Nigeria needs massive voter education to win back people’s confidence, says Babawale

The recent flag-off of presidential campaigns by candidates of the two major political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has reopened debate about the power of the electorate in deciding who becomes their next president. Candidates of both parties, as usual, presented to Nigerians, policy documents of their campaigns, which have become subject of national discourse. This may not be new, as we have had the finest policy documents in the past, but none have been impactful on the socio-political and economic lives of Nigerians. Elections in Nigeria since 1999 have been characterised by voter apathy and general lack of faith in the system.

In this interview, political scientist and Electoral Commissioner in the Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC), Professor Tunde Babawale, proffers solutions, with emphasis on winning back the trust of the electorate through “measurable performance” and “voter education’ that involves multi-stakeholders in approach, design and execution.” Babawale, a former Dean, Students Affairs at the University of Lagos, has also served as director general of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC).

As an Electoral Commissioner in Lagos State, what do you think are the main problems hampering electoral process in Nigeria?
One problem confronting the electoral process in Nigeria and by extension, Lagos, is crippling voter apathy, which is partly a reflection of people’s disaffection with governance.
I remember that the last local government election in Lagos last year recorded a voter turnout of less than 11 per cent of registered voters. As a political scientist, I have tried to analyse it and my findings show that people don’t expect much and don’t feel like they have a duty to discharge, and also probably that their votes might not count.

I also think that there is a need to engage in massive voter education and sensitisation programme across the board. It should not be a one-off thing; it should be consistent, continuous and comprehensive. We should let the people know that it is a civic obligation that they need to discharge. You cannot be a citizen if you don’t take part in elections, because you lose the right to complain about bad governance, the road to your house not being done, water not flowing in your house, you not having electricity, etc, because elections provide an opportunity for you to influence governance by putting in place those you think can deliver good governance in your community. This was the major problem I could see with the electoral process, not just in Lagos, but also across the country.

You mentioned winning back the people’s trust and voter education. Who are to lead these?
It is a societal thing. Government can take the lead, but it should not be left to government alone. When I say societal, I mean civil society and community-based organisations should be involved in the sensitisation efforts, as leaving it to government alone may not make the process as effective as it should be. Government can reach out, but those organisations should also come up with ideas on how they can extend the frontier of voter education programme.

It seems to me that community-based organisations are going to enjoy greater confidence among the people, who are likely to believe them more. After all, they are not doing it because they are asking for votes; but because they genuinely feel it would contribute to the emancipation of our society and institutionalisation of good governance.

So, what role does poverty play in voter apathy? In the last governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states and elsewhere, we had complaints of vote-buying. How can you relate that with the solutions you have suggested?
Voter apathy is one of the reasons we have vote-buying. I can link poverty with the selling of votes. In other words, people sell votes because they feel they need the money that politicians are willing to offer. Voter apathy is a function of people’s lack of interest in the political process and alienation from government, the feeling that government is not relevant to their needs, and understandably so, because people contribute money in their communities to build gates, employ security and buy transformers in order to have electricity.

So, of what relevance is government to those who have literally become governments on their own? 
People have been forced by non-performing governments to, on their own, take effective control of the provision of municipal services, which should be government’s responsibility. That, in my view, is responsible for voter apathy. But our politicians, being very smart, instead of working to change the paradigm of voter apathy, are exploiting it. What I see is a cynical exploitation of voter apathy by the political class to subvert due process and credible elections.

It would have been expected that when people fail to come out to vote, politicians would try to go out to encourage them to do their civic duties. They don’t want a referendum on their performance, because going out to vote would have been a referendum on their performance. They don’t want that, because they are not accountable. Cynically, they feel ‘if people don’t come, we can entice them with goody-goodies’ and the goody bag contains money. It seems like the political class in Nigeria is deliberately impoverishing people in order to make them permanent and perpetual victims of vote-buying. After all, if people are comfortable, they are not likely to sell their votes. I don’t agree with those who think that those who sell their votes are not aware of the implications of what they are doing. They know, but they have resigned to fate and contented with the anomalous situation.

I would tell you a story that my elder brother told me in the last Osun State election. A neighbour of his was already negotiating the price for his own Permanent Voters Card (PVC) and my brother warned him and told him, ‘look, you are destroying your children’s future by selling your PVC.’ The man’s response was, ‘please, forget about tomorrow. There’s always a day after tomorrow.’

