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Okon Uya
Few weeks to the general elections that kicked off last weekend, Prof Okon Uya former chairman of the now defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON), a progenitor of today's INEC opened up to JOE EFFIONG on Nigeria's not-too-enviable record with elections. Uya, a professor of history and  Nigeria's former Ambassador to Argentina, shot into global prominence in 1993 when Gen. Ibrahim Babangida appointed him chairman of NECON, to clean up the mess created by the annulment of June 12, 1993 presidential election, which the late M.K.O. Abiola was assumed to have won.

Since losing that controversial job in the November that year when Abacha sacked the Ernest Shonekan-led interim government, the teacher-turned diplomat, who has played several roles in some policy formulations for the country, had returned to the classroom in the University of Calabar.

In this interview, the Prof. who is now a full-fledged pastor with churches in Calabar, Uyo and Oron, relieves his NECON experience, stressing that even June 12, was not a free and fair election. Excerpts:

Prof, what are your feelings about elections in this country?

Well let me just say welcome to you. I'm sure you know that I was a member of the Electoral Reform Committee, the Uwais committee which the late President Yar'adua set up for the purpose to give report to the government which should have been the basis for restructuring the entire election process in Nigeria. That was the main reason why the committee was set up; that was why the committee was founded. That was why wewent out of our way to go out and talk to Nigerians, and toured all the six geo-political zones in the country. The whole idea was that we should try and see what Nigerians think about elections and why we have been having problems in elections.

So my reaction to your questions will not be based solely on my own idea but will involve since the 1986 and 1987. I was a member of the Political Bureau. Election was central to the whole idea of disengaging the military an enthroning a democratic order in the country. Against that fact I have written quite extensively since we started. It is something which has engaged my attention even before I went to that controversial- job as the chairman of INEC (NECON) for that brief period we talked. about. Now against that background, what do I think about elections? Successful conduct of elections is at the heart of any democratic process. Why do I say so? The essence of democracy is that those who govern should do so at the instance of those they govern.

The real meaning is that you have no right to govern me if I didn't put you there. In other words, at the centre of the whole issue is the issue of delegation of authority. All of us cannot go and sit and make laws to govern a country, so I select somebody to go and I delegate my authority to that person. Then the issue of representation, that person is there to represent me, he is not there to represent himself; he is my mouthpiece, he is the one through whom I ventilate my views about government. He is one who has, must, is obliged to brief me occasionally on what is happening so I can decide for myself whether there is difference between anything I asked him to go and do and if not, at the appropriate time, I say no by casting my vote against such a person.

What I'm only saying to you is that we cannot put democratic order without delegation of authority and representation and the machinery for doing that in most countries is through elections. Now if what I am saying is clear to you, it means that no government can claim to be legitimate if it was not put in place by the choice of the people. We have put it in a very good way now: cast the vote, count your vote and let the vote count. That is the very essence of it. That is what confers legitimacy. The problem with Nigerians is that we cannot in all honesty say that there had been any time, even the First Republic we talk about, where the government in Nigeria has been the reflection of the wishes of Nigerians. It has never happened.   

I was shocked in the electoral reform committee in which I played a very important part to discover through historical research that since 1922 where the first election was held in Nigeria; there hasn't been a time which election has not been rigged. Every election has been rigged. That is to say it has been prevented from reflecting the wishes of the people. The only difference is that some are more rigged than the others.

Even the June 12 that has been claimed as the freest and fairest election in Nigeria?

That is a statement of fact; even June 12, I was the chairman; I took over from Humphrey Nwosu. I have refrained from talking about June 12. Journalists have been coming and I say no.  I have my reasons. I don't think it is time as a public servant to begin to talk about things which came to your possession by virtue of being in that office. That is a violation of the very principle of oath of office. That is my position and I stand by it.

But let me put it this way: June 12 came nearest to acceptable election in Nigeria. But it wasn't free, fair and credible.  I don't want to say more than that. I had the records for those months I was there.

'The election could be said to have been free because people cast their votes. But it was not credible in that very few Nigerians voted; about only 13 percent. You have made me to talk about it; but I don't want to. What it means is that about 14 million out of a possible 60 million people voted.

