Erstwhile chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Professor Attahiru Jega, in a rare interview, sat down with our reporters for a voyage through burning national issues, including restructuring, zoning, President Buhari’s performance so far and his rumoured presidential ambition. Excerpts:
Agitation for restructuring keeps gathering momentum ahead of the 2023 general election and it is defined differently by even those promoting it. What is your view about the concept of restructuring?
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There is no doubt that restructuring, as discussed in Nigeria, means different thing to different people, but what is not in doubt is the fact that the Nigerian federal system needs to be improved. The structure of our federation and the practice of federalism in Nigeria needs to be significantly improved upon. The main objective of federalism or the federal system of government is to ensure accommodation in the context of diversity and it is to ensure stability in the way and manner different people coexist and the country is governed.
Obviously, when we look at the federal system in Nigeria, it is evident that there hasn’t been stability and peaceful coexistence among the diverse people who make up the Nigerian federation. To a large extent, this happened because overtime, in the last 30 years, some people would say, and I will agree substantially, that due to military rule, power and resources have been concentrated at the centre. So, if you ask me what restructuring should entail in present-day Nigeria, I would say the focus should be de-concentration of power and resources from the centre and the distribution of these to the states, the federating units. When you examine other federations in the world, you will see that certain powers, which in Nigeria are appropriated by the federal government, are real powers that should be for the federating units.
What should be the starting point?
The starting is the de-concentration of power and resources from the centre to the states. If we do that, the states will have more resources and there will be more work for them to do, therefore, the federal centre would become less attractive, contentious and the benefit of development will spread.
Those who advocate for restructuring, as I do, should realise that things have been so bad for many years and you cannot, within a very short period, address everything. If things have been so bad for so long, it will take time to address all the problems. Unfortunately, in this country, when we talk of restructuring or constitutional amendments, we want to do everything at the same time. In the end, we fail to do anything concrete. If we have to restructure, and of course, we have to do it, it would require a constitutional amendment. We should pick a few issues to prioritize; we should develop an agenda of a timeframe. So, what is the priority of restructuring Nigeria? If you ask me, it is not the creation of states, not a return to regions. I believe that if power is de-concentrated from the federal to the state government, most of those states that are said to be unviable will now become viable because there will be more resources and more work to do.
So, we should define an agenda between now and say 2023, what do we want to achieve in regards to restructuring? I will say that it is a priority to de-concentrate power and resources from the federal to the state government. This is achievable. If we do that, then another issue will be taken. But I do not think the issue of creation of states is an unending one. It is a thing that if you start, you can’t finish. As new states are created, new majorities and minorities emerge. The minorities will also demand a state. So, it is an unending thing. What we need is equity and equality of opportunities, whether at the federal or the state levels. I said this because it is important to realise that, even when you restructure, it doesn’t mean the problems will go away. After all, there are many other things that need to be done. When you bring resources from the federal to the state, if there are no equality of opportunities; no equity in the distribution of resources, no good governance; the same problems will keep recurring.
Why do you think the clamour for restructuring is higher under this administration?
I don’t think the clamour is higher under this administration. Other administrations found ways to dissipate the anger and challenges. If you recall, there were even more vociferous agitations around 2003 and 2007 under Obasanjo, but he dissipated the energy by creating the National Political Reform Congress (NPRC). We got many people to participate and generate ideas about what needed to be done. Of course, it was useful for him because the anger was dissipated; nothing actually was done with that report. Also, under Goodluck Jonathan, there was agitation and the government established the National Conference, which provided an opportunity to dissipate the anger with a report produced but nothing again was done. That is why I said things have been so bad for so long. So, there has been an accumulation of frustration and anger by those who have been demanding for restructuring. And this is what we are seeing now. All the demands, agitation and frustration that have been around since 2003 but placated in 2005 and 2014 by the conferences, people are now saying that nothing has happened in spite all the suggestions and recommendations that have been made.
If you ask me that is what explains why the agitation is too much now. That combined with the perception, there is a lot of reality to that perception, that the Buhari administration has been very inert in terms of how it has managed the peaceful coexistence in this country. Governance has been very poor at the federal level and many of the states. That is why we are seeing challenges everywhere; whether it is insurgency, banditry, armed robbery or other things. So, all these frustrations accumulated and they find expression in these demands for restructuring and that is why people give it different meanings. There are so many things and the easiest way to express that anger is to go under the rubric of restructuring. If you allow things to be so bad for so long and have a government perceived to be incapable of doing anything; perceived to be favouring one section or religion over another, it makes demands for restructuring more vociferous. In fact, not only restructuring, some other people are demanding for dismemberment, as clearly stated by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
Do you support the call for the implementation of the confab report?
What I would personally suggest, in the report of the national conference, there are very good recommendations that can be adopted. What should be done is to have a very small committee to go through this report and produce a white paper for the federal government for it to identify key elements that could be implemented before 2023 and what can be implemented by another government after 2023. As I said, you can’t do everything at the same time.
