With only some few weeks to the commencement of the 2015 general election, with the presidential election scheduled to hold on February 14, stakeholders at a conference on the roles of the state and non-state actors on mitigating violence in elections, organized by the Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD), a nonprofit organization headed by seasoned diplomat and academician, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, in collaboration with the Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which held in Abuja last week, deliberated on key issues that could pose serious challenge towards the conduct of a violence free election, more so when pundits are of the view that the 2015 election will be a tight race with the stakes indeed high.
The SCDDD is a non-governmental think tank committed to policy advocacy and analysis in the nexus between conflict prevention, management, democratization and sustainable development in Africa, and according to the chairman of the organization, Prof Gambari, the centre thought it wise to invite the CSIS, which he said has spearheaded series of interactive sessions involving political parties from Nigeria but with the meetings held in the United States.
According to the organizers of the conference and as Nigeria inches towards the February general elections which from all indications, “would be a highly contested exercise, a number of outstanding issues remain unresolved.”
The SCDDD alongside its partner therefore identified and singled out these outstanding issues to include; “the potential implications of not holding elections in the states under emergency rule (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, safeguarding the voting rights of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within the current legal regime, the negative attitudes of many politicians across the country, the perception of lack of neutrality of the security agencies, especially the police and indeed some doubts being expressed in some quarters about the capacity of INEC to conduct free and fair elections in an atmosphere of transparency amidst the continuing difficulties in obtaining Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) as well as fresh registrations.”
The conference therefore provided the avenue for critical stakeholders to seek to address not only these immediate challenges of the forthcoming general elections, but according to Amb. Abdullahi Omaki, executive director of the SCDDD, “also to do so in a way that lays the basis for dialogue, collaboration, and consensus-building in the elections immediate aftermath and beyond.”
The critical stakeholders invited for the conference included the political parties represented by the national chairmen of the two leading parties, the PDP and APC as well as the parties spokespersons, chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), represented by its chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, who also delivered the keynote address, a cross section of the media, members of the civil society, the National Security Adviser, Col Sambo Dasuki who delivered the closing keynote address, with the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), the DG SSS and DG Civil Defence as discussants on the NSA’s presentation.
Members of the panel included prominent Nigerians that have distinguished themselves in their various fields of endeavour, including no less a person than the former Chief Justice of the federation, Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais among others.
On the role of political actors in mitigating violence, participants at the conference were of the view that political actors must not engage in do-or-die politics, which many said has been the bane of the country’s democracy, with Prof Gambari particularly harping on hate speeches and unguarded utterances.
“Political parties are not for hate speeches, unguarded utterances are not going to be conducive to a non-violent election” he said, condemning the resort to vile statements from politicians capable of overheating the polity.
Speaking on behalf of his party, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, national publicity secretary of the APC decried the non adherence to the need to provide a level playing field for all the parties in the election, singling out the security agencies for alleged complicity.
“You can imagine that at my age, I could be arrested for wandering” he said, recounting his experience at the hands of the security operatives during the governorship election in Osun State.
He was of the view that “so long as government continues to be part of the election, elections in the country will continue to be marred, urging for strict neutrality among all the security agencies.
On his part, the national publicity secretary of the PDP, Dr. Oliseh Metuh, who was represented by the national secretary of the party, Prof Wale Oladipo, waved away allegations of his party’s resort to using institutions of state for political gains, commending both the INEC and security agencies for jobs well done.
On the role of the media in promoting national unity, peace cohesion and mitigation of violence in election times, Tunde Aremu, veteran journalist, noted the challenges posed by the social media on the press’s ability to curtail violence.
On his part, Mr Laolu Akande a visiting journalist from the United States working with The Guardian lamented that political rhetoric and intemperate language in daily use in Nigeria has become a norm, stressing that it is but the representation of the social tension created by the cut-throat political competition and rivalry.
He blamed the situation on the conduct of political actors which he said, creates tension, as well as the apparent lack of internal democracy within the political parties, stressing that the situation is further worsened with too much influence of money in the political setup.
Akande faulted government’s running of the media, describing it as ridiculous that at this time in history, government is still holding onto the National Television Authority (NTA).
