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The way and manner people sold their votes in Ekiti was demeaning – Nwagwu, election observer

An election observer in the recently conducted governorship election in Ekiti State, Mr. Ezenwa Nwagwu, who is also the Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform and member, Working Group of Watching The Vote, YIAGA Africa, in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA speaks on his findings during the election and what can be done to improve on the process

As an observer in the Ekiti governorship election, what is your assessment of the election?

Let’s start from establishing the fact that observers are process watchers, and it’s fair to assess the election first from the administration by the electoral body itself, the Independent National Electoral Commission. First was the distribution of electoral materials, opening of polls, accreditation and voting and the process of announcing the results. The electoral materials were distributed on time and the innovation in Ekiti was that we saw the tracking of electoral materials, unlike in the past when the challenge was that politicians would connive with electoral officers to divert these materials, like the ballot papers and you would hear that people were thumb printing ballot papers somewhere. But in this election, there was no such complaint and there was no complaint about shortage of Form EC8. Looking at the opening of polls, we (observers) had 250 sample polling units with two observers attached to each of the polling units across the state. The result was that INEC overcame the challenge of delay in early voting, which characterised previous elections like Anambra and Ondo, because in Ekiti, 78 per cent of the polling units were ready by 7.30am and by 9am, 98 per cent of the polling units were up and running. It’s a huge improvement. Then, talking about accreditation and voting, we had very minimal issue about that. Less than three per cent of smart card failure was recorded, which is also a very huge leap and even where those challenges occurred, they were immediately rectified. For the first time, INEC introduced a form called E60A, which is an enlarged result sheet that it mandated its officials to paste in every polling unit. So, party agents and polling officials had the results from polling units. There were complaints about not allowing observers to enter local government collation centres, but at the polling unit, nobody was prevented from having those results. In terms of accreditation, opening of polls, INEC did an excellent job in Ekiti.

Beyond the conduct of INEC, the conduct of politicians was also of interest. What did you observe as regards vote buying, which characterised the election?

I think we are not looking at vote buying holistically. I would prefer to start from party primaries, where we have consistently seen the huge display of money. If we do not pay attention to how much people pay to become a candidate of the dominant political parties, we may not get it right. When you get to party primaries, the mouths of the delegates are wide open to be induced and we all know that it’s the highest bidder that eventually wins.

If the issue has always been there, why is the issue of vote buying suddenly this loud?

If you look at it from that point I just told you, the reason why we are hearing a lot about vote buying in this election is that INEC did very well. If logistics had failed and collation and verification didn’t go properly, that is what people would be talking about. We naturally don’t pay attention to this inducement, and vote buying has always been there. Politicians used to go to the house of voters to induce them and sometimes they even ask them to swear. But now, the difference is that there were willing voters who wanted to sell their votes; that is the one they call ‘see and buy’ and it is happening on election day around the polling unit areas, where party agents position themselves in strategic areas and voters who want to sell are paid, they go to vote and show evidence.

Where did the Nigerian electorate get it wrong?

The worry is that we are not doing a holistic engagement on the issue of election financing and its consequences for our country. With vote buying, it means the legitimacy of even the winner is in question and then the respect that he has to show to the voters will not be there because it is a transactional relationship. That is why you see the level of arrogance from people in power, because they no longer hold it to the people and they believe that they bought the victory. Do an approximation of, say N5,000 to about 400,000 voters, that’s about N2bn. So, even if they didn’t buy all of them, they could end up spending about N1bn, which is a lot of money. Thus, the winner of that election will not have any serious regard for the voters.

But there are at least five policemen and at least one civil defence personnel in each polling unit, why were they not able to prevent this, because vote buying is a criminal offence?

I saw that question coming. They are between a rock and a hard surface in dealing with that challenge, and the reason is simple. Just close your eyes and imagine that a policeman goes to arrest a party agent who is involved in vote buying, what will be the reaction of those who sent him to do it? They would say the security agents are harassing their supporters. Those politicians will not tell the world that it is because of vote buying.

Should the security agents then abdicate their responsibilities because of sentiment?

The issue is that there is a delicate balance between the two, because if in the course of arresting them you create chaos, you have affected the polling in that area. What I’m saying is that inasmuch as we want the security agents to ‘do their work’ in that regard, the attitude of the politicians and the narrative that they put out, which many people don’t even interrogate, could make it worse. For example, 20 minutes crisis around Fajuyi in front of the government house, some newspapers cast headlines that ‘Ekiti boils’. Ekiti has 16 local governments, but 20 minutes action around that one spot created anxiety everywhere. Election is a competitive enterprise and politicians throw in everything they have. The moment the security agents make an arrest in that regard, instead of telling people that their people were buying votes, they would tell the world that they were being intimidated.