So you cannot say it represented the wishes of the people. There were so many other technical problems which I don't want to bother you with. Votes were cast; votes were counted in only 14 states out of the then 30 states. So the votes were not fully counted. I don't know why; I wasn't there. I inherited the problem. I don't know what happened, but the reality was that the votes were not counted everywhere.

We needed the votes to be counted in at least 25 states to satisfy the constitutional requirements which said at least two thirds of the states in the country. But we had 14, was that two-thirds? So the election did not satisfy that constitutional requirement. Election is not all about voting; it involves voting; the votes counted and the votes counted and satisfying every laid down constitutional requirement - political action, constitutional action and there is a  legal action. Those three elements must be present to declare an election successful.

What was present was a political aspect in the June 12. The legal aspect? Problematic. The constitutional aspect? Problematic. So there are issues involved, which is  not to say what was done was right or wrong. It is just to say that by the laws of Nigeria, these are technical things which were not satisfied. So, even June 12 fell short of being credible.

Now what is painful for me in that whole exercise was to find that the 2007 election was the worst. In order words, here we are starting from 1922, instead of progressing, solving some of the problems, we are adding new dimensions to the problem to the extent that the very last one became the worst.'

Can the appointment of Prof Attahiru Jega make any difference?

See, you have to take the idealistic approach, the systematic approach and all the things I have mentioned. The mistake Nigerians make is that they think if you get the chairman of INEC who is credible, honest, person of integrity, the thing will work, Na lie! Jega is a good friend of mine. The day he was appointed I took my phone and said well, Jega welcome to being abused by Nigerians. That is what Nigerians are good at. It is important that the chairman is independent minded; who cannot be intimidated.

One thing I will always say about Ibrahim Babangida is that throughout the few months I was the chairman of the electoral commission, he never tried, never dare tried to put his will upon me. It was the reverse. It was I who was imposing my will on him. For example, when I took over, they passed a law that to contest for president; the candidate must be between the ages of 58 - 60. This was held against Abiola who was only 53, and it had been passed by the Armed Forces Ruling Council. So I said there is no country in the world where this kind of regulation exists. It is very clear who you are targeting.  You don't make laws because you don't like my face; you shouldn't. So I said that the age must be brought down to 40.

They had to sit back and reverse themselves and then they said when I went in, to have elections in August. (I went in June 23, immediately the June 12 thing, eventually started work on the 27th of June) but I said there was no way I could conduct elections in August. Some people had burnt their voters cards in anger. How was I going to have elections, whatever it is, the election you will have after June 12, must in every way be better than that of June 12, or it is not worth it.

What I mean is the character of the chairman is important but equally important is how he was appointed and the constitutional requirement for his appointment. Nigerians misunderstood completely, or were misled by the National Assembly and somehow presidency. This whole issue of who appoints became the problem. We were accused in the electoral reform committee of saying that the presidency should be stripped of his power to appoint the chairman of INEC. It is not what we said, that is not what we had in our recommendation. That was their interpretation because they wanted to use it to alter our recommendations. The provision was very clear, appointment of the chairman of electoral body is a process.

Number one: When there is a vacancy, advertise. In other words, its not left for a small group of people sitting to say, yea, I know you. Rather anybody who thinks he is qualified should apply

Number two: Let those applications be processed by the national judicial council. That was where they got the thing wrong. It was just to process those applications and identify three.

Number three: Once they identify three, they send it to the national council of state. Who is the chairman of national council of state?

The president of course! You send it through the national council of state. That's how you select somebody and send him to the senate for confirmation. It was a process we described but deliberately they began to say we were asking the judiciary to take the role of the executive. It was a process to be sure; assure everybody that the president does not appoint someone he likes but somebody the nation can trust. The fortune we had in this last thing is that when Jonathan appointed Jega, those who know Jega know he meets up with the qualification as independent minded; a person of integrity and can be trusted.

What if he chooses somebody that did not meet with the qualification what would have happened? You know, when you are dealing with this, deal with it institutionally. Leave men alone, go for the structure then you find people who can function. Not the reverse. So the mode of appointment is important and is to assure of Nigerians that this person here will not be manipulated. That is what is happening to Jega; people have started saying that Jonathan is using him. PDP is using him,which I know is not correct. So how the person is appointed is important.

