Convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Yunuza Zakaria Ya’u, in this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, speaks on salient national issues including the legislature being independent of the executive arm at the state level while also blaming the Independent National Electoral Commission for not utilizing the opportunity offered by the introduction of new technologies to engender more transparency in the country’s electoral process.
What is your background like as a Civil Society Activist?
I have always been an activist. I was a student activist and was also associated with civil society activism. In 1983, we had a conference of Women in Nigeria and that gave rise to the first feminist organization – Women in Nigeria. We were also part of the founding members of Campaign for Democracy (CD) as well as of the United Action for Democracy, (UAD). I was involved in Civil Liberties Organizations (CLO) which I served for over eight years as a board member. I was the Deputy President of Democratic Alternative (DA), and through that, we were involved in the struggle against military rule especially when the presidential election of June 1993 was annulled and of course, I was put in detention several times. One thing that we recognized early when we were in the Civil Liberties Organization, was that the focus on the legal instruments as a key to promoting human rights and respect for human life was useful but limited.
It was important to broaden the spectrum and combine other strategies. We formed the community action for popular participation, for which I became the president, which was focused on communities and recognizing people who can’t fight for this right. That’s my trajectory in civil societies.
What is the view of the Situation Room on the call for the scrapping of State Independent Electoral Commission (SIEC)?.
I agree with you about this. They are not elections they do there, they are just appointments. For me, we need to work to ensure that those elections are democratic. However, I don’t support the idea of transferring the elections to INEC.
We are in the process in which we are saying that there’s too much centralization of power in this country.
When people talk about restructuring it also means devolving powers to the state rather than taking all the powers from the states and bringing it to the national. We need to take things out of our exclusive list and transfer them to the state. What is needed is not about who conducts the election but creating a framework that will ensure credible, free, and fair elections at the state level. Now we have been making a lot of progress in terms of reforming the electoral system at the national level. I think we haven’t been paying much attention to doing the same at the state level and I think that is an important area that Nigerians need to pay attention to. Let’s not look for an easy path, we have seen that INEC itself isn’t automatically free and fair, it is because of the vigilance of people, how media is focused on them, and the presence of international observers, so there’s that convergence of interest and transparency which is lacking at the state level.
I think that we need to begin to deploy the same resources of the international observers and local observers to the state level. We also need to consider the powers of governance, I think our constitution has given the governors enormous power that they could always misuse because they control the state houses of assembly and many state Houses of Assembly reject autonomy when it should be in their interest.
Until we can do that; to get state assemblies to understand that they are independent from the governors, we will never get free and fair elections in the states.
What has the experience been like advocating for democratic ideals, fair free and fair election using the auspices of the Situation Room?
As you said the key objective of Situation Room is really to deepen democracy in Nigeria. You cannot deepen democracy without free, fair, and credible elections.
In this regard, our efforts have been focused on ensuring that elections in Nigeria are free, fair, and credible. We do that through engagement with various stakeholders like INEC, security agencies concerned with law enforcement, and other Civil Society Organizations.
We also drive voter education, conduct actual observations of elections, and develop monitoring reports from results. Generally, getting our members to work at the state level to ensure that the democracy works for the citizens because it’s not just enough to conduct elections but also all leaders should be accountable by what they deliver to the citizens in terms of improving existing conditions which is what the Situation Room has been doing and then.
We recognize that credible elections are not just a function of bodies, organizations and so forth but it’s also framed by an Electoral Act with accompanying guidelines.
The Situation Room has been at the forefront of electoral reform in Nigeria by providing suggestions on opportunities for improvement based on our observations of elections- the lapses, the challenges we have seen, and the solutions we proffer.
We engage the National Assembly, discuss these issues with them, and try to get them to amend the Electoral Act, where possible.
What impact has Situation Room made these years in improving electoral conduct in Nigeria?
I think that what we can say is that gradually, and I think this is consistent, the electoral law has been improving. If you look at the various alterations that we have up to this moment, progressively we are addressing challenges, issues, and problems. Today, we have perhaps one of the best electoral laws. We could also look at milestones in terms of the processes. The introduction of technology in the election has been gradually helping to improve the process and promote transparency.
First, the Card Reader was introduced, and I think many people said it was a game changer that would produce results, now we have moved on to the IReV and the BVAS. Although the ruling of the Supreme Court has set us back, with the electoral reforms, we hope that the National Assembly will make sure that the use of the BVAS and IReV would add to the guidelines to be part of the legal framework.
What do you actually mean by the Supreme Court ruling setting us back in the electoral process?
