Tinubu’s anti-coruption initiative is building public confidence – Ezenwa 

Chief Ezenwa Nwagwu, the Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform in Nigeria, is also a member of the board of YIAGA Africa. In this interview with BODE OLAGOKE, he speaks on President Bola Tinubu’s anti-corruption war, why the President should weigh in on his political allies and the need for proper electoral reforms, among others.

What’s your impression so far about the recent suspension of some public officials by President Bola Tinubu?

In my opinion, we are seeing President Bola Tinubu beginning to build public confidence in the anti-corruption initiative. This is remarkable because it contradicts what we used to have in the past where public officials will be accused of malfeasance, and they will be kept there in spite of public outcry. So some of these steps are things that we want to underscore and congratulate the President. Also, running with this, is the increase in the money accrued to the federal government. We are seeing NNPC for the first time, posting profits. We are seeing increase in revenue from customs. What that tells you is that there is improvement in revenue generation and accountability. The flip side of it is that all of these monies that are now in the public coffers are things that have gone into private pockets before now, in spite of all the pretentions to the fight against corruption.

We have also seen monies that have been recovered from the people like Emefiele and other characters that have put their hand in public coffers. So this is for me, something that we must appreciate, and encourage the presidents to do more. But it is important to encourage the President to ensure that what has been recovered is not re-stolen. But, more importantly is whereas the president is putting up this public face, some of the folks who work with him are wallowing in obscene ostentation. There’s no explanation for why the Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, should hire a stadium for birthday and then follow it up with a colloquium. That maddening display of recklessness is something the President must find a way to put a stop to. As if that is not annoying enough. 

A week later, the SGF went into another spree of birthday celebration in the midst of the kind of belt tightening that majority of the citizens are being asked to embrace. I think the President must first and foremost, stop this idea of sending birthday wishes to public officials. If a Dangote or Jim Ovia is having a birthday and he decides to have it in a stadium, we won’t be bothered. But people who occupy public offices must conduct themselves in a way that reflects the current reality. And one way the President can do that is himself refraining from celebrating birthday throughout his tenure as president. That will send a very strong signal to citizens that they are serious. And members of the National Assembly must also come in to the same type of spirits that we’re seeing the President try to put out to the public that he will not tolerate this recklessness and the cutting down of the number of people who follow him or follow public officials on travels. I think that that is that is also commendable. 

Will you say that President Tinubu has fought corruption better than former President Buhari?

It is too early to do such conclusion, but I’m saying this quick steps we have seen are  encouraging. And like I said, it is possible to recover money, and re-loot those resources. So, what we need to do as citizens is that when there is opportunity to clap, we do so. We clap and say something nice has happened. And when things are not going well, we should be in the forefront to say things are not going well because there is no union of activists whose job is to criticise just for the purpose of it. For now, the steps that he has taken, are commendable and can be appreciated. But like I said, the conditions will be that while doing those things, the underground of optics around people who are close to him needs to be checked. And they must find a way to do so?

With these kind of anti corruption fight and reform, do you expect to see the same reforms in the electoral process or laws?

Basically, there are two ways to look at electoral reforms and I’m always very careful because I’m somebody who is in the thick of it. But what I have found is that there’s a dubious complex that has been built around electoral reforms. Every legislative year, we embarked on so called electoral reforms. We just passed 2022 electoral law. That law was just one year old when we organised an election in February 25th, 2023. After elections, less than six months, we have not taken stock, we have not even done a proper audit of the 2023 election, and the National Assembly is already posturing another reform.

That complex that I’m talking about, what does it mean? it means is that billions of Naira will be appropriated. Their collaborating consultants will continue to hype the need for electoral reform. That’s one part because you need to situate this properly. And then, we go into another round of what do they call zonal hearings and all of those things. What is required now, is first, stocktaking, audit of all the reforms that we have done in the past. There needs to be a point in which we are sitting down to say ‘what have we reformed. What then needs to be improved upon?’ I think that quite a lot of things have been done. 

The Nigeria Political Science Association, after the 2023 election did a review. We can take part of those reviews. Most of the Observer Reports are already in the public domain. We can get all of those observer reports and then harvest issues that do not require zonal hearings. That does not require a budgeting of billions. We can use the line National Assembly, House Committee budgets to interrogate those issues. Number one could be the issue of cross carpeting. You do not need public hearing to know that there’s something obscene; that there’s something that insults the sensibilities of voters and their choice when you are elected under the platform of a political party and then for flimsy reasons, you jump into another or cross over into another party. I don’t think we require public hearing or or zonal hearings and consultants for that to be  taken seriously. 