The legal framework for election is important. Election is partly the legal exercise. Legal framework is very important. for example, the constitutional provisions, electoral law, the electoral act. The contents are important. It is not something you rush into. Unlike our country Nigeria, very few countries are a mending constitution in less than a week because it is something you take time to build up. Now that we are in the elections cycle, we are changing the laws. It is not done that way. But in the circumstance we find ourselves, that is the way it is being done.

Therefore, there are avoidable mistakes. I mean to plan for registration this time is not money. Nigerians talk about how much money. In fact, because you didn't plan, it costs you more.  And when you start that way you are going to incur extra costs, because you have not planned and projected how much it would cost. However when you ask for additional money, people ask what you are doing with the money. It means the fact that there are things that should have been done which were not done properly because of the time. They held their electoral reform committee report for more than a year. I don't want to tell you my own feelings about it in the sense that we thought they were playing games but that is why you now have everything cramped into this little space that we have.

The legal framework is important and that legal framework must provide for something which they have refused to provide for although. We made a recommendation that anybody caught rigging elections at any level should be punished to act as a deterrent. You know since 1922, not one Nigerian has been sent to jail for rigging election. There was a politician in the Second Republic who said, the issue is not rigging, the issue is you rig me, I rig you. So whoever out rigs wins the election? So they do it publicly but what have they done to take it off?  So the legal framework is important and you must provide structures that will punish violations of the provisions of the electoral act. But this current administration did not do this, because we have not been able to put up a structure which can stand on its own, because of the nature of the political parties.

In the third anniversary of the creation of Akwa Ibom state when I gave lecture on Democracy and Good Governance in Nigeria, I made it very clear that Nigeria has no political parties. They were very angry with me but that was the truth. You cannot run elections without viable ideology-driven, people-focus political parties. You can't. Because you don't have that, what is happening?  Contestation within the political party is between people who have more money than the other because of influence of the godfathers and godmothers. Look at what is happening today they say it was this one that was nominated, tomorrow that one and the next day, it's the other.

Another thing we discovered that was part of the problems of elections in Nigeria is that the people no longer believed in elections. They take it as a waste of time and worst in that regards are the elite like you. You don't vote. I do, but most of them don't vote. When you ask them, they will say, they have already decided who wins. So there is a tremendous degree of misunderstanding by the public. I was very happy the way they went out to register even though people were frustrated because of the faulty machines.. But I was very happy to see how Nigerians responded; 66 million (73 million, eventually) people is a large number.

Hopefully, those who stole the machines did not sit in their homes to prepare the cards because in our country, every step you take to clean up the system, those who want it to remain the way it is are one step ahead of you. One friend of mine in the U.N said that Nigeria is one country where before a law is passed; we have already devised a way of breaking it so there is public apathy. That is why we had recommended massive political education so as to add value to the votes which most Nigerians do not understand from the grassroots up. And I was happy that while we were at the political bureau in 1986, I was one of those who said that we cannot recover this country without massive political education from the grassroots up.

That was the origin of MAMSER. Unfortunately when Jerry Gana took over MAMSER, he put it in an area which was  what we had in mind but the military boys accused us that we wanted to impose an ideology on the country. Which country has no ideology? If you have no ideology, that is ideology itself; so public education is important and I don't think we've had enough time for it for this last exercise also. Public education adds to the value of the vote which most Nigerians don't understand not because they are illiterates, it is because the thing has not been explained to them, that their vote is their power.

President Jonathan has coined a very important phrase: one man, one vote. If you don't understand, it becomes a slogan but that is the fact, that's how it should be. People don't understand the nature of government and meaning of government. Many of those who govern us operate as if they are our lords rather than our servants. With that kind of political education, you will know that the country belongs to you, you own it, we own this country and they only hold it for us. The biggest issue around is trusting government. Many countries of the world no longer trust government because government tells lies and they tell lies openly.

Again, the time there for us is very short. Now, look at what has happened now, the PDP has started its campaigns, Zonal Campaigns, they will go and stand there and shout, they dance, clap, if you are unfortunate to be near there, they push you to the ground, you die. That is not education and that is what every party will do, jumping from one place to another shouting. I like what A.C.N did the other day; have a conference, a workshop where you present your manifesto, let people discuss it and send it through the media for people to understand what you stand for. No party has ever done that so there is need for massive education. I am answering  your question in a roundabout way. What I'm saying to you is that there is a lot of work to be done, and we all pray that it should work.

