Omoniyi Salaudeen and Onyedika Agbedo
The involvement of foreign observers in Nigeria’s general election did not start with the 2019 elections, but never had their presence generated as much controversy as it did this year. While the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), expressed full confidence in the mission of the observers, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), voiced their suspicion that the observers were in the country to do the bidding of the opposition. In fact, the Presidency, through a statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Mallam Garba Shehu, had noted that inasmuch as Nigeria welcomed prevailing interests and partnerships for successful 2019 general elections, the government would not condone unfair interference in matters that are wholly internal.
The statement was necessitated by the reaction of the United States of America (U.S.), United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) to a petition written to them by the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, where he accused President Muhammadu Buhari of threatening Nigeria’s democracy. In the petition dated January 27, 2019, Atiku demanded that pressure should be put on Buhari to desist from alleged rights violations and ensure a level-playing field for all candidates in the general election. He cited the recent suspension of the Chief Justice of the Federation (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, by Buhari, as one of the many infractions of the president. In response to the petition, the U.S. and EU had issued statements advising the government to retrace its steps concerning the suspension of Onnoghen. But the government interpreted both the U.S. and EU statements as “unfair interference in matters that are wholly internal”, which it would not condone.
Lending his voice into the discourse, Kaduna State governor, Nasir el-Rufai, threatened that foreign nationals who interfere in the general election would be given a “body bag treatment.” Expectedly, the statement further escalated the controversy. But President Buhari had in his nationwide broadcast last Thursday night clarified that such threats do not represent the position of the Federal Government and assured them of their safety. Meanwhile, the U.S., EU and other international observers have reiterated that they are only concerned with ensuring that the candidates play by the rules and are not interested in choosing a leader for Nigerians as being insinuated.
Although the controversy seems to have been laid to rest, the question that still begs for an answer is why did it crop up in the first place.
A public affairs analyst, Mr Jide Ojo, told Sunday Sun in an interview that the accusation of interference leveled against the observers by the ruling party was a sign of desperation on their party.
He said: “It is quite unfortunate that the Federal Government is taking that position.
This is because when the same party was in opposition between 2013 and 2015, they welcomed these observers. They ran to them for support. But now, they want to call a dog a bad name in order to hang it.
“The problem in my own estimation is that the APC is showing signs of desperation by warning foreign countries and issuing subtle threats to them not to interfere. But they are expressing concern because if there is crisis, the aftermath of those crises will affect them.
We see a lot of Nigerians and other Africans trying to cross through Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. And because the situation at home is not palatable, you could see the high number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) we have as a result of internal strife. And who do we rely on for support? It is these international communities that have been sending millions of dollars to the country for humanitarian services. If we allow our elections to go the way the ruling party just wants, if these foreign countries refuse to comment and harp on the need for the contestants and their parties to behave themselves, when there is post election conflict, it is this same international community that we will call upon to help out.”
Ojo noted that the APC used the same methodology to climb to power, accusing them of crying wolf where none existed.
He added: “I am not seeing the interference they are talking about. These foreign observers came on the invitation of the Nigerian government through INEC. There are even long-term observers who have been on ground for three to four months now monitoring the political developments right from when we were having issues with the signing of the Electoral Amendment Bill, which the president refused to assent to. They were here when the issue of the suspension of Onnoghen came up on the eve of this election. When Atiku Abubakar applied for U.S visa, the Federal Government, through the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, came out to say that granting Atiku visa at that time amounted to endorsement. Of course, they ignored the government and granted Atiku visa. When he eventually went to the U.S, the next thing they said was that he would be made to account for N156 million facility he got in 2009 from one of the banks that is now extinct when he returns. In all of these, you don’t want the international community to comment. Why? It’s because you are not trying to create a level-playing field when you try to inflict what is called psychological or structural violence on the opposition. And this is what the international community has expressed concern over and has condemned. So, I don’t see anything wrong in their bid to advise the election management body and the Federal Government to play by the rules. That is exactly what they have done, so they have not gone beyond their brief.”
To the National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, the preponderance of foreign observers from very reputable organisations and countries was a positive indication of how important and relevant the general election in Nigeria is to the international community.
He, however, noted that some of them had in deed crossed the line of election observation.
Okorie said: “I expect election observers to observe and submit their report to their countries, organisations or INEC. They were not invited by any of the political parties. INEC invited them in order to be able to learn one or two things that might be seen by very dispassionate and impartial observers so that they would continue to improve on future elections. That is the whole essence of having observers; they are not here to police our electoral process.
