‘Opposition Merger Should Throw Up New Ideas, Personalities’

Ezenwa Nwagwu, is the Chairman of Partners for Electoral Reform (PER) . In this interview, with Chibuzo Ukaibe, he speaks on the planned merger of the opposition parties and highlights the need for fresh values and personalities as panacea to its success. He also called for the unbundling of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to make it more efficient.

What is Partners for Electoral Reform all about?
Partners for Electoral Reform is interested in sensitising Nigerians to be partisan in the way we engage politics. We are thinking of shifting from simply critiquing to begin to create that space where we can galvanize our people to take deeper interest in the issues of democracy, good governance and transparency and also identify people that can bring about this change that we anticipate.

The position has been that political parties lack ideology. Do you agree with this position?
You will appreciate that most of what we have as political parties presently are fixtures of the departing military and basically they founded these parties around the thinking that you have to own properties, with headquarters in strategic places. So most of those issues gave rise to people being the ones who rented office space and individuals have to pay for those office spaces.

So money bags and economic gangsters came together having had something to do with the military came together to form most of what we call political parties. So we jumped a step and that step was where people were not part of the founding of the political parties. So the price we are paying is that once you jump the first stage, which is to have democracy without democrats, then you will have a challenge of lack of ideology that is prevalent now.

Then if you wanted to join the National Council Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) or the Action Group (AG) like we read, you have to go through a school to be taught its ideology. So you don’t just walk up to join them. There has to be some indoctrination that takes place to put you up to speed on the values, norms and ideology of the party. But we know today that this process does not happen.

Even at the core issues of the merger, the people themselves are not part of it. So we need to take the battle that if we need to dislodge the current governing elite today. You have to bring the people in.
That is what Partners for Electoral Reform is about. We are out to sensitise Nigerians to dislodge the people who are holding on today.

The opposition is working out a merger arrangement to battle the ruling PDP. Do you think they can take care of the issues that have plagued such attempts in the past?
Yes if nothing fundamental is done about it. The law of madness is to continue to do what you have done and expect new results. What is that thing that we are looking forward to in the merger, the merger must contain new values. The core components of the merger would be at the fore. Would it just be about power? Or about positioning people to take power? Or about core issues that have bedeviled leadership in Nigeria; issues of corruption, transparency, accountability should be part of the conversation. It shouldn’t just be a mechanism to take power.

Then there is also the issue of personalities. It is important that this merger is not just about individuals and personalities. It should throw up a process that throws up younger elements who can take the country to where it ought to be and there are such people available. People who have tested their abilities in other areas like business and other professions. All over the world that is the trend ,people in their 50’s and below with fresh ideas and energy are entrusted with leadership positions. Most countries are running away from gerontocracy, government by the elderly. It is something that is taking a back sit and I don’t see why Nigeria should be an exception.

So the conversation around the merger must take that tone otherwise, the same baggage and issues that led to the process being dead on arrival before will repeat itself again. Remember the people the opposition wants to merge for are not folding their hands they are also working around seeing how they will weaken the platform of their engagement. And so if you don’t raise the bar a little higher with these new values and new personalities, you might be missing the mark.

A key issue has been the call for persons in the fore-front of the opposition merger to resist the temptation to run for elective office. Do you share this view?
I belong to the school of thought that persons ta the fore-front of the merger should not contest elections in 2015. I think that they have made enormous sacrifice. They possess tremendous goodwill but their role in politics has also been a little divisive. In the sense that their continued involvement invokes passion in such a manner that it perils the whole idea of consensus building and compromise. And so people need come to a point of self-understanding. General Mohammad Buhari, should come to some point of understanding. Be honest about your abilities and weakness. You must come to that point where you begin to see society making progress and not the individual making progress.

That is what being a statesman is about. They think more about how the society can make progress and not how they as individuals make progress. When you get to that point then you begin to see whether you possess the genius of politics which politicians should have. There is a point you play in politics that the system checks. It is historical; if you look back there are persons who kept playing a particular role and then the system rejected them and made it impossible for them to continue.

So what you do at that point is to go back and think. You say to yourself does my progress make for progress of society? Or do I work for the progress of society? What that means is that at certain points in your life you must have reproduced people. Every leader who has not reproduced his kind or does not have the capacity to produce somebody better than him will not be fulfilled. Considering the pedestal that some of these people we are talking about are today, they need to have reproduced people of strong element and character to take over and Nigeria is getting to that point where people want to see freshness.

What gave it to Jonathan in 2011 was the promise of freshness even though that is dashed now. But Nigerians still look forward to something fresh. But in doing that credit must be given to those presently in the forefront of the merger talks that they possess what it takes to defeat and dislodge the governing party. But like I said except it is well managed with new values and personalities are brought in it might be returning to where we are coming from.

What do you make of the looming image of the PDP in the polity?
PDP is not popular. They have the capacity for rigging but they are not popular. That is why Operation Nigeria is interested in the people. The people themselves must understand that it is not about party or individual. It is about our lack of interest and analysis of politics without voter’s card. For instance the Occupy Nigeria was successful because of the anger of the rich. The rich were sufficiently angry. Across the states look at the people who led the movement. They were people you just can dismiss. The issue is that the elites are critical in bringing about change. That is what must happen.