So, what is the solution, or is it something everyone has to live with, especially knowing that it will likely get worse?

The solution is advocacy. The media needs to come strong on the politicians. The stringent advocacy we did on INEC was what improved it to the point that we are now commending it. If we kept quiet when in the past a former INEC chairman would announce results when people had barely reached the polling unit, I don’t think we will be here commending INEC. If we pay the same level of attention to the current malfeasance, we’ll see improvement. The dynamics of elections keep changing; you solve one problem, you find yourself in another. My thought is that this one would live out its own time, but if we continue to push, it will get better. By the time I started the campaign against vote buying after Edo governorship election, people didn’t take me seriously. Even my colleagues felt I was wasting my time. But now, the impunity that followed the elections from Edo to Anambra, Ondo and now Ekiti is why we are getting panicky. But for me, it’s a consistent advocacy by all stakeholders, if we are committed and we do not have vested interest, especially the media and observers, because people come into the election with vested interest, which blocks their eyes from learning for future elections. As civil society, you see some of our colleagues telling you that they reject results. What is your interest to be rejecting result?

The Osun governorship election is just few months away, is it not likely that there would be advanced vote buying?

I am confident that if we continue to shout about it, things would change. Some people say you need to talk to traditional rulers when doing advocacy but traditional rulers position themselves during election. Their own vote buying takes place before election day. This is their harvest time. In Osun, every aspirant will go and pay homage and receive blessings from them. When they go there, they don’t go empty handed. Churches would start building projects and launching and they would be calling politicians to come for launching. It is part of vote buying. People know these things, but we keep quiet and pretend like we don’t know. There are people supporting these candidates because they want to get contracts and appointments and theirs is delayed gratification. So, to have the purity and conscience to elect the leaders that would serve the interest of the people, we need to sit down and have a stakeholders’ conversation around vote buying and its implication for us. In Nigeria, we follow fad, and that is why everyone is talking about vote buying now, but we will not do any conversation around how to deal with it in a holistic manner. My point is that if the people of Osun and Nigeria want a good election, they would be the one to desire it and maintain it. In Anambra State, the impunity was glaring but the way and manner it came in Ekiti to the point where people were talking about taking money for a pot of soup is demeaning. It diminishes the quality of citizenship of that state and even those who would participate in it in the future. Look at the morality of vote buying; there is a moral stigma. Even though you may legally survive it, in the consciousness of self-respecting people, you will not earn their respect. If you were in Ekiti and you saw how money exchanged hands and the winner comes to you and says he’s the winner, it comes to your mind that we know how you got it. Moral legitimacy is very important for leadership.

The two parties had been engaged in buck passing over the issue of vote buying, with both of them denying it, even though it was common knowledge that they both did it. As an observer, what did you observe?

The dominant political parties are completely complicit in vote buying. People knew that the state government sent N3,000 to people; what was that for? Go and check electoral law and see what vote buying is. And apart from that N3,000, they still shared money physically. In the places where I was, I saw two friends coordinating for the two parties. In Ikere-Ekiti, I saw that happen, because I understand Yoruba and they were talking about it. So, the two dominant political parties were involved. Even some who were not even dominant were sharing other things, like phones and plasma television. So, contextually, there were people who spent money and there were others who didn’t.

The PDP has alleged that there was rigging, and some others are saying there was no rigging. Did you observe rigging in that election?