The next issue that continues to ring out is the issue of the appointment of the INEC Chairman, and National Commissioners and Resident Electoral Commissioners. Justice Uwais recommended a particular pattern. We can have a review of the Justice Uwais report and then contemporized it and make it relevant to today. Because if you check again, what the Ken Nnamani report, the one that Malami set up, there’s absolutely no difference between what was said in the Uwais report and what Ken Nnamani recommended.

There’s the Justice Lemu Report on electoral violence. All of these can be brought together and sieved out.  First and foremost, what can we do to ensure that there is no executive interference in a sacred institution like INEC. My suggestion will be to say we can have an ad-hoc platform that does recruitments. 

That ad-hoc platform will include members of the media, civil society, political parties, judiciary, security agents and INEC itself, on an ad hoc basis to do the recruitment and recommend to the President and ensure that the President has no power to reject the recommendation. Because the Justice Uwais Commission talked about NJC. The NJC is a creation of the Constitution, like INEC. INEC is also a commission created by the constitution. So another commission cannot oversee another commission. There is something that is not sitting well in that kind of arrangement. So this NJC conversation needs to be reviewed. 

And that’s why I think putting this on the table would be also very important. We need to also see whether we can pass the Electoral Offence Bill, for the sake of the fact that the security agencies that have the responsibility to maintain law and order, have outsourced it. They have outsourced it, and now there is a cry for a an independent institution that can deal with issues of crimes committed during elections. But whether that will solve the problem is still part of the Nigerian conversation. Where we are, we always think that once we introduce something that is a silver bullet, to solving all the problems that we have.

We can create a department of police that is in charge of elections, just like you used to have railway police that was in charge of railways. We can have departments in police that is in charge of elections. and recruit people into that place, so that this whole idea of IPO being from Zamfara and then when somebody is arrested, there will not be any opportunity to continue the case will be eliminated. And if you say INEC is the prosecuting agency, yet the budget of the legal department of INEC is something a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) can bring out from his back pocket. You can’t therefore, put that kind of responsibility on INEC if you have not done the necessary things to empower them to be able to function and prosecute. So that, for me, is the answer to your question about electoral reforms.

About issues of cross carpeting, recently many people from the opposition parties for no cogent reason are moving to the ruling party. How do we deal with this issue?

The first problem is that opposition is not fanciful because of patronage and cronyism. The average Nigerian politician ab initio is a product of cronyism and patronage. Because you have removed contests completely. From what we have “we gave him the ticket.” So the internal party democracy is challenged. From the point of view, that you don’t have what you can call or refer to as opposition. Just last week, a spokesperson for the opposition presidential candidate has gone to visit the President. And you will see more and more ‘porting’ as we say in layman’s language. People will be porting to the ruling party. But the work opposition is a honorable one, holding the party in power accountable as an alternative government. 

If, for instance, you’re having issues around the current monetary policies, what is opposition saying? Is the opposition saying it’s fine? We don’t have the view on that. The agricultural policies of this government, we can’t say this is what the opposition is saying on that. We can’t say so. So they become what is called vote catching machines. And if they are vote catching machines, it is natural that people use them to get into power and later dump them. 

The letter Doyin Okupe wrote to Labour Party, if you read it, it said they provided them with what he described as purpose vehicle. What he’s saying is that they only used the platform because even presidential candidate of the Labour Party did not spend six months in that party before the election. And he has moved from APGA to PDP and to Labour Party. That is insulting. And then you have the Labour Party criticising Doyin Okupe for being dissenting without lampooning their presidential candidate who is also a product of that kind of arrangement. So we need to deal with this issue of cross carpeting. We need to do the issue of waiver that the political parties have inserted into their Constitution that is abused. Where somebody can wake up in the morning and he is a member of PDP and by evening, he is a member of APC. We need to engage those issues as a part of the reforms.

And then, we need to mount a huge campaign around the change of attitude to election, to power and to the benefits that accrue from power. What does that mean? You have to fund the agencies that are involved in civic and public education. Go and see what the budget of national orientation is. Everybody wants national orientation to do this, to do that. But nobody is interested in seeing how much is budgeted to be able to do those things? We should have a situation in which most of the media organisations can have a corporate social responsibility to insert a column for public enlightenment on the issues of governance, democracy and  elections. 

That can help us. Because the attitude that we bring to elections is one that is not helpful in any sense to consolidating democracy. What in the world would somebody still be doing with wanting to carry a ballot box. Why would you want to do voter suppression? What is the argument for that? Allow the process, let the people’s choice manifest and then you live with it? What you is a creme of political elites that are always seeking for dubious advantages. And when they succeed, they celebrate. When they fail, they lampoon the system. So, we need attitudinal change to deal with these.