The Director-General, Northern Elders’ Forum (NEF), Professor Yema Sen, has thrown his weight behind the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) decision to deregister some political parties, insisting that Nigeria does not need more than three political parties.
In trying to justify his position on INEC’s action, Yen, who is a visiting professor of Social sciences at a university in Benin, said that if democracy meant power to the people, which must be social, economic and political, then Nigeria is not practising democracy, but political anarchy.
In this exclusive interview with Daily Sun, the university don, who also teaches at Base University, Abuja, in the fields of Mass Communication, Political Science and International Relations, takes a look at wide range of national issues, including the security situation, the electoral reform bill before the Senate, the race for the 2023 presidency, the recent judicial pronouncements and the country’s external debt profiles among others.
What is your take on the new electoral reform bill intended to give 15-year-jail term to ballot box snatchers and other electoral offenders
I stopped celebrating or analysing piecemeal reforms that do not touch the fundamental questions. Ballot box snatching is already an offence under our existing laws; it is theft. Concerning elections generally, I think we need to go back to the Uwais Report which did exhaustive work on electoral reforms. I read the report and it was so comprehensive. I don’t know why it was not implemented. I think if it is studied and reviewed, we can introduce some of these elements that tighten up the loose end, but I don’t think the piecemeal approach to national development will work. I attend a lot of fora and when people speak, I get the feeling that we are not making any progress at all in this country, because all I hear is emotions, sentiments, anger, wailing, restructuring and all that. Nobody is dealing with the question that we have thieving elite that is selfish and greedy.
Does that mean that you don’t agree with the alarm raised by former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently that if the country is not restructured soon, serious crisis might just be in the offing?
Who cares? I have been writing about the country’s condition since my undergraduate days at the University of Lagos in the early 1970s. One of the issues I wrote about then was the condition of the road between Makurdi and Gboko in my home state of Benue. I was on that road few weeks ago and the road was worse than when I wrote about it as an undergraduate many years ago. So, you begin to wonder whether there was something wrong with me or something was wrong with Nigeria. Chief Obasanjo has been president of this country twice. He has had opportunities to introduce a lot of changes or reforms in this country. I think the new sing-song for everybody is restructuring and people believe that once you shout restructuring, you are good. And when you ask question about restructuring, then there is something wrong with you. I am completely in support of restructuring, but what is the template? Is there a shopping item for what restructuring is that people agree upon? This because what people in the South East believe is restructuring may be different from what people in the North Central believe restricting is. And what people in the South West say restructuring is may also be different from what people in the North East say is restructuring. So, you have differentials, interpretations or perspectives concerning restructuring.
So, in all of these different interpretations, what should we do to achieve a restructured Nigeria?
We need to have a review of people’s concerns and yearnings. Maybe, we need a conference. We need to review some of these conferences that have been held over the years. Gen Ibrahim Babangida’s Political Bureau did more comprehensive work than even the 2014 conference that people talk about. We have had all these conferences and suggestions and people are now talking about different aspects of restructuring. We need to set up some small committees that will review all these issues and try to find a way to accommodate them in political reforms, which can come about through constitutional amendment. Remember that whatever you shout in the street or at conferences will end there unless you have a national assembly that is able to support your idea to implement them, otherwise it will remain a talk shop. And then you want that without crisis; who is afraid of crisis in any case? Sometimes, crisis solves problems. Sometimes, people need to go through a crisis to learn some lessons. Rwanda is a better place today because those people learnt some hard lessons. What I see today in public fora, in conferences and meetings suggest that some people believe that they are superior to others in this country. And some people believe that they can impose their positions on others. But, the country does not operate like that.
What do you think about the Senate’s approval of $22.7billion external loan for the president? Are we supposed to be accumulating more foreign debts now?
Generally speaking, I am very concerned about loans that go into waste. If loans are absolutely necessary, there shouldn’t be any problem in approving them. The big issue is: what are you taking the loans for? Are they going to be put into development projects that the majority of the Nigerian people will benefit from? Or are they going to be taken away and pocketed by corrupt government officials? It depends on what loans are meant for. You also need to have a standard for taking loans so that you don’t exceed certain limits, especially when you also have other resources which are not being accounted for. We are earning more from non-oil resources now than before; a lot of taxation money coming in now. What is happening to these monies? We are supposed to be recovering money from corrupt leaders and there are many people who are holding back monies that belong to Nigerian people. Why is it taking so long to get these monies back? And when these monies are recovered, what are we using them for? I think that we need a better understanding of what is going on with these resources before we start going for more indebtedness.