The general belief is that Lagos is working. From your research, what could be responsible for less than 11 per cent of voters’ turnout during the last council election in the state?
You know, the result was better some years ago, especially between 1999 and 2007 during Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s tenure, and of course, to some extent, the figure for 2011 was slightly higher. Yes, Lagos is performing, but so have the problems of Lagos and those who live there expanded beyond what the government itself imagines. It is to show us that there is a need for us, especially the government in Lagos, to do more than it is doing. No one is saying it is not performing, the only reaction we can get from people, “we are not interested in voting,’ does not suggest that they believe we are performing as much as they expect. It means that there is a need to probably find a way of commissioning a study across the state to know the specific problems of each community.

There is a general effort to upgrade infrastructure, but you may have communities that actually feel what they need is a health centre and when that is not provided and people die, they are not happy with government. For some, it may just be schools they need. Yes, you may see bridges and flyovers, but that is not enough; we must be able to address the people’s needs, not what we think they need. The paradigm we have not really used is to respond to people’s actual needs. Our target is to respond to a smart city; a mega city, but everybody cannot be in the megacity at the same time, so we must go to those who are not yet part of the mega dream and look at their mini demands and address them.

That is where we are missing it; we have not really identified what the various communities in the state actually need, as opposed to what we think they need, which are the modern things we are putting in place. So, if a people need a dispensary and you give them road, you have not addressed their problem. And if a people need a school and you don’t give them a school, but you give them something else, they may not even benefit from it. A lot of work has been done, but there is still more work to be done. Our people are not stupid.

My worry is that our political parties, especially the two leading ones, are no longer selling programmes; they are selling prejudices and sentiments, because it is difficult now to distinguish the programme of one from the other and say that, this is why I am voting for this party.

Beyond voter education and regaining the trust of Nigerians, what are other specific solutions to tackle voter apathy?
The other thing is for government to do more than it is doing and embrace the modern system we have all over the world by letting the young people know the importance of voting. For instance, in the United Kingdom (UK), a year before you attain the voting age, government sends you a notice that, ‘don’t forget next year you are going to turn 18. Part of what you need to do as a voting adult is to register, so that you can have voting power.’ Every child is meant to go through that and it makes you feel important. It is like saying, ‘that is my identity card.’

Let the Nigerian government and politicians make our PVCs more like our identity card. That is a way of encouraging our people to know its importance. Government must make promises that are manageable, concrete promises that can be realised within a four-year tenure. Nobody must attempt to do everything at the same time. Let us have key points that are measurable, in terms of their impact on the living conditions of the people. Once we have that, successive governments would take off from there. Look at the Lagos-Ibadan road. Why would we not have a government that would be able to complete it for once? Can’t we have a federal government that would say, ‘look, even if it is two years. One of my targets is that I have selected six major roads from the six geo-political zones and we are going to complete them.’ That can now be a significant achievement for any government.

Whatever anybody says about (former military President, Gen. Ibrahim) Babangida today, he gave us the Third Mainland Bridge. The governments we have had in the last 10 years or more, could they have given us a Third Mainland Bridge, when they haven’t given us Lagos-Ibadan expressway? 
This current government came up with a three-point agenda – fight against corruption and insecurity, revitalising the economy and building infrastructure. What is your take on these?If you ask me as a political scientist, I think at the level of infrastructure, it has made some efforts, but it could do more. We could do better than we have done in security. The economy suffered from the initial lull in governance and the unintended consequence of the way we advertise corruption. It is not in our best interest.

There is corruption in India, China too, even though it is a communist state, Pakistan, Turkey, etc, but there is a way they make it look like an aberration and not the norm. I am not saying you should hide it, but put in place structures that automatically take care of corruption without a lot of noise and drama and it ends there. That is one lesson that we have learnt, which I want government to learn, that we should focus more on letting the system have a structure that takes care of corruption without much ado.

Secondly, we should concentrate more on preventive measures. Fighting corruption after the act had been committed is like locking the stable door after the horse had bolted, and we waste a lot of time and resources employing lawyers, Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) when we would have stopped it from happening. There are so many ways. If government displays fidelity to making transactions with transparency, purely electronic, that is one sure way of doing it.

