Three scenarios make room for the topic of this week’s discussion. One is from a workshop organised by the Malami-led Ministry of Justice late 2022. In that workshop, Chief Tony Iredia, former NTA Director General, told participants that our votes were less likely to count, apparently because grotesque circumstances were going to take over to give the courts extraordinary powers to circumvent our votes and determine outcome of the 2023 elections.
That prediction was to come to pass. As soon as the elections were done and dusted, with certificates of return given out by the electoral umpire, the courts took over. First, it was with the declaration of Bola Tinubu as president even when it was obvious that he had not met requirements as stipulated in Section 134 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. I was to witness very many Nigerians who had trooped out to vote for the other party begin to discard their permanent voter cards (PVCs), swearing on their mothers’ graves never to vote again. And as the days wore on, the election petition tribunals were to be affirming and setting aside legitimate votes cast, votes cast as a gesture of patriotic endeavour, and in performance of the civic responsibility of many a Nigerian.
Another one thing that has contributed very greatly to strong apathy to voting in Nigeria apart from the worsening condition of Nigerians is the recent statement that has been credited to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. According to Olusegun Obasanjo, the democracy under which he had served two terms as president is an alien system of government, and which has not contributed to the uplift of the lot of Nigerians.
While we cannot do anything about the election petition tribunals, we will join our voices with that of most Nigerians who have said that the position of the former president is an unfortunate one, especially because his age, training and position as an elder statesman strategically position him to know better.
In condemning the very platform from where he ran Nigeria for eight years, he has given subtle hint to the military to strike. In condemning democracy as an alien system responsible for our sorry condition, and without proffering what would look like a viable alternative, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, together with the shenanigans and vicissitudes inherent in the way we run the presidential system of government, greatly weakened the import of the vote, and its deep relevance to our lot as a people.
Democracy is not our problem. We are resolved with that quip, and to affirm that we derive our conviction in the fact that the core of democracy is that element we all know as the ‘people’. In an intervention sometime ago, I have had cause to say that those who said that democracy is government of the people, by and for the people appear to have something very different in mind from the Nigerian definition of ‘people’. Let us be clear: the doctrine of ‘people’ is one premised on a very high ideal, and which must be filtered and interrogated from the point of view of the following questions: when we say ‘people’, what exactly do we mean? Does ‘people’ include soldiers, engineers, traders, farmers, students, lawyers, and taxi drivers? Yes – but the caveat (and what esteemed individuals like Olusegun Obasanjo do not seem to understand) is that you cannot succeed in governing a people who are not as empowered as you are.
Understanding this, and understanding that the vote is key to the development of our people, we have refused to toe the Obasanjo line. Rather, we have undertaken to shore up what we will refer to as two powers of governance. The first is the power of the media to hold government officials to account with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Recently, we got together 15 journalists under the auspices of the Civil Empowerment & Rule of Law Support Initiative (CERLSI) to build their capacity to understand that with just a simple letter, citizens can ruffle feathers and unbundle the layers of corruption inherent in our governance mechanisms and institutions. The second power is the power of the vote. With the vote, we believe that there is an underlying philosophy behind the practice of democracy, and an act that must not be trifled with or denigrated under any circumstances. The vote cannot be a merchandise for sale or consumption just the way we sell and consume rice and beans or tomato to be bought and sold the way it was done in Kogi, Imo and Bayelsa States during the recent off-season governorship elections. In the past week as well, we have carried out a project that we christened KEKE-BRIGADE, where we gathered many Keke riders together to march or ride against the vote-selling specter.
The question, however, is: why tricycle riders; why not students or hired demonstrators? Again, we believe that these Keke riders in Nigeria have now become true representatives of the masses of the Nigerian people. They are close to the Nigerian people because of the day-to-day interactions they have with ferrying people from point A to point B. They are a crucial social and economic block, and that’s why we conducted this sensitization walk with them. Our ride with them was symbolic as well as pragmatic.
We maintain that selling votes or inducing voters to sell their votes is both criminal and tragic. Vote buying and selling is a threat to free and fair elections in Nigeria. We say, therefore, that if the Edo people must get a good governor in 2024, it is important that grassroots campaign against vote selling must begin now.
Etemiku is Deputy Executive Director, Civil Empowerment & Rule of Law Support Initiative (CERLSI).