By Agatha Emeadi
With presidential campaigns for the 2023 election gain momentum, the electorate are having opportunity to interrogate the candidates through town hall meetings with various organised corporate groups and debates organised by media organisations. Particular candidates used flimsy excuses to avoid attending some sessions, to the chagrin of the very electorate they claim to be fighting for their welfare.
Omoruyi Austin Aigbe, who is a Senior Programme Officer at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), believes that the emerging trend is not good for the deepening of the democratic process and should be discouraged.
Aigbe, who has monitored elections over the years specializes in international development, Public and Non-profit Management and Policy, holds a Master’s degree from the New York University (NYU)’s Robert F. Wagner, Graduate School of Public Service. He has also worked as Programme Manager at the International Republican Institute (IRI), the American non-profit organization committed to advancing freedom and democracy worldwide. In this interview, he sheds light on how Nigerians can get it right in the 2023 elections.
When you take a panoramic view of the 2023 election landscape, what do you see?
2023 is looking tensed. Every election is tensed including local government elections. Candidates who mean well for Nigeria should show up and tell Nigerians, in an open platform where other candidates are, what they want to do for Nigeria and Nigerians. Everyone who applies for a job usually goes for an interview. Candidates must consider the town hall meetings, especially those debates as interviews for the job, so they can speak and be interrogated. Nobody organizes an interview for himself or herself and gets a job. You must face the interview panelists. In 2023 election, there are candidates who are seeking for the job, they must face the citizens who sit as panelists and hear from the job seekers.
Officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, have been fingered in election malpractices in the past. Given your experience monitoring elections, how can INEC do better, to deliver credible polls?
I like to put INEC in perspective. INEC conducts elections, but does not truly run election on election days. There are people who apparently manipulate elections; those people could be called ad-hoc staff or returning officers. It does not mean that INEC officials do not play roles. That involves the use of the invisible hand of demand and supply to perform those roles. Now, the man in Imo State confessed that he was under duress to manipulate the figures; yet there was another man in Akwa Ibom who did not show up but has been sentenced by the court and one wonders what happens. There is evidence that the Akwa Ibom man did not accept to manipulate. Were they INEC officials? No, they were not INEC staff but engaged to perform a neutral role. INEC is actually using ad-hoc staff in order to put the bulwark against the staffers. What is important now is that INEC has put processes in place, focus on the process and any error in the process, one then can shout. When INEC says it would upload results in a polling unit into INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV), what the citizens need to do is to follow up that polling unit result to IReV. When INEC says they will transmit results, do not just shout but listen. Though systems can be corrupted by individuals, however, if every one’s eye is on the system, it will be difficult to corrupt it. We are not doing electronic voting, so the fear of manipulating result from the backend is not there. Secondly, the electronic transmission is not in figure, it is a snapshot of the result sheets produced by the polling unit. One cannot change the polling unit result when people have seen it. Therefore, if you have voted in a polling unit and saw different party’s results and only to discover later that the results have been changed online, you can blow the whistle. What can be easily manipulated like the US election which people said that Russia went to US to change figures, no, one cannot easily do a backend stuff to change figures, but in this case, these are PDF and JPEG, so the figures must be downloaded, changed and uploaded without doing mutilation, so a new result sheet has to be brought out and be uploaded; it is a more difficult scenario; an easy one is to change figures like 20 which could be reconstructed to become 120 or 200.
What do you think about the Electoral Act?
The new electoral act is saying that results should be displayed at the ward level and online unlike when there was no online display on INEC portal. It is now compulsory that INEC must display result online and one of the ways is through IReV. The law did not say that INEC must transmit result to the national level, it is just polling unit result that is public. INEC will still do manual collation before elected officials are declared. It happened in Ekiti and Osun.
Can that manual collation be trusted?
That is why we are saying manual collation of result at the ward to local government level are the result that happened at the polling unit. We are saying that if everybody has access to the polling unit result, what would be manipulated at the ward level? So, we want more people to see the polling unit result, which could be tabulated by the citizens, parties, foreigners in various polling units; then after the election, people can go to the polling units, click on it, check the results and write it down; though it might be an uphill task which requires huge investment, so one may need close to half of the 176, 846, 000 people to go online, just one person cannot do it. If each person does two polling units, it is easier to enter it in a system that is automated, then feed in various polling units, and that way, a party could know if it is winning or not; parties must not create a situation to say INEC want to rig election, because they do not want to do electronic transmission. INEC will do electronic transmission from polling unit to I-ReV and that has no implication for the ward collation, local government or the state. The result would still be collated manually, but does not mean that some officials will not have access to the results because there must be an automation of I-ReV that can sum up at once.
