Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief Returning Officer in the 2015 Presidential election, former Secretary of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and former Federal Permanent Secretary belongs to the largely ignored Nigerians shouting themselves hoarse over what they see as perversion of the country’s electoral process.
According to him, Nigeria’s democratic process has underperformed.
Baba-Ahmed, former leader of principled APC Chieftains in the North called Akida also spoke on the 21st Anniversary of Nigeria’s democratic experience and other sundry national issues. Excerpt:
It is like we have continued to progress in error because as it is it appears the only progress we have made as a nation in democracy is that we are still in democracy. If you take many aspects of our democratic governance and examine them closely you will find that we are nowhere near democracy. Take, for instance the issue of elections; you’ll find that elections have not improved. You were Secretary of INEC at a point. All the successive elections down the line in Nigeria have been worse than the previous ones. The last general election in 2019 cannot be said to be better than the 2015 election. Sincerely, would you say we have made progress in terms of democracy after 21 years?
In our case in this country I think it is fair to say that the democratic process has substantially underperformed. We ought to have translated the fundamental philosophies behind democratic systems into real tangible progress for our people as accountable and responsive government. The electoral process has been severely damaged. One would have hoped that the 2023 election would be better than the 2019 election; but the truth of it is that so much of what happens in INEC depends largely on whether politicians want to develop the electoral process or not. As to where we stand now I am not sure that this present crop of politicians are willing to allow credible electoral process, willing to allow Nigerians to allow free choice in order to chose the leaders that they want and this is a very damning commentary on our electoral process. I will say that the quality of leaders that the democratic process has produced has been progressively worse than the ones that preceded them; but I am not sure that we have an option. The truth is that we are stuck with this democratic process and I think what we need to do is to look at it very critically and to ask the question: where is it that the democratic process is failing us? What are we doing wrong with the process that it is not working for us? How can we fix it? We are not bound by any system. We as a people and as Nigerians can chose how to redesign the democratic process in such a manner that it will bring economic progress, bonds the people from the North and the South and everywhere and people can actually see evidence that the democratic process delivers dividend. Must we become blind about this idea of fixing the democratic and electoral process? We are then trapped in this process and things are deteriorating and what happens if you have a nation that cannot progress and it continues to decline. This is the situation that we are. Our security situation has remained worse. Our economic situation is not only uncertain but actually very alarming because we have a situation that is being made worse by the Coronavirus pandemic and we have a country where everybody is talking about leaving and we have a leadership that doesn’t appear to care.
Is the problem then with the leadership or the system and if you are asked to suggest a workable system which would you come up with?
Leaders can change the system. I don’t buy this argument that there is a clear-cut difference between the presidential system and the parliamentary system. That kind of argument really begs the question. It doesn’t matter what kind of system. If you have the kind of quality of leadership that can generally commit themselves to that system and is focused and have the vision and it is honest and sincere it can make the difference. The most important thing to address is: what stops our system from producing good, honest and quality leaders? So sometimes we get bogged down. Even this restructuring that we talk about the question really is: what do we mean by restructuring? So, these arguments about the two systems… yes we have produced poor leaders for a long time in this country, but the argument has been the system is too expensive, it is cumbersome, it allows leaders to get away with many things.
Some people see in all these some form of elite conspiracy because as it is some of them have hijacked our democracy and are circulating power around themselves. But what really brought in Buhari in the last five years was the perception they knew of him between 1983 and 1985 as a gentleman officer, a no nonsense General that can change the equation from the perceived wrongs of the Jonathan administration because we were having problems with corruption, insecurity and the economy wasn’t that wonderful. Buhari then looked tailor-made for the kind of change that Nigerians looked for. Now, five years down the line as president, would you say Buhari has replicated the kind of leadership that we expected? It’s like democracy has not been quite easy for him or what do you think?
First of all, it is a terrible mistake to compare a military Head of State who came to power through a coup and who ruled by decree. That is the Buhari of 1983 and 1985. Of course, it would be difficult for him to operate in a democratic environment and that was why he was fighting with the legislature and that was the legislature that was headed by his party men. But rather than collaborate with it, he ended up fighting all through. Now, he has a legislature that is working for him and his administration has absolutely no idea about how to deal with insecurity, economy, unemployment, about the country falling apart because those that rule the country have fallen apart and you don’t think it is your responsibility. The truth is the main problem with President Buhari is that it has always been about him; it has always been his ambition to be elected and was elected in 2015 and he thought that was it. So, Nigerians should be grateful that he has become president and everything else that is not going right is not his fault; it is the fault of somebody else. But unfortunately, it is the same president that has continued with all his problems. If you listen to him or his people, they are always blaming the past and always recalling what he did in 1983 to 1985. What you did in 1983 and 1985 cannot be done now. That was when you were military Head of State. They did a coup, took over the country and had absolute power. So the understanding of a large number of Nigerians is that the man who had the iron fist because he had the power without democratic mandate is the same man whom they have given power to. And unfortunately, we have a leader who thinks he is the same person in 1983 to 1985 that is now leading and, therefore, he has no apology for the manner he is running the country. So the administration of Buhari has only one agenda: damage control.