The elites understand all the issues but majority do not vote. They do the analysis but when you say go and do registration they don’t want to stand through the pains of staying on a queue to register and get their cards. And so you find out that on election day they sit down and discuss issues around election but themselves are not voting. So we need to also inspire our people; elites, poor and what is left of the middle class, to begin to get interested in the issue of governance beyond analysing it. And the first step is to begin to have the consciousness that the voter’s card has the power to bring about the change.

For instance, a polling unit that registered 1000 voters, and they all come out to vote would suspend rigging. Rigging takes place where you have 1000 registered voters and only about 40 come out to vote. Then you have community conspiracy which means the sharing of the votes by dominant parties. But if citizens who have voted in a particular unit appear to vote, then you can’t rig. We need to mobilise people to understand that pervading issue of corruption and failure of leadership we have seen will not be wished away by the analysis that we do.

People should come out and vote. That is why it is important that persons like Sam Nda Isaiah, publisher of Leadership Newspaper, and others should leave the column space and throw their hats into the ring. That is part of our interest to draw out such people to come into the political space.

A former governor, Balarabe Musa said it is very difficult to win election today without being corrupt? How do you marry your call for new persons with fresh ideas to join the political space against the background of the money bag politics
practiced in the country today?

Such uninterrogated statements by elites insult the sensibilities of the people to the extent that questions have to be asked at what point that started to happen. Prof Chika Obi, whose political views were built around the Turkish system, he defeated the NCNC in the Onitsha province, simply taking a ride on bicycles with banners and promoting the ideas that he has. What has happened is that majority of our politicians are lazy. They talk about the people without wanting to get to the people. And so there are no alternatives. It is not true that you do not have to be corrupt but it is true that you just have to work hard and connect with the people. And that disconnect is why there is that problem.

We want to build a modern society and that modern society is not available now. And that is what has defeated the elite; the need to build a modern society has defeated the elites. And so all kinds of excuse are put up, like if I don’t have money I can’t win election. Let’s see the possibilities. Obama had all the excuses in the world. No black man has been president in the United States; he had no experience, a fresh senator. But he had his dream, worked towards it and today he is the president. There is nothing impossible.

If we give the people the needed push and encouragement to draw out and dislodge the status quo. We also need to build that consciousness that this is a democracy and like I said you can’t have democracy without democrats. The people must be carried along. People must understand their rights so we are build that consciousness in which the central focus of any policy will be the people and that people should understand that they can make that change.

Looking at 2015, what’s your rating of INEC so far?
When Prof. Attahiru Jega, Chairman of INEC, was appointed my take was that he was deodorant. Now, if you don’t take your bath and you apply deodorant, you will smell good for a while but later the stench for which you used the deodorant will manifest. What are the issues; we have voter registers have not been reviewed. We have papered them but we need to fundamentally engage in a voter audit that responds to the need of Nigeria for a clean, transparent and authentic voter register. That has not happened. Secondly, INEC is saddled with so many responsibilities.

INEC conducts elections, follows election offenders, and that is why Justice Uwais Reform committee recommended issues around electoral tribunals to take care of election offenders. Some of us have also called for the unbundling of INEC so that it will concentrate on issues of election management and leave the issues of constituency delineation, election offenders, monitoring of political parties to other institutions. That would be helpful. So you will find out that even in isolated elections where concentrate attention on one state we still have logistic problems around election materials coming in on time, officials being reshuffled sometimes 24 hours before elections making them get to the places and not knowing what the issues are.

Again this issue of adhoc staff needs to be engaged. Everywhere in the world adhoc staffs are used, but it does not remove from the fact that INEC has the responsibility to conduct free fair and credible elections. If there are practices for which the election body was demonised, we are expected in the past one or two years that Prof. Jega has been on the saddle that those practices would have become clear. But subsequent elections have not shown that that value has been percolated down, so it is important that we don’t allow the rule of a good man but be interested in the rule of an institution.

The debate over the number of parties has been raging for a while now. What is your view on this against the background of INEC’s delisting of some political parties?
We have a lot of politicians including Ph.D. holders who don’t know what democracy is all about. So sometimes I marvel at the texture of their analysis. I did say that the parties we have today are fixtures of the departing military meaning that for most of us coming from that background the thinking is that if you have two parties things work better. But when Chuba Okadigbo formed the Communist Party in Nigeria, he did not have headquarters anywhere.

The reason why we have the bigger challenges is that when you say people must have parties in all the states and there are no dues from members, you have simply told and individual who has money to provide those things and once he does that he owns the party automatically. The option available to election management body is not to allow them fight for election. But their right to association cannot be denied. They can continue to grow from there or defunct as they case maybe. But to legislate them out of existence has no place in democracy.

The excuse of the parties making the ballot boxes too long can be dealt with by not including them in the ballot papers after all if they are not fighting for election they have no reason to be in the ballot papers. So the condition should be those who want to fight for election should satisfy certain conditions. But to say these parties are many and so we should be legislated out for me does not capture the basic tenets of democracy.

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