Really, I believe if President Buhari wants to take some aspects of restructuring and do it between now and 2023, it can be done.
Next to restructuring is power shift. There are agitations in PDP and APC on which zone should produce the next president in 2023. What is your take on this?
My take is that in a country, state or local government, people should look for the best. Things have been so bad for long in Nigeria; we have been reduced to perceive representation in the context of where someone comes from rather than competence, experience and capacity of that person to govern. All over the country, they are doing that. We want our own to be there and our own goes there and didn’t do want we want and still everybody wants their own to be there. I believe strongly that to manage ethnic and religious challenges in our country, the issue of federal character is important, at least for some time, before we get to a point where people will realise that putting the focus on competence and merit is the best way for a country to develop. But, if for so long power is concentrated at the centre, then for so long people will not focus attention on merit but think of who controls power at the centre. So, it is a difficult question to answer presently. But I can summarize my point that ultimately, for Nigeria to develop, tap and explore its potentials, we have to pay attention to merit, competence and capacity while at the same time looking at the issue of federal character.
How would you rate President Buhari in this direction?
I think President Buhari leaves more to be desired. He could have done better and can do better. Unfortunately, he has disappointed so many people. He still has time to correct things, if he has the capacity to do that. But frankly, his government has been very disappointing. Many people wish him well but are worried about the direction the country is taking. So many silly mistakes have been made which should not have occurred and will need to be corrected as soon as possible.
Why did you join the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP)?
I joined PRP because it has the capacity to help bring good governance in this country at the state and local levels. It is not easy but it is possible. Every possibility we see, we should explore it.
To the youth, PRP is an old party and they look at you as a prospective presidential candidate in 2023?
Every Nigerian has a right to join any political party and there is no political party that has the monopoly of ideas to move this country forward. What is clear, looking at the antecedent of PRP, it has progressive ideas and the capacity to produce good governance, whether at the local government, state or national level. In Nigeria, we have two dominant parties, presently, virtually everyone is dissatisfied with the performance of these parties and many of us think that we should help build an alternative platform. PRP has the potential to be that alternative platform.
Which position are you going to vie for come 2023?
I am not vying for any position. I joined PRP as an individual not because I wanted to be an important person in the party. Currently, I am not holding any position in the PRP. Rather, I joined the party because we need to build a credible political party that can be an alternative to those reckless parties that have messed up this country.
Five years after leaving INEC, what have you been doing?
I have been teaching. I have been a lecturer all my life and after INEC, I went back to the university. I also participate in committees to help improve institutions.
Are you considering a memoir where you will give details of your experience as INEC chairman?
I am too young to write memoirs. Maybe if I get older, I would write something. Yes, I encourage people to write memoirs. I encouraged many statesmen and politicians to do that and helped them to write it. Obviously, I will write my own and I have a lot to write, not just as INEC chairman, don’t forget I was a vice-chancellor and the president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). So, to leave ASUU and be vice-chancellor was a different ball game. Maybe my memoir will be in volumes covering different aspects of my life.
While you were the president of ASUU, it was rumoured that a huge sum of money was deposited in your bank account; did you experience that while at INEC?
No, nobody deposited money in my account during my time as the president of ASUU but of course, there were rumours. We were dealing with a government that was not trusted. We did our best under very difficult circumstances and even when we were not offered money, people thought we were and that we rejected it. What we did again because of our orientation and what we believed and struggled for; we held the responsibilities we had selflessly. We did not do it for money or prestige but did it to help, protect and defend the Nigerian university system. Therefore, we prepared our minds against inducement of any kind, harassment of any kind and were willing to make any sacrifice in the struggle we were engaged in. What they did was to harass and intimidate us. Many of us went to jail because of that and of course, we went to court. In my case, my wife went to court and insisted on my fundamental rights, which was how I was released in 1988. So, we were harassed and intimidated and some lost their jobs in the university system as part of the harassment but nobody put money in my bank account.
After nine months, ASUU conditionally suspended its strike, as a former ASUU president, what is the way out of incessant strikes in the educational sector?
The way out to address incessant strikes in the Nigerian university system is for the government, when it enters into an agreement with any union, to respect that agreement and implement it. If the government had any difficulty in implementing an agreement it had willingly entered into, it should be able to bring that party back to the negotiating table to explain its difficulties and try to have another agreement stating why they could not honour the earlier agreement. But a situation in which the government is not proactive and always on the defensive, closing all avenues of discussion until a union goes on strike, that is not helping us. It is very important that our government recognises that. If a previous government is thought to have made a mistake, then the current government can invite parties back to review it in line with the prevailing circumstance.
It is unfortunate and we need to get out of that cycle of strikes and counter strikes but the government has an obligation to be proactive in ensuring that these challenges are put behind us.
You related closely with academics in the country as ASUU president and as a vice-chancellor. You also related with the high and low in the country’s political terrain as INEC chairman. Between academics and politicians, which is the most difficult group?
