INEC owes Nigerians explanation on server controversy —Yakassai

Alhaji Tanko Yakassai is one of the few surviving first generation politicians. The Second Republic Presidential Adviser, in this interview by KUNLE ODEREMI, interrogates issues concerning elections in the country, party system and leadership, among others. Excerpts:

IN separate reports, the European Union and international bodies that sent observers to monitor the 2019 elections in Nigeria have expressed strong reservations, especially on global practices and standards on the conduct of the poll. What do you think is particularly instructive about their views and observations? 

What the European Union Observers said is that the election was an aspect of the election but that the critical ones were not done credibly. There are four critical issues in any election. Therefore, an election can be free, fair and but in the end, not credible; not transparent. One is in Nigeria, the election was free because nobody was forced by law to register or to cast his vote. It is free for everybody to vote or not to vote; to register or not to register. That in a sense, the election was free. Two, election is fair if it is competitive; that is if it is not a one-party election. In Nigeria, there is a multiple party system. In fact, part of the complaint by the EU is that the parties were too many and counter-productive to guarantee credible elections. So, to that extent, the election is fair because it is competitive, but it is not credible. To have a credible election, the counting of votes must be credible. The collation of results must be credible. The process of collation must be credible; the declaration of results must be credible. If any of the four steps is not credible, then the election is not credible. A transparent election is a situation where everything is done in the open; nothing is done behind the scene. In our elections, there are things that are not done in the open. So, the 2019 general election was no exception.


Do you have instances or stages that are central to the matter?

Yes. A good example is during the collation of results. Have you ever witnessed where they are collating results?


Party agents, security agents and election observers, journalists are usually there; did they witness the process?

Hold on; let me tell you what collation of results actually means. After the votes are counted in the polling units and the figure coming out of the unit is being transported to a collation centre, do you accompany the electoral officials? Are you sure that the number of votes declared in the polling units is the same number of votes transmitted to the polling centre? So, where you are not sure, is a major issues. There should be a way to be sure that what is announced at the polling unit is what is taken to the collation centre and it is what is registered. So, the collection and collation of elections are not transparent. If they are not transparent, declaration of results is not transparent.


I believe you are using the 2019 general election as a yardstick, or is it all elections ever held in the country you are declaring as not being transparent, hence not credible?

Any election that did not meet all these requirements and standards I highlighted is not credible and it is not transparent.


So, your position is that the 2019 elections and all other elections conducted in the country since 1999 lacked credibility and transparency?

Yes, they have not been credible because nobody witnessed the transmission of results from the polling units to the collation centres and up to the final declaration. The only thing they do is the declaration (of the results) in public, but how they arrive at the figure at the point of declaration, nobody is there.


So, how can the anomalies be addressed so that the nation can have  free, fair, credible and ultimately transparent elections, as you pointed out?

Look, we have the Electoral Act, which provides the step-by-step of how this thing can be done. But the electoral commission is not doing it according to the law. Look at them, they collected money from the National Assembly to buy and provide server for the training of people to operate it. Today, they are saying there is no server. How do you transmit results; figures from smartcard readers if there is no server? The card readers will transmit results to the server; from there, you collect the results to collate. If there is no server, how did they get the results from the card readers?


But there were result sheets from the polling units at the ward, local and state levels?

If you see the result sheets, which is manual, you as a journalist, do not know how they do these things? If you put 500 votes, what they do is to either add one figure in front of five to make it 1500 or they add 0 at the tail end of the figure and then the final figure would be 5000 votes.


Is that the trend of Nigeria’s election since 1960?

