By Tony John
Former spokesman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Rivers State, Mr. Livingstone Wechie has disagreed with President Muhammadu Buhari’s reasons for withholding assent to the amended electoral bill, saying the reasons were absolutely not plausible.
In this interview, Wechie, who is currently the leader of The Integrity Friends for Truth and Peace Initiative (TIFPI), spoke extensively on the Electoral Amendment Bill, Rivers State politics and 2023 election among other issues.
The Electoral Amendment Bill 2021 has been a contentious issue. Whose interest does it serve if the president fails to assent to it?
The Electoral Amendment Bill 2021 came as a missed watershed in our checkered electoral life as a nation. In every political process, the enabling law for elections is a major determinant for the final outcome, beginning with the processes. Nigeria is currently grappling with an inadequate legislative framework and the umpire cannot go beyond powers donated by the extant laws to do the unusual. Some of the items provided for in the Bill such as electronic transmission of results, direct primaries etc, are features that should largely resolve some of our electoral challenges. The manipulation in our electoral system is so outrageous that the need for advanced technology cannot be overemphasized. To say the least, the innovation in this amendment should serve as an antidote that will give the electorate the needed stake and boost the integrity of the process. The concept of the “process” is vital to any election. Once the process is flawed, the entire outcome loses its legitimacy. This is where the trouble begins. However, it does appear that some powerful forces are bent on frustrating the eureka, which should have marked a long awaited era from a fractured system. Incidentally, we understand that the governors are the ones shamefully and selfishly frustrating the amendment from scaling through and Mr. Abubakar Malami, SAN, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice is the executioner because of his governorship ambition in Kebbi State. This is very sad if it is anything to go by. Then, it will be too bad. At this point, you can undoubtedly say that it is serving the interest of a group of powerful few to the extreme detriment of the rest of the country and the future.
President Muhammadu Buhari reportedly cited the high cost of conducting direct primaries, infringement on citizens’ rights, security challenges and other issues, as reasons for withholding assent from the Electoral Bill. Do you agree with the president?
No doubt, Buhari in his capacity as the president is constitutionally empowered to assent to the Bill to bring it into force. At this point, it is my view that he just missed the opportunity to make the greatest mark in our electoral history. The reasons adduced for withholding assent to the Bill are absolutely not plausible. Those are things that Malami concocted for the President to tell the rest of us and you expect us to just agree? It is a high cost for members of the party to participate in determining their candidate in a supposed democracy, but it is not a high cost to have an imposed candidate under the falsehood of party supremacy by a powerful few? How do you justify that or are we truly interested in catching up with the rest of the world on this democratic journey, or we want to maintain the back seat status?
For some years, I was the Lead Election Observer for The Integrity Friends for Truth and Peace Initiative (TIFPI), accredited by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), still intact and most of these innovations in the amendment are things we had proposed in our reports and recommendations. We had also recommended that any INEC official that retires, resigns or is retrenched should not be allowed to run for an elective office until after a reasonable period.
Yes, you may say that parties do not have membership data in place and this is a problem. Good! Why not put up membership data update as a condition in the amendment for an organisation to continue to enjoy its qualification to function as a political party. It is simple. Just as the Constitution gives the grounds in Sections 222 and Section 225 (A) of the 1999 Constitution as amended in determining both the registration and deregistration of a political party, this too should be provided for to make the parties more digitized and more updated for effective engagement.
Again, if you study the reasons closely, none is justifiable. Conducting direct primaries will deepen the principle of participatory democracy for citizens. How does insecurity come in here, please? Security is already a national problem. So, what has changed? Is the government claiming incapacity? Is this law not futuristic? How then do we assure citizens of political inclusion if our elections will remain at the behest of some political overlords? Contrary to the opinion of Mr. President and Malami, it is a grave infringement on citizens’ rights for the Bill not to be signed and for Nigerians to have their hopes dashed based on unpopular reasons that are nothing but insensitive.
What do you think should be the National Assembly’s position on the matter?
