By JOHN NWOKOCHA, Abuja
Executive Director, Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) Comrade Auwal Rafsanjani in this interview appraises stakeholders’ preparations ahead of the 2023 general elections with less than 32 days the D day. Rafsanjani who is also director at the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) in what looks like a situational report or analysis says the group has identified a number of areas to be worried (fear) about by concerned Nigerians. Excerpts
Comrade, can you give us your thoughts on preparations generally concerning the upcoming general elections
Thank you very much. And it is my pleasure to grant this interview to you. Nigerians for the first time are very anxious and very eager to exercise their constitutional right of electing new leaders at local state and national levels. This is because in the past many Nigerians who supposed to be voting did not register. And the only way they can be able to bring in new leaders or change those leaders they consider inactive or not performing is when they have valid PVCs. So, what we have done at the level of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) is to mobilise Nigerians to go out and register. And to show them the value of registering, because it is only when you are registered and have a valid PVC that you can be able to vote. So, we succeeded in mobilizing Nigerian people particularly the young people to go and register. And we are equally mobilizing them to make sure they collect their PVCs. In addition to that we have also been training members of the TMG in the 36 states of the federation and Abuja who will observe the 2023 elections. And we have also been educating and sensitising young people and Nigerians generally not to involve in politics of violence. We have noted that wicked politicians have been using young people for electoral violence. And we have been campaigning that they should not this time around allow anybody to use them for electoral violence. We have equally been involved in sensitisation against vote trading and vote buying. We noted that politicians who are desperate to get into power for selfish interest use money to buy off voters. So, we have been drumming the implications of allowing themselves to sell their conscience to sell their right for peanuts. Because if they allow politicians to be giving them peanuts in some instances the value of what they get is not even more than N500, 000 or less than that. And in the next four years you are going to suffer the consequences of such trading you did. So we let them know that when you trade your electoral value, dilapidated infrastructure, collapsing health care services, falling standard of education will continue to be witnessed. Security system collapse and corruption within the system will continue to happen once you are engaged in vote buying because those who are coming with money to buy your mandate have no business with you after acquiring your vote with money. We have been sensitising Nigerians to stay away from that. But more fundamentally what we have done in preparations for 2023 is to ensure that the Electoral Act is actually amended. We have to do that because we noted that the only way to bring some level of sanity in Nigeria in the electoral system is to ensure that we carry out reforms that will minimize rigging, minimize manipulation and minimize all sorts of misconducts in the management of elections. So TMG and other CSOs worked assiduously to ensure that they advocated for the passage and implementation of electoral law in the country. Now we have also been engaging the political parties to that their candidates do engage in issue based rather than verbal and personal attacks. Because it is somebody who has no ideas, somebody who has nothing to offer that will engage in attacking others’ personality. If any candidate has any concrete agenda he will surely bring it before the voters to judge and decide for themselves. So we have been engaging the political parties to come forward with their manifestoes and their programmes for the electorate to decide.
When we asked for your thoughts as someone who has been in the field, we are expecting an overview of the political atmosphere across the country ahead of the general elections. The question is what is your assessment of the political space from your engagements with political parties and citizens? And perhaps, look at specifically the sort of language used by the PDP and APC since the campaigns started
Like I said sadly, the politicians are taking Nigerians for granted. Rather than discussing the programmes they have for Nigerians and allow the voters to decide for them or not to vote for them, on the basis of the agenda, they are clearly trivialising issues and bring in matters that have no bearing or nothing to do with quality presentation of their own agenda. So, politicians and political parties unfortunately, have not improved in terms of dishing out issues so that the campaigns will be issue based not attack on individuals, condemnation or just outright endorsement of candidates. But on the basis of what you have to offer. If you are talking about security for example, what do you have to secure Nigerian citizens against any attacks by insurgents and criminals? What are you strategies? How do you intend to ensure that security sector reforms are carried out? How do you ensure that the power policy in the country is addressed? Until when you roll out all these things, it will be difficult for voters to say okay, on the basis of your programmes we are going to vote you and we are going to hold you accountable. So that by the time you are voted in, we can say you have promised or you have committed to do XYZ- why is it that we are not seeing it happening? So there is a commitment. But as it is now none of the parties is making any genuine commitment. They come out they talk what they want you to hear and they move. That is all. No concrete commitment to the Nigerian people that if you elect me I am going to do XYZ.
From your analysis how is this going to impact the elections as we are counting down to the D day?
