BY CHIBUZO UKAIBE
Mr Clement Nwankwo, is the executive director of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), a pioneer Nigerian human rights defender. Nwankwo, founder of the first human rights organisation in the country, Constitutional Rights Project (CRP) also heads the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room (Situation Room), made up of over 60 civic groups that serve as a melting pot of ideas, analysing issues and proposing changes and reforms. In this interview with CHIBUZO UKAIBE, he speaks about the electoral reforms, political party system and other national issues
You were a member of the Sen Ken Nnamani Electoral Committee. Based on your vast experience in advocacy for good governance over the years in Nigeria, what new realities did you observe in the course of this assignment?
I was part of the Constitutional Electoral Reform Committee headed by Sen Ken Nnamani and we looked at the electoral environment and reviewed existing laws and recent experiences with conducting elections, including previous reports on electoral reforms, particularly, the Justice Uwais Committee report. We made recommendations to government hoping that some of those recommendations would be passed to the National Assembly for enactment as reform to the existing legal framework for elections in Nigeria. Our hope is that looking at the reforms and proposals that have been made, several of the issues that should have been addressed a long time ago would now be taken very seriously. One major issue is that of electoral impunity where people commit a lot of offenses and do not feel that the law can hold them to account.
Secondly, there is the challenge of the election petitions in the courts and how the delays continue to linger, both with pre and post election petitions in the tribunals. We also looked at the use of technology in elections and if we look at the recent Supreme Court decision regarding Rivers State, the apex court made it quite clear that the legal framework needed to be examined in order to provide specifically in the law for use of some of the recent innovations that INEC has produced. So taking a cue from that, the committee has proposed specific legal amendments to the law in order to allow for increased use of technology in elections. Another issue which we looked at, is the impunity in political parties, failure of political parties to respect their processes especially in election primaries. Suggestions were made on how to improve the primaries being conducted by political parties. In addition, it also provided opportunity for individuals who do not want to be burdened by the rigours and impunity of political parties to run election as independent candidate. These were some of the proposals made by the committee. And the hope is that the federal government will look at these proposals, send amendment bills because part of what the committee also did was to draft some of these bills. So the hope is that the government will send some of these bills to the National Assembly and for the legislature to capture all of these efforts in its current process of amending the electoral laws.
Are you hopeful that this process will not go like previous processes that end up either not fully implemented or outrightly dumped on the shelf of history?
Well, the committee has no control over what the government does. The committee’s job is to propose reforms and if you look at even the Uwais committee, it proposed some reforms. It had proposed the issue of registration of political parties, delimitation of constituencies, and electoral offenses commission. This will not be the first time it is being proposed. Even the Uwais committee proposed it and the government didn’t take it forward. So the hope now is that there will be effort to take this forward.
Has the electoral committee had any interface with the National Assembly on its recommendations?
The committee has submitted its report. It does not, in fact, exist anymore. It is now up to the Attorney General and the government to take it up from there. So we have done our job and we hope the government takes all the recommendations of the committee.
Two major problems with our electoral system are violence and the seeming inability of security agencies to contain them. What kind of framework would you like the nation to have in addressing these issues?
The most important thing is electoral accountability. By that, I mean accountability on the part of electoral officials, political parties, security agencies, including police and DSS and every other stakeholder. There is a sense in which people are running for election and they budget monies to influence these stakeholders, INEC, courts, security agencies, political parties and so on. This needs to change and it will change when people begin to be accountable as we saw in what happened in Rivers State during the recent legislative elections. Some people were arrested rightly or wrongly but they are currently in court courtesy of INEC. If you also begin to arrest and prosecute the politicians themselves who try to corrupt the institutions and prosecute them, then I think you will begin to see people fear that there are consequences for their actions. So, I think that the drive should be to empanel and empower an electoral offenses commission which will be charged with the responsibility of bringing everybody involved in electoral process, including voters, hired thugs to book. If all of those people know that institutions exist to bring them to account, then the thug who is paid knows that there is a consequence for accepting money and perpetuating violence. The person who pays the money also knows that there is a consequence for it; the police and security agencies who are acting as agents for election fraud will also know that there are consequences for their actions. And this is not just a case of Nigeria. As long as people can get away with crime anywhere in the world, they will perpetuate it. The history of advanced democracies, whether in the US, Canada or UK, for instance, they have had history of a build- up of their processes to the point now that people know that these institutions are functioning and that it would hold people to account. So as long as people feel they will abuse the processes and nobody can hold them accountable, they will do whatever it is they want to do. And that happens anywhere in the world not just in Nigeria.