The National Assembly is already a sellout. So, Nigerians look up to them in hopelessness. If President Buhari cherishes his name, he should immediately liaise with the National Assembly with a view to signing that bill into law. They cannot continue to operate like Nigerians mean nothing to them. The NASS has often been referred to as a rubber stamp; but if they fail to prove otherwise, they would have nailed themselves as being worse than that perception. They have the right and power to veto the Executive but it does appear that they are playing the ostrich script and the fifth columnist and this is dangerous. It is common knowledge that NASS is seen as the symbol of democracy. But, this current Ninth Assembly has continually betrayed the trust of Nigerians. It is supposed to be Nigeria first. How do you explain this rogue reason to an intelligent population of Nigerians and expect us to clap for you? There are fundamental factors that uphold democratic development and values in any society. The democratic future of Nigeria is hanging in the balance here if nothing is done. The reluctance of the NASS is curious because they are not showing the requisite capacity and will to defend Nigerians and Nigeria at this historic moment. If they allow this conundrum to bury them, then, it will mean that we never had a Ninth National Assembly at all in their time. They should for once in their history take a stand to stand with Nigerians above the caprices of the governors, who are bent on sustaining a hand-picking arrangement and the heavens will not fall. The world is watching. They have kept Nigerians and the rest of Africa in suspense waiting in vain for a loud cheer. This is how people make history, failing which they too and their co-travelers will soon become victims and casualties of this injustice. They must not dash the hope of the people. Nigerians have said what they want and this must be done.
With the 2023 election fast approaching and the back-and-forth game by the presidency and National Assembly on the controversial Electoral Amendment Bill; do you think a free and fair election is feasible in 2023?
Politically, 2023 is going to be a very turbulent year for Nigeria. Already, the polity is gradually heating up and consultations are taking place at various levels between the serious ones and the traders in the system alike. It appears that what we call free and fair elections can only be determined by a strong electoral institution and a vigilant citizenry. These two can be determined by the legislative and legal framework which is currently under serious disputation and attack by political forces. INEC may claim preparedness just to keep a false hope alive, but we all know that they are handicapped. Recently, the independence of INEC was compromised when the National Assembly subjected it to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), to determine whether it is fit to handle electronic elections. This type of manipulation points to some of the surprises that may confront the 2023 general election.
Again, you may not rule out foreign interests in the ledger of compromising factors. The former President Goodluck Jonathan had opened up that America under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton influenced the 2015 general election in Nigeria negatively. This time around, it may be worse because of our current sorry economic profile. Nigeria has become a global economic liability as a loan-based nation where all our national assets and sovereignty have been staked as collateral and security for all manner of borrowings. So far, the interest of the lender nations cannot be ruled out in determining who governs us next. Such entities as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation have openly ordered Nigeria to apply particular policies including subsidy removal. They have whipped Nigeria into economic confusion because of their vested interest that currently puts us at risk. China is around the corner with a collateral interest. You do not expect that these stakeholders will fold their hands and not determine certain things that serve only their interests. This is why Nigeria must define what she wants and take positions that create our desired political future. We cannot be playing politics beyond the ordinary without caution. Do not be deceived.
Some political analysts and politicians claim that the drama around the assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill is a rigging antic of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Do you agree with this opinion?
Truly, the type of posturing by politicians is nothing near patriotism. Anybody who feels that way may not be wrong in his or her interpretation. We have a history and we must watch where we are coming from, particularly when much has not changed. The ruling party enjoyed some electoral leverage from the last administration, so they too can bequeath the same to the nation. There have been very glowing recommendations from Election Observers and the Uwais Committee that can change the fortunes of our elections and stand us out as a true democratic state to be reckoned with. I do not know what our politicians are afraid of. Will they be in power forever? Why do they have a phobia for lasting legacies?
I strongly believe that the stage is being prepared for mass rigging and use of force in 2023 to perpetuate power. It is a most petrifying situation we are faced with and so much perfidy in action. This type of underbelly and forecast should worry everyone. The current stalemate and uncertainty gripping our nationhood should be one reason the electoral process should be given every needed boost to restore the confidence of Nigerians at various stakeholder levels. If the current administration turns the other way to send the wrong message about 2023, then, the implications will be predictable. We must know that unjust elections are pointers to anarchy and we must avoid it.
Some prominent politicians have predicted that 2022 would be politically turbulent in the country. Do you agree?
Yes, 2022 will be a turbulent year because it will precede the election year, which is 2023. First will be that politicians, particularly those in office, will be lost in politicking and distracted from governance. The economic situation in the country will get tougher and this is because there is no clear cut policy direction to cushion the effect of the escalating inflation rate in the country. So, while politicians are traversing the nation soliciting for support, there will be a major clash of politics and economy.
The cost of elections in Nigeria is another major threat. Party nomination is a huge business that makes politics look like a criminal venture actualizable only with stolen funds. The cost of nomination forms will drive many into extremism if not addressed. Our politics must be forced to be accessible by all from the biggest to the smallest parties. If this is not addressed, it will leave room for avoidable conflict and crisis.
Already, the political interest and intersections have gone high to the point of threats and counter-threats. Some have far-long taken both ethnic and religious dimensions. There will be some major alliances and cross-carpeting across the board. There will be collapsing of key structures, alignments and realignments. Some will be lost in transit, while others will get things on a platter of gold through merchandise.
