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POLITICS, NATIONAL UNITY AND THE QUEST FOR CREDIBLE ELECTIONS: A KEYNOTE ADDRESS PRESENTED BY DR EFIONG AKWA ON THE OCCASION OF THE AKWA IBOM STATE COUNCIL OF NIGERIAN UNION OF JOURNALISTS ( NUJ) 2021 PRESS WEEK
I feel privileged and honoured to be invited as the keynote speaker for this year’s Press Week of the Akwa Ibom State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists ( NUJ). As we move closer to 2023, your theme: Politics, National Unity and the Quest for Credible Elections’ becomes a timely contribution to the deepening of our democratic experience.
Democracy can only be deepened by the lively participation of organisations such as the NUJ in the discourse of the polity and politics of our dear country. Politics is too important to be left only to the politicians. By organising this event, the Akwa Ibom State NUJ is supporting the continuous growth of our democracy. The Greek philosopher, Plato noted: mankind will never see an end of trouble until lovers of wisdom come to hold political power or the holders of political power become lovers of wisdom.
Because of the consistency in our democratic practice, the Nigeria nation is gradually earning a reputation as a democratic role model in Africa. The country has organised five elections and three peaceful transitions of power since the advent of the fourth republic in 1999. Nigeria, for example, became the cynosure of African democratic experience in 2015 when then President Jonathan lost and congratulated the winner before the conclusion of vote count.
Credible elections are the sine qua non for democracies to thrive. For democracies without credible elections are no democracies at all. We must remember that elections are a mechanism for the arbitration of political rivalries and peaceful democratic rotation of leadership. If political rivals and supporters do not believe the electoral process to be free and fair, then they will ultimately resort to less peaceful methods to change political direction.
The Global Commission on Election and Security, called credible election “election with integrity” and identifies five challenges to achieving this outcome. These are:
1. The need to strengthen the rule of law so that elections and rights of voters and candidates can be protected.
2. There must be professionals and independent national bodies, which can manage elections so that they are credible and the results legitimate.
3. Greater efforts are needed to build strong institutions, processes and behaviour that are vital for genuine multi party competition and the attribution of political power. Such election bestows legitimacy on the winner, provides security for the loser and end the “winner-takes-all” politics that discourages democratic practice.
4. The integrity of elections require political equality, the barriers that prevent voting and wider participation in the election must be removed. Too often women, young people, minorities and other vulnerable groups are not given full opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.
5. Finally unregulated money in politics, especially during elections, undermines voters faith in the election and confidence in democracy. Vote buying and bribery of candidates, including organised crime must be prevented.
On March 20, 1925 Rev Frederick Lewis Donaldson gave a sermon in Westminster Abbey, London where he identified the seven social social sins as:
1. Wealth without work
2. Pleasure without conscience
3. Knowledge without character
4. Commerce without morality
5. Worship without sacrifice
6. Science without humanity
7. Politics without principles
The integrity of the electoral process is the fundamental bedrock of democracy. Every Nigerian owes his nation a duty to make a contribution to strengthen it. This integrity journey must start with closing all the loopholes in our laws to deal with endless litigations which distort the outcome of elections.
Let me commend the National assembly for their courage in initiating reforms in our electoral laws. This reform must also extend to pre-election litigation. There must be an end to litigations. My recommendation therefore, is that all pre-election matters must be concluded or become statute barred two months to the election date. A situation where voters go to election, unsure if the candidature of the person they voted for will be overturned later by the courts undermines the integrity of the electoral process.
The rule that all elections matters must be dispensed with within 180 days from the date of the election has brought sanity to post election litigation. The combination of pre-election and post-election litigation reforms will guarantee the sovereignty of the vote and by implication, the integrity of the electoral process. Whoever the people vote for is the one that will be in office.
The next point on this journey towards achieving credible elections is the integrity of the umpire. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) must be seen to be independent, must be perceived to be independent and must be observed to be independent. An umpire that cancels, manipulates and doctors election results to favour or undermine some candidates is like a midwife who strangles the babies she brings forth. It will only be a matter of time before expectant mothers will lose faith in such a midwife.
We must also deal with the quality of those elected into office. While the existing requirement for a school certificate should be maintained for those born before 1970, the minimum qualifications for elections should be raised to a university degree (or equivalent like, HND) for those born after 1970.
The reason for this is that school certificates, pre 1970 could as well be seen as sufficient for any political office but that cannot be said for school certificate of today. We must raise the bar especially as the world is evolving into a knowledge-based economy, requiring modern technological tools to address society’s challenges.
Let me address my hosts, the fourth estate of the realm. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the society. It is through them that society perceives reality. As a result, journalists have a duty to be objective, independent, balanced and fair in their coverage, especially when it comes to electoral matters. What we have seen in the past years, is the distortion of professional values by some practitioners. Instances where journalists/media organisations adopt candidates or have sympathy for a particular political organisation will definitely undermine the quality of their reports.
By taking sides, you misinform. When a journalist reports with affection or ill will, the message becomes tainted and skewed. The media have a duty to ensure the transparency of the electoral process by holding everyone (the candidates, the umpire, the security agencies and the voters) to account for their actions and inactions
The question in your minds now, would be, what has NDDC done to boost national unity and the quest for credible elections in the Niger Delta, by extension, Nigeria. On assumption of office as interim administrator/chief executive officer, I immediately discovered that we must free resources to deal with the myriads of development issues in the region. With the support of Mr President, and supervision of the Honourable Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, we immediately completed the NDDC headquarters that was started more than 26 years ago.
1. As we speak today, the NDDC is operating from a purpose built headquarters complex. This has saved the Commission more than N300 million annually that was otherwise paid as rent. This is now being channelled to the provision of critical infrastructure.
2. To support the effort of government to improve the security environment for elections, we completed and put to user a 66 apartment barracks for the Nigerian Police. This has boosted their capacity to deal with security challenges.
3. I immediately engaged with stakeholders in the region (traditional institutions, youths, women, civil society and most especially, the governors of the region) to aggregate our development needs and optimally channel our efforts to address the multifarious socio-economic challenges facing our region.
4. The Commission has engaged in skills development and the training of youths, especially in modern IT technology, graduating over 2,000 young Nigerians of the Niger delta descent with different skill sets in IT proficiency. This has empowered them with economic skills, therefore cutting off the supply of youths for political thuggery and other criminalities. People who would have become thugs are now equipped to earn honest livelihoods. Some are even creating jobs.
5. To catch them young, we are distibuting science equipment to various schools in the region, knowing that the future is science and technology based.
6. My organisation is also media friendly and in furtherance of Section one of the FOI Act 2011, has extended support to media organisations and unions. We have also engaged seasoned journalists and media houses to provide communications support for our various programmes. To underpin the importance we place on you, I had to cancel all engagements in Port Harcourt to be with you today.
Nigeria has come a long way, we are gradually building up our democracy. It is up to you and all stakeholders in this hall to work towards deepening and sustaining the democratic ideals. Nigeria belongs to all of us. It is our world. Sustaining and deepening our democracy is a crucial, not just for future prosperity and peace, but also for our fundamental human aspirations to live as free men and women .
May I end this conversation with quotes from Margaret Thatcher. “There is no such thing as society. There are individual mean and women and there are families. Therefore, I will call for attitudinal change and reorientation of individuals in our dear country’.
At the end of the day, what matters is not so much which candidate or which party wins an election as long as the country wins.
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