Setting up new electoral reform panel needless —Oyebode

Professor Akin Oyebode, a professor of International Law and Jurisprudence and member of the 2014 National Conference, teaches at the University of Lagos. He speaks with BOLA BADMUS on the recently inaugurated Electoral Reform Panel headed by Senator Ken Nnamani, former Senate president and other issues. 


WHAT is your view on the Committee on Electoral Reform set up by President Muhammadu Buhari and what do you think brought about the setting up of the body?

I think the best person to ask that question is President Buhari himself; why did he think of setting up yet another review commission and this time under the chairmanship of Senator Ken Nnamani, who, as you know, was president of the Senate at a time.  I think the whole thing smacks of trying to reinvent the wheel, because we had a Blue Ribbon panel headed by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mohammed Uwais, including personalities like Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Mr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) and also a former chairman of INEC who contributed to refurbishing and reinventing the Electoral Law in Nigeria.

I am sure if you speak to my good friend and former chairman of INEC, Professor Atahiru Jega, he would be in a better position to volunteer an opinion on why yet we have to go through the rigmarole of revamping the Electoral Act in the constitution. So, for me, it is like needless, except there is an agenda that the rest of the public is unaware of.

I don’t see the necessity for the Ken Nnamani committee to revisit an issue, which the country profited from somewhat, even though the provisions of the committee’s reports were not fully implemented.  But the fact that a member of that commission, Attahiru Jega, became chairman of INEC, speaks louder than voice. So, if President Buhari just wants to go through the motions, maybe I will say good luck to him, but don’t forget that President Buhari refused to take a look at the recommendations of the National Conference.

I was a member of the Confab and I know the efforts, the labour, the sweat that we put into it. For more than two months, a group of Nigerians; those that were nominated, went through a myriad of problems confronting Nigerians and they brought out a report that contained more than 600 recommendations. But President Buhari, for reasons best known to him, has refused to even look at those recommendations and extract from them what might be useful, what might be profitable, because of the money expended on running the Confab and all that. So, it’s like going through the motion all over again, which, for me, serves little or no profit.


When you look at the current Electoral Laws that we have in this country, isn’t there a need for a review?

Well, there is no law that is perfect and the exigency of the moment might necessitate or warrant a fresh look at any area of the law.  I would be the first to support that.  But I am saying that the report of the Uwais panel has not been fully implemented, so why are we unscrambling the egg? I am just curious. Are we saying that the Ken Nnamani report would not gather dust like previous efforts at revamping the law? There are so many things I found distasteful about the Electoral Act and even the constitution, which might require amending.


What are they?

For instance, the question of election expenses. The Electoral Act stipulates a certain limit, a certain ceiling, but have you ever heard of any politician being prosecuted for exceeding the limit, for running expenses?

Then the question of registration of parties; why do we want to overregulate ourselves? Nigeria is a free country, if people want to set up a party to fight for limited purposes, regional, ethnic or local purposes, they should be free to set up their parties. All we can say is that if your party fails to win five per cent of the vote, then it will lose its registration. But we’ve made INEC so powerful that INEC has almost smoldered politicians with rules and regulations, they have to oversee, monitor, superintend, supervise the party programmes in terms of, for instance, what you call selection of candidates.

Then, the question of the power the INEC has in the order of elections and then the non-use of electronic voting devices. There has been an improvement; Jega brought the permanent voter card and that’s an improvement but the ultimate would be electronic voting.  Within 48 hours, we should be able to know the result; then there would be no ballot box snatching, because with electronics, there is nothing to snatch.

There is also the question of the requirement in terms of spread; all sorts of consideration.  Look, people should have the right to go to heaven the way they want. I don’t know the type of democracy we are practising, if it is going to be American style of democracy, we must copy the American style well. So that’s why I said there are so many areas that might warrant a review.

Now, there is another area that might be of interest; it is the diaspora element.  Nigerians are in different parts of the world, and we have embassies all over the world. We have noticed in many newspapers that many countries’ embassies invite our nationals to come and vote during their own elections and at the Confab, I was on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Matter. There was a small delegation of Nigerians in Diaspora and part of what they were crusading for was the right to vote; that they are sending money back home and we are celebrating them, but we don’t give them the right to vote. That is an area that we might have to look at. Let’s extend the franchise to Nigerians who are in the diaspora and who are qualified to vote. This is because you heard Donald Trump saying that certain aliens are on the electoral register and they are going to vote.  So we want to check if those Nigerians have not acquired the citizenship of those countries of their residence. If they’ve acquired citizenship of other countries, they might not be entitled to vote. So, their eligibility would have to be looked at, but I think the diaspora taking part in election is an idea which time has come.

There are other areas too. You know if you look at Nigeria, we are a country of many nationalities and the level of development is not uniform and the level of consciousness is also not uniform. I would want to believe that the Yoruba are the most sophisticated, politically speaking in this country and that was why it was possible for Igbo to be elected as lawmakers in Lagos, but also to represent Lagos in Abuja; that is the height of political sophistication. How many Yoruba would win election in the East? You know, they are domicile here, they are resident here and they enjoy the benefit of living in Yoruba land. It is something that has to be elevated to the national plane in terms of using residence as the basis of election and not ethnicity; not religion. It is a sort of thing that we don’t want to check in national census. You see, they say let us count Nigerians but don’t identify whether they are Christians or Muslims, Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba; we are afraid of ourselves.


You said INEC has an enormous power, but when it comes to picking a candidate, the court ruled long ago that INEC does not have any say and now there is the Ondo problem, where INEC was asked to witness a primary but ultimately could not certify the candidate produced through that process because of a court order. Don’t you think there is need for an amendment?