It has been observed that apart from projects that are national in outlook, the loans would be used to execute capital projects in all the geo-political zones of the country except the South East; how do you see the development?
Members from the South East are in the Senate or the national assembly, which considered the loan before approval and it is their job to ask questions. They ought to have pointed out that they were not well represented in project allocation which the loan is meant to address. That is their job; it is what they are there to do and not to buy flashy cars, gallivant in Abuja and take people to parties in Dubai. So, that question should go to the legislators from the South East. Why did they allow the bill to pass when their area was not considered in project allocation?
Security situation is alarming and everybody knows about that. The situation has forced the South West to form a regional security network codenamed Amotekun. Other regions are warming up to follow the South West example. What is your thought on the security situation in the country?
Well, we don’t have proper security management process in Nigeria. And security management goes beyond the armed forces and the police; it is a comprehensive development package. If you have mismanaged your country and you have a lot of unemployed poor, angry people, and you have some religious extremists, all of them will combine to add up to a very high insecurity. And if you have security mechanism that doesn’t seem capable of understanding the magnitude and complexity of this problem, then of course, the security situation will be what it is in Nigeria today, which is terrible and unacceptable. We need to re-examine our conceptualization of security and approach to security management.
What is your position on the formation of regional security networks in Nigeria? Is it a way out of the country’s current security situation?
I don’t know whether I can see that as a way out. I think it is a reaction to a situation which seems hopeless. I see it more as a defence mechanism. In my state, Benue, we have had a lot of those kinds of challenges, but in Benue, we proposed three-pronged approach to dealing with the matter. Number one was to use legal means; so for us, the threat was coming from open grazing. So, the state house of assembly passed a law to ban open grazing in the state. Then, number two, it is a political issue. If you have a political leadership that does not care about the security of the people, then of course, the electorate should reflect their concern about that kind of governance or politics in their electoral behaviour. And then number three, you cannot just sit down in your house and wait for people to come and kill you and you start crying to God. If you have arrows that are poisoned, you have machetes and you have young men, you defend yourselves and sometimes, this defence mechanism is organised around vigilance groups. What I see happening now is that we are developing what I call legal vigilance groups. And why should I blame people when they have taken to self-defence; when the state is failing them? We are talking about lives being lost and property being damaged. So, if you are in your house and armed robbers come to attack you and you happen to have a spray that you can use to neutralize one out of the two robbers, for instance, and collect his gun and shoot the second robber, why should somebody blame you for doing that?
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently deregistered some political parties; does that not amount to narrowing the political space and limiting people’s choices?
You know in Nigeria, we tend to take western or global ideas and interpret them in very vulgar ways. Most countries in the world are organised around three major ideologies and political formations; just small parties here and there. What some people call fringe parties operating in countries like the United States, Canada and most of the Western Europe. But, for a very long time, the world was divided along the line of major parties. You would have one leftist and the other rightist, like the conservatives and labour in Britain, until you have the liberals. So, really, in the world today from my study of political science, there are three major political formations, tendencies or ideologies around which parties are formed. You have what is left of the communist/socialist, which still operates in some countries like the North Korea, some form in China and in Cuba. And then you have the social democratic or democratic socialist, which is what operates in Northern Europe, where they have one of the most successful ideological systems in the world. And of course, you have the liberal democratic which is what you find in the United States of America (USA). So, when you have these three major formations, what are you doing with over 90 political parties? What are they contesting for? First of all, I think it is obnoxious to register so many political parties. Maybe, you could go into three solid parties and make room for independent candidates, so that people who disagree with the existing parties could run as individuals. And to that extent, you have four parties – three registered parties and then the independent, and then you have only four choices. But, to now have about 90 political parties when some of them cannot even win councillorship, amounts to a waste of the taxpayers’ money to print ballot papers that have no party’s name and which is also confusing the electorate. When you have an electorate that is not well educated and you go and put 90 symbols on ballot papers, you making things difficult for them and these are some of the complications that lead to some faulty judgements that we are seeing now because we have already complicated the system. Democracy is not supposed to be so painful. In Nigeria, we spend so much time in party politics and trying to understand and practice democracy that the issues of development and survival of the people are neglected. So, essentially, if democracy means power to the people, which must be social, economic and political, then we are not practising democracy. What we are practising actually is political anarchy.
As we march towards 2023, politicians are already engaged in argument as to which zone would produce the next president after Buhari. For equity, fairness and justice, shouldn’t it be conceded to the people of the South East, since other zones have had a shot at the presidency at one time or the other?
