Igini: Debate Must Be Compulsory for All Candidates

Mike Igini
Mike Igini, Resident Electoral Commissioner for Akwa Ibom State,

Resident Electoral Commissioner for Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini has called for an Act of the National Assembly that will make it mandatory for those seeking elective office to participate in debates, in order to enable the electorate determine their competence. He spoke with Jonathan Eze. Excerpts:

What is your take on the released timetable for the 2019 election?

The commission is being proactive to make election scheduling and all other consequential schedules tied to a general election, such as party conventions and nominations, less shambolic. The current election activity schedule in addition to the earlier schedules for the state elections for Ekiti and Osun states, which were previously released allow everyone to have a degree of scheduling certainty for the current election cycle that will climax between February and March 2019. Furthermore, what the commission has done by fixing all future general elections at federal levels on the 3rd Saturday of February and 2 weeks thereafter for the state elections is in consonance with the provision of the constitution and in line with international best practice wherein dates for the conduct of election in an election year such as 2019 and 2023 and so on are now known well ahead of time. That is, in this country starting from 2019 and beyond, every Presidential and National Assembly elections would always take place every third saturday of election year such as in 16th February 2019 while the election of governor and members of the state houses of assemblies would take place every first Saturday of March in every election year and that means the 2019 governorship and state houses of asemblies would now be on 2nd March 2019. The detailed timetable as issued by the commission also provides deadlines for other electoral activities such as fixing the conduct of party primaries including the resolution of disputes arising from primaries for August 18, 2018 to October 7, 2018 for national and state elections while that of the FCT Area Council is slated for between September 4 and October 27, 2018. It is noteworthy to remind political actors that the 2019 election is now a matter of months. By this timetable all party pre-election issues must end in less than 8 months from now. Also going by global conventions, the National Assembly is seriously urged to perfect all matters relating to the amendment of the Electoral Act within January 2019 because globally any amendments to electoral laws must be completed a year to the election in which it is to be used to avoid partisan tinkering with the legislative framework for an election.

There is a pending bill in the National Assembly for a compulsory debate by all who seek elective public offices. What impact would it make on leadership selection process in the country?

Under part 1 sections 1 and 2 of the Electoral Act, we have a statutory duty to educate Nigerians on sound knowledge of democracy and its processes. l have no doubt that a compulsory debate would make a great impact indeed if we can get such law in place before the 2019 election because the strength of democracy and the opportunities it creates depend on the vigour of multi-party politics in terms of policy issues, debates, moral arguments and value formation. We should not be contented with just having elections after every four years without real democratic values being canvassed. In the first place politics is about competition of ideas on how best to influence the course of development in a country, how then we really say we are playing politics of ideas when political competitors have no formalised platforms for canvassing the ideas and so compulsory debate is the most significant platform for doing so. Nigeria is at a critical juncture and we need people who have the competencies to address issues of the economy and how to create jobs, issues in education, health, the crippling energy crisis, security and so on. A compulsory debate would reveal to the electorates who amongst the candidates has the competency, credible ideas and capacity to deliver on them. The 2019 election debate should not be about who can abuse most or make promises because anybody can make promises but who can tell Nigerians how the promises on the various sectors would be achieved and how he or she would generate the resources to deliver on campaign promises. As I have noted, the electoral contest ideally is meant to pick people based on the voters’ perception of their competencies, policy preferences, and the attributes of their character. Voters can’t make these judgments clearly if the candidates do not debate on these policy matters and the people having opportunity to assess them individually as is the practice in U.S and other countries. Even if we say only parties as entities contest elections in Nigeria, practically, those parties will still be represented by people; those who present themselves for elections must be able to convince the public about what they are promising and how it would be achieved. Those debates will also allow the voters to see those around the party and judge them by their public records, their moral and professional attributes; this may even act as a self-censoring social sieve for those who know they fall short of the competencies for the position they are seeking and may have to pull out of the race before actual ballots are cast.

INEC seems to be improving especially with the conduct of the Anambra elections but challenges remain.

The Anambra election succeeded in many respects and at the same time there is still room for improvements in future elections. This was why Bratton and later Lindberg came up with three widely accepted metrics for measuring the performance of an election namely: Legitimacy- whether the election outcome was accepted by stakeholders as an acceptable way of selecting those who emerged as leaders; Participation- whether voters and candidates, election managers and other stakeholders had untrammeled ability to play their expected roles before, during and after the elections; and Competition- if all eligible candidates who were willing to compete were freely allowed to compete. So basically, a good democratic election is one in which stakeholders freely participated, there is competition among political parties, and the process is seen as legitimate. Although the turnout of voters in Anambra was quite low compared to the number of registered voters,however participation of voters did not vary too much from recent historical records.The metric shows that more needs to be done in terms of voter education, mobilisation of voters by political actors, and how to sensitize citizens to see the link between political participation and the derivable benefits of leadership selection with development. I want to believe that a race in which there were over 30 political party candidates was truly competitive, and the general acceptance of the outcome even by participants enriches the legitimacy of the election. One important comment one must not fail to make on the mobilisation of voters by political actors is the fact that the biggest mobiliser is when the policies and actions of elected officials affect and improve the welfare and life of the people because ultimately elections are the minimal goal of democracy, the maximal goal of democracy is the development of the people and society, when the people feel they have benefited from democracy in terms of their development and the maximisation of their welfare, it mobilises voters out of apathy.

What is your take on the massive open vote buying on election day?