It has already impacted. Because Nigerians have not had the opportunity to choose through a democratic and non- manipulative, use of money means at the party primaries. The party primaries were heavily commercialized. So, the average decent person cannot go near there. Because when they said N100, 000. 00 for nomination forms, this does not include the bribe you will give to officials of the parties and other related expenses. So, form the onset the election has already been privatized and commercialized. So what we are just doing is to choose one evil from another evil. If you ask my opinion, to be honest with you, the four main candidates campaigning, ideally are should not stop campaigning and just go home and rest. Because these are people who actually come to buy positions. They are not products of popular demands. They came to the parties and collected the structures because they have the resources. If the sitting President (President Buhari) cannot stop somebody from hijacking their party’s structures, tell me who can stop any of the candidates. Nobody can stop Obi. Nobody can stop Kwankwaso. Nobody can stop Atiku. If a sitting president with all his power cannot stop the candidate who said ‘it is my turn’ and it has to be. And everybody is following him, so tell me who can stop him. So that is why I said from the party primaries the 2023 elections have been compromised. The election of candidates was compromised.
Indeed talking about transactional primaries how would you blame the ordinary voter for vote trading?
The reason is that the consequences would be more on the voter. And will continue to suffer more. But if we can show some level of resistance even though you have all the money, we can also show that your money is not everything that will send a message. Secondly, there might be some serious politicians that will emerge at the various levels, if they work with the good people of Nigeria they can put pressure on the corrupt politicians. Now, because we still want democracy, we will not get upset and angry that we will not go out and vote. But because we want democracy as a popular system of government and we hope that Nigerians will one day demand that things must change. We have to safe democracy. That is the only power that is remaining for us. Because they know that if we don’t exist they cannot rule. We can then continue to mount pressure for reforms in the system. Because we don’t want the system to completely collapse that is why we adopted the strategy called Damage Control. So we still have to manage what have because if the system collapses the people will suffer more. So, we continue to demand improvements in the system in the process Nigerians also are resilient and insistence, they will get certain bargaining and change certain things. Even in the midst of all these problems that we advocated for improvement in the Electoral Act. It all depends on Nigerians to show resilience and insistence that things must not continue this way.
How would you appraise citizens’ participation in the coming elections? Speaking demographically, it seems the election is for the young people.
Like I mentioned, we succeeded in mobilizing people to register because talking through the internet without PVC is a waste of time. Generally it has no electoral value. So we helped them to change their mindset. Don’t sit down with the computer and be copying and throwing things. Go and register and get your PVC. And we succeeded in getting Nigerians to go and register. And we are now succeeding in getting them to go and collect their PVCs. Because if you registered and you did not collect your PVC it amounts to nothing. So we say if you are tired of corruption, if you are tired of insecurity, if you are tired of ASUU strike, if you are tired of the collapse of health care system, the only option you have is get you PVC and get involved. Begin to demand accountability. And don’t just look at the President of the country. Look at your local government chairman. Look at your representatives at your State Assembly, look at your governor. Because part of the mistakes we have been making is that we only concentrated on the centre when we want to criticize. But the evil that happens in our system is in the state and local government where there is no iota of accountability. When you criticize state governors, they can bundle you out, maltreat you, detain and intimidate you. Therefore, we are encouraging Nigerians not only to pay attention to the president but to also pay their attention to their states and local government affairs. Majority of Nigerians reside in those places. Therefore, we cannot leave those places ungoverned.
The issue of ungoverned spaces has prevailed for a long time. Are you hopeful of a change with the level of consciousness among the people this time around?
That is what I am saying.
What gives you the hope?
The reason why I said there is hope for Nigeria is because Nigerians have seen that there is huge corruption and stealing are happening at the state and local levels. There is no moderation at the looting and bad governance at the local levels or sub national levels. So not all of us can come to Abuja and live. I can tell you that there some people who have never been to Abuja. So, they have something to do to make sure that governments work in their areas, either at the state or local government where they are living. At the state, the governments roll out legislations that affect their lives. So if they don’t engage them, the governors and the state legislators would make laws that will make it difficult for them to even survive. So, there are levels of engagements. Some people can engage at local government level. Some people can engage at state level. And some people can engage at national level. Of course, some Nigerians do engage at regional or international level. There are different exposure and different needs for individuals. For example, I live in Abuja. I have not been in Kano for almost 30 years. This is where I am based and my work is at the national level. So, I engage at the national level. Some other people are living in the states or local government areas, so that is the best level of engagements for these categories of people to ensure that governments work. We don’t just want one arm of government to function well. We want the entire arms of government to function. We want government at all levels to work. Because based on our constitution, the state and local government are autonomous. They spend tax payers’ money. So, if you have access to the resources, then you should be held accountable. We cannot leave you to be siphoning public money. So, if we don’t get involved at that level we will just have scammers and crooks and looters at that level. And they will graduate to state official and continue their looting and come to national level. So, we have to tackle it at every governance level. We should not spare any because they are all important.
So far will you say that you are satisfied with citizen participation in the process?
