Buhari vs Atiku: A different and broader perspective to the PEPT judgement

Posted by News Express | 16 September 2019 | 1,482 times

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The judgement of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) has been delivered. However, it does not appear to be the end. I understand that the petitioners are not satisfied with the judgement and are heading to the Supreme Court. The question is, after the Supreme Court what next?

This case should provoke a much bigger and broader discussion amongst Nigerians. First, a good electoral process is more likely to result in a good election outcome. Conversely, a bad electoral process is more likely to result in a bad election outcome. Second, a good electoral process rigorously ensures that democratic values and rights are protected. The converse is true for a bad electoral process. A good election outcome is one where the votes count and results are accurate. The converse is true for a bad election outcome. Third, the electoral process (good or bad) starts very far afield from the laws that mandate, guide and authorise the electoral process, to the human, material, technical, technological and logistics requirements.

Nigeria – a country governed by, laws

Because we must be a country governed by laws, is the exact reason why we should be very careful and thorough with our laws. Why we should ensure that our laws are appropriate, consistent and not at variance, clear, easy to interpret and to apply. But even more important, is that our laws should influence the behaviours of Nigerians to demonstrate the best of human values. This should be the ongoing concern and responsibility of all Nigerians. In particular, Nigerians who have the opportunity and privilege to serve in the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Electoral Act are the reference documents for election petitions. The average Nigerian would be daunted by the length, content and language when trying to access information required from the Nigerian Constitution for education, opinion and activity. As a result, when addressing issues around our Constitution, our responses are often emotional and tribal. I found the simplified version of the Electoral Act (thanks to Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre and UKaid for producing this version which you can download online at https://placng.org/new/publications/Electoral%20Act%20Simplified.pdf), very helpful as I am sure that you would. I will refer to some provisions in the Electoral Act later in the article and implications on our electoral system.

The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states the qualifications of a person for election to the office of the President, in Section 131. These include being a Nigerian citizen at birth; being a member of and sponsored by a political party; and attainment in age and education level. The Constitution obviously has good intentions to provide safeguards. But as the successful campaign, “Not Too Young To Run”, demonstrated, we can indeed scrutinise and change our laws where necessary. The campaign was based on a simple but compelling message: “If you're old enough to vote, you’re old enough to run for office”. This is also true and consistent with (I would say) the message, “if you are educated enough to vote, you are educated enough to run for office”. 

The bigger and broader message

The above quotes have a bigger and broader message. One that touches on democratic rights to participate in the political, electoral and governance processes. But it is also one that challenges our acceptance of democracy as the rule of the people. So that we can indeed let the people decide based on accurate information on political parties, nominees and candidates. And understanding that running for office should not automatically mean elected for office.   

There is a sense in which one thinks that it is unfair and discriminatory to disqualify an individual for election to the office of President (in this case) on the basis of age and education level not attained. It is because this has serious implications. For example, how would we reconcile this Constitutional provision in the case of a retired member of the Nigerian Military who has taken the oath, “…swear by Almighty God that in the service of my country…”, and served Nigeria knowing that she or he could die in the line of duty defending Nigeria? This would be very absurd in advanced democracies (that we like to refer to). While we can all agree that we should invest in a professional and elite military that is very intellectual and capable of responding to new, non-conventional, asymmetric and complex threats, we must regard Nigerians who serve in our military as our very best, who continue to answer the call to duty to protect us, and to wear their badge of honour with great pride.

Further on education level, it is the unfair distribution of resources and opportunities in the population and in population groups, due to failure in government policies, that limits access to education in most cases. Majority of uneducated Nigerians bear social and economic burdens as a result. They are vulnerable and they are victims. They are exploited by our political system and politics, for which our country continues to pay a huge price.