The natural cause of the development of rotation principle; I can say that the six zonal rotations has worked fairly well and even enabled people in the north to push for southern president which led to the eventual emergence of Abiola and when it was frustrated, Obasanjo became the beneficiary of that trend. So, people have respected that principle. If we are going to live together in peace in one country, you must allow power to be shared up to a point where that becomes unnecessary. But, if you have now implemented that principle to a point where a particular zone is left out, then it is only fair that that zone be given a chance.
The other point here is that sometimes, you may have a right to something but you may miss it for certain reasons. I think that if you want to deal with the question of power, you have to fight for it but not in a militant way; you have to assert yourself for it. Secondly, you also have to develop friendships and networks around the country; you may call it lobbying. You have to work on the other people to accept you to produce that candidate. When MKO Abiola’s June 12, 1993 election was annulled, it became a form of consensus that the Yoruba should be allowed to produce the next president in 1999. To that extent, the two major presidential candidates of that year were from the South West, so it was virtually a Yoruba candidate versus another Yoruba candidate. Is it possible to achieve that kind of thing in 2023? A lot of things have happened. The South East was the main theatre of a secessionist bid, and later there was a civil war in this country. I don’t want to go into the details of the war but the reality is that a war was fought and there was a secessionist attempt. So, I come from that kind of territory, my approach for the quest for the presidency is going to be different. I am not going to do what members of the IPOB are doing by threatening, insulting and abusing people and telling them how inferior they are, how some people are stupid and all that. Nobody is going to give power to somebody who is so full of bragging. If you are so powerful, why do you need more powers? So, if you want me to advise the people of South East, I would ask them to change their strategy. There is so much to learn from other communities that we need to be humble and modest. Even if you think that you are superior to other people, you don’t go and tell them you are superior to them when you are looking for power. Will that kind of person vote for you or allow you to have powers?
So, are you saying that it is fair and just for the people of South East to have the presidency in 2023 but that they must change their approach and strategy; is that the point you are trying to make?
Yes, it is available for them but they have to work on a strategy that would endear them to other Nigerians. Yes, it is simple. Look at Rwanda, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame is a Tutsi. The Tutsi are 16 percent of that country and they were the target of the Hutu majority. The Hutus make up 82 percent of the population of that country and the other tribe with two percent. But, Kagame is the one ruling that country now with 16 percent. Why was that so? It was because he was able to convince the Hutus that he would be fair to them and that even though they fought and killed his people during the Rwandan genocide, he had put that behind and was ready to build a new country. The Tutsis were given advantage over the Hutus by the colonialists. So, the Hutus fought back and said ‘how can put the minority to rule us?’ That was one of the geneses of the crisis in Rwanda. It is like in a family; if you think that you are the brightest and that everybody must respect you otherwise you become a bully, the other ones will conspire against you. They will say since you have become a bully, we are going to set a trap for you to fall inside and make sure you don’t come out of that trap.
Many Nigerians feel that the judgements of the Supreme Court in recent times, particularly that of Imo State have failed to reinforce their fate in the apex court as the last arbiter, considered as infallible. What are your thoughts on that?
Many people are losing fate in the judiciary because they get the impression that judgements can purchased or that the law has become the kings or queens of intrigues. They maintain that the big lawyers, who are very rich charge sizeable fees to well-endowed politicians and that when this happens, judgements become compromised, and that this happens at so many levels. Well, I don’t have any evidence to affirm this kind of fear, but when you see some of the things happening in the judiciary, you begin to wonder whether some of these positions are not true. It doesn’t matter how you interpret the law, it should be based on logic. If the law is not basic on logic; and it has become so esoteric that the ordinary person doesn’t understand what you are talking about, then there is a problem. So, I think that legal judgements or arguments must be understandable or logical from the point of view of ordinary citizens. I want to know why they converted certain votes into somebody’s victory votes. I want them to explain to me to the extent that it is just narrowly a legalistic or technical thing but also based on equity, fairness and that word justice. I am not a lawyer but I am sure even some lawyers are confused about these judgements. The leader of team that asked for the review, Kanu Agabi (SAN), is not an ordinary lawyer in this country. I also know that the Secretary to Imo State Government (SSG), Uche Onyeagucha, is a lawyer of no mean standing as well. So, if they, as lawyers, are challenging the Supreme Court, then who am I, a non-lawyer to get involved in their legal arguments. For me as an ordinary person, justice to me seems to be something that is logical or that is transparent.