Designed to Create a Favourable Impression  

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Udora Orizu write that inclusion of Civil Society Organisations in the processes of national elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission may be an adroit, but superficial presentation to gain a favourable impression

It’s 11.45 in the morning in the Abuja offices of one of the leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that was very active in the period leading to and during the 2019 national elections. Activities have slowed down considerably, down from the enduring commotion of that period to a relaxed pace. Only a single staff at the front office is on duty.

There are a variety of civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs operating at different spheres of the Nigerian spectrum. The return of democratic rule in 1999 revived interest in groups that campaign for good governance and all the processes that  guarantee a deepening of democratic values in Nigeria.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) accredited 156 observer groups to monitor the conduct of the 2019 national elections in the country. This figure represents 120 domestic and 36 international observer groups. These observers were compelled to abide by the code of conduct for election observers. While issuing the accreditation, the electoral umpire warned that it reserved the right to cancel and withdraw the accreditation of any organisation if its members or agents breach the code of conduct. The commission also cautioned that it would tolerate any group other than those accredited, found in any state for the elections.

Some of the accredited foreign observer groups were African Bar Association, African Parliament of The Civil Society, African Union, British High Commission, Democrat Union of Africa, ECOWAS, the European Union and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa. Other accredited foreign observers are Embassy of France, Embassy of Japan, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Embassy of The Republic of Korea, European Centre for Electoral Support, German International Agency, High Commission of Canada, and the International Foundation for Electoral System. The International Human Rights Commission; International Peace Commission; International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Network for Solidarity, and the Empowerment and Transformation for All were also accredited to cover the elections. Other international observers accredited are Nigerians in Diaspora Organization; Pan African Women Projects,  Pan African Youth Training and Enlightenment Centre, Queen Zara Foundation for Human Resources Development, The Commonwealth and the United States Embassy

The Nigerian groups that were on INEC’s official list of election monitors included, Action Aid Nigeria, Advocacy for Quality Leadership and Health Awareness Foundation, African Centre For Leadership, Strategy and Development, African Christian Care Trust Organization, Transition Monitoring Group, and YIAGA  Africa Initiative. Others that played an observer role were African Initiative for Sustainable and Positive Development; African Youth Leadership Roundtable Initiative,  Al-Habibiyyah Islamic Society, Alliance for Credible Election, Asabe Shehu Yar’adua Foundation, Centre for Citizens With Disabilities, Centre for Strategic Conflict Management, and the Centre for Transparency Advocacy. Expectedly, the domestic list of election monitors comprised Children and Youth Awareness Development Foundation, Christian Association of Nigeria, Christian Council of Nigeria, Church Of Nigeria Anglican Communion, Citizens Rights and Leadership Awareness Initiative, and the Citizens Rights For Peace and Good Leadership Initiative. Others that got approval to monitor the election were The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Cleen Foundation, Conscience Women of Africa Initiative, Jama’atu Izalatau Badi’ah Wa Ikamatu Sunnatu, Justice Development And Peace, Catholic Caritas Foundation of Nigeria, and the National Orientation Agency. Also prominent on the team of domestic election monitors were the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room (Policy And Legal Advocacy Centre), Nigerian Bar Association, Northern Patriotic Front, Northern Youth And Elders Awareness Forum, Police Service Commission, Shehu Musa Yar’adua Foundation and The Albino Foundation.

It may be argued that the number of CSOs operating in Nigeria’s political space are competing for attention with Nigeria’s 91 political parties. The activities of the CSOs is one of the necessary partnerships that lends credibility to electoral processes. In its bid to been seen as having conducted free and fair elections, it has become imperative to engage as many CSOs as possible on emerging electoral issues. Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi, Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, explained the value that may accrue to his organisation by engaging civil society groups. According to him, “The commission benefits from the CSOs in two ways – through the feedback they send from the field on Election Day and the reports they submit at the end of the elections. All Observers are required to submit their individual reports at the end of their observation missions.”

