Since the National Assembly re-ordered the sequence of elections last February, the action has generated more heat than light, culminating with President Muhammadu Buhari declining to sign the amended Electoral Act on March 3. Thereafter, law makers from both chambers of the National Assembly have been threatening to override the president’s veto. In this interview, Mr Ezenwa Nwagu, the Executive Director of Partners for Electoral Reforms, a Non Governmental Organisation which is involved in election-related matters, told ELEOJO IDACHABA that he will mobilise Nigerians against the lawmakers if they go ahead with their threat.
The National Assembly and Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC) appear to be on collision course over sequence of election. The president has already expressed concerns over the amendment which the lawmakers have done on the Electoral Act. As someone who has been monitoring electoral reforms, do you think the National Assembly acted within its powers to amend the sequence of elections as presented by INEC ?
My opinion has always remained the same. What is happening is what I call conflict between politics and governance. Governance is about processes and procedures while politics is about who gets what, where and when.
So, NASS and Presidency , not INEC, are in contest about what I call ‘Let my own come first’. This contest is akin to the analogy that two people would be writing an examination that also involves other people but for inexplicable reasons, the first two people decided that theirs must be written first without any consideration for the other persons who will also write that exam. It then becomes an abuse of process when those two people want to decide when to write their own exams. It is never done like that. So, anytime there is a conflict between governance and politics, it is important to understand that this is where the challenge is.
Many times, we become too political without looking through the issues . I have always said what NASS is doing is like condescending so low into a matter that they should not decide, since there is an independent body charged with the responsibility of doing that.The whole idea therefore is that there should be adherence to constitutional limits. In other words, nobody should interfere with the work of INEC whose job is to conduct elections. NASS does not conduct election, so it should not throw itself into the arena. It will only amount to self service and of no regard to democracy.
The citizens must rise to advise the law makers to behave themselves especially as it relates to the mandate of INEC in conducting elections.What the law makers are doing is arbitrary and should be resisted.
But the law makers are arguing that they acted within their constitutional mandate of making laws by re-ordering the sequence.
Remember that the Constitution is not only the propriety of the National Assembly.
In what way has NASS encroached on the powers of INEC?
The point is that the National Assembly sits on the function of the legislator to make laws for the good governance of the country. In its over ambitious understanding of that role, it is not looking at the limit of that power. The constitution that gave them power to make laws has also given INEC the power to be independent.
Are you saying that the law makers cannot amend the Electoral Act?
This is exactly what is going on that has brought us into this discussion. Currently, there are alterations going on and the National Assembly has the power to do that but in the present context, it is not serving public interest but merely self serving.
Whether the issue is self serving or not, are you saying that the legislators can’t amend the Electoral Act in order to accommodate the re-ordering of elections?
When any policy is self serving, anything can be done to sustain it by the people it affects directly. For example, if there is any congress to discuss the remuneration of law makers today, all of them would be in attendance. Again, if it concerns how to reduce the cost of governance by reducing their allowances, they will all attend the session but if you want to discuss any matter that does not affect them directly, they will go into executive sessions. So, the definition of self service is when you put forward what concerns you to override public interest. In this context, legally, they could escape if you strictly want to base it on law but the underlining idea behind what they are doing is purely from a selfish motive.
I want you to know that not everything based on law is correct. Hitler and his fascist policies were a creation of the law but were they correct? The law makers must place national interest above personal, self interest; it was part of what they swore to uphold. Representative democracy requires that there should be boundaries in whatever we do as a people.
How can the impasse be broken between the presidency which believes that NASS had erred in amending the sequence of elections and the law makers who believe that what they did is right and constitutional?
The way forward is to respect processes and procedures. INEC must be allowed to decide the dates and time it will conduct elections in the country.
Why is the civil society rather quiet on the issue of sequence of election. The face-off centres mainly between the National Assembly and the presidency and to a few commentators on national affairs?
That’s not true because if you were not speaking to me now, you would not have known that I have been speaking on the matter. The fact is that there are no forward-match response to issues. There are so many issues that are being responded to daily which may not be related to electoral matters. Every issue is important depending on how you see it. It’s not all about election. We have herdsmen/farmers clashes, poverty, education, kidnapping and several other issues, but the point is that it is not an all-comers affair. There are people who don’t understand how to situate these issues including the media. I have just commended the President for withholding assent to the matter under discourse, it doesn’t mean I support the Executive for not going on the National Assembly to defend their budgets. So, it’s a subject-thematic issue and not just a blanket support like a bandwagon.
