Will INEC-Civil Society Alliance Work?


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Will INEC-Civil Society Alliance Work?




Rafiu Ajakaye



culled from DAILY INDEPENDENT, October 4, 2006


The 2007 elections would indeed be a serious business. It will be to Nigerians what the coming of Jesus is to the Christendom. No joking about it. No grandstanding. And Prof. Maurice Iwu, the INEC boss, knows and acknowledges this.

The challenges are enormous. So are the fears and expectations. The conduct of the general elections, many argue, would determine the future of Nigeria's slim – or forced – unity and young democracy.

The elections next year would be just a little bit different from the 1993 presidential polls, which Moshood Abiola won. Then, Nigerians wanted the military out to plant democracy. Now is the time for consolidation of that democracy and, more importantly, sincere leadership that would paddle the country into economic excellence.

For the common man, neither has the last seven years of the civil rule been rosy nor promises to be any better. So a change of everything is imperative in the face of the hardship and socio-political and economic deprivations.

So the people are as determined as they were months before and up till June 23, 1993 when the elefction was annuled. They want a leadership sincerely chosen at the polls and one responsive to their yearnings. This sums up the unprecedented attention and pressure on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

"Attentions, both within Nigeria and outside of it, are on the INEC because the fate of the fragile country hinges on its conduct of the general elections due next year", argued Sulaimon Popoola, a final year student at the University of Ilorin.

Many – both within and outside of government circles – shared the views of Popoola, a student of Political Science, and are looking forward to see Iwu do his homework judiciously well as the d-day inches.

Iwu And History

Historians pose somewhere looking at INEC, the people and the 2007 polls, wanting to document what they would make of the make or mar event.

Iwu, a pure scientist, knows next year is no time for experiment, and would perhaps do his best to ensure history judges him in a way his grandchildren would want to visit the national library and read, proudly, an account of their great grandfather's stewardship to his fatherland.

Aside the steps taken before, INEC, funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), last week hosted scores of civil society groups to a two-day conference in Enugu to in part seek their support and hear them out on things they think INEC should or should not do.

The event tagged 'INEC-Civil Society Conference' was the first of its kind in the history of relationship between the civil society and successive electoral bodies in the country.

But its novelty is by no means more interesting or important than the purpose it should serve. The programme was good, timely and challenging.

With scores of famous human rights activists and persons of diverse political backgrounds in attendance, INEC had tough days talking to a sceptical audience, and the event just couldn't be a tea party.

INEC spoke its minds. And so did the visiting CSOs. Papers were delivered by famous scholars and foremost rights activists highlighting the fears and path to successful general elections next year.

"This conference, an initiative in treading a path no trodden before in terms of forging a collaboration between the civil society community and the electoral commission in this country, could, and should prove a source of renewed assurance that we are committed to do things differently and better this time and that with dedication for all of us we can surmount the shortcomings of our past," Iwu said last Wednesday, welcoming the participants to the event.

He told off arguments that elections next year would end up the way of the 2003 polls, owing to poor preparations, and pledged instead that the 2007 polls would be a departure from the past, as the commission is up to the task and has perfected its homework, though it has kept its capability to itself.

According to him, the preparations have been steady and purposeful as drawn up in its strategic plans and schedules, confirming the shoddiness of the 2003 polls and pledging to make up for it.

Iwu sought the support of Nigerians without whom he says nothing will be achievable, and acknowledged the rising fears about the polls, particularly the scepticism that INEC could not act as an independent umpire.

But the INEC boss kept mum on concerns over the election timetable, which many say does not envisage the possibility of a run-off election. He confirmed that voters' registration would commence on October 7 though it may be delayed in some states for various reasons.

INEC is introducing yet another strategy to disallow malpractices disusing the OMR form and opting for Direct Data Capture. Iwu said the former encourages multiple registrations during voters' registration exercise.

The Alliance for Credible Election (ACE), a coalition of civil rights groups, had urged the INEC to review the timetable, which it described as recipe for chaos and eventual cancellation of polls. Rather than hold the governorship and presidential elections on 14 and 21 of April – as contained in the timetable – ACE wants the timetable brought down to 7 and 14 April to allow for possible run-off.

But Iwu doused the tensions, saying, "Because our method of operations and our focus are different from the way they were in the past, some people have been erroneously asserting that preparations for the 2007 elections have not been progressing.

"As they put it, so pedestrianly, there does not seem to be enough noise around to show that elections are approaching. But the truth is that preparations for the elections are progressing according to plans. I invite every interested person or interest groups to pick up the strategic plan of the commission for the 2007 elections developed one year after the 2003 elections. The commission has not faltered in its plans and schedule.