“But the Igbo have a saying that it is the rat in the house that tells the rat outside to come and see where the dry fish is kept. The PDP had written a number of letters to foreign powers, including the United Nations, drawing their attention to the possibility of rigging in Nigeria’s election and calling on them to intervene. I thought that was most unpatriotic. And because of all those calls, the people now felt that Nigerians couldn’t do anything on their own unless there is a foreign intervention. Based on this, the United States Ambassador in Nigeria made very provocative statements cautioning Nigeria on the way the elections ought to be. Those are not their duty; their duty is to observe elections and submit their reports to INEC and if need be, publish their report on their website for the public to access. So, I agree with the government that those who have crossed the line should be cautioned not to meddle in our internal affairs.”
Speaking in the same vain, former Minister of Information and Culture, Prince Tony Momoh, said: “Nobody is going to allow interference in the affairs of Nigeria. Mutual respect for countries is a credo at the United Nations; it’s a mantra. So, if anybody is coming here to tell us what must be done, then that’s the interference we will not accept. But those who are here to monitor, they are here to see what is happening and write their report. In 2003 and 2007, these same people reported that Buhari won, but the election was rigged. Theirs is to report. I don’t believe that the EU, U.S. or any other group of observers should do more than just going round and writing their report and sending to their home countries. But to come and say you want to do anything other than observing, nobody will accept it.”
On his part, Gen. Ishola Williams (retd), said that the foreign observers have an obligation to advise the government to do the right thing because of the level of assistance the country receives from them.
“Do you know how much money the EU is pouring into INEC? Since we have been having election in 1999, the EU has been giving money to INEC. USID has been helping INEC; UK has been helping INEC. When you have people giving you money to hold election and you are telling them to shut up because they are advising you to do the right thing, what are you talking about?”
Okorie, however, believes that the assistance of the foreign countries to Nigeria is not a justification for the observers to extend their brief beyond election monitoring and writing report.
He said: “Nothing can justify their action. No country gave Nigeria money. And in any case, if money came from anywhere, it’s money from donor agencies. We know these donor agencies; they support the development of democracy all over the world, not only during election periods. They are also involved in the capacity building of political parties from year to year. That is not enough to interfere in the internal affairs of a country, especially during a general election. No civilised democracy will accept it. In fact, in the U.S. today, investigation is till going on as to what role Russia played in the last election they held. That is the extent the U.S. will take exception to any foreign interference in their electoral process.”
Ojo, however, believes that head or tail, the presence of foreign observers during the conduct of elections is for the benefit of the country.
His words: “We adopted the presidential system of government from the U.S. Are we practicing it the way the U.S government is practicing it? There is what is called international best practice. Election is not going to be adjudged on the voter turnout on the election day or the smoothness of the result collation. Election is not an event; it’s a process. If the process leading to an election is not transparent, if it is flawed, that election will be adjudged as flawed. Today, we quote the EU Election Observation Mission report in 2007 and other international and local observers report that condemned the election as below regional and international standards. Was that not what prompted the setting up of the Justice Uwais Committee on Electoral Reforms? If the international community had kept quite and didn’t condemn the 2007 election, the reforms that we have experienced between 2007 and now, would they have happened?
“The world has become a global village. What affects one country affects other countries. That is why the internal community is here to observe this election. Besides, Nigeria is one of the most populous countries in the world and the most populous country in Africa with an estimated 200 million population. If we have post election conflict and it degenerates to the current situation of Venezuela, do you think the conflict can be contained by this administration that is even looking for money to implement budget? We will have a huge humanitarian crisis in our hands and they will want to cry to the international community for help. This is why the international community is mounting pressure on the government and INEC to do the right thing.”
It could be recalled that INEC accredited 144 observer groups, including 116 domestic and 28 international teams. The foreign observers include the African Bar Association; African Parliament of the Civil Society; African Union; British High Commission; Democrat Union of Africa; ECOWAS; Elections Cameroon, Republic of Cameroon; the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa; Embassy of France; Embassy of Japan; Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt; Embassy of The Republic of Korea; European Centre for Electoral Support; European Union; German International Agency; High Commission of Canada and the International Foundation For Electoral System.
Others include the International Human Rights Commission; International Peace Commission; International Republican Institute; the National Democratic Institute; the Network for Solidarity; the Empowerment and Transformation for All; Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation; Pan African Women Projects; Pan African Youth Training and Enlightenment Centre; Queen Zara Foundation for Human Resources Development; The Commonwealth; and the United States Embassy.
As Nigerians await the result of the presidential and National Assembly elections held yesterday, they also expect the report of these observers on the conduct of the election.