We are not yet there. Because the politicians still manipulate the thinking and actions of the voters. We have not been able to have independent Nigerians who will on the basis of programmes, on the basis of manifestoes, on the basis of character of the person they want to support. So, on those basis they support the person for excellence and performance. We are not yet there. But that is where we are aiming at. Yes, politicians always throw up ethnic, religious radical and political cards or sentiments to get what they want. But as we continue this conscientization and mobilization we will be able to deconstruct that thinking. And Nigerians will be able to judge whoever that is canvassing for their votes on the basis of merit, not on the basis of religious or ethnic sentiment. For now we are still travelling.
Tell us your position on BVAS? The body of CSOs in the country appears to be divided over the planned deployment of BVAS technology for the 2023 polls.
I think the genuine CSOs are in support of BVAS. Because if you don’t use technology to governor this election the alternative is to continue with the analogue method like thump printing, use of the Incident Form and which might lead to manipulation of the elections. Rights based CSOs insist and demand that the use of technology, specifically, the use of BVAS has no alternative to our electoral process. Because that is the only way to ensure one man one vote, one woman one vote. But if you continue with the analogue way, for instance, if Polling Unit A has a maximum of 500 voters, the desperate politicians will tell you it is 10,000 people that voted there. That is what it used to be. So, we don’t want to continue with that kind of system. We must change it and the only way to change it is through this technology. So, any CSO which is not in line with this progressive and transparent idea, then, it is on its own.
What is you greatest fear about the 2023 elections?
We have a number of fears. First, we are worried about the increase of violence orchestrated by visible and invisible elements. Sometimes some people create violence to make money. Because there will be more money for security. Then you have those ones that take pleasure in disrupting any good thing. You have those politicians who may have calculated perhaps, they are not going to win any votes, so they have to instigate violence. You have different levels of violence triggers, but largely it is for material gains. Because the more there is violence the more there is budget. This is the reason you have not been able to deal with insurgency and insecurity in the country. Because it is a business. And the security agencies allow innocent people to die. So the ordinary person suffers double jeopardy, you are not protected by the police or security agents and you are not also protected by Boko Haram. So this is the situation we have found ourselves because securing the citizens has been commercialized. The insecurity in the South East is also the same business. The more you have violence there the more security agencies continue to make more money. The criminals in government don’t care about your religion or ethnicity. They don’t care about where you come from as long as they can make money from the insecurity. Unfortunately, this tiny group of tyrants have taken over. And they are terrorizing everybody. But one day, Nigerians will dare them. People are already get fed up. In the South East, the mistake those people declaring sit-at-home every Monday will make is to add another day for sit-at-home. I am sure the people will not comply with it. Because the people are already tired of sit-at-home. From what I see the people are ready to fight them because the criminals don’t constitute large numbers. I think that it is possible if we have the will Nigerians can fight the criminals and defeat them. Nigerian security agents have not failed to perform when they go on international assignments. In fact they perform excellently well. But at home they failed to perform because of the collapse of responsible leadership. And when you are also recruiting crooks and criminals into the police and other security agencies you have already created a problem. A situation where you have to pay money to obtain the recruitment form, after training you have to bribe to be posted to a lucrative location to extort the public, then the entire process is corrupt. This is a vicious cycle. But it is a very simple thing to handle. It is just that government is not willing to deal with. If the government is willing, nobody is above government. Another fear that I have is excessive use of money-Vote trading and bribing electoral officials and security personnel. So corruption is my big fear. Because Nigerians have seen that it is possible like they have done in the past to bribe the security, INEC officials. Another threat that we foresee is that when the voters suspects an atmosphere of violence they may boycott the elections. For example in Lagos, if you are not a member of a particular party, they will not allow you to vote. I just returned from Lagos. If you are bearing certain names they will not allow you to collect your PVC. So we have fear that some people on this basis will not be allowed to exercise their franchise.
You just raised an important issue. So how would you and your colleagues in the civil society space respond to this development?
Our organisation is an umbrella organisation of many rights groups and elections observers. And we are working with many journalists and media houses to ensure that we document instances like the one I observed going on in Lagos. Violence, vote rigging, participation of people with disabilities, participation of women in the election and how they are given the space to exercise their constitutional right. When we gather instances of violations we will put our reports as a means for government to take action. Because we are NGOs we don’t have prosecuting powers.
If you are the INEC chairman what message will you be passing to Nigerians regarding the elections with few weeks to go for the polls?
First is to say that INEC is determined to organize a free, fair and credible elections. And I will assure them that the logistics issues that used to hamper the elections in the past will not happen this time around it will not be the case. There will be timely arrival of all the necessary INEC materials. There will be timely arrival of officials. And there will be a stand-by technicians to fix BVAS where they are not working. And that we will corporate to make sure that we implement the Electoral laws. And that we will not favour any party or any politicians. And that we will work with the media and civil society to ensure maximum transparency in the conduct of the elections.