Prof. Lai Olurode is a former National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission. The professor of Sociology at the University of Lagos tells FEMI MAKINDE how Nigeria should be restructured, among other national issues
Do you think the law enforcement agencies in the country are doing enough to curb vote buying?
In all honesty, I think the law enforcement agencies must be overwhelmed by the widespread nature of vote buying and other wrongs done during elections. Sometimes, the law enforcement agents are some of those targeted by the state political actors to make sure that they turn a blind eye to it. It is difficult to now enforce the law. When you look at it, there are about 130,000 polling units in the country. With the total police strength of about 450,000, how do you cover the polling units effectively? Remember the governors, senators, House of Representatives members, justices and others would have appropriated a large number of the police personnel to secure them. Even with other security agencies, they will never be enough. There is no way the security agents can match the number of those who give out money to buy votes. The police in such cases are very helpless.
The number two reason, apart from the strength of the police, is that the police themselves don’t get their allowances on time; so, they can’t display enough enthusiasm towards enforcing the law. I have seen instances when they sleep in the open fields in schools with no toilet facilities. Inter-agencies rivalries are also there and the question of who will lead the team comes up regularly. Sometimes, they result to fisticuffs among themselves and this makes it difficult for them to pay attention. So, these are the challenges.
Will the recent review of police salary have a positive effect on the way they discharge their duties?
The recent upward review of salary package of police force by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari should serve as an incentive for men and women of the police to become more effective in fulfilling their major mandate. This is expected to rub off positively on the 2019 general elections.
Also, police participation in international security activities would have exposed men and officers to the best practices globally. More importantly, Nigerian electorate are displaying more citizen activism in the electoral process and coming to terms with the major highlights and legal regime of elections. Nigerians, especially, the electorate may be intolerant of an indolent and partisan police force. The premium that is placed on the worth and significance of Permanent Voter Card is high; so is the value of the ballot in the forthcoming elections likely to be competitive.
People have been clamouring for the creation of an electoral offences commission but it is not good enough to saddle INEC with the responsibility of securing the electoral process. In creating a commission, you are adding more bureaucracy and may not reduce electoral crimes. For me, we need to change our attitude. All the gains of democracy may be in the reverse gear as the 2019 elections approach if we don’t change our attitude. It may be difficult to consolidate on the gains we have recorded. I have observed elections in Ghana and Kenya; it is only in Nigeria you see the deployment of a very larger number of police during elections. People are afraid that this may trigger apathy. This is because too many security agents around polling units may discourage some people from coming out. But sometimes, the presence of security agents gives voters the confidence that they would be safe from attacks. We need to do more to train the police on the need to be loyal to the nation and not to individuals.
More importantly, we need to borrow a leave from India. In India, as election approaches, the Inspector-General of Police comes under the directive of the chief electoral officer (like the chairman of INEC). Their discipline, promotion and other things come from the chief electoral officer. So, the police personnel will know that this is the man that calls the shot and not the IGP. The commissioners of police should come under the directive of the resident electoral commissioners during election periods. The DPOs and whoever is the head of the police in local government areas should also be under the electoral officers at local government areas. This will reduce the influence of governors, council chairmen and others on the police. If a police officer is posted to a state and the governor makes him very comfortable, such officer may not want to go a whole gamut of the law to enforce it.
Will vote buying not mar the credibility of the 2019 elections?
I have listened to President Muhammadu Buhari and I want to believe that he knows very well that the challenge is far bigger than that of the 2015 elections in terms of not allowing electoral malfeasance to feature. Also, when you look at the selling point of Buhari, what gives him acceptability in 2015 was his integrity and I am sure that he will want to stamp this on the electoral process as we move closer to the February and March elections. I will want to believe that he will do what he says. And being an anti-corruption person, who said ‘If we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us’, he will not allow electoral fraud. That is why he said people that were aggrieved in his party were free to seek redress in court.
