Resident Electoral Commissioner of INEC in Akwa-Ibom State, Mike Igini, in this interview with Oluchi Chibuzor in Lagos, spoke on topical national issues and also commended President Muhammadu Buhari for recognising June 12 as Democracy Day. Excerpts:
The current administrations has instituted June 12 as a national democratic legacy by making it a public holiday and naming it Democracy Day instead of May 29. How do you see this development?
It is my view that it is a watershed decision that we had commended. Decades from now, when many governments would have been forgotten, this is one of the touchstones by which this administration will be remembered, because it is an initiative anchored on an ideal that transcends political leanings; it is a compact of faith that we all agreed to abide by as a system of democratic governance.
You see, of all the definitions of governance that I am familiar with, the one that resonates most with me is that by Kaufmann, Kraay and Mastruzzi, which states that governance is the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised for the common good, thus by casting this democratic commitment in stone to be commemorated on a permanent basis on June 12 every year, it connotes that we have all accepted to remind ourselves yearly on that date, of our commitment to be a country where the traditions and institutions by which authority in our country are exercised for the common good, shall always be democratic institutions and traditions.
It is a fitting day, given the historical democratic consensus by which Nigerians from all parts of the country voted in the majority for one party, with the flag bearers on a Muslim-Muslim ticket on June 12 1993, reminding all of us that we can all rise above the socially constructed and other natural divisions in our country.
Having committed to this ideal, we must move forward with the policy options that different political groups offer, on how best to operate in these democratic traditions and institutions by periodically choosing those who can best practice what they preach in free, fair and credible elections.
You were one of those who through student union activism fought against the annulment of June 12 presidential elections in 1993; what really happened then and will you do the same given the same circumstances today?
What happened then was that, we as presidents of our respective student bodies, recognised that the Nigerian people voted for a leadership, but an unelected leader, that even created a convoluted ambience that Nigerians decided to turn into opportunity for freedom from military rule and voted in that peaceful election unlike the ones we are having these days, decided that his whim was bigger than the sovereignty of the people.
Having articulated the scenario and its portent, we recognised that it was a turning point for us as a people to assert our common will and the right to choose our own leaders. Abiola was the focus for our common cause and he played the role of a leader, a rallying point without letting the people down.
For his resolute position, he was made to pay the supreme price. As I have often restated on this occasion every year, it is unfortunate that many who enjoy the best benefits of democracy today would have sold us off at the mere threat of a quarter of what Abiola was made to pass through. Yet, many pontificating on their attributes, some even had the temerity to question the notion that Abiola and June 12 should be commemorated, many of them do not even know what democracy means to us and why we will do everything to preserve it, because of the sacrifices many made to ensure that democracy takes root in Nigeria.
For instance, all the final year students who should have graduated in 1993 lost that year from struggling with military rule. Those who undermined the current democratic processes for selfish ends often do so only, because many have a very short memory of the struggle and many others witnessed it only from a distance. Those who paid profound cost for the June 12 struggle know why they tolerate the excesses of those who find themselves in positions of leadership today, who were not part of the struggle.
They know that many such people got democratic leadership by luck or opportunism rather than struggle so they can afford to be careless, and to put the democratic practice and institutions in jeopardy, they can afford to toy with our national aspirations, and our lofty values, because they did not have to hold the burning metals of torch of the democratic struggle in Nigeria when life and limb were at stake.
When MKO Abiola came back from London, I led a team of other activists and went to meet him, because the student body in UNIBEN had decided to name the new student union complex then after the incident of the election by calling it the June 12 Building as it is called up till date. We felt that since he had just returned to Nigeria, it would give great impetus, a renewed momentum to the struggle if he came personally to open the complex.
We found out during private interactions with him that he was resolutely committed to actualizesing the people’s mandate. He assured us that he would not waver, because he recognised that the issue was no longer his personal matter anymore.
He pointedly said, “If this was just my personal transaction it would be different, this issue is now a matter of the Nigerian people and those who stand against their democratic aspirations”. He was such an intelligent man, his depth of insight inspired strength. In those few moments, I could see in the strength of his character why he was able to conquer his spheres of influence.
Given the current state of democracy in Nigeria, will you say that the kind of democracy we have now was what you aspired for in 1993 as a student Union leader in UNIBEN?
Taking it from my earlier premise that democracy is a qualifying adjective for a governance ideal and governance is a set of regimes, traditions and institutions for exercising authority for the common good, we have to understand that we need a consensus of vision about where we want that ideal to lead us.
If we go back to the pre-independence talks of Nigerian leaders in London, our different peoples agreed that these traditions, institutions and practices for exercising authority should be anchored on a federal structure, deviations from that notion has historically taken us further apart and experience shows that going back to that understanding helps our union better as a nation.
Using the traditions and practices of Democracy to govern ourselves is an aspirational ideal, about how we take decisions through institutions and regimes of transactions to conduct our affairs such that rather than having all Nigerian communities and nationalities sit down every Saturday or Sunday, for all 200 million of us to decide how we will organise our defence, produce food efficiently without cutting each other’s throats, preserve our personal properties, guarantee our spaces to be productive etc, we decided to elect representatives to make these decisions on our behalf.