A – By the time the current Electoral Act was signed, everyone believed that INEC was mandated to use the BVAS and IReV. Unfortunately, we saw what happened in the last general elections where there were many instances where it was not used. Candidates went to court and contested that and the Supreme Court confirmed that it wasn’t legally necessary for INEC to use it meaning that it wasn’t mandatory. The next amendment has to make it mandatory for both to be used by INEC.
Are you worried that manipulation of election results has not abated despite the introduction of technology by INEC?
I’m not worried about the number of litigations because it shows the imperfection of our processes. What I am worried about is that the conduct of our politicians has not improved, rather the level of impunity is increasing and I think that is the most worrisome thing for us.
In the beginning, one could say it was because we are coming from long years of military rule which has socialized people with the military mentality, so politicians in particular who are aspiring for power and who got into power behave like military rule. They don’t understand the tenets of democracy, they don’t have respect for democracy, and so they don’t believe in the rule of law. And therefore this conduct was hindering progress in terms of the quality of our elections.
Gradually I think that rather than the situation improving now that we are coming years away from the military rule, the new crop of leaders are even more intolerant, authoritarian, and so forth. I think that is worrisome. But I think that on reflection, this is a general challenge to us as citizens who have to come to terms with democracy as a process and democracy as a culture.
I think our focus has been on democracy as a process. When you don’t have democracy as a culture, meaning that it’s the government in social interactions and so forth then we would always have this problem of people claiming to be democrats, who have no respect for democracy.
And so we need to begin to see democracy permeating all parts of our lives; the family level, school, institutions of learning, and so forth. So If you go to our institutions for instance today and compare them with 20 years ago, you will be saddened because many years ago you had free and independent student unionism. Today, the Vice Chancellor simply appoints student leaders, student leaders no longer talk about student unions, they talk about student government, learning from what they see at the national level.
That for me is regressive in terms of black culture in democracy. I think that this is an area that we need to watch while simultaneously addressing the formal process of democracy which is institutionalizing and internalizing democratic efforts in ways in which it will prove beneficial for citizens.
In specific terms what can you say Situation Room has achieved over the years?
It has achieved several things. First of all, Situation Room shaped how Civil Society Organizations have become more involved in observing elections and putting out reports and recommendations.
Also, contributions to the process of the reform of our electoral law have been consistently in the public domain and also in the chambers of the National Assembly.
We have realized that the process of engineering the electoral regime is a continuous process, nobody said we have done too much reform that we need to stop. One thing I think should also be institutionalized is the process of observing elections. You know in 1999, the Election Management body didn’t want election monitoring to be done, I remember that we had a huge debate between then INEC chairman, Prof. Morris Iwu, who said you can’t observe the election. This subsequently created a distinction between what we call election monitoring and election observation. However, we have since gone past that stage. We have also contributed to the monitoring of elections, identifying the challenges and proffering solutions.
Many of the solutions that informed the establishment of the new Electoral Act were the results of recommendations based on observations by Civil Society Organizations. That is also is an achievement. I think it’s about how Electoral Managers are being appointed in this country, the National Commissioners of INEC and the state residential electoral commissioners should be independent, and non-partisan but we have since seen, and protested, the nomination of people who are card-carrying members of certain political parties during the last administration. Even in this present administration, among those that have been screened by the Senate, five of them are known to be partisan. For instance, the current Resident Electoral Commissioner of Imo state is a sister of a Member of the National Executive Committee of the ruling party, which should not happen in a democratic nation.
What are your projections regarding the role of the coalition going forward?
Firstly, Situation Room will work towards improving the electoral act in such a way that there will be a lot of transparency in the process- the conduct of the elections, collation of results, which results are announced such that there will be fidelity between what people did during voting and what INEC is announcing as the results.
We want full electronic transmission of results so that our process would be faster and more seamless unlike the current process of having to move the results from one area to another physically which takes a long time and exposes the results to being tampered with.
Thirdly, I think we also want to allow for the diaspora voting so that Nigerians who are living outside the country could have the opportunity to vote.
We also want to introduce early voting so that security personnel, election officials, and observers will have the opportunity to vote before travelling to their duty stations.
Right now if you are registered in Calabar and are posted to Maiduguri, you become disenfranchised, and quite a huge number of people are disenfranchised in this way. Elections are a means to good governance; installing a government that is accountable to citizens. A government that would listen, a government that has a good representation of what people want when they discuss; be it the National Assembly, the Executive Council, and so forth. Our goal is to make sure that we have looked into really getting credible people to be elected and people who deliver on these promises, people who would live by the tenets of the rule of law.
Right now, there is too much arbitrariness, people who are elected simply jettison our Constitution and do whatever they like.
So doing that would also give the citizens the confidence that democracy is important and that way they become committed to protecting and preserving democracy in this country.