Well, I can tell you that as far as I am concerned, the only credible election were the ones held in 1959 and 1979. I took part in that election as a candidate. I will tell you the story: you are counting my vote and when it was around 7 pm, they said we should go for prayers. My agent kicked against it. But I feared that our supporters would see us as anti-Islam if we did not go to pray, and of course, we could not pray at the counting centre. So, I convinced my supporters that we go for prayers so that we would not be declared as anti-Islam and they agreed. Before we went for prayers, the score (in the election) in my favour were 70 votes under the banner of the Northern Elements Progressives Union (NEPU) as against 30 votes in favour of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). By the time we came back, the whole thing had been changed to 79 votes in favour of NPC and 30 votes in my favour. That was in the 1959 election.  From 1951 to 1966, I was in NEPU. Today in some records, they retain my name as the winner of that election when in fact, I was not declared the winner, whereas they declared my opponent as the winner.  Who was the Returning Officer that asked us to go for prayers? It was late Mahmud Gumi, who was the head of the School for Arabic Studies that time.


So, what happened at the end of the day?

So, what I’m trying to say is that in the South, the election was fair, free competitive, but in the North, where you had such political parties like NPC, NEPU, so on, it was not free and fair in the North. So after the 1959 election, the only free and fair election that I can tell and I can vouch for was the 1979 elections because in the election, throughout the country, except in a few cases, money was not used in the way it is being used now. Then, political parties used money only to pay for the services of party agents at the polling units or for campaigns but not to bribe anybody. That I can tell you. Nobody bribed anyone. Our presidential candidate was the late Alhaji Shehu Shagari. He could not afford the air ticket for him to go to Sokoto when we were on campaign tours. Shagari was not rich enough to take the trouble of paying for himself and his security man to Sokoto and come back to Lagos. Whenever we came back from tour, he would go to Sokoto and I would go to Kano. So, money was not used to induce anybody throughout the election. Any money spent either by the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP) and the National Party of Nigeria (NP)N or any other party, including the Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) which had a lot of money to spend but for your logistics, was not bribes. So, I can emphatically tell you that nobody was bribed in the 1979 elections, unlike what is happening now.

Why is the situation different today, as money politics has become the major determining factor in elections?

I will tell you what spoiled Nigerian politics. When (former Nigerian military leader, Gen Ibrahim) Babangida allowed two political parties to be formed. We formed the Peoples Solidarity Party (PSP). Others formed the political association called Nigerian National Congress (NCC); the Peoples Front was formed by the late Major Gen Shehu Musa Yar’Adua; Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa formed the Liberal Party, and so on. In the beginning, those who formed the parties contributed money along with other members to finance the activities of their associations. When the associations were not registered but disbanded, the military regime under Babangida ordered for the registration of two parties, the so-called a little to the left and a little to the right: the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), respectively. The government provided money to build secretariats for each of the parties across the 774 local government areas of the country and Abuja for their national headquarters. It also bought vehicles for them, paid for their maintenance and provided allowances for party officials. When the SDP was going to hold its convention, we in the caucus in Kano decided who should contest and who should be delegates to local government and state congresses, as well as to the national convention. One of the people who we decided should be a delegate for state congress came very early in the morning to my house to plead to know the name of the man we designated as delegate to the convention. I asked him why and told him that ‘we have decided that the man we already had his name on the list should go for national convention because he understood English since the language of communication at the convention would be English and you don’t understand English. So, why do you want to replace that man? Tell me the truth, why do you want me to substitute his name with your own?’ He said delegate to local government would be paid so much; delegate to the state congress would be paid so much and delegate to the national convention would paid so much. But I didn’t know. So, he said he was pleading with me to change him from being a state congress delegate to a national convention delegate so that he would get the money and use it as capital to finance his business. That was the time when, overnight, everybody began to put their eyes on money politics, rather than working for the country. However, before then, I can tell you that we in the PSP which later joined the SDP with the late Alhaji Abubkar Rimi, and others, in Kano had genuinely registered 1.2 million people. The National Electoral Commission (NEC) had announced the programme for the verification of political party membership; they said they were to embark on random checking; that they would make sure that every person registered as a member of any political association actually carried a membership card. We approached Alhaji Lateef Jakande in Lagos to print membership card for us, because we did not have money; that by the time we sell the cards, we would pay and then he will print another set of cards to be sold to PSP members in Kano State. This was how we were able to issue membership cards to our members. We couldn’t get 1.2 million membership cards at the beginning; we could only get 800,000; once Jakande printed, say 100,000 or 200,000, cards, we would collect and issue the cards and we would go back to Jakande and pay him so that he could print a new set for us. That was how we did it. A large number of members of PSP in the whole of northern Nigeria paid for their memberships. Some of our members, who could not raise money for membership cards, approached Chief Olu Falae; he was then Secretary to the Federal Government; he intervened through the government printer, which was then in Lagos, which printed a number of membership cards on credit to some of our members. At that time also, party members contributed money to sustain party; some people in Kano vacated their houses or rooms in their houses  that were used as local government or ward secretariats of the party, while their children with requisite qualifications became officials in every office of the party free of charge. So, there was no bribe; no money was unduly used in 1979 elections.