Why do you say so?
Why do I say so; I think I've made this statement way back 2009: this election is about the soul of Nigeria. If we don't get it right, we will have a very difficult time in the years ahead. That is, if we are able to survive. So, everything should be done by every Nigerian wherever you find yourself, to ensure the success of 2011 elections. Whoever constitutes the bottleneck to it should be identified, exposed and dealt with because we cannot afford to fail with 2011 elections

When you were talking about stiff penalties for those involved in election malpractices, are political parties exempted?

Of course, they are involved. Political parties are the machinery for either to refine the electoral process or corrupt it. What Jega said two days ago, that it is very difficult to deal with politicians; that is what he meant. Jega had been in the university, the nearest he has come to the public, as the chairman of ASUU which is still part of the university. For him now to come out and deal with these people is a difficult thing. Politicians and political parties are important.

The worst thing we have done to ourselves is to create this riotous situation with 62 political parties. It is a big country and all the institutions must serve to bring the people together. When you have 62 political parties, you are creating avenues for disuniting us. That is what they are doing; and of the 62 parties, they only talk about one mega party. So in effect, you are having one party state and Nigerian politicians are not like the Awolowo of the old who would stand on principle.

They want to belong where the resources are or why do you think everybody rushes to PDP? In other words, we not developing our democracy. If you had two, you will be sure that one will stand as an alternative to the other. I had thought the opposition parties will come together; they have not because most of them have no ideological basis. There are only two ideologies in the World: whether to the left, or to the right or you are at the centre.

At the moment we are having this upheaval in the Arab world. And you said the 2011 elections are crucial to the survival of the nation. In case it turns out to be the reverse, do you foresee any such protest in this country even as they claim that Nigerians are 'unshockable '

I don't think you are right. Nigerians are peace-loving people.  But Nigerians are not by any means, unconscious of their rights. It is true that right now, we are struggling to use the existing machinery to strengthen those liberties; that's why the court are so busy. We thank God that Nigeria has reached a point where we take our grievances to court. And the courts have more or less been able to maintain some semblance of respectability.

But should the court lose that privilege, I don't think rulers should take Nigerians for granted. The thrust of the matter is that there is a lot of suffering in the land. Things are hard, very very hard. When I go into the village- I'm a village man, you see how people live in the 21st century. And what they are asking for, is exactly what the Arabs are asking for: very simply things -water, light, health facilities, education, security, peace. Unfortunately for us, we have language for all expressions. What is basically socio-political and economic, we call it religious. Religion becomes the convenient vehicle for ventilating grievances in the society. Sometimes we call it ethnic conflicts. Ethnic conflicts are fuelled by the disaffection of the people. 

One of the things you learn about plural societies is that there must be a way of managing the people in such a way that where they come from becomes less and less important and where they are going becomes more and more important. You wean them out of their primordial sentiment. But you must have a vision where you are taking them. 

Look at Akwa Ibom where we are now, in 2011, the main issue in Akwa Ibom elections is still on ethnicity: the Annang, Oron. I can understand it but it also shows we have failed. In fact that is what I talked about in Akwa Ibom State and people thought I was crazy. We have failed. In a year and a half ago, I said that there need to be a dialogue among ethnic groups in the state. I said it was time for the government, traditional institutions, the academics, the progressive intellectuals and the media to come together and hammer on an Akwa Ibom accord.

By that, I meant, you come together and agree that since there was a philosophy behind the creation of the state, the tripod,  now sit down and spell out what that tripod means bearing in mind the socio-political complex of each of the component units. If a foreigner was sharing things and you can agree on, and then let us come down to what I call the Akwa Ibom State accord for unity. Take away this fight, because it doesn't matter if Godswill Akpabio wins election. In the second year there will be trouble because you have not dealt with the problem. You have used power to cover it up. But these things are fed by excessive poverty in the land.

 There is a lot of poverty in Nigeria and that is the root of corruption, insecurity; the root of almost everything. Young people graduate, seven years they have no job and they have read enough history to know how people organize guerrila warfare in other places. They now reach the point of organizing guerrila warfare.  In other words, they organize kidnapping. So the sooner we admit that there is work to be done in Nigeria, the better for us. The Arabs didn't see what is happening; you cannot cover it up for too long. So I pray, it doesn't get to that point in Nigeria. Nigeria has assets which can be harnessed to arrest that situation but those assets must be critically mobilized.

