INTERVIEW: Compulsory pre-election debates best for Nigeria — REC

The Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Akwa Ibom State, Mike Igini, tells PREMIUM TIMES his assessment of the recent governorship election in Edo and expectations for that of Ondo. The REC, who has served in Cross River and Edo states in the same capacity, also talks on how political parties can deepen their internal democracy and the role of the judiciary in addressing electoral irregularities, among other sundry issues.


PT: The recent governorship election in Edo was adjudged to be an improvement over the past, are we going to experience further improvement in the Ondo election?

Igini: The overwhelming acceptance of the outcome of that election by Nigerians and the international community is an eloquent testimony to the commission’s deployment of a universal election management framework based on process and outcome indicators. I dare say without equivocation that procedurally, pre-election, election-day, and post-election procedures went well within the expected parameters, particularly the added value of real-time monitoring of polling unit results and publication before the manual step by step recording at various collation centres.

Polling units were made accessible to all stakeholders, thereby removing any form of opacity and thus earned the trust of the public. As I have said elsewhere, it’s an anathema for a candidate to win an election convincingly at polling units but suddenly lose at the collation centre by the stroke of the pen of collation officers. That is an unacceptable and abominable act that must be punished.

So far, the outcome of the Edo election has been widely accepted by voters, which is a plus for the innovations introduced by the commission. That is what would be replicated in Ondo on Saturday on the part of the commission and we hope and expect that the excellent cooperation we got from security in Edo will also be repeated as assured by the heads of the various security agencies.

PT: Why do we have problems conducting elections in Nigeria?

Igini: Well, there may be several reasons, but having closely studied several comparative opinions, I will begin with the issue of the electoral system design. Our majoritarian electoral system is designed in such a way that the election winner takes all, due to our presidential system design which was adopted from the United States of America.

In an ethnically fractured society, it tends to create a societal polarisation, because as election game theorists such as the economist Kenneth Arrow, the French theorist and politician Condocert, as well as Maurice Duverger, have demonstrated by scientific studies of the mathematical modelling of such systems, the eventual behavioural choice patterns of voters often polarise towards the political groups that are likely to get the most votes.

Although such outcome has its strengths, for divided or segmented societies like Nigeria that are yet to have well defined national consensus, it can lead to damaging political behaviours in desperate efforts to win elections, rather than become leaders and statesmen, political actors tend to become election fundamentalists.

Even in the United States of America, as we are all witnessing at the moment, as well as several other representative democracies, you can see increasing dissatisfaction of voters with the trend of political behaviour, where political practitioners are becoming fundamentalists for election competition and election victories rather than nation builders.

Democracy practitioners need to recognise these weaknesses and make efforts to rescue democracy, which is better than other options in offering a relatively rational process of selecting leaders. Unfortunately, in our country except for a hopeful few, very many who have little or no philosophical insight about politics, leadership, and service are in politics.

Besides the electoral system, the behaviour of political players also count; if political actors can restrain themselves or can be constrained by their society, at least from enlightened self-interest or a collective consensus to make progress, it is possible to review what is not working from lessons learned and collectively reform them as demonstrated by the commission with the innovation in Edo election.

When a good candidate by the choice of the people wins at the polling units but suddenly loses at the collation centre, it is the society that has lost an opportunity for progress because the essence of a democratic election is lost and electoral victory from such outcome becomes the victory of individuals and those who rigged the process rather than the victory of society.

PT: Do you think there is hope for democracy in the country given the do-or-die attitude of politicians?

Igini: Periodic election as the bedrock of democracy is meant for the living and not the dead and whether the institution of representative democracy as we know it today has a hopeful future in Nigeria, depends on the political elites and our collective commitment to sustain the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. Our political elites must appreciate the fact that in the absence of authoritative interpreters of the common good of the people, multi-party politics as a system of institutionalised rivalries must engage in competition and contestation of policy ideas.

We must do our utmost to direct the competition of politicians to the expectations of the voters and not their personalities or personal benefits. This is important because it is only when politicians compete to please voters and not themselves, that we can have desirable development.