Primaries are party affairs.  Really, the court should not concern itself with who the party chooses, but the court has held consistently that candidates are party’s affairs, not the individuals. We have that situation in the Rotimi Amaechi case; it went up to the Supreme Court. You know Obasanjo said Amaechi’s case had a K-leg; you saw what happened in Kogi State, where James Faleke who was the running mate to the deceased governorship candidate, was outmatched and outwitted by the powers that be. It seems that we are stuck by what the practice established by the court has been. So it’s too late in the day now to bellyache over decisions in terms of selection of candidates. But I agree with you, maybe we have to take a fresh look at the party primaries as in the selection of candidates. Is it solely a party affair or should the aggrieved go to court and whatever the court decides, there is nothing we can do about it?


Former President Umaru Yar’Adua came to admit that the election that brought him into office was flawed. But you said you don’t know why President Buhari had to set up the Ken Nnamani Committee, can it be assumed that he also had issues with the 2015 poll that brought him into office?

As I said earlier, you have to ask him. I am not a spokesperson for Buhari, he must have his reasons for setting up the Ken Nnamani panel to review the Uwais Report. And I have never heard him say that the election that brought him into office was flawed. On the contrary, it was the first time in the history of this country that you have an opposition candidate beating an incumbent president.  And Ghanaians have done it in the past and I have always said Ghanaians are politically more developed than Nigerians, but there is always a first time. We did it, Goodluck Jonathan conceded and congratulated the victor and the victor too took everything gallantly, you know, with circumspection and accepted his victory. And you know his inaugural speech did not give the impression that the election was flawed, you know, unlike Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua believed that certain rough edges of the electoral system needed to be redressed and that was why he set up the Mohammed Uwais Panel.

So that is why I said that except and unless you ask President Buhari the reason for setting up this panel, I can’t say anything on it. This is because we have a panel report as I said, produced by eminent Nigerians; Ken Nnamani is a very eminent Nigerian, GCON and former president of Senate. He is a man that I have great respect for, I interacted with him at the Confab and I knew the man has incredible experience and credentials, but I think he should have been given another job to do.


Which country do you think we should model our Electoral Law after?

It’s difficult for me to say.


You should have a country in mind.

I lived and studied in three different countries; but Nigeria is a unique country because as I said, we have not yet welded ourselves into one nation. You know Chief Obafemi Awolowo used to say way back in 1947 that Nigeria is a geographical expression, that we are not a nation in the sense of the Welsh, the Scot, the Irish or the English. We have, in fact, over 400 ethnic groups. So, we are still trying to cohabit, to live together. There are a lot of inter-ethnic marriages and all that, but we are not yet there.

So, however we want to pretend to the contrary, Nigeria is not yet a nation. So, I think we have to adopt, I don’t want to go into politics of federalism. Chief Awolowo said the only option for us is a federal setup, because of the complexity of the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, multi-everything. And it will be a very great country if we can attain unity in diversity. And the strong points of the ethnic groups that comprise Nigeria could be brought together to the advantage of the nation that we are building. That is my view.


If you are going to look at INEC since the conclusion of 2015 general election and against the backdrop of inconclusive polls in some states, which the House of Representatives have insisted they must act on, what would be your assessment?

You took the word from my mouth, INEC has now become an inconclusive arbiter; it is so embarrassing. You know that when Prof. Jega was in charge, we never had this notion of inconclusive elections. Jega seemed to have wielded a magic wand the way he went about the elections. He is almost like a magician, but the current INEC chairman, who by the way was one of the directors at the Confab, has very good education and all that, but I am not sure he is as politically astute as Jega, that’s my reading.

Then you know for a long time, there was a deficit in terms of composition of national commissioners of INEC. Then there has been a house clearing concerning the Resident Electoral Commissioners (REC) and so, it is as if we have people who have less experience. I don’t want to say they are inexperienced, compared with those that they replaced. There was no necessity for the house cleaning; we had people like Mike Igini, who was a very effective REC in Cross River State and in Edo State. We ought to have kept some people, although I know some national commissioners in INEC. I remember one of them who presided over the mayhem in one of the states and he is still there. How would you retain somebody who has been compromised, that people have no respect for?

The other thing that strikes me is the attitudinal chemistry of politicians; it’s not in their DNA to accept defeat. In other places, you have exit polls. Once you vote, people are asking you and they can use the result from the exit poll to give the likely outcome of the poll. You will see in another week (next Tuesday) when the presidential election holds in America, they will make projections. Newspapers such as New York Times and others would endorse a candidate; that’s a mature democracy. We are not yet a mature democracy, so you can’t talk of exit poll, because people call to say the results don’t reflect what happened at the polling booth. When there is skepticism, or there is doubt, or disbelief, which would lead to a bitter rejection of those things, then we have problem on our hands.

So, I will not want to lay the blame entirely at INEC’s corner but the mentality of our people has to change. People should recognise that there is tenure, there is a term. It is not an endless, open-ended tenure. Before you know it, another election would be due and people should know the world will not end tomorrow. You lose today, if you work hard, you might win at the next election. You should have a broad mind. When you’ve lost fair and square, accept that you have lost.

Nigerians have to imbibe largeness of spirit to recognise that it is like a game of musical chair, when you lose today, next time you might win. They need to have a belief in impartiality of the umpire, because if you start saying that INEC has been compromised and is an extended arm of the other party, because I have heard politicians saying that INEC is an extension of APC; then you are asking us to doubt the political process. And once you do that, the opposition will be driven underground. Then they will take up arms. See what is happening in Burundi; see what has been happening in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa. I think Africa should grow up and recognise that whoever fights and runs away would live to fight another day. That is my genuine advice.

Don’t let us be too hard on INEC but I congratulate Attahiru Jega because he pulled it off; we’ve not found a replica of Attahiru Jega.