"Anybody who is still continuing to question INEC's preparations, even with the overwhelming facts we have presented to the nation, is either motivated by partisan political considerations or attempting to trivialise an important national programme".

He spoke as his lieutenants ruled out the possibility of INEC dictating what amounts parties should charge aspirants to elective offices, but urged instead that civil rights community and interest groups pressure the parties to cut down the fees to enable decent but poor persons contest elections.

The INEC said it is poised to repeat the feat of the 1993. But optimistic and democratic as Iwu sounded, his dismissal of a section of the CSOs belied his authorship of the fine speech. INEC's success is hinged on its sincerity to its pledges, adherence to advice given it and ability to face up to criticisms rather than balking at those it considers too harsh or anti-establishment. Here lies its success!

The Challenges

The conference is geared towards a credible election, and issues germane to credible polls were raised both by paper presenters, discussants and the audience. Paramount among the papers presented and issues discussed are 'The roles of the media in transparent elections', 'Mindset/mandate protection", 'Administering electoral justice in Nigeria: Ingredients for free and fair elections', 'Curbing electoral violence: Issues in 2007 general elections in Nigeria' and others.

For a credible election, certain institutions came first on the list of the stakeholders. They included the INEC, the police, the media, the civil society and the Judiciary. Failure of one renders useless the efficiency of others. So all must work in unison.

The civil society – representing the voice of the people – is sceptical of the INEC, which, as it stands, is at best an appendage of the Presidency. It draws its money from it, and its claim to independence, they say, is doubtful. Yet they must work with it.

The INEC insisted its plans have been up-and coming ahead of the polls. It has in place several committees comprising its staff, contractual experts and civil rights groups to work out modalities for credible elections.

One of such is the 'Electoral Institute', an initiative of Iwu's INEC. The institute is to coordinate all the training activities of the commission, conceptualise the process and procedures for electoral activities and prepare manuals, formulate regulations or guidelines governing the electoral process, research electoral policy and related matters, inform and educate all stakeholders, document research findings, policies and related matters and train the staff of other electoral management bodies (EMBS). The institute is headed by Ishmael Igbani and M. Jubare, both national electoral commissioners.

INEC also partners with professionals at the higher institutions on technical electoral matters, with Iwu challenging his colleagues at the institutions and prominent Nigerians to help build the country's democracy by helping to conduct voter's registration and enlightenment programmes – like their colleagues across the Atlantic.

The commission, Iwu promised, would take measures, which are a departure from the past, among which is live broadcast of election counting and announcement of results at the polling centres. The INEC is advised to parley with the Institute of Chartered Accountant of Nigeria (ICAN) and other accounting bodies to help monitor and ensure politicians comply with censorship of campaign funds. Offenders are to bear the brunt, Iwu warned, as he insisted on keeping certain things hidden until the exercise begins this Saturday – when voters' registration begins – and beyond.

But a close reading of his lips told of a man wanting credible elections but faced by a myriad of constraints. Would he go the way of Humphrey Nwosu, praised for his brilliant conduction of the 1993 polls? Let Iwu determine.

Mandate Protection

As Nigeria searches for credible elections, the challenge turns on the civil rights community as to other stakeholders like the Police and the Judiciary. But the CSOs are perhaps best placed to protect democracy, which they helped to secure. And INEC choosing them as partners is most correct.

The CSOs are closer to the populace than the INEC and Police put together. So theirs is the challenge to educate and mobilise people ahead of the elections.

The Enugu conference was well attended by CSOs and religious groups, whose representatives engaged the INEC in debates most necessary to the success of the elections. Chief among them are the Transition Monitoring Groups (TMG), Voters' Rights Initiative, Organisation for Character Reformations (OCR), Peoples Rights Association, Alliance for Credible Election (ACE), the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN), National Women Council of Nigeria and so on.

Several issues were raised and discussed, among which stood the question of "mandate protection". It is observed that politicians no longer care about balloting. What they do is parley with godfathers who oversee riggings in their favour. Nigerians want their sovereignty and the culture of one-man one vote restored.

To ensure this, Emma Ezeazu, the secretary-general of the ACE, urged the conference to support a return to Option A4, which allows the voters to wait and watch their votes being counted right at the polling centres. This, he said, would forestall manipulation of results as witnessed nationwide in the 2003 elections.

But Iwu, rejected the "wait and count" strategy and warned in part that Abuja stands opposed to anyone or action that could cause "orange revolution" because it was time to march on with the democratic exercise.

