Prof Lai Olurode, former National Commissioner of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and former Dean, Faculty of Social Science, University of Lagos, is worried that the country is not getting any better despite the promises of its leaders over the years.
He gave Sunday Sun real reasons genuine development has continued to elude every succeeding government apart from stumbling from one internal crisis to another.
The celebrated sociologist took his time to dissect critical national issues, including the problem with the nation’s elections, xenophobic attacks in South Africa, the rotational presidency and his worries about the country. Excerpt:
Looking at Nigeria’s democratization process, so far so what?
With regards to 20 years of Nigeria’s democratization, I want to say kudos to Nigeria’s political elite, in spite of the challenges they have kept the fate, they deserve collective commendation in terms of the length of the number of years of our democratization experience. I must say that we shouldn’t lose hope as Nigerians that at the end of the day Nigerians will be better for it. We must make sure we don’t lose this opportunity to entrench democratic practices in our lives, the right to vote in people, the right to contract government to them and the right to sack them. It’s very important. We cannot do this other than by making sure that our elections are credible, free, fair, transparent and devoid of acts of impunity. We have no other country to run to than this Nigeria, some people ran to Ghana, Kenya, Libya, South Africa, etc and we can see what is happening in South Africa recently. There is no other place for them to return other than Nigeria.
You just mentioned South Africa. So far what is your take on the xenophobic attacks there?
You see, xenophobia flourishes in triumphs under conditions of ill-education, illiteracy, prejudice, and blatant discrimination. A condition for it also is a poor understanding of the nature of globalization and poverty of ideas about how migrations, particularly international migrations promote civilization. Over the ages, it is known that for a country to make progress, it cannot be an island unto itself. There must be cross-fertilization of cultures, there must be communication between cultures and there must be conversations across the ethno-religious and national divide. America would not have been a great country today, but for the fact of its diversity and being populated by people from different parts of the world, Spanish, the Polish, British, Indians, people from all over the world. The beauty of Nigeria today and most other African countries is that of being a sort of melting pot for people of diverse origins. People look at the philanthropy, how Nigeria has been very generous, how we have been very philanthropic and how we have been very supportive of the independence, the freedom struggle that South Africa has to engage in. Having said that, I must also say that we are treated like a pariah nation and our nationals are always at the receiving end of maltreatment by people to whom we have been very generous. It also speaks volume about governance at home, even within the country. When we are attacked by people other than our home we make a large noise out of it, but when you look at how we also treat fellow citizens, you feel sad. Look at our constitution, for instance; our constitution is a universal constitution, but what we operate is a kind of fractured citizenship, not universal citizenship, how you are treated, how much school fees you pay etc, it is a function of which part of the country you come from. We experience the poor treatment of fellow Nigerians by Nigerians, but as I said, where social conditions in the country are going down, when there is stark underdevelopment, there is what we call scapegoating, that is when you want to explain your failure, instead of looking inwards, you want to look outward. You simply scapegoat your development crisis and you see the fault for your under-development in other groups that have come to occupy your territory and not in yourself. I think at the end of the day South Africa is going to be worse for it. There is a strong point I will like to raise, I think there is a need to re-think governance institutions in this country. We need to respect more that Nigerians have a right to exist as decent citizens. I also will like to suggest that our government needs to do more for its citizens. But let me say here that I like the way the Nigerian government handled the matter with enough maturity, not tit for tat, which is good. But again there is a limit to the extent which you can ask people to exercise patience in the face of provocation by people that should be grateful to us. One would think that the Nigeria government should be asking the South African government for compensation and make conditions at home more conducive for Nigerians to stay at home. All over the world, look at what is happening to Nigerians in Libya, and in other African countries, we are not being respected, we are treated as a pariah group, as a group that is not wanted anywhere in the world and what that tells me is that we need to conduct governance and ourselves well so as to earn respect. You can see that the attack is more on Nigeria than other nationals. Even within the country we, most often, do not conduct respectfully enough, we do not behave decently and we get involved in practices that are anti-social and that may be in opposition to the laws of the country where we reside. I think we need to respect more the sensibilities of the country where we reside. Government should as much as possible make sure that those Nigerians from South Africa are rehabilitated, that they are taken care of and they should not be made to be worse off than where they were coming from because the home front was not good, the reason they decided to leave in the first place. I also want to advise that anybody who wants to leave the country must make sure that they perfect their travel documents and when they are in Rome they should behave like Romans so that they will be respected the more.
Can Nigeria really get its elections right looking at the situation on the ground where it’s always the court that rules, particularly the presidency as well as in other offices?