Beyond being designed to create a favourable impression, INEC does not really adopt recommendations from these election monitoring groups. Many of these reports are usually not flattering of INEC, putting the electoral umpire, most times on the spot, struggling to throw more light on grey areas. Middle of last month, two of the foreign election observer groups, the European Union and the Joint Nigeria International Election Observation Mission of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) released their reports on the 2019 national elections. Both accounts gave a clear indication of failure on the path of INEC. The EU Observer Mission document highlighted seven priority recommendations among its 30 recommendations. According to the report of the EUOM, “Nigeria’s 2019 general elections were marked by severe operational and transparency shortcomings, electoral security problems, and low turnout. Positively, the elections were competitive, parties were overall able to campaign, and civil society enhanced accountability.”  It identified the need for fundamental reform.

The IRI President, Dr. Daniel Twining did not cloak his statement in nice words. He said, “The 2019 general election fell significantly short of standards set in 2015. Citizens’ confidence in elections was shaken”. His counterpart, NDI President, Ambassador Derek Mitchell observed that, “The 2019 elections highlighted for many Nigerians the need for a national conversation about the country’s democratization since the 1999 transition to civilian rule.”

Set-up in 2010, ahead of the 2011 general elections in response to the need to enhance civil society coordination and ensure constructive and proactive engagement of the election process, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room (Situation Room) emerged to maximize the various resources of civil society groups for information sharing, anticipating problems during elections and responding rapidly when they occur. The Situation Room is made up of CSOs working in support of credible and transparent elections in Nigeria and includes such groups as Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), CLEEN Foundation, Action Aid Nigeria, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Proactive Gender Initiative (PGI) Enough is Enough Nigeria, WANGONET, Partners for Electoral Reform, JDPC and YIAGA Africa Others are Development Dynamics, Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Stakeholders Democracy Network, Human Rights Monitor, Reclaim Naija, CITAD, Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE), CISLAC, and several other CSOs numbering more than 70. In the 2019 elections, the Situation Room engaged INEC on the need to ensure that the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner as well as to ensure that its processes are respected and implemented. Situation Room also emphasised the importance of ensuring that logistics for the elections are in place and the collation of results conducted in a transparent manner.

In a statement issued by one of its leaders, Dr. Clement Nwankwo, Situation Room called on security services invited by INEC to assist with the conduct of
the of elections to conduct themselves in a non-partisan and professional
manner. It further pleaded with the security services to demonstrate their commitment to nonpartisan support to electoral security. He held that, “Owing to the close contest and high stakes in the elections, the potential for serious local instability that may further and dramatically affect the already damaged credibility of Nigeria as a whole, is real.”

Cynthia Mbamalu, Programme Manager of YIAGA Africa went into a long clarification to justify the working relationship between CSOs and the electoral umpire. Her assessment of the intervention of civil society organisations in the 2019 national elections was quite revealing. She emphasised that the CSOs actually begin their engagement with voters and INEC before the elections. Mbamalu specifically pointed to reports CSOs that drew an early attention to potential violent prone areas. “The civil society organizations played a major role in the 2019 elections, 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 invited CSOs to share the draft copy of the memorandum, with a joint review on that and recommendations made on 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, which became one of the advocacy tools that was used to engage the commission. There was also a lot of voter education that was done by the civil society organizations, if you look at the YIAGA “watching the vote” pre-election observation report from the first to sixth reporting period 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. We saw different CSOs at the national level and grassroots levels engaging in voter education. We also had groups doing a lot of security threat assessments, if you look at the Dr. Benson Olugbo-led CLEEN Foundation report, you have groups tracking incidents of violence, fighting against fake news, like Centre for Democracy and Development, they had reports provided. All those pre-election reports helped to build an early warning system against violence for the elections, helped provide 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 and one of the things that was achieved is that in each of the reports you will see points of convergence which amplified those incidents to ensure that appropriate institutions took action and address 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 and that way you could see different media houses actually relying on it for reportage. That brought the attention of citizens, international communities and different stakeholders on the negative role that the military was playing. Also we focused on the role played by political parties. 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 these observer groups deploy their personnel to the field, these things would have gone under the carpet. We wouldn’t have seen all the malpractices and the call for a review for the electoral process. Also when the elections was postponed, different groups held press conferences expressing 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 to citizens to remain calm. If we didn’t have groups calling on citizens to be patient and still come out to vote, we probably would have had a lower percentage of voter turnout.”