There was no rigging. You see, the political parties are very lazy. Like I said, polling unit result was handed over to party agents and there were no disruptions. The only disruption was in one or two polling units. In the remaining 2,000 plus polling units, they already had their results. Any political party can compute polling unit by polling unit, but their laziness is such that even after the election, they may not have the patience to collect the results from their agents at the polling units. When you say rigging, it’s not about grandstanding. We were on ground, and there was no polling unit where the party agents did not receive results and signed for them. So, it is simple; collect the results per polling unit from all your party agents and put the figures on excel to compute. Politicians want to attack the credibility of INEC and the media should not allow themselves to be used. The truth is that, as observers, we testify to the fact that INEC has improved. If you cast your mind back, what we probably would be having now is that materials were diverted to the house of someone where the thumb printing was done. But there was nothing like that in this case. So, given the announcement of results per polling unit, which your agents have, where did the rigging take place? If the election failed, you would not hear of vote buying; rather, the bashing of INEC would be so much. Just because politicians can’t have anything on INEC, all of us have to be shouting about something that had been going on before but we were not talking about. So, in terms of rigging, forget it. There was no rigging because results were pasted at each polling unit. INEC even instructed its ad hoc staff to snap and send the pasted results to a WhatsApp group. If politicians were not lazy, that computation is a simple thing to do. On the election day, as the results were coming in, the campaign manager should be in a place getting the results, maybe through WhatsApp, from the party agents on the field, so they could compute them, but did you see that happen? They don’t have that patience; their arrogance is even nauseating.

PDP says it is going to court, but given the narrative that there was no rigging and that it was also involved in buying votes, would there be sufficient ground to take that step?

Going to court is part of the electoral process. It’s a good thing and I don’t have a problem with it. It’s better than option AK47. So, we should not trivialise that option. They should test their case in court.

Observers like you would have collated your observations and recommendations, how does that impact on the outcome of the election and what does your observation translate to, especially with the brazen manner people sold their votes?

We are process watchers and why do we observe elections, because people don’t ask that question? It is first to deter people from doing what is wrong, because in some places, when people want to do something bad, they caution themselves because of the presence of observers. So, we are some kind of watchdog over the process. We don’t interfere with the process because we are not election monitors, but some people don’t understand the difference. We observe, take note and report to improve the process in future and observation impacts on the credibility of the election. That is why any observer who goes to a place and interferes with the election process does not know his job. All the credible election observation groups addressed a press conference in Ado-Ekiti that day and that is why none of the credible ones talked about the result.

Looking at the forthcoming elections, what should be done, beyond advocacy, to prevent this narrative from festering?

Let us have a stakeholder engagement on elections generally, and being the institution that sits at the topmost pyramid of elections, INEC should lead the way for stakeholder engagement and not just voter education. When you hear INEC say voter education, they buy airtime on television and radio and they talk about how to vote. But people know how to vote; that is not the problem. The problem is that we are not engaging ourselves. Before Osun election, we should engage traditional rulers and say people are watching them when they bless candidates. The voter engagement should break these things down. Some of our guys in the media need election training, to know what to look out for. The final thing I want to say is that we should not go to Osun and be talking about the height of the candidates; we should situate our conversation around issues. If you hear that they are not paying salaries in Osun, the question should be what will you do to ensure that people are paid their salary as and when due? In Ekiti, there were no issues around that conversation at all. Everything we discussed before the election was the use of tear gas on Governor Ayodele Fayose and his neck pain. That was what was discussed. People didn’t pay attention to the position of Ekiti State on the chart in the last WASSCE and NECO. In some other countries, those would have been the issues. So, let us go to Osun with a correct narrative.

Whilst we blame the media for its shortcomings, do you also blame them that a debate was organised and the two major candidates didn’t show up, without apologies, yet people voted en masse for the two. Should the electorate not be blamed for that?

No, I don’t think we should blame the victims. The first thing is that the arrogance of the dominant political parties doesn’t start at the debate, it starts at attending meetings. Go to any INEC stakeholder meeting with political parties, those dominant political parties usually send low-ranking staff to those meetings. So, that arrogance is there. Then, the whole idea of media ownership also has something to do with the debate. Some would tell you TVC organised it and that it is owned by someone with political interest and people know that not all media organisations are neutral. Also, in the 16 local governments in Ekiti State, many of the communities stay days without power. So, you organised a television programme and large number of the people you want to talk to are not watching. The second is that you assume that since it is called the fountain of knowledge, then the people are all literate. Some people may not be able to connect. We need to have a broader conversation about media ownership and how they play up their vested interest, which could discourage some people from engaging on those platforms. If NTA organises a debate in 2019, they will say it’s a Federal Government platform and the opposition people will say no, likewise some other stations. My view is that we talk too much to INEC and we are afraid of talking to politicians because in one way or the other, we all have one thing we want to benefit from them. Let’s talk to the politicians because they are the problem of our democracy. Their hate speech, irresponsible languages and some things they throw into the election make it difficult for people to stay on issues. Let us make our elections issues-based and not allow the politicians to distract us.

SOURCE: The Punch

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