When it was time for participants to deliberate on the activities of the INEC leading to the February polls, it was visible that many of the participants have an issue or two to grind with the electoral body.
Being the first lecture to be presented, Jega’s address titled “INEC Ready To Go: Assessing Priority Challenges, Gaps and Contingency Plans” elicited heated debate on the activities of the commission so far.
Professor Jega while introducing his speech noted that “understandably, preparations for elections in Nigeria raise political anxieties for reasons of with the killings and destructions that had characteristically accompanied them.”
On the challenges being faced by the commission over the distribution of the PVCs, Jega agreed that until the commencement of the third phase of the distribution of the PVC, “there have not been any doubts raised about INEC’s capacity to deliver on its major mandate of conducting free, fair and credible elections.”
While lamenting over the frustrations being experienced by Nigerians who are eager to collect their PVCs, he however pointed out that “the substance and justification for the exercise and indeed efforts that culminated in the production of the cards are lost or erased from the memories of unsympathetic commentators.”
Jega disclosed that so far, INEC has printed 54, 341, 610 PVC out of which 38, 774, 391, (71.35%).
“These figures leave us with 15, 567, 219 cards” he stated even as participants expressed concern over the inability of Nigerians to access the PVCs, with the election barely few weeks away. This is even as INEC is yet to produce the cards to tally with the total number of registered voters in the country pegged at 68m.
“It will be less than an honest account to deny the existence of a PVC question. We in INEC are not satisfied with our methodology of distribution having been messed up but, we feel frustrated by the bashings and non-supportive roles of stakeholders in standing up to address the challenge” he said.
On the fate of the internally displaced persons in the emergency states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, Jega maintained that the commission is committed to widening the scope of citizenship and participatory democracy, explaining that INEC has set up a committee to study all the means that will facilitate the exercise of franchise by the IDPs.
However, former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), expressed fears that there could be a legal implication of the outcome of the presidential election if the exercise billed for February 14, was not extended to the troubled states of Adamawa, Borno and states.
Speaking with journalists at the venue of the conference, Justice Uwais also noted that there could be what he called a “lacuna” if the IDPs, were not allowed to exercise their franchise during the 2015 polls.
Harping on the likely implications of not conducting elections in the North East, Justice Uwais said: “When the Electoral Act was enacted in 2010, this sort of situation of having IDPs was not envisaged, so there is no provision in the law on how to deal with it and the constitution is also silent but the way to go round it is to get the National Assembly amend the Electoral Act and make provisions to make it possible for the IDPs to exercise their franchise.
He said the National Assembly could expeditiously amend the Electoral Act to give room for the IDPs to vote in the election if the elected representatives in the legislature are willing.
“It all depends, if the National assembly is willing, they can pass a law within two days, then it goes to the president and the president within a day or two, can also assent to the bill just as he said “there is certainly a lacuna.”
Peoples Daily however recall that the national assembly has only recently adjourned sitting to resume on January 17, three days after the presidential election.
On the responsibilities of the security agencies in ensuring peaceful, free and fair elections, several of the participants expressed concern over the perceived partiality of the security agencies in favour of the ruling party.
Ms Jennifer Cooke, director of Africa Programme of the CSIS, questioned the alleged “profiling of potential troublemakers” by the DSS, stressing that the idea is inimical to democratic practice.
However, Inspector General of Police, Suleiman Abba, who stood in for the NSA, sought the honest opinion of the participants on whether it was possible to separate the state from the government as according to him, “political parties select candidates who occupy political offices and who form government that runs the state.”
In its communiqué at the end of the two-day conference, following “deliberations that were wide ranging and frank and required the commitment, cooperation and collaboration of both state and non-state actors”, SCDDD recommended that “INEC should demonstrate absolute impartiality and professionalism in the conduct of the election, ensure that IDPs participate in the elections while also ensuring that PVCs are duly collected much ahead of the election.”
For the security agencies, the conference recommended for them to see themselves as the agents of the state in the service of the people, strive to be transparent, impartial and professional, and to avoid excessive use of force.
In conclusion, the conference agreed that the February polls should not be postponed for whatever reasons and IDPs be factored in the elections.