1. It is a pleasure for me to join this great forum focused on how to strengthen democracy and reform the electoral process in our dear country. I believe the issue being examined here today is very apt not only because it suits the tenor of the United Nations-endorsed International Day for Democracy but also because it holds a key to some of the present problems confronting our nation.
2. The topic of today is so relevant in the light of recent events, from the United States where for the first time in a century there are fears of electoral fraud in her November elections, to Belarus where recent presidential election fraught with malpractices is being virulently resisted despite the crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko’s security forces, to Mali where electoral fraud had led to military take over, and then, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, where there is a looming crisis due to perversion of the constitutional process. It is obvious there is serious worldwide threat against democracy.
3. I want to commend the organisers of this forum for taking the initiative and arranging this event. In my view, nothing threatens our democracy more than faulty electoral process. We can not afford to allow our populace lose faith in the democratic process. That will be a recipe for chaos. So, the decision by your organisation to put together this forum is a very patriotic effort. One would have expected this initiative to have been spearheaded by political parties, politicians, elected and appointed officials who should recognise that the issue of having a credible electoral reform is very important. But what we have seen instead is that some of us politicians are not being sincere or we are not demonstrating the proper understanding of what is at stake. I can see people already talking about their aspiration for 2023, forming groups here and there in preparation for their campaigns. Such politicians should know that without a credible electoral process, the next election is already compromised and endangered. I sincerely hope that if we get it right and when the history is written about the success of 2023 elections, reference will be made to today’s efforts made by the organisers of this forum. History should record you as having started the movement that led to the necessary reforms that would take place.
4. It is particularly good that the bulk of our audience here today are youths. This is because in all the fight against the threat to democracy across the world, it is the youths that take the lead. So, it is encouraging that Nigerian youths are playing that role too. This should be the case because socio-economic development presents a bright future for the youth in our country, where there are job opportunities as well as security of lives and property. All these can only be achieved when we have stability in our democracy.
5. One of the settled issues in Nigeria and Africa as a whole is that “Africans have chosen democracy as the best form of governance (and) this is a resolve that must be defended by all citizens, governments and their leaders”. I believe this resolve in favour of democracy by Nigerians is evident in the fact that we have sustained it as a system of government in the last 21 years and within the period we have achieved not only successful transition between different governments but also from one political party to another.
6. However, instead of our democracy to be maturing and for the process to be getting better, certain ugly developments have shown that we are now beginning to have elections that are devoid of the tenets of representative democracy.
7. For example, we should all ask ourselves these questions: why is it that after 21 years of sustained democracy, our electoral process is witnessing more violence and litigations? Why is it that more final decisions as to who is elected or not are being taken by the courts? How come that the Court verdicts on election petitions are now becoming a perversion of the decision made by the electorate when they cast their votes at the polling stations? Why is it that the spate of election petitions and the judicial verdicts seem to be making a mess of the age-long judicial principle of stare decisis or what is generally known as precedent?
8. Yet, there are still more questions. Why do participants in elections have the belief that the security agents play more determining roles in the outcome of elections? In recent times, why are there fears by most participants that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) may not be fair in the elections? These are questions that I believe should help us to interrogate the topic of today.
9. It is a serious problem when the people are unable to freely elect those who govern them. The rigging of the electoral process is an indirect invitation to chaos. Our electoral process must be transparent, free, fair and credible if we must claim to be practicing democracy. We must ensure that the ballot box remains the outlet for ventilating legitimate grievances and changing government.
10. The next general election in this country is even more important because it signifies the end of a tenure. The election will be supervised by a President who is not eligible to re-contest. The last time we were in this same situation was in 2007 and you all saw what happened. The election was adjudged largely unfair. So, if we do nothing, from what we saw in the elections of 2019, the elections in Kogi and Bayelsa, States and the tell-tale signs we are seeing preparatory to Edo elections, 2023 elections could be worse
11. It must be noted that the rigging of the electoral process is not just about manipulation of figures during elections. It spans the issue of registration of voters, process of evolving candidates, internal operations and administration of political parties, preparation by the electoral commission, equal treatment meted out to all political parties by the electoral bodies, genuine Independence by the electoral commission, neutrality of the security agencies, and patriotic consciousness of the electorate to always act with good conscience.
12. The growth of democracy also requires having truly strong and impartial democratic institutions that can act above the dictates of the party and people in power and honestly exercise their powers as provided by the law. Let me now take the issue to the day-to-day occurrence in the political process. Our aim at this forum should be to formulate an agenda or set of recommendations which will help to make our democracy stronger, develop its institutions and make our elections free, fair, peaceful and credible.
13. As a way forward , we must see that many more fora of this nature should be organised and used as a platform to mobilise all stakeholders – politicians, civil society groups, non-governmental organisations, youth groups, women associations, professional groups and development partners – on the need to realise the importance and desirability of electoral reform. The amendment to the Electoral Act should be made an urgent task. The work done by the last National Assembly is very comprehensive and I remember the President’s comment while rejecting the last version presented to him was that it was close to the commencement of the last elections and he did not want a confusion to be created as to whether the elections were being guided by the 2010 Act or the 2019 law.