Of course, politicians. They are the most difficult to deal with. When I went to INEC from the university, after being vice-chancellor and presiding over the senate, having related with student unions, I felt INEC would be a piece of cake because what kind of challenge can’t I handle after dealing with professors. After two weeks, I learned that Nigerian politicians are really of a different breed. Nigerian politicians are the most difficult to deal with. I have visited other countries and seen their elections and how their politicians involved themselves in elections. I still think that compared to many other countries, even in Africa, our politicians are the most reckless, most selfish and most self-serving group of politicians. No country can develop with the kind of mindset that many of our politicians have. For many of them, politics is an investment, where you put your money and expect to win by hook or by crook. That is why we see Nigeria the way it is. It is just that Nigeria has enormous resources. If Nigeria were a small country with limited resources, they would have run this country aground a long time ago. Really, we have a lot to do and the first thing is to get it right by securing the mind-set of our politicians from selfishness, greed and reckless banditry. Actually, many of them are also bandits, not just those who stand by the roadside with AK 47. Anybody who can recklessly steal from the government coffers and turn hundreds, if not millions, of people into poverty, deny children the opportunity to go to school because they have stolen the money that would have gone into education or steal the money that was supposed to buy arms and ammunition for the military, to the extent that they can no longer fight banditry. That is banditry in itself. I am not saying all politicians are bad. There are many good politicians in this country. Unfortunately, they operate in a framework, which is dominated by bad politicians. That is why those who go and join them because they can’t make headway remain frustrated. They can’t do anything under that kind of context. That is why we thought of a third alternative and whichever way it is, we should give the opportunity for people with integrity, experience and merit to say, look we are leaving these bad politics and let us have a congregation of good people who can now provide a new framework for politics in this country.
In the Electoral Act, what are the three areas you think should be amended?
As far as I am concerned, we need to do a lot to democratise political parties and ensure that they operate democratically. The other major challenge is the timeframe for runoff elections. If runoff elections become necessary, INEC by law is required to do it within seven days. Usually, after elections, it may take two days to collate and count results, when results are announced and it is necessary to have runoffs, it means you have five more days to do so. Normally, when you roll out for an election, as soon as the election finishes you roll back again. Even the ad-hoc staff you recruit, you only pay them for that period. If it becomes necessary to do a runoff, there is no way any INEC in this country will do it in seven days, but it is the constitutional provision. If you did not have the runoff in seven days, there will be a constitutional crisis. Again, we made efforts to get it changed and until the 2015 elections, it was not changed.
Is the country ripe for e-voting?
No. Not now. We should move in that direction by taking measures and steps in that direction. For example, it used to be also that electronic voting is prohibited. Again in the constitutional provision, up till the time I left, it was not removed but I learnt that the constitutional review before the 2019 elections had removed that. When some parties were demanding that INEC should conduct e-voting, we all know that it was not possible. It is good that now there is the constitutional provision but INEC needs to take time to study what kind of e-voting and equipment can be done in Nigeria. We have so many challenges and still, we do not have 100 per cent network coverage in this country, with electricity not stable, how can you conduct e-voting? But, it can be done in phases and if we are serious, we can say in major urban centres like Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt and Lagos, let us do e-voting since they have good network coverage and a good level of electricity. The whole idea about e-voting is to improve the integrity of the election and so on but you have to do a lot. Even in America, their e-voting is challenged by cybersecurity. The system can be hacked to ground the results in some instances and the results can be altered. People are saying let us do e-voting but they are not concerned about whether we have the required capacity. Why is Germany, despite being one of the most advanced countries in the world, yet to adopt e-voting? This is because of trust; people trust established systems because of its integrity.
What was your most difficult moment at INEC?
They are many but the most difficult one was when we tried to create new polling units. We did it with the best of intentions. We decided to create new polling units when we couldn’t do constituency delimitation. Constituency delimitation is a requirement of the law; the constitution says that every 10 years, constituencies should be delimited. Why? Because in every country, there is population growth and constituencies should be relatively equal in size, but in this country, I think in Kano, we have a constituency that has 150,000 people. It is a huge land area but poorly populated. But we have somewhere in Alimosho, Lagos, with about 2.5 million people, a concentrated population in a very small area. By our own estimate, using the scientific criteria on constituency delimitation, the average size of a constituency in Nigeria should be about 350,000. So, we should have more polling units than we have. Ideally, a polling unit should not be more than 500 voters, on average, to make easier for everybody to come and by 2 pm, they must have voted and votes counted before evening so that it can be announced. The last time constituencies were last delimited in this country was in 1987. The reason why it is the most difficult for me was that politicians introduced ethnicity and religious sentiment to it and the commission was divided into half, northern and southern groups.
It divided the commission, some argued it was the right thing to do for integrity’s sake as elections results can be counted easily but others say no. The reason for them opposing it was because, after the delimitation of 1987, politicians determined where the units were located, so, you will find a polling unit in the house of a chief or in the house of a major politician. By 2011 elections, we made sure that all those places were replaced.
The division was from top to bottom, from National Commissioners to Resident Electoral Commissioners and directors in the department. In fact, people have started meeting with politicians, so we had to stop it.