Now that you have spoken in this manner let me draw your attention to the article he authored and published in the United States based magazine, Newsweek, where he analysed the efforts of his government. Speaking on corruption, he commented on the Abacha loot and the fact that monies are now being returned because of his governance reforms which has made Nigeria a beneficial place to invest. Do you agree with this claim?
No. These countries are returning monies because it is Nigeria’s money. Remember these countries are also accountable to their people. They realized that they cannot continue to hold on to monies which have been illegally deposited in their countries. I do not think that it is right for this administration to think that countries are returning our money that was deposited in their countries simply because they have confidence in their fight against corruption. Look, these countries do not just return monies like that. They tie them up to some specific conditionalities. They insist you have to spend these monies with our supervision in this area and that area. Now, how does that create the impression that they have enough confidence to just hand over $350 million to President Buhari and say take your money it was stolen by former Head of State; you can spend it how you want to spend it. This is not true. It shows you the little confidence they have that the leadership will actually spend these monies in a manner that satisfies them. And yet it is our money. I mean it is okay for the president to claim that countries are returning monies back. He is not the first president to receive returned monies and no kobo of Nigeria’s monies come back unless it is tied to specific conditionalities. That is why it takes so much time to get these monies back. As we speak we still have some monies outside. And they will keep an eye on the monies. So, it is not because of their fight against corruption. I don’t see it that way.
There has been series of articles on Nigeria’s 21st anniversary of unbroken democratic experience and Buhari’s five years in office; but the one I’ll like to recall is the one by a columnist where he said there appear to be a cult in the personality of those who call themselves Buharists around this government. Do you think most of the works of the president have been outsourced and are you seeing the kind of competency that can transform the country?
I will speak about competence. I don’t see an existing level of competence that can cure the current challenges of this administration, particularly in the areas of our security apart from the insurgency they said has been defeated. You have massive insecurity in many parts of the North, Northwest, North-central and the South. The people are facing very serious challenges. The more you create opportunities around it the more it spreads. Secondly, the economy is in recession. Thirdly, poverty is rising. It is rising at an alarming rate. President Buhari needs to ramp up the level of competence of this administration. He cannot just continue to work and operate as if everything is normal. He has to improve the quality of people who give him advice; he has to improve his personal commitment. He has to operate with better ideas. Buhari has to look out for people who mean well and who will give him better advice to see his way through in improving this country because what we see is that the only agenda is damage control and you don’t do damage control with people who do the damage. You put them aside and get the people who can actually control the damage. So, I don’t see that competence. About outsourcing, I don’t know. The truth of the matter is that 90 per cent of the people who are with him today have been with him all along and the best way to judge whether they are working well or not is to look at the worth of their work. Of course, people can call themselves whatever they want to call themselves, but what Nigerians demand is that the president has been elected twice and he should justify the confidence Nigerians gave to him for having voted twice for him and there is no other better time to demonstrate that commitment to the popular will of the people than now. We cannot continue to operate the same way we did in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and today. The chances are mounting and the leadership needs to overhaul its entire approach, its mindset and the key people who can actually assist him in running this country.
About Nigeria’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know your area of specialization is not Epidemiology, but you can at least take a look at the political aspect of its management. It is like we are finding it difficult to manage the pandemic just like we are finding it difficult to manage federalism, diversity and other problems like water and electricity and Nigerians can see how they are struggling with the acceptance of their directives by the states of the federation for what people say is the lack of ability to coordinate. Are you satisfied with what the government has been able to do so far, the lockdown measures, stimulus packages, management of contributions from wealthy individuals, big businesses and other good spirited Nigerians?
The best way to assess the quality of leadership is to see it in the manner it manages crisis. This COVID has exposed the poor qualities of our leaders. We need leaders who will lead. We need leaders who think ahead. We need leaders who will plan. We need leaders who can generate the confidence of the people. The Federal Government has said states are going to take over the management of Coronavirus; but the state Governments do not have the resources and the will to insist on certain things. So, what the Federal Government is saying is that we have done our own part now the state governments are going to take over. These governors…most of the governors don’t have the courage to actually insist on measures that would reduce the impact of the virus. They don’t have the resources to keep people at home and, therefore, they won’t evolve policies that will keep the people out of the reach of this virus. You need coherent and cohesive policies. These governors will not do that. Every governor will say well I can’t feed the people so I can’t lock them down. They will also say I don’t have money for isolation; I don’t have money for hospitals and money for the payment of workers; so let the people do what they want to do and if they die that will be enough to scare them. So, they will sit behind lack of resources and our people are not disciplined and are not amenable to showing concern for themselves. Most of these governors are going to yield more and more grounds to the people and what is going to happen is that you will continue to see deaths and when people start dying in thousands and thousands maybe then people will realize that this Coronavirus is real. Now, the Federal Government is ceding the responsibility to state and the states will in turn cede the responsibility to local governments. Treatment will now be bought by those who can afford it; isolation will be bought by those who can afford it and testing will also be bought by those who can afford it and you are going to have class differentiation. That is what is going to happen.