Iwu is afraid that a 'wait and count' strategy might be riotous, a view shared by Hajia Rekiah Momoh-Abaji of the FOMWAN), but criticised by a few others.

That came second to Iwu saying he would not recognise or partner with any group – mentioning the ACE – formed in 2006 as they are wont to fly the kites of politicians. He called them "night-flight" organisations.

ACE, formed recently in Lagos, is a coalition of over 12 civil society groups, which included the famed Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), United Action for Democracy (UAD), the Civil Liberties Organisations (CLO), TMG, CAN, Women Unity Forum (WUF), Electoral Reforms Network (ERN), Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), The Media, Women for Representative National Conference (WONACO), student bodies and others.

"Mandate protection should be by people participating en masse and not that they wait after casting their votes. People should go home after casting their votes", Iwu retorted after the suggestion.

"Of course we are not seeking equal participation, and INEC would not recognise any group that just sprang up in 2006 under the guise of wanting to promote transparency when in fact they are cronies to political parties. Nigeria is too tender for such organisations. What we need is changing the mindset of politicians not accepting defeat.

"Grandstanding is not acceptable to us, and if after 20 years people still sing 'aluta' song, then something is wrong. Security is paramount and nothing should be done to jeopardise it."

The INEC boss was just intensifying his "offensive" on the day before – during a dinner – telling the rights community it was time they hung their revolutionary garbs and backed government's efforts to strengthen democracy.

Iwu was perhaps handing down to the rights community -- NBA, CLO and UAD and others – a tacit reaction from the Presidency to a threat recently by a coalition of civil rights groups to run down the "anti-people tendencies" of the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration.

But the INEC boss had a salvo fired immediately at him by Ezeazu, who said rights activists do not share Iwu's views and that orange revolution is a possibility unless government turned a new leaf.

"Nigeria certainly needs transformation, and many people don't share the views of the INEC chairman that it is 'uhuru'", the former President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), reacted to Iwu's statements in an interview on the day two of the conference.

"That optimism of his (Iwu) should be based on the vigilance of the society, not on the going to bed or of the laxity of the society being led back at this critical time. We disagree with him because there is nothing to celebrate. Are we celebrating the corruption spillage from the office of the President and his deputy, or of the World Bank report that Nigeria has made 35 steps downward from where it was on economic competitiveness? And up till now, we don't know whether INEC has gotten its digital camera to commence its work."

Iwu wants the rights activists to hang their revolutionary garbs and face the challenge of nursing the democracy they bargained for at the trenches.

He had added: "Democracy is here… and revolutionaries cannot afford to plan or carry out their revolutions, since they are in government. But they often forget this unless someone tells them 'look you are in government'.

"I was the executive director of an international NGO. The music has changed now. We are no longer talking of the military. Democracy is here and what we need is sustenance of the system. It is no longer 'them and us'. We must join hands to give civic education. The time for struggle is over. What we must ensure is that those elected truly got the mandate of their people."

Mrs. Nwaneri Princewill, spokesperson for NGOs at the conference, corroborated Iwu, saying what was needed is "to re-orientate the populace, change the thinking of Nigerians so that our votes would count and electorate would be able to hold leaders accountable – which is the thrust of this conference".

Ezeazu said Iwu's rejection of the proposal shows he has something up his sleeves, though the INEC chairman denied it and promised to ensure free and fair elections.

Regardless, INEC's rebuttal of the idea may undermine its seriousness to conduct elections reflective of people's will as well deepen the political apathy, anger and anxiety which many say are very rampant among the populace.

Besides, Iwu's policy of segregation would not help matters as those constituting the alliance would and could lay more claims to democracy than him. Their support is paramount to INEC making any headway.

Lanre Arogundade, coordinator of the Lagos-based International Press Centre (IPC) and one of the paper presenters at the conference, supported the wait and count plan, and urged also that the Electoral Act be reviewed to empower people to defend their votes and challenge any malpractices.

"It's not just about coming to vote and disappearing. I think that people need to be there, know the outcome and follow up the outcome", said the IPC coordinator. "And, as a matter of fact, when we were discussing and having roundtables around the country on the electoral bill, one of the things we recommended at the level of civil society was the fact that the electoral law should empower communities to be able to protect the outcome of the election, that is, if people have voted one way and the outcome is different, they should be legally empowered to go to court and say that our community has been robbed of its votes. So, definitely, we support mandate protection and we believe that the media should be part of that process."

Few other civil rights groups also faulted Iwu. Ms Olateru Olagbegi, a popular woman activist, also called for mandate protection through the wait and count strategy because, she says, now is the time to regain people's mandate.