This idea started as far back as the (late former President Umaru Musa) Yar’Adua era, when he said, ‘look, no more cheques,’ but that is being violated now. In spite of the fact that we have Treasury Singular Account (TSA), people still carry cash. We must enact a law that makes all government transactions cashless, so that such transactions could be trailed.

Would the Not-Too-Young-To-Run Act make any difference in our electoral system, thereby encouraging young people to show interest in politics?
The odds are against the youth. I look at people like Fela Durotoye, Omoyele Sowore and others. It is interesting to see them making efforts, but we know that they can only go so far, because the odds are against them, not out of any fault of theirs, but the existing structure cannot accommodate people who don’t have a large quantum of resources and extensive network across the country.

They are so used, especially the political class, to exploiting the prejudices and sentiments as instruments of political negotiations, which these young ones are not used to. So, it is now the duty of the young ones. I like the fact that they are coming up. They should not be discouraged, even if we cannot have them in government in the next five years, but it is a good development that we have the Act. We must let the youth know that developed nations were developed by their youth, regardless of obstacles in their way.

There would be obstacles, but those who win or triumph are those who are able to surmount those obstacles. Living itself is full of obstacles and it is only those who are able to surmount obstacles that survive. When you wake up in the morning, you have to think of electricity to iron your clothes, a vehicle to take you to your destination, etc, and it is a daily affair. But you must have to learn the habit of being able to overcome them. That is my advice to the youth. It is going to be rough having access to the power structure and taking control of the power structure, but those who did it in other countries were able to do it regardless of the very big obstacles in their way. Our youth must not relent; they must not give up.

As an electoral umpire, how do you see preparations for next year’s general elections by INEC?
So far, it has been excellent!

In spite of all the complaints?
Complaints about what?

For instance, the opposition parties say INEC is biased? 
When you talk about bias, it is not an objective assessment. I am talking of objective assessment, in terms of what we see at the level of preparations. I think it is an excellent one.
What I think that INEC should do, which it is not doing, is be firm. It easily gives up when confronted with problems that can rubbish all its efforts, such as vote-buying or people trying to manipulate the process and security agencies, saying it is not its job. But if those you have employed to do the job mess it up, the buck stops at your table. So, it must find a way of ensuring that everybody that participates in the process contributes to the success, not the failure, as ultimately, the success or failure of the exercise would be attributed to INEC.

INEC folds its arms and allows extraneous forces to thwart whatever structure it has put in place to bring about successful and credible elections. It has to go beyond presenting an image of a helpless institution that cannot do anything. It must begin to think outside the box and find a way of ensuring that those who participate in elections are people who share its vision about having credible, free and fair elections.

In what ways can state electoral commission participate in the conduct of general elections?
We can help in the areas of logistics, assisting to move men and materials and providing manpower where necessary. Our electoral officers are well trained and can be useful to INEC, if their services are required.

One, we have all agreed that we have a challenge of leadership, so there is a need for us to work towards what we call transformational leadership, which is what helps in turning around the society. We have had too much of regular and sometimes mediocre kind of leadership, but we need a type of leadership that is unusual, that would put genuinely the interest of the people in the front burner of government policies and activities, would avoid distractions and find a way of actively bringing people into governance. Right now, maybe because of political differences, we are even taking people away from governance. I believe we can do better than we are doing now.

Two, I also think followership has a lot to do. The followership must not lose focus on its responsibility as citizens. Those who want to come to equity, as they say, must come with clean hands. If you want to say government hasn’t performed its duties, have you performed your own responsibilities and civic obligations as a citizen? Do you see yourself more as a citizen or as a subject? A subject does not ask questions; a citizen does.

There is nothing that stops us, if we perform our civic responsibilities of paying taxes, from doing community duties. Nothing stops us from asking questions and asking our government to be accountable. That is what people do in developed societies. But we seem to remain fatalistic, leaving the issue of asking for accountability to God, holding on to the ‘God will judge our ancestors’ refrain. No, God wouldn’t judge those governments for you; the only way you can judge your government is to change them when they are not doing well, using the power of your votes. These are the two major problems that I see- citizen apathy or citizens’ helplessness and bad leadership- and it has become axiomatic for people to say that the major problem we face is the problem of leadership.

