Abimbola Ogunkelu is a former minister of Cooperation and Integration and chieftain of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In this exclusive interview with INIOBONG IWOK, he assesses the recent elections in the country, the controversial ‘hate speech’ bill, while calling for urgent electoral reforms to restore credibility to the nation’s electoral process. Excerpts:
What is your take on the Kogi and Bayelsa elections?
The biggest problem of Nigerian politics is that voting at elections doesn’t seem to count anymore. There is a lot of rigging and malpractices; it would only change when electoral reforms are carried out and elections are done electronically and people don’t have to vote twice. So, the real problem in Nigeria is the electoral process. The umpire cannot be trusted and the whole process cannot be trusted. Until there is a change where the process is free and fair and the votes count, then democracy is in jeopardy in Nigeria.
Is this an indictment on INEC?
It is not an indictment on INEC alone; it is an indictment on the actors in all the political parties. Because if you commit election fraud and you are sanctioned and pay for it, then you would not want to do it again. It is the impunity in the system that you can do and get away from it that is the problem. Until there is sanction, irrespective of your position in the society; anybody that commits fraud is sanctioned and asked to pay fine, then we are just wasting our time with democracy in this country.
But there has been increased clamour for the passage of the Electoral Offences Commission Bill by the National Assembly?
It may not be the solution; we are just creating commissions, and we already have the judiciary system, it should be strengthened, so that if you go to court, you can be sure to get justice.
If you create another commission and all this impunity still goes on, what is the need? What is happening now is like animal farm; there would be no end to this problem. It is not a question of creating new commission, but strengthening the institutions we have. Nigerians naturally are calm and not wild like Americans or Britons. If half of the problems here had occurred in Britain, it would have led to them carrying guns.
And they are often punished for the crime they commit no matter the years, either thirty years or fifty years after. But here people rig elections and nothing happens to them; nobody questions them.
Are you saying the PDP did not lose both elections?
Yes, it appears so. If the elections were not manipulated, why are they doing rerun for the senatorial election in Kogi State?
Because it becomes too apparent and people shouted, that is why they are doing rerun; why must you do rerun election?
Until we have national ID; this problems would continue. Every time we wanted to have national identification, a section of the country would shut it down. Until it becomes mandatory to the citizens where people use to vote, that is part of the solution. The National ID card project has been on from 1980 to now, but because some sections of the country do not want it, no progress yet. We must know who we are, all the countries we have around us are francophone countries, they have national ID card, and we must have it. It is mandatory that if we are doing electoral reforms, we must do voters card.
What is your view about the hate speech bill?
It shows that our law makers still have work to do. Who determines what hate speech is? And what is love speech? You can as well have a love speech bill. It is a subjective matter; the members of the National Assembly are getting ridiculous. If they pass such bill, there would be turmoil in the country. Anybody you don’t like you can accuse the person of hate speech, then such individual can go and sue someone because of that. I hope the leadership of the National Assembly would use their common sense to throw out that bill.
What is your take on agitation for power shift to the South in 2023 and the position of the North?
Zoning is a convenience arrangement that the PDP started; that means it is not in the law. But it is part of the constitution of a political party. If the people feel they don’t want zoning; that is fine. Zoning is not part of the problem; the panacea is having electoral reforms and room for independent candidate. If someone thinks he is popular enough to run in a local government area election, let such individual run. We have over 90 political parties now; apart from the two functioning ones, all the rest are useless and with time all the parties would be scrapped. When we have independent candidate, why do we need so much political parties?
But the parties say INEC can’t scrap them?
Of course, INEC do not have the power to scrap any political party; the parties should fold up on their own. In 1999, when we returned to democracy, there were only three political parties registered, but the activists started shouting that; how can we have such low number of political parties? Then the system was opened up and today we are having ninety plus political parties that are of no use to the system. They had thought the military would give money to political parties; but that money never came and the parties folded up. It is the business of INEC, in law, there are condition parties must meet to be registered. That should be part of the electoral reforms.
Is part of the reforms also including a restructuring or change of the current system of government?
Right now, we are operating a quasi-unilateral system of government. There are many items on the concurrent list that belong to state and local government. During the military era, they took over everything, because that was the style they understood; now we have gone back to democracy since 1999, the current military constitution to me needs a revamping; the whole country needs restructuring. We call ourselves a federation, but the state has less power, we need to give powers more to the state and less to the central. That is why the needless struggle to be president of the country. The federal is so strong. If we had states which are strong, there would not be this struggle; there are many countries in the world where they have federation, the federal government should run the army and foreign affairs; state should have their police force. In the US they have state police, and FBI which is federal. They have county police; that is why you commit a crime the police are on ground to arrest you.
What is your reaction to the leadership crisis in Lagos PDP, in which you are a chieftain?
There is no disruption in the party. We had a chairman that defected to another party and another chairman was put in place to run the affair of the party for three months and it expired. The national secretariat of the party’s decision was that a new state congress of the party should be conducted, and someone else was elected in that congress. Two people contested for the position of the chairman. That is democracy in place; did you hear of any fighting? We are aware that some people went to court, but election took place, a day after they went to court and there was no court judgment severed on the party. What they got was interim injunction and it was adjoined when they went back to Court.
Doherty has been elected the state chairman; it is not the Court that would elect officers for the party.