The most challenging thing for any incumbent government is to deliver on electoral integrity and that is the reason people are giving kudos to former President Goodluck Jonathan all over the world. Most of his commissioners (INEC commissioners), he never knew them. What he said was ‘Give me free elections even if it is to my own detriment’ and that was exactly what happened and I am sure that President Buhari will not do anything less. I don’t think Nigerians will accept the (election) results if the process is marred by vote buying, thumb printing illegally, snatching of ballot boxes and other corrupt practices.
The PDP has advocated that credible international election observers should be allowed into the INEC Situation Room to prevent manipulation of results. Do you support this?
I want to believe that the INEC we have today under the leadership of Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, will not allow anybody to manipulate the elections. Of course, I won’t share the opinion that they are completely neutral. They may have sympathy for one political party or the other. Some of them may be pro-Buhari; some may be anti-Buhari; some will be for Atiku; others may be for Ezekwesili. But what is important is that the process must be followed transparently. There is nothing wrong if anybody wants to be there; it should be open to the public. But the most important thing is that Nigeria is a country that is democratically put in place and free from foreign interventions. If allowing them to be in the situation room will amount to undue interference in our elections, why allow them? There is nothing bad in allowing some members of the civil society groups in Nigeria to be there. There are many credible ones that can be allowed. They should be allowed to scan, view and be given access to information they need. This will prove to all parties that INEC has integrity. People’s perception of their integrity is very important and he who goes to equity must go with clean hands. And at the same time, like Caesar’s wife, they must live above board. If you have to throw the doors open for people to see that you are transparent, it is okay. It is not enough to say you are transparent; people must see that you are actually transparent. I don’t see any of the electoral stages that cannot be scrutinised, monitored and observed by people. The more INEC throws its doors open, the better for the commission and people’s perception about its integrity. I remember in those days, Prof. Attahiru Jega would decline to attend to any candidate but would invite others so that he would not be seen as holding clandestine meeting with any contestant.
The power of incumbency, whether we like it or not, will be deployed. But they must know that what they didn’t take from the PDP when the PDP was in charge, they should not expect the PDP to take it from them when they are now there. The challenge is Herculean and it can be frustrating but the APC government must know that they cannot give anything other than free and fair elections to Nigerians. It is not enough for them to say the elections are free; people out there must see that they are free and fair.
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Will returning to the parliamentary system of government be better for Nigeria?
The presidential system of government is wasting a lot of our resources – with 109 senators and over 300 members of the House of Representatives. This system is wasting our resources and I believe that the parliamentary system of government is more in tune with our cultural practices. There is no doubt that the presidential system is very wasteful. We practised it before the independence. I grew up and saw people go to hospitals in those days and there were drugs for them. People went to the general hospital for major surgeries but not anymore. People are moving away from government institutions to private ones because they realise that that is where they can get quality service. Life has been snuffed out of public institutions and the resources needed to provide quality services have been taken away. I don’t think the presidential system of government can bring life to public institutions. About 80 per cent of our resources are being used to maintain governance and I don’t know how we can get out of that.
Will you suggest that Nigeria should run part-time legislature to save costs?
Even if we run part-time legislature, you know these people are powerful and they can ensure that we return to where we are coming from. I think whichever party comes to power, we need to redefine the trajectory of this country; we cannot continue like this. You get to ministries and you see many vehicles parked. We are giving too many resources to those in government instead of making resources available to provide social services to the people. We pay them estacodes when they travel and pay them sitting allowances when they sit down, all manner of waste. I don’t mine if I have to use my own car if I am in public office so that we can conserve resources. We need ‘small government’ so that we can provide services to the people. Everybody sees Nigeria as a buffet and you just go there and take your share and throw away whatever is remaining
Do you think some of these problems can be overcome by restructuring the nation?