So instead of the easy generalisation through qualification fixes to supposed deficits in ‘experience’ and ‘knowledge’ (that are questionable given obvious deficits in patriotism) in our Constitutional provisions that may become problematic to strengthening democracy and its institutions, every Nigerian that is 18 years and above with capacity and who is not a convicted felon, should be allowed to seek elected political office. Let Nigerians be the ones to decide based on information that they have about a person’s history of service, intelligence, charisma, policies, judgement, foresight and far-sight. This is a much better process that protects the people’s choice and right to decide. A process that reinforces democratic rights even within the Nigerian context, and that ensures a rigorous political process in which it is the people that truly decide and not the few.

The role of political parties

However, this process requires political parties to define what they stand for and to admit members that share their ideas. It requires political parties to sell their ideas to the country in and out of elections and to nurture the younger generation of party members through a culture of political debates on the issues that the party represents and that matter to Nigerians. This would indeed strengthen political parties, making them more democratic. But there is yet a vital part of the chain in the process of nomination and the emergence of party candidates to contest at a general election that the Electoral Act is silent on. It is the pre-primaries.

The pre-primaries and our political culture

The pre-primaries are the catalyst (intra-party) to the primaries and convention(s) through which party candidates are elected. For a presidential election in particular (that has national reach), the pre-primaries are the opportunity for members of political parties with little or no name recognition to introduce themselves to the country and voters. It is the opportunity to infuse new ideas into political discussions, bring diversity and freshen the political parties. It is the opportunity to offer Nigerians something different through a rigorous process of debates and media campaigns to provide information to the public and especially members of political parties.

So that the members of political parties and Nigerians generally can verify information, and are empowered to make informed choices and consent at the primary election, convention and at the general elections. It is information from robust debates during pre-primaries that should ‘people-qualify’ nominees and party candidates. It is what would reduce strongman and big-money politics, and promote direct primaries. It is what would ensure that political parties present the very best candidates at general elections to Nigerians who understand the issues and can effectively communicate policies and solutions to the many challenges that Nigerians face daily. It is what would bring about generational transformation change. This is how our democracy should work. Without the publicity and information that a culture of intellectual and intense debates within political parties and between political parties, our country loses new ideas as the ‘politicians as usual’ with name recognition recycles themselves. Without robust pre-primaries it is difficult for new entrants into politics to emerge from the established political parties (unsponsored by few big men and women), and on the national stage for election to the office of President, to stand any chance of winning at the general elections. Without robust pre-primaries characterised by intense intra-party debates across Nigeria and interviews spread over many months well before a general election, it is difficult for ‘new politicians’ to put together a strong political organisation, raise enough campaign funds from the people, build a movement with significant momentum and pose significant threat of upset. Without robust pre-primaries, it seems to me an effort in futility for ‘new politicians’ seeking the votes of Nigerians for election to the office of President.

The role of civil society and the independent media

Civil society and the independent media have a huge responsibility for improving and driving our electoral process. First, by ensuring that our laws governing elections are consistent with democratic values. Second, that our laws are enforced consistently. Third, that they scrutinise nominees and candidates to provide to Nigerians a history of service, their worldview and the potential social and economic implications of their policy preferences on Nigerians. Fourth, through credible polls, civil society and the independent media can identify and amplify the issues that matter most to all Nigerians; and those issues that matter to women, youths, ethnic groups, the different states and geopolitical zones. These issues are then referenced when engaging political parties, nominees and political party candidates, during radio and television interviews and political debates. A culture of political debates would help to expand and deepen the basket of new ideas and show a pathway to electoral success. It would also prepare Nigerians for participation in deliberative decision making for effective legislative and executive functions.

Lastly, civil society and the independent media need to follow the money. Important information on our democracy can be gleaned from campaign financing. How much is the nominee or candidate actually raising every month? Who are the donors and how many of them? Are they small, big or corporate donors? How much are they donating on the average? What is the nominee or candidate or political party doing with campaign donations? How are campaigns accounting for the money?

When ordinary Nigerians who are eligible to vote are making financial donations and volunteering to a campaign, it means that they are beginning to buy-in to the policies and programs of the campaign. It means that they are owning the process and would demand for accountability. Also, when it becomes all about ordinary Nigerians, they would volunteer for what they believe in and become the real sponsors of political parties, nominees, candidates, policies and programs. It is civil society and the independent media that can pressure political parties to comply with the provisions of the Electoral Act on transparency in the financing of political parties and campaigns. This is what would drive the political value chains in a way that depend on ordinary Nigerians at all stages and therefore deepens our democracy.