Kalu Onuma, the administrative secretary of the Ndigbo Lagos, said there was nothing wrong in mandate protection but that the INEC and CSOs need reach a consensus on how not to abuse the strategy.

Iwu was against 'wait and count' strategy, not mandate protection. But he needs to rethink his approaches to the CSO demand.

He would perhaps regret saying that what he wanted was not a parallel alliance because that was a mistake, given the fact that those making up the ACE would have their names written boldly in gold when Nigeria documents her heroes of democracy and human rights activism. They were in the trenches when the atmosphere was most hostile.

Professor Remi Anifowoshe, a UNILAG don, acknowledges this in a paper he called 'Curbing Electoral Violence: Security Issues In 2007 General Elections in Nigeria' in which he also accused the rights community of docility. He said they have watched their handiwork become spoilt in the hands of opportunists and urged that they wake up from their slumber.

He recalled: "It is sad to note that after successfully wresting power from the military junta, the civil society immersed itself in a conspiracy of silence, mute indifference and cold passivity. The vibrancy and militancy that saw the civil society confronting the military junta mellowed down. It is time for the civil society to wake from its self-imposed slumber and censorship."

He summed up the duties of the CSOs as the election approaches. "One way to do this is to ensure that unlike the international election monitors, and past practices, election monitoring by civil society organisations should start now. People need to be informed about what the parties are doing, the antecedents of the different candidates, and the respective manifestoes of the different political parties, especially given their large numbers. This would help the people to make informed choices at polls."

Nevertheless, applause is due the INEC boss for inviting to a talk members of the CSOs. But INEC needs a watchdog to keep it at bay as it is – whether directly or indirectly – an attachment of the Presidency on which turn suspicions of wanting to perpetuate itself in power, a mission possible through inconclusive election and resultant troubles.

Changing The Mindset

Tracing to them a bulk of malpractices during polls, police took home a greater part of the buck-passing from the two-day conference, with Simon Okeke, chairman of the Police Service Commission, pledging decent policing in the coming elections.

Next to it is the judiciary, to which most participants ascribed the success and sanctity of the electoral process.

The conference urged that INEC establish a police monitoring unit and that Police Service Commission (PSC) despatches only graduate police officers from ASP upward for election programme. But sadly, 10,000 out of the over 300,000 force members hold first degrees, Okeke confirmed to the audience, though pledged to ensure police efficiency.

Though she praised some innovations in it, Oby Okonkwo, a retired magistrate, said the 2006 Electoral Act fell short of expectations and blamed the shortcomings on the National Assembly.

She discussed 'Administering Electoral Justice in Nigeria: Ingredients for Free and Fair Elections'.

One such of shortcoming is the bill lacking definitive date for elections petitions – thus setting another ground for the Anambra scenario. Another, Okonwko said, is "the National Assembly…taken a step forward by these provisions– some provisions like allowing the INEC to monitor campaign funds – and several steps backward by repealing the most potent provision guaranteeing the independence of the INEC i.e. section 6 of the INEC Establishment Act which states that in the discharge of its functions under the Act, the commission 'shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority'. This provision was recommended in the bill presented to the National Assembly, but for reasons best known to them, the lawmakers repealed it and did not make any suitable equivalent replacement. Many commentators believe that it is this provision, which ultimately guarantees the independence of the commission and should actually be entrenched in the constitution".

But Okonwko still believes that the judiciary can make it work.

Nigerians took a piece of the bashings too, and have been urged to switch off from money politics.

So did the media. It is adjudged "very vital" to the sustenance of representative democracy. But Arogundade, one of its own who explored the roles of the media, indicted the Fourth Estate of the Realm in the 2003 polls, and wished it change for the better as campaigns took off for the next election.

The media, he said, must give equal access to all aspirants, encourage candidates to embrace issue-based campaigns and teach anti-violence conducts.

To politicians, Anifowoshe offered some advice: "Democracy survives and endures only on the culture of peace, tolerance, social trust, dialogue, consensus and interpersonal cooperation. Whatever mechanisms are put in place, until politicians imbibe these democratic ethos and attitudes and jettison the politics of bitterness, and see politics as service to God and humanity, every election cannot but be a declaration of war, with the concomitant cost in material and human resources. This is a luxury Nigeria can ill-afford if democracy must take root, and if the nation and her people must develop."

Truth be told, the conference was a success. But as a participant puts it, roles played by both INEC and CSOs or any group means a little. And utterances of local and international observers and monitors do not count. They are but a means to an end. What is important is Nigerians getting credible and violence-free elections that would produce a listening government willing to put behind them the gridlocks that have held the country back since Independence.


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