Honestly, it’s disturbing. What I see is what we can call specter of electoral reversals, if we are not careful the gains that Nigeria has recorded that earned it international accolade in 2015, some of them may be disappearing, so we all collectively need to do something. There are so many inconclusive elections, elections are driven by money, low voter turn-out, intimidation, absence of internal party democracy, diverse acts of impunity, imposition of candidates, etc, it’s like we have taken three steps forward and five or six steps backward, so we really need to sanitize the electoral system. But what I want to say is that it is not for government, it is also not for bureaucracy, it is also not for media practitioners though we all have roles to play, but I think what we need to speak to is the mindset of an average Nigerian, particularly the political elite. The mindset is one that goes into an election without any skepticism, without any doubt, an election is a probability, but in Nigeria election is concede and put as a certainty. The only language they understand is victory, that I must win and not winning an election never cross their mind. And that is very dangerous. So, the mind needs to be re-set, our conception of election is war, it’s not in tandem with the character of liberal democracy anywhere in the world where even after people adopt public opinion poll (POP) you will still not see a clear indication, that is the probability nature of election and that is the way it should be looked at. Elections are a probability, not a certainty, but unfortunately, in Nigeria participants see elections as something that must happen in their favour. If they win the electoral body is the best thing that could have happened to the country, if they win in court, the court legal system is the best in the country, but if they lose they will let hell lose they will condemn the electoral bureaucracy, they will condemn the judiciary and that is not a mind that is attuned, that is prepared to accept that people have the right to vote the way they vote. Why do people want to use force and intimidation is because they have already made up their mind that it is either they win because losing election will not be acceptable to them. And that is why they go to the extreme to even bribe election officials, whereas your programmes, ideology should be what should sell you to the people. Allow people to make a choice. We have seen cases where people’s votes are mortgaged, and undermined, where the court will make a pronouncement or verdict that does not align with popular mandate.
Looking at Nigeria today what is your main worry?
I am worried just like other average Nigerians that things are not getting better. I grew up in a village where we took tap water for granted. My children didn’t grow up to know what tap water is. I grew up to know what public education is and my primary school was a public school, my secondary school was partly government, partly missionary, but they were public schools not just meant for the children of the elite. My children didn’t have that opportunity; they had to attend fee-paying schools, so I can see publicly provided social services disappearing. We had a maternity centre near my home, where I grew up, access to health could be said to be taken for granted, and the same thing applies to the hygienic condition of the time. The sanitary people will come to our homes to inspect it whether our water is good for drinking and if not they will pour it away, they will give us things to treat the water, medications to treat our water, all these are diminishing, they are no longer there in most cases. When I was doing my National Youth Service, I used a public train to travel to Katsina and it was quite cheap, look at our roads now, traffic is an ordeal. What I see mostly these days, so ubiquitous, is what I call metaphor of the slaughter slab, people are still taken to the slaughter, literally are being murdered, when you prosecute a war when people are dying, the Boko Haram, the insecurity, the kidnapping etc so our engagement with globalization is not positive and I am frightened that how can a country be perennially on the war part with itself? The people that you are kidnapping, abducting are Nigerians. I see more desperation today and I see the electoral system not really impacting positively on the life chances of people, so there is a lot of more work to do. But sometimes I can say it’s a mixed bag, sometimes you see some rays of hope, but they are not strong enough. When I remember people like Sam Mbakwe he wept for the country, he said: “How I wish the British can come back”, it’s a nostalgic feeling about the past, we fought for independence, we got the independence, but it became a burden. But I see some possibilities, we are not helpless, the challenge we have is governance and leadership. We saw people like Lateef Jakande, Abubakar Rimi, etc they worked wonders and they were not loud. You never knew Jakande’s wife, you never knew Bisi Akande’s wife, I can’t recall ever seeing Mbakwe’s wife being as if they were governors, you hardly see the wife of American president except for public good that they want to deliver, but now sometimes you will think that it is the governor that is passing when their wives go around. They were modest in all that they did unlike what obtains today. They have de-emphasized governance and elevated politics to a high pedestal. No country develops based on politics rather they develop on the basis of governance. Anybody that has seen good times in Nigeria will feel sad and we don’t even know what post-Buhari era will be like because every succeeding government is like things are getting worse. But as I said earlier, it’s a mixed bag, but I want the light at the end of the tunnel to be brighter than what we can see now.
What exactly do we need now, a national conference or a security conference?
I don’t think we need a constitutional conference; it’s a waste of time. What I think we need is taking place inadvertently and I will get to that. You see we have a constitution that we operate which does not agree with our culture. When you ask an average Nigerian today he wants to be on his own, he wants to have more control, he may not be agitating for balkanization of the country, but he believes that the present structure is not delivering, not working for anybody or at best working for a clique, but at least not in the best interest of the majority. Look at policing, for instance, the commissioner of police in Enugu is under the control of the IGP and even when the governor of a state calls the commissioner of police and the IGP calls him also, who do you think the commissioner of police will answer to and take instructions? He will answer and take instruction from the IG, ignoring that of the governor who is said to be the chief security officer of the state. To cut long story short we need restructuring, laws that can restructure, remove some items from the exclusive list, place them on the concurrent list, and remove the hand of the Federal Government in some of the parastatals so that people can have control.