Udora Orizu holds a conversation with Cynthia Mbamalu, Programme manager YIAGA Africa and Project Director Watching the Vote on how civil society organizations can engage the various stakeholders in the electoral process to achieve desired results
How would you assess the intervention of civil society organisations in the 2019 national elections?
The civil society organizations played a major role in the 2019 elections by providing technical support to the electoral commission before the election. We had lots of CSOs that provided technical support to INEC. The electoral guidelines was released in January. The commission had invited CSOs to share the draft copy of the memorandum. There was a joint review and recommendations made on certain sections that needed to be reviewed. YIAGA wrote a detailed memo on the guidelines for the elections, providing specific recommendations on sections that should be reviewed to improve on the integrity of the elections. This became one of the advocacy tools to engage the commission. Before that, we had the engagement for the electoral reforms, regardless of the fact that the president declined assent in December 2018. Post that period, we had lots of CSOs that engaged the House of Representatives and the Senate committees of INEC and elections to ensure that we had an electoral amendment and that reflected our reality and provisions that will reflect the credibility of elections in Nigeria. There was also a lot of voter education that by the civil society organizations. Look at the YIAGA, ‘Watching the Vote’, pre-election observation report from the first to sixth reporting period, we highlighted that there were CSOs carrying out voter education in different local governments as we observed the activities of CSOs in the 774 local governments. In those local governments, we saw different CSOs from the national level to the grassroots level engaging in voter education, promoting consciousness among citizens. We also had groups doing a lot of security threat assessment. If you look at the CLEEN Foundation Report, you have groups tracking incidents of violence and fighting against fake news. Centre for Democracy and Development provided these reports. All those pre-election reports helped to build an early warning system against violence for the elections. They provided information to engage security agencies, INEC and international observers mission. These reports helped promote some sense of citizens participation in the electoral process. For the elections, different CSOs had different methodologies to look at specific aspects of the elections. One of the things that was achieved in each of the reports was a point of convergence which helped amplify and escalate those incidents to ensure that appropriate institutions took action and addressed the issues. When we had reports on military interference, you see reports from YIAGA Africa, Situation Room, CDD, CLEEN Foundation, which highlighted the interference of military. That way, you could see different media houses actually relying on it and brought the attention of citizens, the international community and different stakeholders on the negative role the military was playing. Also the role the political parties played, we have seen reports on disruption and manipulation of the process, reports on violence and polling unit, presiding officers subjected to inhumane treatment and violence and even reports of rape. If we didn’t have observer groups deployed, it would have gone under the carpet. We wouldn’t have seen all the malpractices and the call for a review of the electoral process. When the elections was postponed, different groups in all the press conferences expressed anger and frustration with the electoral commission on why they waited till the last hour to postpone the elections. In every statement, there were calls on citizens to remain calm. If we didn’t have groups calling on citizens to be patient and remain calm and still come out to vote, we probably would have had a lower percentage of voter turnout. The civil societies played so many critical roles to ensure that they put the arms of government in check, provide that independent oversight in the process and to continually engage while also providing citizens information and ensuring that the citizens participated in a more peaceful manner and didn’t lose interest in the process.
At what stage can the civil society organisations intervention be more helpful, before, during or after the elections?
There’s a lot that needs to be done in the pre-election phase because elections day activities are influenced by what happened in the pre-election. That’s the period that the electoral commission is working on its internal policies on election operations and management of logistics, issues of training of adhoc personnel to be deployed and security coordination. Civil societies have a major role in building our electoral democracy. The pre-election phase is when you have the time to assess the process from a more independent position. At that point, you are thinking from a clearer perspective because you are not informed by the tension that occurs on election day. You have the attention of stakeholders that would play an important role. From what we saw in the 2019 elections, I believe there’s a lot more that needs to be done in engaging INEC in a more constructive manner beyond just the usual meetings and conversations. Questions should be asked on how INEC intends to deploy logistics. How can civil societies help in achieving that plan and all issues raised?
Where do you think sensitisation or training is more needed; voters, media, security agencies or the political parties?
Sensitization is needed everywhere, But I think a lot of sensitization should go to the media because they set the agenda for the elections, communicate the political parties manifesto and all of that. The media plays the role of informing the citizens so what the media puts out there is what informs how citizens participate. If the media creates a platform that enables spread of hate speech that informs how citizens participate. But if they push out information that inspire participation, you will see citizens take actions based on that. What the media makes to trend is what informs participation. The media plays an important role in shaping the discuss that’s why there’s a lot of education that needs to be done with reporters, and editors that decide what goes out there. The other major stakeholder is the voter. They are the ones who go out to vote. If we do not have informed voters voting or citizens coming out to vote, we will not have a change in the status quo. Election is a game of numbers. Each time we have numbers, but the numbers are not informed. What you have is report on increase in vote buying, thuggery and community conspiracy. All other negatives will continuously exist. A lot of voter sensitization needs to be done so that we can start getting numbers that are informed to vote. The political parties also need to be sensitized because each time you work to build a system, the political parties are a step ahead looking for how to manipulate the process. If you neglect that class, no matter how much work you do to build a system, they will look for ways to manipulate it.
CSOs have been accused of carrying out the agenda of sponsor agencies, who are representatives of their different countries, therefore they are working to achieve a particular goal, how do you react to this?