But there was the factor of kingmakers or what is now described as godfathers in politics, whose awesome power, and influence and control overshadow democratic ethos?  

No, there was none, except in the GNPP, where Ibrahim Waziri registered a fishing company. From the savings he was able to make from the business, he used part of it for the purposes of financing his political party.


What would you suggest as the way forward for Nigeria in the quest to have credible elections?

I can tell you that something similar to what currently obtains in the country happened elsewhere. It happened in South Korea; it happened in Indonesia; it happened in Brazil, and so on. What they did was to return parties to the members. One of the major problems of the so called political parties in Nigeria was the introduction by (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo that president is the leader of the party. It was not so before. The leader of the Action Group was Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Why? It was because he was elected as the chairman of the party. Before Obasanjo introduced the syndrome of leader, the national chairman of party used to be the party leader. But after Obasanjo became president, he said as president he should be the leader of the party and in order to get state governments to support his position, he said governors would be the leaders of the party in their respective states and this is what is happening till today. It is what is destroying the political party system in Nigeria. You cannot be anybody in the political party in Nigeria, where the president or governors do not give you their consent. Anybody who wants to be anything in the political parties must get the endorsement of the president or governors at the state level. That is how the political parties became the personal property of certain individuals and governors overnight.  You cannot be party chairman, secretary or candidate for even a local government election without the consent of the governor or even president as the case maybe. So, we must return power to the people; only those duly elected by members at different levels should be the automatic leaders of the party at different levels. Automatically, the control of the party will be in their hands because whoever wants to be the chairman or candidate of the party must secure support of the members; not the endorsement of the president or the governor of a state.


But for some time to come, it is apparent that the rich will always have their way, given the prevalent level of poverty in the country, coupled with the general lack of empowerment of the citizenry. Don’t you feel so?

It’s not always. If it the process is free of all forms of encumberances, many people will contest elections; those who have money and those who do not have.


Can it ever be free again in the manner the process was during the era you talked in Nigerian politics? Is it feasible?

Yes, it can. We have seen where people with money were defeated by people that had no money. Even with money politics now, we have seen a few cases, whereby when you free the political parties from the president and governors, popular candidates among the people have triumphed. In other words, where people become candidates as a result of their popularity, the people will campaign for them free of charge; willingly; you don’t need to give them money, as it was in the past. It’s happening everywhere.  So, the way forward is for us Nigerians to campaign to wrest the party from the control of the president, governors. You can do that by waging campaigns; you realise that the EU noted that one of the problems in Nigeria is low voter turnout. A lot of people are no longer interested in coming out to cast their votes because they know it is not their wish expressed through elections that prevails; their votes do not count; they have lost confidence in the electoral process.


Maybe Nigeria should return to a parliamentary system of government?

That is the best, but you cannot do that now because of the kind of powers being enjoyed by members of the National Assembly and the governors and you cannot change the constitution without them. If you are going to change the constitution to go to the parliamentary system, governors will also lose their powers. I’m saying that members of the National Assembly will automatically have to lose their current powers because under the existing presidential system, members of the National Assembly are demigods. If you are running a parliamentary system, your prime minister will not be elected by the generality of the people, but by the majority of the parliament. So, the Prime Minister will fear the parliament because by simple majority vote of no confidence, he will loose his powers and we don’t have that now because the process to impeach the president or the governor of a state is a Herculean task.