The Electoral Act and Pre-primaries

It does not appear that the Electoral Act accommodates pre-primaries as the most important driver of rigour, information and quality into our electoral process. Under “Time for Campaigns”, the Electoral Act in Sections 99(1) states that “political campaigns in public must commence 90 days before polling day…”. While this is not explicit on pre-primaries which can be for good quite intense and prolonged (as in the United States commencing over 1 year before the general elections), it is important to clarify (in court) the 90days period in the Electoral Act in relation to pre-primaries. If it is the case that the 90days provision in the Electoral Act prohibits the sort of rigorous and drawn-out pre-primaries to inform Nigerians about nominees, issues that matter the most to Nigerians and policy choices, it should be an opportunity for the National Assembly to take a closer look. This should be based on the merits (in addition to the potential benefits mentioned earlier) for accommodating activities for pre-primaries in the election calendar. The merits would include (in additional to those highlighted earlier) enlarging the political space within the more established political parties to reduce the proliferation of political parties.

There are people who might argue against prolonged pre-primaries because they fear that it might distract from governance. In my view, it is because it would have the exact opposite effects on good governance that we should accommodate a prolonged period of pre-primaries. First, it would present to Nigerians at general elections, only the very best choices (patriotic, integrity and intelligent). This would law-making, representation, oversight, advise and consent functions of the legislature; and would improve executive decision-making. It would continuously supply fresh ideas from which a serving government can draw insight to positively impact Nigerians. It would bring contrasts to political discourse and policies. It would challenge existing assumptions. It would open up the political space to accommodate the entire spectrum of ideas to the right, left and in-between. It would generate and absorb the energy. But it is also because we should be able to debate and govern at the same time. That is what democracy is about – to deliberate and expand the scope of the conversations instead of limiting ourselves by our fears of the very challenges that we require, to overcome and to grow.

The importance of credible elections to democracy

Considering the importance of the credibility of our elections to democracy and the people’s mandate, we should not spare any efforts or resources to improve outcomes. We should not hold off piloting and utilising new ways to make the voice and the votes of Nigerians count. It is our collective will and confidence in our institutions that are at stake. We should take actions and learn from our mistakes. Nigerians should be united to work collaboratively to fix the legal, structural, logistic and systemic weaknesses that make our electoral process and outcomes vulnerable to the worse among us to exploit at elections, in an act of betrayal and assault.

It is about the people’s mandate in a representative democracy. It is about the people as sovereign. It is about ensuring that the people’s power is rightly entrusted. The credibility of our election outcomes is so fundamental. Our structures and systems should be so strong and impenetrable, and the sanctions so stiff to deter. No person or group should complete a cost-benefit analysis, on our elections and conclude that their potential benefits are more than their costs. They should be stopped even before they start, not to clog our courts. Electoral fraud and too many court contests embarrass our country, our people and culture. We lose the respect and confidence of other democracies and the local and global investing community. Electoral fraud and its consequences are at the heart of why we have not been able to create the enabling environment to attract many of the right kind of investments – the ones that integrate longer term into our economy. It is why our economy is not growing inclusively. It is partly responsible for high level of insecurity, unemployment, poverty and inequality in our country. The list can go on.

We should collectively defend our electoral process to produce credible election outcomes that we can trust. It should not be the responsibility of a political party, group of people or one individual. We can afford the technology to organise and protect our elections by working with the right strategic partners to digitalise and secure our elections. It will help us overcome some of the barriers and logistic challenges of distance, scale, time and human interface. Any attempts to sabotage our elections would reveal footprints and the evidence required for the successful prosecution and the administration of stiff penalties and sanctions in defense of our sovereignty. May the bigger and broader picture drive the 9th National Assembly to strengthen our laws working closely with the presidency to protect the sovereignty of the people.

Source: News Express

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