The growing trend of vote buying during election is condemnable and that is why the level of poverty and illiteracy has been rightly identified as threats to democracy because the electorates are not really making informed choices which is a basic assumption of democracy. We do not have to go that route that other societies have travelled even though vote buying has a chequered history in the development of democracy and democratic elections globally. It is very important to closely understand the general and contextual contributions of the phenomenon in order to abate and mitigate it. In Europe and North America when politicians used to rely on voting machines, when middle men mobilise voters with pecuniary incentives, politicians who contested later found that every election cycle made them more dependent and vulnerable, with less guarantee of assured outcome, the middlemen who bribed voters for them grew greedier and many politicians lost both the votes and huge fortunes. This is not my opinion; you can research the phenomenon of vote buying. Both the political class and the society will lose in the end if such behaviour is not stopped. That was why the use of anonymous ballot papers was introduced because middlemen who bought voter’s votes used confirmations of how they voted to get their payments, even recently in Italy, North Carolina and India, the use of cell phones was banned in polling centres because some voting machine gangs asked voters to send a picture of their ballot from inside the polling unit by MMS messaging to confirm their payments. We have to deal with this form of political corruption now and should not happen in subsequent elections and in 2019 even though vote buying is not a phenomenon that you can stop with legislation alone due to desperation for victory by any means that can be checked only if the society makes changes in many areas. In Nigeria now, some people dismantle businesses and companies to become politicians, why?
Politicking has become the biggest business in the country, while other legitimate businesses are closing down. So we must look deeper for solutions, there must be normative remedies for the legislative remedies to be effective.

You have always spoken of collapse of values and absence of good role models?

Indeed, I repeatedly called attention to the crisis of values, and a distortion of our sense of what is right and wrong and the dearth of role models. It is not because there are no good people or positive exemplars in our country, but they are not recognised, rewarded and celebrated. In fact, they struggle daily to maintain their sense of decency and sanity. Celebrating our positive exemplars reinforces the emulation of such behaviour. Values are the accepted principles or standards which are desirable in society, if we reflect very deeply about the motivations for our actions irrespective of the sphere of such actions, the central point where all actions lead is the human desire for a life in which satisfaction is attained. For some people, what brings satisfaction may be austere, for others it may be grandiose and ostentatious, but most of the things we pursue in life are the means to attaining that satisfaction, however modern society has become so engrossed in the means of attaining satisfaction that even when the goal of satisfaction is reached it is no longer recognised, the means becomes the end. This inability to differentiate between the goal of satisfaction and the means to attaining it has eroded the values in our country, that most people are simply in endless pursuit of the means of satisfaction, and there is no longer any recognition of what is excessive or morally superfluous. We now find people who are pursuing billions that they may never need at public expense, why governments are increasingly giving up the obligations to meet public services and welfare such as housing, healthcare, education and basic life’s comfort to profit making organisations.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging profit making, but it is the common value of society that people who serve the public should provide affordable alternatives for such basic satisfaction of human needs. It is sad that we have lost these values. If we still have such values, top civil servants will put in place a system that allows everyone including themselves safety nets that allows everyone to get affordable homes instead of stealing pension funds to buy many mansions for themselves alone. Businessmen who will make a tidy profit from importing petroleum products for the use of the citizens will not undermine the government that favoured them with such contracts, by collecting huge funds without supplying what they claim to supply. As a society we need to re-examine our values, what do we really want, money or fulfilment? If money brings fulfilment, when is it enough, when do we think the collective members of society deserve similar utility, our societal collectivity is gradually been lost to extreme individualism, we must be careful.

What do you make of the growing disaffection of the public to how local governments are run and how elections to local governments are conducted?

It is indeed a very shameful situation. As a core federalist who believes in true federalism and has advocated over time the idea of non-interference of Federal government in Local Governments and the need to devolve development decision making to local levels to increase participation of the grassroots, it is a sad reality that governors in various states of control have hijacked local government system as conquered territories of the political parties in government of respective states. How do you explain a situation in all 36 states controlled by a party would win all councillorship and chairmanship positions of the entire local government in a state but in INEC conducted elections the situation is different as evident with different parties today that won different states.

True and genuine election in the local governments where majority of Nigerians are domiciled should be the building blocks and foundation of our democracy. If true elections are allowed today, many of the 68 parties would win and control some local governments across the country, run the system differently as a basis to win more and build the fortune of the party by attaining a threshold to be able to participate in higher elections. But given the hijack of local governments by governors, a party that is just registered today wants to field governoship and presidential candidates when it has not won a single council election. The continuing abuse and rape of democracy in the name of election is quite distressing and has to stop.

If the federal government interferes with states the way local government affairs are toyed with by most states, will there not be a social upheavals or revolution in this country? How did we get to this low point where we have completely surrendered our sovereignty in a whole 774 local governments to state governors ? A governor determines who could be a councillor, chairman, state legislator, commissioner, senator and also wants to nominate a federal minister for a president. Governors by whim dissolve elected council, determine when local government tenures should begin and end, I learnt, they are even toying with the idea of dispensing with the use of ballot papers or printing limited numbers in conducting LGA elections, they would rather want result sheets printed and no more casting of votes. All over the world, actual developments that affect the people occur at the local government, if we do not pay attention to this ongoing farce, our society will simply remain socially retarded and whatever we need to do to stop this must be done. My first recommendation is that rather than replace state interference with federal interference, a better approach is to criminalise certain infractions by federal and state chief executives by listing out in the Constitution, criminal offences which by our experiences tend to make elected executives unaccountable and thereby strip them of immunity against prosecution from such actions; specific local government interference including tenure and, elections should be on top of that list.

Politicking has become the biggest business in the country, while other legitimate businesses are closing down.