We cannot assume that there is no poverty here. We cannot assume that things are getting better when the fact is they are not. We cannot assure that unemployment is something you can live with; we cannot assume that our young people who need to move towards their destiny and are happy. No, they are not. 

You got a very challenging job as NECON chairman in 1993. Why did you accept it?

That is a very interesting question. I didn't take it. The assumption is that I took it, I didn't take it. Though you have to understand. From the time I entered secondary school in 1956. I was motivated by two things: one, to get to the top of my profession as an academic as early as possible. I became a professor at the age of 30 in the United States I was teaching at Howard University. Other plan was to be a public servant. In other words, whatever that God has blessed me with must be invested in serving the public.

I didn't manufacture that idea but my model was Professor Eyo Ita. I lived with him. So I grew up with these two ideas; Don't shy away from public encounters. When I was in the U.S, I matched with Martin Luther King in Washington DC so I got familiar with another aspect of public service which was the real test of the public spiritedness. It comes at the time of controversy. Your mind doesn't come out if things don't happen. These times of controversy and challenge are when your manhood is tested. Now when you bring those three together, I begin to answer your question. But it must be understood; nobody ever asked me if I ever wanted to be chairman of INEC (NECON).

I was ambassador in Argentina for six years and came back to the University of Calabar where I started teaching my courses in 1992. One Friday evening, somebody called me from Lagos, he said congratulations. I said; what for? He said you have been appointed chairman of INEC (NECON) but why were you not there? because they were swearing in the commission on that Friday. I wasn't there, check your record. The announcement was that the chairman, Prof. Okon Uya will be sworn in later. It was Saturday morning that Mustapha called, he said that he tried to reach me on Thursday evening – you know not now you have this GSM. He said the president wanted to see me; that he asked why I wasn't there for the swearing-in.

 In other words, I knew nothing about it and it was on Saturday I got the information. On Sunday I went to church, Wesley Methodist Church and asked the church to pray for me. People were crying, the church, everyone was crying, Bishop Usoro himself was crying. But God said to me 'go'. I left here on Monday morning.

When I left here, I had no money to buy a return ticket to Abuja so it was my cousin, who bought the one to take me to Abuja. The one to come back, I took my wife's money to buy. I arrived only with only my briefcase and my gown to wear and sleep in the hotel.  But I was determined. If I go and what I hear doesn't interest me, I'll come back. When I went; as if they knew, they said that the president had ordered that I should be brought to Aso Rock so they took me directly to Aso Rock. On reaching there, they told me the president (Babangida) and some people – Diya, Shonekan, etc – were having a meeting. But Babangida just gave order to let me come in.

So I went in. The first question he asked me was similar to one you are asking me now: 'Why didn't you come'? I said, Sir, I was never told. Why didn't you tell me you were going to ask me?' You know what he told me? He said he knew if he had told me I would have said no. Then he added 'but they say you are my friend' and I said I was his friend, but there is reason for that friendship. He said 'you are my friend, why don't you come and help.' And then he reminded me that I had written a dispatch from Argentina when Professor Eme Awa conducted the election. I wrote a dispatch trying to explain what things went wrong. Babangida reminded me of my dispatch outlining how this thing could be done better so he invited me to come and do it. In other words, I didn't have the privilege of saying 'yes I will go'. He just confronted me with problems and I remembered it was my test, my public spiritedness and till tomorrow I'm very happy I went.

It has become the most difficult part of my life, people don't remember me for all the teachings in the University for 42 years, or all the things  I  have done around the world. But those few months in the INEC (NECON) of insults and abuse everyday of it; but I was very satisfied because I knew, I am of Christian, if I had not gone there, this country would not have gotten anything. Because of who I was, Babangida trusted me. So as I explained to you earlier, when I went to him and told him something, he listened which was quite the contrary with what was obtained in Humphrey Nwosu's era. When people talk about June 12 and how the crisis arose, people don't know anything about it but I will tell you about it when the time is right.