Do you think INEC has been able to put its house in order considering the various complains arising from the ongoing voters register?
In times past, we were told lies that we had continuous voters registration which was never true. Rather, what we had and did was periodic/event registration which, of course, will be held for three weeks or more and close it thereafter. Now, INEC is pushing towards a continuous voters registration. There is cost implications to have this thing done continuously round the whole country. The reality is that as we speak, INEC does not have the resources to deploy all round the country. What they are doing right now is that they are using their own staff which is not enough. As we speak, there are no new machines, so we have to credit the commission for using the old machines which were used since 2014. This is not to defend INEC but what they are doing right now is against the periodic ones that start and end within a period. So, INEC needs to be commended for this upgrade rather than condemned. Without appearing to speak for INEC, they rotate the registration points to make it easy for the people.
That is something that has never happened before but it is taking place right now.Perhaps, there is no advocacy about these steps being taken but their response and attempt is to make it easy for Nigerians to get registered. It’s not just about INEC waking up as many claim, many Nigerians need to know the power in possessing a voters card. Having a voters card is more powerful than possessing an ATM card. People endure to get an ATM card but find it difficult to bear whatever it takes to get registered but they only look out for where they can find flaws to complain about. For me, we need to commend INEC because there are lots of improvements in terms of its services delivery.
Do you think INEC has been able to address complaints arising from the issue of under age voting in some parts of the country?
(Pause) For there to be any electoral malpractice, three levels are involved. We have the community, electoral officials and the politically exposed persons in that community. These three levels raise the propaganda of malpractice in a partisan manner. Generally, elections in Nigeria is a contest of ill-gotten advantage and this is across the country. This is why anyone can raise the volume about an issue like under age voting without considering similar or near- similar malpractices in other places. People conceal their infraction and play up other people’s issue as if it does not exist. We need to have a concerted and holistic engagement of all that matter in the country, to be able to arrive at certain electoral infractions in some places.
Nigerian stakeholders need to agree that we must have electoral integrity and not necessarily INEC.The commission has improved in its operations and that is why politicians can no longer penetrate it. Their focus now is on buying voters cards from the people whose ignorance is the reason those politicians succeed at that game. It does not matter whether it is child voting in Kano or adult malpractice somewhere in Ondo or Cross River, what is important is that we have decided on what we want to do. It’s not about INEC but about the politicians and the politically exposed persons in each communities in Nigeria.By the way, most of the local government elections held in states where some of these infractions occur do not use machines and therefore no process was followed. This is because they were conducted by state Independent Electoral Commissions. In all of these places, there were no adherence to due processes. If therefore you go there and shoot a video to brandish as a stereotype of what INEC does, you are wrong. In few established cases where INEC staff were found to have compromised, sanctions were rightly applied, as the case may be.
The 2019 general election is around the corner. What general advise will you give to INEC and other stakeholders in the electoral process?
I don’t want to advise INEC. I will rather advise Nigerians because we have paid too much attention on INEC which has resulted in incremental successes by the commission, which unfortunately are not even applauded but we fail to ask ourselves about the roles we have played.Like I said before, politicians no longer go to INEC because they have met a brickwall; that is why they have shifted their attention to the people. Talking to INEC is like talking to the converted because it has been able to strengthen the institution.Politicians and voters are the ones that need to change. It happened in almost all elections held between 2015 and now, ranging from Edo state to Ondo and Anambra governorship elections where money was brazenly used to buy votes with the connivance of security agents. In 2019, we must resist the idea that it is the deepest pocket that will win election.
How can we de-emphasise the use of money during election?
I have just told you about the power of PVC. That is the ultimate power of the electorates. In it is embedded good governance, wealth, good road, and all the dividends of democracy. There is also a need for a stakeholders collaboration including the media. For example, the media need to tailor its editorial policies away from soliciting for adverts in order to be able to speak the truth. You don’t set up media houses with the intention of targeting to get money from the same people who have contributed to the impoverishment of the country.
A good example is the recent sack of women in Globacom, which has not been widely reported and condemned in the media so that they don’t loose adverts from the communication company. When you situate it to election, you can say until the people themselves take a deep breath saying that they want clean election, the politicians will continue to have their way.