync with those who hold views of this nature ?

 Yes  there are challenges, but if you look back from where we came from, I think we have come some way. What we need to promote is accountability  of elected individuals – whether it is at the executive level or at the legislative level and then accountability of state institutions . The  big man syndrome,  the fact that the president,  governor are unquestionable in the way they use state resources,  the way they exercise their powers is a major challenge that we need to tackle. And once we can get the president,  the governors at the state level to work within the extent of their powers and respect the accountability mechanisms in the law then we would say we are growing our democracy, but at this point it’s a major challenge.


You expressed disappoint at the president not assenting to the new Electoral Act , is it a sign that the nation’s democracy is not progressing as claimed by some people?

The law is that the president assents and when he doesn’t  the National Assembly could override his assent. The National Assembly now has the option of doing  that, but it has not done so. If the National Assembly had done that  and the president says he  will not implement it, then he has gone against the law and that would be where the question of whether we are back sliding comes in.


Some have described the current   National Assembly as the worst in  recent  times, to what extent is this description correct?

I wouldn’t agree that this National assembly is one of the worst we have had. This Assembly has passed  a  lot of laws. The big problem  is the executive-legislative relationship.  The executive has  the responsibility for proposing laws to the National Assembly and I keep making  the points that if you are an executive government,  part of delivering on your agenda is to propose laws to bring about change.  This executive you might say has been the least government we have had since 1999 to propose legislation to the National Assembly.  That is the origin of the problem,  it is not the legislature. This executive has also been the worst in terms of its relationship with the legislature to the point that you have presiding officers of the Senate arraigned in a court in order to try to crumble the leadership of the National Assembly. If the executive was proposing bills to the National Assembly and using those bills for reforms,  you would say things have come and the legislature has not responded.  The executive has neglected it’s responsibilities of proposing bills and sometimes even reforms. it has tried to create laws by proposing what it calls executive orders that would not be able to stand the challenge of litigation. So,  I would not agree with anybody who says that this is the worst legislature,  I think people need to understand the rudiments of lawmaking and the importance of the executive  having the main responsibility for proposing bills. 


But the executive has repeatedly   accused the leadership of the National Assembly of frustrating its efforts at fighting corruption by declining to attend to the anti-corruption bill it sent to it, .  What do you say of that? 

I think that they have to put that in the public space, I know that there were issues relating  to the NFIU Act that was long standing. I have to find out where the blame should go  with respect to the person in charge of it. But certainly  I think that even from civil society we have proposed suggestions on how to amend the existing legislation and you have got to also create some synergy in the fight against corruption There is no basis for the existence of ICPC and EFCC . They  should  be strengthened to deliver on expectations. Multiplicity of agencies is a major problem and this is not just with respect to fighting financial crimes, this is with respect to virtually every aspect.  This country has close to a thousand government agencies. Some you don’t  even know they exist, some all they do is budgeted for every year and people go  to the offices and there is  no contribution to the development of the country . It was the committee that had recommended pulling down of agencies in  Nigeria,  nobody has implemented that till date. More than 50 per cent of existing agencies in this country have no basis to exist.  When people  talk about reducing government and cutting wastes,  these are issues to look at,  how do you cut back at wastages. If security and corruption are at their worst today it is an irony because if you have more agencies created today than it was in the 80s and 90s and yet corruption was tackled in that time. The police had those responsibilities, people were being charged to court  and prosecuted .


 Is corruption actually worse today? 

That’s a study for historians. I think that those are studies to make and we should see how that works. 


You have been in the pro-democracy campaign for decades, are you frustrated that the country has continued to flounder ?

 I think the biggest problem this country has is with elected leaders who are on a voyage of aggrandizement. Elected leaders take hold of power, cease state resources and use it for themselves and their families. We have not had a situation where people are elected into office and they decide that they want to make a change, what we find is that they get into office and suddenly they look at state resources available and engage in  self-aggrandizement.  Suddenly they can travel at public expense,  they can go on medical tourism at public expense,  they can buy cars at public expense and  they can spend money as they wished. All of these mean they indulge in personal use of public resources and loose sight of the citizens of the people. You have to have a leader who comes in and understand that leadership is not a voyage of aggrandizement, but of service, of correcting the ills of society and of empathy towards the poor.  We still do not have that as we speak and this is what needs to change.


What do you make of the school meals and  trader money  this administration says are  meant  to ease the financial burden that people are facing?

 School  meals are very important and I think that  voting resources to providing meals for children in school is a major  innovation that should  be continued.  I have no understanding on what trader money is, I  do not understand how men and women  who are  wallowing in abject poverty would see a change in their lives by a gift of N10,000.  The bigger  issue for me is to see how you can create the enabling environment for people who are poor to be lifted out of  poverty. How do you get infrastructure built, how do you get the person who is a small scale farmer to move their goods from their farms into the market to be able to sell it, how do you provide security for them such that when they are in their farms farming they are not attacked and killed by herdsmen, those are the investments government needs to make. If the money going  into trader money can be put in massive construction of railroads it would mean much more to Nigerians than gifts of monies . Government needs to do a study about the impact of trader money rather than get angry when people criticise  the use of those monies for trader money . Invest massively in infrastructure rebuilding because we have to ask ourselves what is the cost of building rail lines in Nigeria as against other  climes?   Why was Dubai able to build from the scratch its  railway system in a period of three years to conclude it while the Lagos major rail line has been on for almost 15 years?. Why are we spending more than the UAE and yet ours have not taken off, even the ones from Abuja to Kaduna, why are they not efficient and effective? Why is there no train from Abuja to Port Hacourt when you know that there is a whole lot of movement going on and so on and so forth? Why is it taking us so much time and so much money and yet nothing is done?  That is where resources should go to and that is the type of infrastructural development you can do for Nigeria that would lift billions of Nigerians out of poverty not by gifts of N10,000 that will go to paying  debts already incurred .

Some have argued that it is used to but voters, do you see it from that angle?

Whether it is for politics or not, my point  is that it is ineffective,  inefficient, unsustainable way of addressing poverty. Even  in the Bible you are told that it is best to teach a man how to fish than to give him fish. Those who are proposing gifting people monies should know that those are public funds they should be used  for infrastructure development that would make meaning to the larger majority of citizens in the country.


INEC last week lamented that some people are buying up PVCs, what is the implication of this for the election?

On INEC and voters card,  I think it’s something we need to examine quite closely.  What is the incentive for people who are buying voters cards? Nobody knows  what the motive is and that is why monitoring INEC’s processes, observation of elections becomes really important and efficiency of bringing people to account becomes important as well . If someone  is buying voters card it means that there is an abuse of electoral processes that they want to perpetrate and INEC has to proactively anticipate what this abuse would be and find out how it can be addressed.


So, you are worried that INEC is crying over the situation ? 

People  who are   buying PVCs know that they want to use it for something, they have  calculated what they want to use it for. Are they buying PVCs for what they perceive to be the stronghold of their opponents in order to reduce the votes there or are they buying them to be able to use it. INEC has assured that there is no way that someone can use someone else’s PVC, but it poses the question of the guidelines that was issued which says that although we are abolishing incident forms we’ll provide an opportunity in the voters card for somebody who has a PVC to thumb print and put their phone numbers and be able to vote if the PVC is not read by the card reader. Now, the question would be if the PVC is not read by the card reader who makes a decision whether that person should be allowed to vote or not.  It should not be a discretion entirely in INEC’s hands,  it should be a discretion involving agents of political parties at the polling units, observers at the polling units who would join and say the holder of the PVC is identified, is genuinely confirmed as able to vote.

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Author: afronaija