Everyone has the right to an opinion. I think what people should look at is, who are those behind the organization? What is their interest? What do they stand for? That way, you can make an informed decision. In every election, that you have civil society organizations observing, funding comes from international bodies or donor organizations and most times agencies or embassies that represent different countries. However, what we need to understand is, at what point do we receive funds? For every group that receives funds, we write our proposals. We set our objectives and decide what we want to do. At the end, Nigerian citizens working in civil society organizations are those implementing their proposals but with support from donor organizations. I’m not saying that every CSO is acting in the best interest of the country. In every sector you have the ‘bad eggs.’ However, majority of the groups know that this is for our country. You have groups that have said ‘no’ to donor agencies that want to dictate to them. We live in this country and not the donors. They don’t experience the challenges we experience. If the system does not work, we are major victims.
What role does confidentiality play in your work?
At YIAGA Africa, we were among groups that deployed the largest number of observers in this year’s election across the local governments. The information from our observers are sacred to us. We don’t share that with anyone. Because you are protecting the rights and privacy of these observers that you are deploying. You do not also want to put them at risks. At that point, there’s this high level of confidentiality. When it also comes to observation, our findings, with the PVC you verify the accuracy of the results, meaning that before the elections are announced, we already have the results based on our sample polling units. At that level, there’s a signed confidentiality letter with board members, management team and everyone on the project to keep the information private and if you breach that, actions will be instituted against you in court. We sign those documents to keep that information until when it’s time to release the information or data. It’s not everything you share with international partners because there are certain information you need to keep to protect the interest of your country first. For that level of information, what you need to do is to work with local partners to push for a change depending on the level of the sensitivity of the information.
Confidentiality is key, with specific aspects of the work. However, because our first responsibility is to the citizens, certain information we receive on issue of governance and accountability that we believe should be out there, are freely shared.
Many CSOs only become active on the scene when elections are close, thereafter they take a back seat, what can CSOs do to sustain the momentum of their intervention?
Unfortunately, in Nigeria we have a civil society sector that their main source of fund is international partners. That support is lacking from business sector or philanthropist. Go to some developed countries their major source of fund is top business men and women, private sector companies to support the work they are doing. Here, we don’t have that. What happens is that groups with brilliant initiatives that do not have access to major funding are a bit limited in engaging because you need money to work. Donor support is increased towards the elections, that’s why you see more groups active because that’s when they receive funds. That shouldn’t be so. We also have individuals that are waiting for the elections to make more money. You also have political parties who want to use some groups towards the elections negatively. There are some organizations that are owned by political parties and towards the elections you see them active, to promote the agenda of the political party or elites. You also have other groups that want to build popularity and not because they care about the electoral process. But the major reason is access to funds. This is actually a call to the private business sector to start having interest in governance, invest in this sector so that when we start achieving the kind of leadership that promotes development they also benefit. They should support these groups so that reliance on international funds is reduced. We want to start having groups that can actually be independent and autonomous in Nigeria.
Do you think if the CSOs pooled their resources and efforts, their intervention will be more effective?
Definitely, for every advocacy effort, the fastest way to achieve results is to work together, either as a coalition or movement. When we speak together with a unified voice, we achieve results.
Many of these CSOs operate only in the city centres, whereas the bulk of Nigeria’s population are the rural areas, how then can their intervention be far-reaching and impactful?
Not everyone can be in the rural areas. Not everyone should be in the cities. Most times, there’s a value that being close to power brings because normally you would want to negotiate with power directly. That’s why we have a federal system as a country with a lot of focus and emphasis on the federal government. You have states that are functional because they are not economically viable. It’s a challenge with our federal system that we need to review. For CSOs that work at national level to achieve results or impact local level is one of the things we are doing at YIAGA Africa, by working with groups that work within those communities because they understand the context better. That way, you’re not only achieving results with your interventions but also building capacity of groups in the communities working, that ordinarily may not have access to those big funds.
If CSOs can’t come forward and support litigants in an election dispute, of what use is the intelligence, data, evidence and/or information available to them ? Also litigation takes substantial resources of contestants, how can CSOs be of help?
The electoral act is clear, for you to challenge the outcome of an election, you need to either be a candidate that contested or a party. Civil society organizations cannot be litigants in post elections cases because we did not contest elections. What we can only do is if we are summoned to either make statements or give evidence with respect to our reports, we show up and speak based on our reports. But to support a particular candidate to challenge the outcome of an election or litigant, we stay away from that because we want to remain neutral at all times. That’s why major civil society organizations try as much as possible to resist or limit themselves from supporting a political party so no one will accuse you of taking sides at any point because we don’t want to lose our voice. We are very careful, that’s why we can’t provide support.
As for providing financial support for litigants, we cannot financially support litigants. This doesn’t mean that individuals that work in CSOs can’t. Most civil society organizations have principles of neutrality and being non-partisan, because the moment you support one side, each time you release a report regardless of it’s objectivity, there will be questions on if this is coming from a neutral party or from a party that has an interest.
From your observations during the national elections, will you say Nigeria’s democracy is under threat?
Generally, if you look at certain political decisions that have been made or certain incidents I believe there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to build our democracy. We just celebrated 20 years of democracy, but can we truly say that this the democracy we want? Can citizens claim that they have enjoyed dividends of democracy? What’s the level of poverty and unemployment? Are we more secure than we were before? Can we say that the elections are better than they were before? If you look at all of these and the role the political parties play, increase of electoral violence and lives we lost; we can say, ‘yes’ our democracy is under threat. But we can move from where we are and it begins with the role we play as citizens. We need our leaders to actually want this democracy to work because if they don’t care, all the work we are doing will be in vain. We need to have a legislative arm of government which is the hub of democracy and is capable and willing to protect and promote this democracy.