Personally, I am in support of a restructured Nigeria. Our system is too bureaucratised and it is not democratic. But those who are afraid need to be assured that they are not going to lose; that restructuring is not meant to profit some people and leave others with losses. There should be a lot of sensitisation to let those who are opposed to it see how they stand to benefit. For example, those who don’t have oil know that they will also benefit and each state will be made to know that you can create the number of local government councils you can cater for. But oil money has created a notion of indolence, all over the country. Each of the states should be made to know that whatever comes from the centre would be used for development and that each of them will have to generate revenue to cater for their local governments. We have gone through this before and we survived it and that was during the time of cocoa, groundnuts and palm oil. That will make us to think more and I can tell you there is no part of Nigeria that will suffer if we restructure Nigeria. If you have a state and you can’t pay your workers, nobody will tell you to reduce the size of your workers. But to expect that your workers will be paid with oil revenue or proceeds from cocoa or groundnut is encouraging indolence and that is why things are not working well. It is like free money. Also, if states like Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Edo want to construct roads, they can bargain together and it will be cheaper. Contractors will also lower their prices because they know that they would work in three or four states at the same time. Our constitution is also an albatross: you have to chose a minister from each of the state; you have to recruit special advisers to reflect all the states. There is no way you can do this without becoming unwieldy. We have worked together before under regions but the military came and stopped it. Restructuring is good but I don’t think we can do it under this present government because any government that wants to do it must start from its day one in office.
Restructuring isn’t to be regarded as a cure-for-all measure. The key issue is our attitudinal as well as institutional change. Nigerians’ mindset is centred on sharing, and not production-oriented. Even if we restructure, without attitudinal change and regard for institutional effectiveness, we will continue to remain at the bottom of development indicators. If we retain the present arrangement with an appropriate orientation directed at state institutions, we can escape the present vicious circle. Positive attitude matters a lot. Nigerians should respect national assets as they would respect theirs. The plundering and leakage must stop.
How do you think the incessant crisis between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities over lecturers’ welfare and others can be eternally resolved?
I am a member of ASUU. It is not because I am a member of the union; ASUU has genuine demands. It has a good case because there was an agreement reached with ASUU some years back and that is what it wants the government to honour. The agreement might not have been appreciated when it was entered into but an agreement is an agreement. Although this government is trying to pump money into the education sector, we can do more. The recommendation of UNESCO for African countries is that 27 per cent of the budget should go to education. This is because without education, we will be churning out illiterates. If you look at the performances of students in examinations, you won’t be happy. This is because teachers are not well paid; they are not motivated. The degree of failure is monumental and scary. And that is why some university professors will prefer to serve as assistants to senators and House of Reps members. In those days, if you approached a lecturer to become a minister, they would think twice because the pay (of lecturers) was good and they enjoyed what they were doing.
The condition under which students are learning now is very poor. When I was a student at the University of Lagos, people used to come from outside to eat on the campus. We can get back to that. And if you look at the population of university students that we have now and we produce chickens for them, that will be a huge market for poultry farmers. But to leave the universities the way they are now, it will be extremely difficult to produce another Nobel laureate in Nigeria after Prof. Wole Soyinka. I am the Chairman of University of Lagos Muslim Community. We receive all kinds of letters requesting financial assistance. Some of them sleep in the mosque and to get them out of the mosque is very difficult. And if you insist, then you will throw them outside on the streets. Government needs to wake up because if we don’t invest in education now, we will be creating challenges ahead. ASUU is not fighting for itself, although it won’t be a bad thing if there is increment in their pay. Education needs more funds. But there are other sectors that also need more money such as security, health and infrastructure.
How will you rate the anti-corruption war of this present government?
That is a difficult one. I think we have seen a more active EFCC in terms of visibility and the spate of arrests made with the quantum of funds recovered. Government needs to convince Nigerians more that the fight against corruption is not a witch-hunt against the members of the opposition. It seems that each time somebody close to the government has a case, Nigerians tend to see that such person is being handled with kid gloves. I think there is a need to convince Nigerians that the fight against corruption is not selective and it’s not a respecter of individuals. But I think the good side of it is that we have seen a number of people in this government that have been shown the exit gate because of malfeasance in one form or the other. The present government is doing its best but I think it can do more.