How do we tackle the issue of godfatherism in the country’s political system?
Godfatherism has become a hydra-headed monster in our political system, because the political process is becoming more corrupted. The moment we sanitise the process by reducing the cost of participating in elections, stop vote-buying and other vices, we will see immediate termination of the power of political godfathers. Don’t forget that in times past, especially in the Second Republic, you would find in the Senate or House of Representatives, only people who have made their marks in their chosen professions in Nigeria. It was their own names, their own track records that earned them those positions, not godfathers.

The process is now corrupted and political offices are now available only to the highest bidders. Expression of Interest and Nomination Forms have to be collected before people can contest, and they are usually expensive. That has to stop. Let people go and contest. Let it be affordable to all and sundry, so that people can now choose based on the character of those they are nominating. That means you have made the money provided by the godfathers useless. If he doesn’t pay for your expression of interest or nomination forms, he cannot dictate to you how you should vote in parliament. I can tell you that our people are ready to remove all those obstacles. So, we can go back to that paradigm- re-sanitising the political process and removing godfatherism from Nigerian politics.

Since governance ought to be a continuum and given the volume of work you did as director general of CBAAC from 2006 to 2014, what is your take on the running of the centre after your departure four years ago?
Unfortunately, one has not been happy to see how the gains we made over an eight-year period had literally been eroded and some of the achievements we recorded for Nigeria seemed to have been erased. We entered into partnerships with some diaspora organisations, especially in the Caribbean Islands, such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and many parts of Africa, but perhaps, for reasons best known to those who took charge, no serious attempts have been made to consolidate on those achievements.But as we say, government is a continuum and I am seeing a ray of light. A new broom is there now, even if it is temporary. I can see efforts being made to give the place a facelift, even though they had limitations of funding, which could be part of the problem, but would not explain the lethargy that overtook the institution for four years. More should have been done.

One of the things we achieved at the Ministry of Culture, not just CBAAC alone, was that culture took the centre stage in many institutions in Nigeria. Some 15 years ago, not many universities, even secondary schools, devoted specific days to culture. However, within the last 10 years, that has become institutionalised in the country.Students’ societies in the universities now have their own cultural days, when they put on traditional wears associated with their own communities and their linguistic groups. I also know that there have been a lot of diaspora people that have been attracted to Nigeria, for instance, because of the activities of these agencies, including CBAAC. I believe government has a big role to play in making these agencies work.

It must be painstaking in the kind of people it puts in charge. There is a need to always put round pegs in round holes. People’s pedigree should always be taken into consideration for political appointments. There must be effective monitoring and periodic assessment of what each agency does in promoting culture, and government must publicise this assessment, even if it is to a gathering of the agencies themselves, to promote healthy competition.

Most importantly, there is a need to increase the level of funding. I can tell you authoritatively that the funding of cultural agencies has been epileptic, even by the current government. Why are they not doing that for other sectors? If people are not cultured, there is no amount of school that they can go to. If you do not develop the culture of a community, the education that you develop would be deficient. This is where I think government has a big role to play.

I would encourage my colleagues in charge of some of the agencies to do more than they are doing. After all, if we say there is problem of funding, we have an agency like the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) that even within the limitations of funding has been doing a few things. That means the leadership is thinking outside the box and thinking creatively about how to make a difference. Let others follow in that footstep. Government must also have a template for commending those who do well and reprimanding those who don’t do well. This would incentivise performance.

As a professional, you are multitasked in the civil service and academia. How did you manage to create your own work-life balance?
I think they are intertwined, in a way. I was trained as a political scientist, which makes this particular job of electoral commissioner easy for me, because I have written about four or five books about Nigerian elections. I am somehow on a familiar terrain.

In the area of culture, I got there by accident, even though I actually had a bit of knowledge about the subject. I read History for my first degree, so I know a little bit about culture. There is no way you want to talk about history without talking about a people’s culture. Thankfully again, as a young academic growing up, I got very close to a number of colleagues who were academic and professional artists and because of the discourses we engaged in almost on a daily basis, sooner than later, I became versed in the subject and as an undergraduate, I did courses in archaeology, without knowing it was going to be useful for me.

I think nature and nurture brought me into culture. As I said, the two are intertwined. To talk about culture, you need to first understand society, the people’s behaviour. Political Science deals with political behaviour. That is an aspect of behaviour, which culture enables me to have understudied. As a child, I grew up in a cultural context where rural people cherished culture. So, I lived it as a child. I could feel it and I knew it. That is why there are no conflicts. I am able to strike a balance in my role as an academic, my interest in culture and my role as a government official.

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