The day we held completed update of voters register, and they had thought (the group was planning to take over had thought) the exercise will fail, but when we met at the federal executive council, the reports came in that we could not succeed in only two states: Ogun and Lagos. We said, if you concentrate on how to settle the problems in Ogun and Lagos, we could have an election. So before giving the results, let's go ahead. They listened and I did not know those who were listening. So that Monday meeting was over. The next Saturday was to be ward congress of parties to get their presidential candidate. So, that Tuesday we left, I was supposed to get the warrant for money on Wednesday for the parties.

Wednesday morning I was to see the acting head of state (Shonekan), By 9.30 my phone rang and said His Excellency say, you should not bother to come, he has approved your request. When did His Excellency approve request? And what actually happened was that the same Abacha group had taken over Aso Rock, was holding Shonekan to sign this document and instructed they should cancel all his appointments. I was not aware that there was a coup. Of course even if I was aware, what would I have done?  Nothing! so that was the sad part of it. And that November 18, I woke up in the night and prayed and said for the first time, this country is not worth dying for. Because those two months, I was living with death, so I decided to leave. B,ut they said I shouldn't leave but stay in Abuja and my mind was not to work with any military. So I have not regretted.

Were you relieved when it was all over?
No I wasn't relieved. I thought I would be allowed to conduct elections. My desire was to conduct elections. I said this earlier, that many of the things done now and by those who came after me, including (Abel) Guobadia who just died, are our programmes. Because when we came in we worked on scenarios and on documents.

So I am satisfied that, at least, I was there when the country needed someone to rally around and salvage the country from the road that it was going. Abacha's regime wouldn't have taken the shield it took if we didn't do what had been done.We would have lost the southwest of this country. I don't regret it. I'm only trying to say that it wasn't like I rushed for the job.

If you had known about the appointment in advance, would you have rejected it? 

I would have said no. After six years away from teaching – my first love is teaching – I wanted to come back and teach my students. But Babangida wouldn't ask me because I would say no. He knew I would say no. I knew he was in trouble because of the day he said to me 'you say you're my friend so come and help your friend' and I don't abandon my friends when they are in trouble.

 My concern for Nigeria?
The only thing I want to add is the concern for the country. I don't think we have done well. In 50 years, I think with all the things God has blessed us with, we should have done better. There is really no excuse for Nigeria to be called underdeveloped country or third-world country what so ever. Everything, all the indices of growth and greatness are present but unfortunately, we are not blessed with the kind of leadership that can pull us together; that can say to us: no, we cannot continue this way. People say they want change, not just ordinary change but a change with transformation and leadership that commits itself to creating conditions where Nigerians have a satisfaction that they belong to a great country.

I don't think we have succeeded in doing that and one of the things that bothers me is that successive governments have developed narrow understanding of democratic dividends and  that has  become a favourite term in Nigeria. Most of the time, it is misunderstood. Dividends of democracy must not be confused with the legitimate expectations of people from the government. When you have a government, there are things you expect the government to do, whether it is democratic or not. Here is an irony: Nigerian experience shows that the military has done more of those things than the ally elected government. Such things as provisions for road, water, light, education.

Those are legitimate basic expectation of the people from any government but what have we done? Our leaders, eventually at all levels, have taken that to mean dividends. Dividend is something you add after you satisfied basic needs. I think there should be massive education for those in government to appreciate that the dividends of democracy deal more with the life of the people. In the beginning, you said Nigeria is a very happy land. The happiness you talk about in Nigeria is a framed one when for example you cannot walk on the streets freely. In my own state, any time I go there my wife reminds me to lock the car to avoid kidnapping and assassination.

So; it does not matter what infrastructure has been put in place when governance refuses to understand that the quality of the life of the people is key. Take for instance, in America, you hardly see an American who tells you that their country is terrible, it doesn't exist. No matter how things are in America, Americans will tell you, their country is the best country in the whole wide world. That is a country like us and I believe that the government be put to hold in that direction. Transform not just infrastructure, transform also lifestyles and livelihood and above all, the living expectations of the people of Nigeria. I believe we should be moving towards that direction in the country.

God loves Nigeria very much. Even the Egypt thing they are talking about is part of the secret. If half the things happening in this country happen in other countries, they will revolt. So, God loves Nigeria but you see, we should not abuse the love of God because God shows you love and grace but he can become your enemy. My prayer is that we should never make God angry.