What type of president should Nigerians expect come 2023 and what should Nigerians’ response be to the candidates who do not show up at town hall meetings/debates?
Nigerians have started reacting already by calling them to appear. The issue of character varies. What is important is the president who will address the issues of the people. The greatest Nigeria problem now is insecurity, economy, education and cost of governance. For a president of Nigeria to leave Abuja and be at the airport blocks the whole road, convoy is close to one hundred vehicles, human resources involved, various special advisers that are uncalled for with no offices, yet they are paid salaries. This should be a concern for government. The Constitution says that a minister must come from each state, so we have 36 states including the Federal Capital. Therefore, why do we need Ministers of State in the Federal cabinet? We have more than 45 ministers, whereas the ministers should not be more than 37 because it is constitutional to have one from each state, but now they are excess and this increases the cost of governance.
What is your assessment of Muhammadu Buhari Administration which has been in office for more than seven years?
We have released our report. In CDD in 2015 we started what we called the Buhari Meter. In that meter-rating, we mapped and tracked all the promises of the then incoming president. When Buhari won the election and became president, we called it Buhari Meter. If Jonathan had won in 2015, we would have called it Jonathan Meter. Now, the government made over 224 promises, even though the president at times would jokingly say, “I made three promises which include fighting corruption, insecurity and economy.” We all know that insecurity has increased over a long time, the naira has fallen beyond reasonable doubt and the corruption for the very first time in the history of Nigeria, the person who is supposed to head our anti-corruption fight was arrested over corruption. That shows that corruption is fighting back, according to the presidency. Is corruption really fighting back or there is no institution to fight corruption? The institution fighting corruption in Nigeria is so poor that those who occupy position of authority to fight corruption have become so corrupt that the system is weak. As former American president, Barrack Obama, said in 2019 that the problem in Africa or with African leaders is that they have too many strongmen with weak institutions. So, when a strongman becomes president, he undermines all the institutions. In this country, a journalist while interviewing a senior government official made reference to a comment by the Presidency, and the official fired back, “Who is the Presidency?”
If one is talking about the presidency, mention the name because one should not hide under the presidency. So, there is a challenge in Nigeria because of weak institutions. Therefore, in order to move Nigeria forward, the institutions must work. On January 6, in United states, there was a strongman who wanted to undermine the Unites States democracy, but the institution prevented him. When an institution is strong, the country cannot have strongmen, but in Nigeria, there are strongmen and weak institutions.
What is the role of senators and members of the House of Representatives towards ensuring good governance because they seem to be silent in all these?
The challenge of Nigeria has been that we literarily operate a unitary system, though we are supposed to be a federal system. A federation is supposed to have states that are stronger than the centre. In the United States, the states of the US, which are supposed to be federating units are stronger than the federal within the system. The US is only strong on the outside. The US president cannot tell the State of Nevada what to do, but in Nigeria, the President of Nigeria goes to commission markets, boreholes because we have weakened our system and it has become so unitary. People leaving in Osogbo cry out that the president has forgotten them. What business do they have with President Buhari? The reason they do so is because everyone wants Buhari to come to their village whereas they have governors, senators, House members and local government chairmen and women. People have lost interest in the capacity of other government functionaries to do anything. They believe that it is only the president that can save them and that is why the emphasis is there. However, citizens must know that there is a role for senators, House of Representatives members and governors. But these officials are not being called out. I think it is important that we call the governors out; that same thing we are doing for the president should be done for governors, senators and House members. Most of the time, we want senators to be executive people. No, National Assembly people are not supposed to be involved in road construction or anything that has to do with executive functions. What we use to judge senators is what they did for their communities and not the number of bills passed, and that is wrong judgement which is making the senator and House members to dabble into executive functions by trying to provide roads, electricity and water. It is not their job. It is their job to make laws for the good governance that will lead to executive functions. This have become a case of misplaced priority and every one becomes an executive.