But in the Nigerian context, are we evolving as we ought to, or we are regressing?
What we need is to put these institutions in place. We have to empanel and empower them to function within the law to do what they should do. Unfortunately, I think we are slow in doing that, whether it is electoral offenses commission or existing institutions, there is nothing about an existing institution that says it cannot function on its own. Today, we hear some people say if certain people are not heading certain institutions, it won’t work. That is a failure in itself. It should be that while a particular individual could be a driving force for reform, the institution itself should be able to function by itself irrespective of who is heading it.
A key part of the evolution process is the role of political parties. Funding of political parties and checking how they get funding have been a challenge for INEC. What suggestions would you proffer for a commission that paints a picture of helplessness in tackling this issue?
INEC has stated categorically that it has no capacity to do a few things. It has said it has no capacity to prosecute electoral offenders and no capacity to monitor campaign finance. It has not said so about constituency delimitation but you can see that INEC has been in violation of the constitutional requirement to review the delimitation of constituencies every 10 years. We are going to the second round of 10 years and this hasn’t been done. So I think that it is for this reason that the electoral offence commission recommends itself. That commission will also have the responsibility of monitoring campaign finance. As it is now, the Electoral Act mentioned specific amounts that candidates running for positions should not exceed. Now, a candidate may not exceed that amount but he has people around him through whom he can exceed that amount. And so, if you look at the campaigns of 2015, it was one of the most expensive campaigns in Nigeria’s history, where organisations that were representing candidates made heavy donations. We saw the amount of television advertisements the group called TAN, put out in favour of a political party. It happened as well with the then major opposition where we saw expenditures being made on their behalf from different states. You could tell clearly that these parties exceeded their campaign fund limits for the various positions that they were running for. So it becomes a question; how do you tabulate how much a particular candidate for an election spends? How do you tabulate how much a particular candidate can spend? How do you tabulate how much individuals can spend on their behalf? And if an individual were to spend on behalf of a candidate, what are those limits and what are the consequences for the individuals or organisations? TAN for instance should have been held liable for exceeding particular amounts and if a candidate does not disassociate themselves from a particular organisation or individual that is making expenditure on their behalf, then that candidate should also be held liable for the violations of the campaign fund limits set by the law. So, you need to have an agency that has the capacity, mechanism and the process for calculating election campaign expenses in order to hold people accountable for violation of it.
But some argue that much more than capacity is a must for political will and that if the institution is strong willed to pursue the process, it could still get it done. Do you agree?
INEC does not have the capacity. It has said so. It may also not want to be involved in allegations of bias were it to pursue different levels of candidates. That is why it is suggested that it be left as an independent agency to function and be able to conduct only elections while you have a particular body itself functioning differently to pursue the issues related to offenses committed under the Election Act. As for political will, maybe the political will to create the agency to enforce this is absent at this time but quite frankly, I do think we really need to have the framework put in place.
Do you think there could be a systemic way of checking the spate of political party defections in the country?
We need to build strong political parties. Strong political parties attract people of specific orientation to it. At this time, I will go as far to insist that parties don’t exist, whether it is PDP or APC, they don’t exist in practical terms. APC has not been able to hold its meetings for over two years and PDP is torn into crisis and has not been able to meet as a cohesive entity in this period as well. The other parties are so small and insignificant, such that you can’t even describe them as political parties in the full sense of it. At this time, what we see are individuals who have banded together for convenience and they did that successfully in 2015 and took over power. Beyond that, you have the problem that going forward, we cannot continue the way we are going because if we continue this way around election period, individuals band together and try to wrestle power from a governing party and the whole issues of ideology, focus, delivery of governance is lost and it becomes a group of individuals struggling for power and the delivery of governance is lost.
