Clement Nwankwo, Constitutional lawyer, Executive Director, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, and Convener of the Civil Society Situation Room, Monday night on Arise Television programme, Prime Time, raised the alarm that Nigeria’s democracy is on its tethers and would soon “drop and collapse” if the present electoral body is not dismantled. In the interview monitored by TELL, Nwankwo lamented that with the present electoral system, the country has come to a dead end, especially in the aftermath of the just-concluded off-cycle governorship elections in Bayelsa, Imo, and Kogi States. He however expressed doubt about President Tinubu’s capability to reform the “abused” electoral system ahead of other off-season elections before the 2027 polls, citing his appointment of political acolytes into INEC as a “sad signal” to that effect.
As the convener of the Civil Society Situation Room that monitors elections, what is your verdict on these off-season governorship elections that just took place in Imo, Kogi, and Bayelsa States?
The Situation Room has issued a statement on these elections; the verdict is very unequivocal which is that it was a huge disappointment. We had thought that given the disappointments with the 2023 general elections, that there would have been some efforts by INEC to do a better job. But apparently, this is a worse job; and I think for all of us, it is extremely sad to see elections conducted this way in this country. It brings to question how this democracy will continue; or how this democracy would thrive if we cannot give citizens the option of deciding who rules them.
The electoral system in this country has collapsed and we have to go back to the drawing board. But certainly, we can’t build anything on what it is now. The system has been captured and it is delivering incredibly sad results; not in terms of who wins or who doesn’t win, but in terms of the process, in terms of the abuses of the process; in terms of citizens’ lack of confidence in elections as a way of running a referendum on those who have ruled them or giving a chance for people to take over. The country has lost its electoral system, and we certainly can only revive it if citizens ask the right questions and make the demands that should be made.
When you look at the elections and you look at the fact that before the elections, those who are given responsibilities for the running of the elections have been seen to be people who have been compromised; where partisan political elements are appointed into the electoral commission; where staff of the electoral commission, and officials of the electoral commission have basically allocated themselves to serve political interests, then I think that where we are today is a very sad one and this country’s democracy cannot go any further with the kind of election administration system that we have in place today.
Beyond all that you have analyzed, would you say that in terms of specific things – bread and butter issues, poverty, corruption, as well as violence, were at the heart of these elections?
I think certainly bread and butter issue relates to who can help to halt the slide that the country is descending into. Certainly, when you look at people’s conditions, you see a worse trend than previously, and it doesn’t look like there is anything in the horizon that promises a break from the fore. So, I think for people, it’s a major issue. But beyond that is the fact that those who are seeking political power are taking advantage of the huge poverty that has descended on the land and are now basically taking advantage of that, buying the elections, paying people off to vote for them. Vote-buying is incredibly at an unmitigated proportion. So, it’s like people struggle so hard to purchase the election. They struggle so hard when they purchase the election, to use the proceeds of being in office to buy the next elections.
So, in reality, my point of view is that we perhaps have come to a dead end with the present electoral system, and we must ask ourselves what lies ahead.
Are you then suggesting that the results manifested themselves in such a way that suggests that incumbency played a role given that the incumbents won in all the three states?
Incumbents won in all three states which is really not unexpected in a normal electoral system. But we don’t have evidence that people voted freely. You set up a process; you decide that people go to vote. You decide that election results are calculated, tabulated, collated at the polling units, and then escalate to the different levels of collation. You expect that at the immediate primary units where you have the polling units, that immediately results are counted, the result sheets are uploaded, and people can see that real time. In these elections, we saw results being ready before the elections. We are doing an analysis of what has been uploaded, and there is a huge discrepancy in what has been uploaded to the IReV. So, the whole idea of the IReV was that the IReV was supposed to be real life uploading of results. But now, it looks like given that there was a huge question about the efficiency of IReV, it’s now become just another tool to upload whatever it is you feel like, and not real time; not real results. So, there is a major question where we are with elections in this country.
It’s amazing how politicians who are supposed to protect and uphold the integrity and the values of this country have become the ones who have infiltrated this country and have decimated every institution in it, not least the ones that have to do with elections. Is that an exaggeration or a fair assessment of how things are in the country?