However, a major threat indicator is the uncertainty of the Electoral Act Amendment which may leave the aspirants in limbo, while ‘party supremacy’ will be taken to another level with impunity. The current situation may be a setup to sideline and isolate certain persons and keep the parties as a patrimony or an inheritance in the hands of some ‘owners’ who will distribute opportunities like benefits as spelled in a ‘will’ that is if the situation goes either testate or intestate by the dictates of the god-father. This brings us to the point of the definition of power and its uses. While the well meaning ones will jostle for space with genuine intentions, they must realise that there are those who are bent on retaining power for other extreme and ostentatious purposes, which will result in big fallout. All these must be put in context so we can deal with them as they come to determine where we go and how we manage the upsurge.
In Rivers State, to be precise, if there were to be turbulence, as some politicians and analysts have foreseen generally, where do you think it would come from?
There will not be much turbulence in Rivers State. There is only one major political structure in Rivers State as at today and that is Wike. Truth is that the Amaechi system is a huge joke that comes like a political structure. But, it is actually a very pretentious nightmare. His Excellency Rotimi Amaechi is not interested in producing a governor under his political party in Rivers State. I stand a position to challenge him on this. He trickishly disappointed all those who exposed themselves to play opposition politics and he can never win back their trust because he has not changed his posture. There is no genuine political fight in Rivers State. Wike and Amaechi are not quarreling; do not be deceived. These two dramatis personae have succeeded in sharing the political space between themselves ostensibly and I salute them. Amaechi wishes to continue controlling the federal opportunities and space using his party, while Wike controls the state. It is simple arithmetic and a hostile game. As long as Amaechi is concerned, the day he produces a governor, he will lose political visibility and attention. This is what he does not want. This is his biggest philosophy and he is ready to die with it so long as he enjoys federal control. You must understand what is going on within the inner corners. It is no allegation but a glaring reality in conduct and words.
As of today in Rivers State, there is no serious minded contender that is out to wrestle power from Wike. Wike has succeeded in compromising all the political animals including those in Amaechi’s bedroom. It is as bad as that.
It is hard to say but Wike has a hand in all the political structures in Rivers State, both those for and against him. For those who claim to be against him, they know where they meet and how he oils them. For those who are either way, he sponsors them and they have their bonds.
He is a smart politician without prejudice to anybody. I do not praise him, but I am saying this to address your question. If the current climate continues, Wike may install the next Governor of Rivers State with ease. Unfortunately, the same timidity and petty politics has started again. I see a former candidate going the abusive and gutter lane with Wike to get the endorsement of his principal. We do not need these clowns again. We know they are very unserious people who show up to dance the usual macabre dance. But, my worry is that the youths are beating the drums for the dance in ignorance and mediocrity. Chinua Achebe said mediocrity is more damaging than war. It is only in Rivers State that you will see energetic youths with Masters Degrees chasing politicians everyday with smartphones snapping pictures and making videos on social media as a livelihood. Rivers people must wake up and face the painful reality. Upon doing so, they must decide what they want in honesty.
If there is anything Rivers State deserved now it is to genuinely evolve the state into a private sector driven economy. Our youths are gone. A state where intelligent people with creative energy are treated like fools is unhealthy for the future. We have to start doing things differently in order to make a difference.
As a public analyst and social justice crusader, what should be the expectation of the electorate in 2023 in Rivers State and Nigeria generally?
In life, you create the future you desire and deserve. Everything in life is decision-centered and choice-driven. Nigerians must fully involve themselves in the political and electioneering process towards 2023 and beyond. People of high influence must come to the rescue and give leadership at various levels. The late Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu is a reference for one who used his influence positively to mobilize the masses and built consciousness in them to drive a political change in South Africa. The clergy must use the pulpit to mobilize our people and give the needed support to drive a restructuring and renaissance in Nigeria. Nigeria needs a leadership that will restore citizens’ confidence and ethnic justice based on economic democracy. We need a leadership that can build back our diplomatic integrity and dignity. The fragile nationhood born out of regional and ethnic agitations must be discussed and resolved viz-a-viz the constitutional questions toward ensuring a nation of equals without compromise.
Rivers people and politicians must start playing real party politics of development and not petty politics of spreading falsehood and destruction. The deceit must stop. Our people must wake up to our reality and confront it consciously. Unfortunately, we do not have genuine independent statesmen and elder statesmen any more who should intervene because they are all sold out. I throw a challenge to every Rivers man and woman to close ranks, so we can bring on competitive governance for a lasting development for now and beyond 2023.