Smaller parties who do not control elective offices clamour for return of funding for political parties by government for equal playing field. They argue that bigger political parties who enjoy elective offices use public funds to run their operations as we saw with the last 2015 general elections. Do you think the funding of parties by government should return?
The funding of political parties stopped in 2010 following amendments to the Electoral Act. The abuses that were there up till 2010 was that even members of the electoral commission, were creating political parties and paying themselves through their surrogates monies from the INEC’s purse. So, the abuse was tremendous. A whole lot of people who had no business being involved in politics were creating political parties, getting take -off grants and other grants from INEC and it became very much abused. I would be very hesitant to agree to funding of political parties because at the end of the day, the smaller parties are also disadvantaged because of the percentage of funding because the bigger political parties get higher proportion of funding because of the number of elective seats they win. And so the smaller parties get much lower, sometimes insignificant. So I don’t think funding political parties addresses the inequality that exists between parties. I think at the end of the day, if parties are seen as people-driven, if they are owned by people and they represent the interest of those people, then those people will come to contribute to their funding. That to me, is a more sustainable option.
Transparency within political parties has remained a serious issue such that the debate over whether we should have direct or indirect primaries has become very topical? What system would you recommend for a country like ours?
The Electoral Act provides for both. It provides that parties may conduct direct or indirect primaries. Of course, most parties have huge challenges addressing the logistics required to organise direct primaries because it means that every fee-paying member of your party will participate in the primaries. But with indirect primaries, they have a system of selecting those who make up the college that chooses candidates for election. And I think that has been the challenge. That process of selecting delegates in the Electoral College has been severely abused in most of the parties. They have been severely abused by aspirants and the parties themselves because these delegates constitute themselves into a negotiating body and begin to task aspirants to pay them for voting for them and so it becomes very expensive for aspirants to get nomination into well organised political parties and that has its own challenges. But I think that if they were to have a process of direct primaries where members are known and because they are known, there is a register and documentation, those members can go out and vote for members to become their candidates. Then I think that will eliminate some of the abuses that we see in indirect primaries and I don’t see why political parties cannot invest more in having proper register of members, proper membership cards and a proper system of having all of their members participate in the primaries to choose candidates who they will present for elections.
What is your take on independent candidacy?
I personally will advocate for independent candidate with sufficient safe guards to ensure that people who seriously want to run election but don’t want to be burdened by abuses or inadequacies of political parties, can run election. I think that is why some of the advocacy for independent candidacy is gaining traction. As you can see, the Nnamani Committee recommended independent candidacy. The National Assembly in its ongoing reform, is also proposing independent candidacy. The hope we have is that it will come to pass and the legal framework for independent candidates to participate in elections is provided, and of course, the safe guards to ensure that only serious people who have something to contribute, take advantage of it, is also in place.
Do you think the 2014 National Confab report should be revisited?
I think the national confab is not just about the electoral process. I think the whole conversation about restructuring the political structure of Nigeria is a life conversation. What we see today, like I said earlier, is a band of people coming together ceasing power and continuing to perpetuate the injustices and a poor political structure that we have to their advantage. The country has talked repeatedly about a restructuring. I am not looking at the contents of the last confab, but I think the country has to come to a point where it decides that the current system of government vests so much power on a president, so much powers on the federal government to the neglect of the states and also the local government system that has totally collapsed. We have to take government to the people by creating different layers of government, with different responsibilities, with people being able to harness the resources within their areas for the common good. Unless we do that, we will have this top-down approach which will see this huge behemoth government controlling resources across the country, taking it to the centre and abusing it as it pleases. We also have to put in place, structures that stop a whole lot of people who call themselves governors, who are busy plundering their states and taking the resources for their purposes. We should be able to address this. We have to ultimately begin to hold people to account. There is no reason why an inspector general of police, for instance, should be under the direct command and control of the president. These are institutions that should be able to charge the president to court for instance.
So whether it is the police or any other agency springing out from the function of the police, they should be able to function independently and for the common good rather than be at the whims and caprice of a governor or the president. So in effect, the country needs to sit down and have a conversation that everybody agrees is the way forward. I don’t know about the confab, I don’t have full details of it. I know it is one effort at having a conversation. But I think it is important that the country meets and have a conversation.