It’s definitely not an exaggeration and you can see that in what has played out with the elections; you can see that in what has played out with the reports of the election observers. And the media, thankfully, have been very dutiful in putting out these reports in real time. So, it looks like everything sacred have been desecrated by the politicians and by those given responsibility to uphold their sacredness. And that is a point that I made. If all of these institutions are failing, if the politicians have found a way of manipulating it, if so much public funds is taken out of the public treasury to buy election results, that’s why you will see an incumbent would win because they have access unparalleled to resources because they hold the purse. So, whether it’s an incumbent from an opposition party, or an incumbent from the ruling party, it’s the same trait.
How can Nigeria get out of these irregularities, corruption and violence in our elections?
I think in 2007, when incredibly horrible elections were conducted in this country; this was when President Yar’Adua of blessed memory came into office. He came into office, and he said I am really sorry, Nigerians; this election result that brought me into office lacks credibility. Now, let us see how we can pull ourselves from where we were. And that was how come the election reforms committee was set up, headed by Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais, and this had several members, including Prof. Attahiru Jega who later became the chairman of the electoral commission.
But that president understood what went wrong, admitted it, and called people to conversation. That was one way. And I think that we in civil society, we as citizens of this country, must raise our voices to say that this electoral system has collapsed. We can’t trust those you have appointed into office. You have appointed your political acolytes; you’ve put them into management of elections. So, we don’t trust the electoral system anymore. We don’t trust your officials, we don’t trust the commission, and we don’t trust that this process will help us save our democracy. And to save this democracy, this administration must come to the realisation that citizens have no more confidence in our electoral system.
Do you see the will in President Bola Tinubu to do something about cleaning up the electoral process?
There were recent nominations of state resident electoral commissioners, and this was approved within a few minutes by the plenary at the National Assembly. Now, those nominations, several of them should never have been made because of the political taints of some of those that were in that list. And for me, that is a very sad signal. But whether the administration likes it or not, whether this president likes it or not, I think it’s important that he listens to what Nigerians are saying, which is that this system has failed. And if this system has failed, and you still have a couple of off-cycle elections, about four or five, leading up to 2027, it’s only going to get worse. And in 2027, I don’t know whether it can be called elections. It certainly won’t be if this trajectory continues. And at that stage, it would become clear, even to the president at that stage that this country’s democracy is on its tethers and will drop and collapse. But certainly, what we have today cannot take us to the next general elections.
You referred to Justice Uwais report earlier. What steps and policies would you propose to start to effect change and to fight corruption in elections?
I think there have been several recommendations made. One is with the electoral commission itself. I think what we have today as an electoral commission needs to be set aside in a legal way. The National Assembly needs to be brought into this conversation, and the president needs to go back to the several of the reports, and set up a committee that has people, stakeholders, who will sit down and decide which aspects of these past recommendations need now to begin to be implemented. And most importantly is the method and process of appointment of election management team. And I think that you have to go back to the drawing board to start this process. I do not think that the election management team as it exists today can take this country to the next elections.
By election management team, you mean INEC?
Yes, I mean INEC; our electoral commission at all levels. We need to have a new system that creates a new electoral commission, that creates a new election management team, and follows the process that have been outlined in various recommendations that have been made, especially the Uwais committee report that has indicated how you can appoint an INEC chairman; how you can appoint INEC national commissioners. And indeed, we have to go back to the question whether you indeed need the resident electoral commissioners because where governors send names of nominees to be appointed RECs, or where a political party does so, what it does is just destroy the system and that is why you have the Resident Electoral Commissioners acting with arbitrariness, without responsibility and without accountability.
We have to do this even before the next off-cycle elections. But certainly, we can’t go on with this type of election management body, and we can’t go on with this sort of abused electoral process. This democracy will collapse very soon if we don’t check the nature of election management system that we have in this country because citizens have lost faith totally in elections in this country.
What optimism do you have from your observation and analysis of these three elections?
I think it’s difficult to be very optimistic about these elections. I think what surprised quite a few people is even though there was a low turn-out, what surprised quite a lot of people was even that the turn-out was as much as it was even though it was low which means that citizens are saying look, we could have confidence in elections if you fix it. So, in some ways, people have not totally given up on the electoral system, but it won’t go on for too long. In fact, it won’t go on till 2027; it won’t.