14. The Ninth National Assembly should quickly work on the Electoral Act now that the next general election is almost 30 months away. Completing work on the passage of the Electoral Act now, will save both the legislature and the executive the distraction that partisanship can create for them. Remember that the only problem with the last amendment of the Electoral Act is that it became a victim of partisan consideration.
15. It is necessary whilst we do our bit at home, we also call on the international community to help curb actions of politicians who undermine democracy. Here, the US decision to place visa restrictions on certain Nigerian politicians for their ignoble roles in the 2019 elections is commendable. I call on the UK and the European Union to follow suit. This is necessary to send the right and strong signal that those who undermine democracy in Nigeria are enemies of the rest of the democratic world. The sanctions should go beyond politicians and include electoral officers, security officials and judicial officers who undermine our democracy by their actions during and after elections.
16. Let me also state here that the legislature and the executive must find a statutory solution to the issue of illegal interference in the electoral process by security agencies. May be there should be a law that prevents the deployment of the military for election assignments. We should ensure strict compliance with the law on this and even go further to enshrine this in our constitution. Elections are civil engagements and should be left to both the police and the Nigeria Civil Defence and Security Corps. This should probably be legislated and provided for in the constitution or the Electoral Act.
17. It is also important we come in strong in the enforcement of the provisions of the law which provides for punishment of politicians, law enforcement agents, ordinary citizens and electoral officers who are caught subverting the electoral process. All stakeholders must show commitment to diligent enforcement of and compliance with the law. This has been addressed in the 2010 Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2019 worked upon by the 8th National Assembly.
18. It is also important to stress that democracy can only grow if those of us who are politicians get ready to play by the rules at all times. Politicians must stop the mentality of electoral victory at all cost. The stability of the nation’s democracy and peace of the nation are definitely higher goals than the personal aspiration of individual politicians. Politicians must learn to always act in a manner that gives confidence to the people that truly, elections still provide the best process for sourcing leaders and kicking out those that are not wanted by the people.
19. I want to also quickly point out that I am eminently qualified to pontificate on this, as I can use myself as an example. I went into elections in 2019 in Kwara State, our party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and myself, lost the elections. We had our reservations on the credibility of the entire electoral process. We had good evidence of the illegal deployment of state forces and other undemocratic means to achieve the results declared by the electoral body.
20. The whole country witnessed the level of desperation displayed by those who could not tolerate our guts to turn the election results against us. The utterances of the former chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Adams Oshiomhole, who continuously boasted about how his number one priority and objective was to win Kwara State by whatever means necessary, were well documented.
21. After the result of the 2019 elections was announced, I sent out messages to my followers, despite their anger and quest to express their grievances, that they should accept the result and maintain peace. I then congratulated the winners and urged our people to support the newly elected officials. To further demonstrate good faith and gracefulness in defeat, I refused to challenge the process at the tribunal.
22. With this experience, I believe one is in a good e need for political actors to sometimes suppress the desire for power and take side with the survival of the system. When I argue that politicians should learn to accept election results and demonstrate patriotism even in the face of naked provocation, it is based on my experience. The lives of our people, the stability of our democracy and the peace of the society are more important than our personal interest or the inflated egos of the leaders.
23. Let me at this point also mention that next Saturday, four days away, the Edo Governorship Elections will be taking place. Also, on October 10, another gubernatorial election will hold in Ondo State. This should be a starting point for our demand for a credible electoral process. Whilst we wait for the new Electoral Bill to be passed , we can begin to demand that the right things are done by all stakeholders in these elections. Led by President Muhammadu Buhari, we can ensure that these two elections signpost his desire to leave for Nigeria and Africa a legacy of a true democracy and clean electoral process. President Buhari must use the Edo and Ondo elections to demonstrate ECOWAS commitment to credible electoral process. The President must put his feet down and ensure that the security agencies will, and must, not be misused to influence the results of the elections in Edo and Ondo States. Also, the electoral commission should be made to be truly immune from manipulations by individuals, no matter how highly placed.
24. Already the international community have given a verdict on some of the recent elections by the sanctions announced by the United States yesterday. We, as a country, can’t continue to pretend all is well. We must demonstrate seriousness and take a cue from this strong message and use these coming elections to make corrections. The President can also send a message to the National Assembly when the members resume later in the month that he wants them to present to him a new Electoral Bill for assent before the end of the year. This is easily achievable and will send a strong message to the international community that the government is taking this matter with the seriousness it deserves.
26. The present Covid-19 era has presented us with more challenges and we should refrain from aggravating the situation by undermining democracy or weakening the electoral process. Our people are more prone to reacting negatively to developments that deny them of their rights to freely choose their leaders. Nigeria cannot afford any political crisis now that it has serious economic and security challenges. Let us not push the people to the tipping point. We need to learn from the developments across our borders. Eternal vigilance, they say, is the price of liberty. I must add that it is also the price to be paid for an enduring, vibrant and virile democracy.
27. So, let the journey of the electoral reform start today . Let us mobilise our political parties, our representatives in the National Assembly, other NGOs, civil society groups, professional bodies, political parties and others to join the train.
28. I thank you for giving me this opportunity to air my views on this important issue. I wish all Nigerians a happy International Democracy Day. God bless Nigeria. God bless you, all.
Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki, CON
September 15, 2020.