Our founding father found out that when we follow a federal structure to achieve these decision-making, more Nigerians are able to participate by deciding more of the things that affect them within their localities and are better able to solve those problems quickly and effectively, than when we have to send all or most problems to Abuja or the state capitals.
Even when we elect representatives in these capitals, it does not mean that we have given up the right to make these decisions ourselves, we have only delegated that right and we do it periodically through elections, because if we all sit down to do it every Sunday it is no longer feasible to reach quick decisions, because society and the diverse things we have to do are now numerous and complex.
But what we now find is that many who have been so elected and appointed to meet this goal now believe that being delegated to represent the people is an abdication, a relinquishing of the peoples right, hence they now see their role as owners of the people rather than their delegates.
This is why despite the insistence of the people that the elected representatives should look at better ways to make the system work for them, you will rather see some elected officials insisting they know better what the people want in a paternalistic manner.
Ask the people how they want electricity to be delivered to them, how they want their votes to be respected, how they want to be able to farm, fish, be transported with government as an enabler not a disabling agent; it is only when democratic governance solves these day to day needs of the people that it has utility.
While we can say that we are on the way to that pathway, we are far from being satisfied with what we have and we need to do more as l have noted in my recent lecture in Malawi, democracy is not working at the level of the ordinary people at the moment but only for the few ruling elites in African countries.
Everywhere in most of Africa, and especially so in our own history, the leaders and the followers have gone through a damaging process of ‘the big chief syndrome” where some leaders still believe that they have that kind of leverage of diktat, even worse, many citizens still have such expectations of elected leaders, they sometimes moronically and mechanically worship their elected delegates instead of seeing them as hired hands to do their common work on their behalf.
Given this background you will understand when I insist we still have much distance to cover to get to our ideal destination. It requires consistent socialisation with error and deviation corrections in our practices, democratic traditions and institutions.
What democratic ideals can the Nigerian people use to correct such deviations given how badly they impart and impact the economy and social life of Nigerians?
We need to first agree on those deviations to be able to correct them. If we are a federal democratic country and we agree on that notion, then we must itemize those things that deviate from our agreed ideals and have them corrected. If we are to practice democratic governance we must recognise its strengths and weaknesses particularly, in our environment and culture and make the necessary adjustments required to adapt it here.
The idea that democracy is used to elect leaders to conduct the affairs of the people alone is the minimalist concept, but the maximal concept of democracy sees it not only as a means for selecting institutional leaders but also as the end for attaining our aspirations, as means to attain prosperity, social justice and stability for all. Between these ideals theorist like Robert Dhal averred that most countries are only able to attain a quasi-democracy, which he called polyarchy.
If we are federal Polyarchical country, what are the minimal conditions we are expected to have and what will we not tolerate? Have we defined that, does our constitution fully embrace our aspirational ideal? It is my view that with constant practice beginning with a democratic goal-setting as we aspire towards the ideal of democratic maximalism, the outcome for our people will get better, the mistakes that our people in different levels of leadership have made are necessary socialising steps to that ideal.
But it is best if we learn from the mistakes of others rather than suffer needless pains. If we use Dhals framework of analysis on the progression of ideal polyarchies such as the united states and united Kingdom, where parties have been contesting elections for over 180years and you compare it with our current experience in which the gamut of experience between parliamentary and presidential democracy we still have less than forty years of effective democratic practice.
Do you think that if June 12 1993 presidential election was actualised, the country’s democracy would have been better than what we have experienced in the last 19 years?
I believe we would have advanced beyond where we are, given the competencies MKO and members of his team were coming with but unfortunately that trajectory has been lost forever we can only make the most of what we have.
Why is it that the same spirit and commitment to the actualisation of the June 12 is lacking among youths of today?
To assume that will be very uncharitable to the youths. In some countries, if you do not have a job you get paid unemployment benefits; if you lose your job, you are paid until you find one; if you ask the labour departments in such countries they can account for everybody, they can tell you what efforts are being made to create opportunities. But for our youths, we can’t even identify them effectively.
To serve in the NYSC they have to take their biometrics every month, for over ten years we are just conducting an Identity system that even small countries do routinely from ward level, so the youth we have today have been brought up with many challenges compared to their contemporaries from other generations. Still, every generation must define its challenges and find the required solution to them.
There will be no excuses for a pity-party, because youths everywhere are rising up to the challenges that confront their societies. It is not enough to dig their heads into social media and remain there, they must seize the moment and the opportunities around them, because no one will open ceilings for them; they must crack the ceilings themselves. Like a chicken, if you don’t crack your eggs they will not hatch you into existence.
I am, however, pleased to note that the youths are not standing idly by; we have felt their impact in many spheres, and I am hopeful that they will do a lot more given that this generation of youths is more receptive and adaptive to more modern technology and have bigger and better expectations.
Current leaders must understand that with the current youths, they do not necessarily need to go into the streets to make people aware of things that they can spread within minutes to millions of people globally through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tango, Viber, etc. So, the mobilisation of youths now is a lot easier, hence we must be more responsive to their needs.