We as a society should have a benchmark, framework, or charter of expectations; this is what we expect from the federal, state, and local council levels from elected officials annually, in terms of infrastructural development, education, water supply, power supply, employment, housing and so forth and review it periodically. If we develop such scorecards, we will keep the conversation on these expectations rather than on personalities.

If they are departing from that task we should guide them away from primordial issues. We should redirect our efforts and anxieties to objective performance benchmarks. I have said so many times and now I repeat it as a challenge to the Nigerian people and the media to develop frameworks and scorecards that will be used to evaluate elected officials objectively.

For instance, what is the minimum number of public housing, public toilets and conveniences, waste collection centres, domiciliary health facilities, citizens assisted with welfare aid, and others, that a local government council should deliver yearly?

If I ask you to score any government today for last year, I am certain you will have no domesticated framework of reference, at best you will use some framework from abroad, like the Mo Ibrahim index, and l think that the future of democracy will depend on what it offers and we will do better if we approach elections decision making as voters, if we direct our focus on instances of such development.

PT: You have been calling for the institutionalisation of debates at all levels, for all candidates in our electoral system, what are the prospects?

Igini: In the leadership or executive recruitment process, debates on key policy issues allows the aspirants to present their private and public records for public scrutiny. If made compulsory as the practice in some countries, then those who aspire to public office will know that competence, performance, and character are very important matters of public interest when seeking elective office.

I have advocated quite forcefully for this to encourage the emergence of visionary and competent people of ideas who know the nuances and praxis of what development is about and not people with big pockets but who have no public service ideas. The only sure path of progress and stability in a heterogeneous country like Nigeria is to evolve and promote politics of performance, one that builds on social capital and thus rewards performance as a basis for seeking leadership position and not the politics of identity that reminds us of our differences, leading to mutual distrust and a reduction of the cooperative capacity to work for the common good of ourselves and the country.

Once on a comparative working tour, we visited the South Korean Electoral Commission, where they told us how the effective institutionalisation of political debates rescued the politics of that country from the hands of the civilian-military apologists and money bags, who took over the government when the military returned to the barracks in that country, just like Nigeria.

A compulsory policy debate will bring the best in our polity, from the private sector and academia to seek public office and above all, help voters to make informed voting decisions. I have watched several of these debates and any independent observer could see from the quality of some of the debaters, while others do not appear to know and had not given deep reflection to the job description of a governor. I am of the view that such debates should be extended to intra-party contests such as primaries; it will help the political parties to improve the process of leadership recruitment and strengthen the Nigerian democracy.

PT: How can political parties deepen their internal democracy in Nigeria?

Igini: Well there is a very comprehensive effort at the moment to bring about a fundamental change in the laws that govern primaries, otherwise, from what l know and my field experience so far, it appears that politicians prefer chaos to order, perhaps they feel that order will not be in their favour. Otherwise, how can we explain the removal of section 87(9) that gave INEC some quasi-administrative powers to ensure internal democracy and instead they introduced a proviso to section 31 of the Electoral Act, to the effect that, whatever list submitted to INEC as candidates cannot be rejected for any reason “whatsoever”, whether there was a primary election or not.

We hope that the current efforts by the Senate, with the expected new electoral act, that would change in their interest for sanity to reign in primary elections. The only beneficiary of chaos is chaos because one chaos will begets another. But if everyone accepts order then in the end, the system will be beneficial to all because everyone will be subject to the same rules of engagement.

Moreover, as Susan Scarrow indicated regarding the benefits of internal democracy to political parties, recruiting and selecting candidates is a crucial task for parties, because parties’ profiles during elections, and while in office, are largely determined by which candidates are chosen and where their loyalties lie. The impunity with which political leaders or those who have influence, retreat from the requisites of internal democracy is bad for party membership because the only thing that sustains growth in party followership is when party members know that they have a reasonable chance of predicting how the rules work in their parties and that these rules will be obeyed by all.