CSOs have become a dependable source of well researched data and information, particularly for the media and the general public. Enough is Enough and BudgiT are two CSOs that have distinguished themselves by digging into the affairs of ministries, the legislature and government agencies by bringing, especially their monetary transaction to the public space and prompting members of the public to ask questions.
By their activities, these CSOs are helping to highlight every threat to Nigeria’s democracy. According to Mbamalu, civil society groups have gained a lot of confidence from what they and they will continue to serve the large interest of the Nigerian public. She said,  “If you look at certain political decisions, I believe there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to build our democracy. We have 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 secured 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 roles the political parties play, increase of electoral violence and lives we lost. so yes our democracy under threat, but we can move from where we are. It begins with the roles we play as citizens, we need our leaders to actually want this democracy. If they don’t care, all the work we are doing will be in vain. We need to have a legislative arm of government that is capable and willing to protect and promote this democracy.”
Oyekanmi believes the relationship between CSOs and the commission is not short-lived, but remains persistent as the elections cycle continue. His statement may be a bit dramatic, but it describes the enduring nature of elections in Nigeria. “Elections never end in Nigeria,” he said to underscore that round-the-clock engaging activities of the commission. He continued, “Between 2015 and 2019, INEC conducted about 195 off season elections. Right now, the commission has fixed Nov 16 for the Kogi and Bayelsa governorship polls.”
Though he couched it in civil language, it was clear that INEC would like the CSOs not to probe too much into its affairs. These irksome attitudes of the CSOs is what Oyekanmi describes as, “blowing issues out of context/proportion.” He pointedly called on the CSOs to respect their boundaries and be more patriotic. Mbamalu, however, thinks the insinuation that CSOs are working to achieve a particular goal in favour of their sponsors cannot be supported with facts. She said, “Everyone has the right to an opinion. However, I think people should look at those behind the organizations, what their interest is and what they stand for, so that they can make an informed decision. In every election, that you have civil society organizations, funding comes from international bodies or donor organizations. What we need to understand is the point at which we receive funds. Every group that receives funds, writes a proposal, sets an objective and decides what to do in the elections. In the end, Nigerian citizens working in civil society organizations are those implementing that proposal, 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 our country and that’s why you have groups that will say, ‘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.”
The dependence of Nigerian CSOs on funding from abroad is a major source of concern that tends hinder operations of CSOs after election period. Mbamalu suggested that Nigerian companies that have the capacity to fund activities of CSOs must make a quick and sustainable intervention, because if through its work, strong governmental institutions emerge, it will create a prosperous environment for these companies.  “Unfortunately,  we have a civil society sector that depends on international partners, because that support is lacking from the business sector or philanthropist. In some developed countries, their major source of funds is top business men and women and the private to support the work they are doing. Here, we don’t have 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. But that shouldn’t be so. We also have individuals that wait for the elections to make more money, you also have political parties who use some groups towards the elections negatively. There are some organizations 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 the elections to build popularity and not because they care about the electoral process. But the major reason is access to funds. This 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 promote development. They also benefit from that, support the groups so that reliance on international funds is reduced.  We can start having groups that are actually independent and autonomous in Nigeria,” she said.

QUICK FACTS:

*The Independent National Electoral Commission accredited 156 observer groups to monitor the conduct of the 2019 national elections. This figure represents 120 domestic and 36 international observer groups

* The activities of the Civil Society Organisations is one of the necessary partnerships that lends credibility to electoral processes

*The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room (comprising about 70 groups) emerged in 2010 to maximize the various resources of civil society groups for information sharing, anticipating problems during elections and responding rapidly when they occur

* CSOs begin their engagement with voters and INEC before the elections, embarking on enlightenment of voters and pointing to potential violent prone areas to draw attention of the authorities

*Between 2015 and 2019, INEC conducted about 195 off season elections

*This year, Nigeria celebrated 20 years of unbroken civil rule
*Many Nigerian CSOs depend on foreign funds to carry out their activities
*By their intervention, CSOs are helping to deepen the deepen the democratic culture of transparency in governance