PT: You have been reported to have advocated for the determination of election petitions before swearing-in of winners and ‘burden of proof’ be on INEC?

Igini: Commendable efforts have been made in the reduction of time required to litigate post-election disputes with the amendment of Section 285 of the constitution. Still, the question of litigation when people have been sworn into office is a fundamental one that needs to be addressed. It is my view that we should go back to the practice in 1979 and 1983 when all election petitions are resolved before people are sworn-in to avoid the use of public funds to prosecute individual political aspiration and litigation and to avoid the spurious distraction of officeholders from governing.

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On the question of burden of proof, I have always maintained and have demonstrated by personal field example that the burden of proof of how well an election was conducted, if challenged, should first be placed on the umpire that conducted the election; made the return and also kept custody of the entire materials used for the election in line with the provision of the Evidence Act sections 136 subsection (2) in particular and section 140.

This burden of proof is not static and would shift to the petitioner who has petitioned, but first, the umpire should place all relevant material evidence before the tribunal before it shifts to the petitioner. Election matters are sui generis and of a special class that are usually treated differently in terms of practice and procedure. Recourse to section 131 of the Evidence Act provision, that whoever asserts has the onus of proof based on which petitioners then become saddled with the back-breaking burden of proof, should not be extended to election matters like other civil proceedings.

Election managers have both a legal and moral duty to explain to the tribunal in rebuttal of the claims of the petitioner that they complied with the electoral legal framework in the conduct of the election and that the evidence trail substantially conforms to the election standards and the result of the election as declared.

PT: You have been very critical of your constituency, the judiciary, and the role of lawyers in election matters. How can the judiciary help to stem the tide of electoral irregularities and fraud?

Igini: A society’s order and prosperity relies heavily on the judicial system. The most consistently referenced definition of governance, introduced by the World Bank describes governance as “the traditions and institutions by which authority is exercised.” Laws define the consistency of such practices and traditions, so yes, because of this important role of the law as the building brick of an ordered society, I have been critical of my constituency in many respects borne out of my love for the noble profession, as one’s calling that is not only to earn a living but as one’s profession that has a special place in a society for the maintenance and preservation of law and social order.

Lawyers either in the bar or bench are supposed to be trusted, and that is the reason why people go to lawyers to solve their problems but we are today losing the trust and relevance because of the collapse of values and professional ethics. We have jettisoned and sacrificed integrity and honour hitherto associated with lawyers because of politicians who are ever ready to buy their way to keep the power, not minding the damage to our institutions as we have witnessed in this country.

But comparatively, see what our colleagues in the bench at the level of the Supreme Court did in Kenya, annulling a presidential election for failure by the election management body of Kenya, the IEBC, to adhere to what it called the “dictates of the constitution”. That was what the Supreme Court should have done here with the 2007 presidential elections, conducted totally in breach of both the constitution and the act when ballot papers were not serialised and some ballot papers for the same election were still in South Africa while the election was being conducted.

Frankly, standards and ethical values are declining in our society, and owing to the crucial place of the law, our profession should bear a significant portion of the blame. Our colleagues, especially a few celebrated senior ones that should show good examples, are not doing so and have abandoned long-held and cherished legal traditions and practices for short-term expedient benefits at the expense of the core values of professional integrity.

We now see lawyers in court fighting over representation of litigants, when they have not been briefed. Lawyers instituting multiple suits on the same matters and parties in different courts or judges of concurrent jurisdiction sitting on appeal over the decision of sister courts. Cases of lower court judgments that defied precedents laid by the Supreme Court; cases of illogical legal hermeneutics and corruption related problems.

If you love the profession, you cannot help but be concerned by these ugly developments and the devastating image crisis, even for the many respected and upright members of the profession in both the bar and the bench. High profile election petition matters since 1999 created a nursery for these issues to breed by fertilising them with humongous rewards. These maladies must be addressed urgently. We have a professional obligation to see the inherent dangers and to remedy them.


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