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Recently, the Professor Ango Abdullahi-led Northern Elders Forum, a non-governmental organisation,  held a meeting and released a communiqué. One item in the communiqué has since got me scratching my head like a student whose university professor deploys vocabulary that’s way above his head.  With this particular item, Abdullahi,  a former Vice-Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria,  has, for me,  in effect returned a marked script but which I want reviewed. Among all of Abdullahi’s marks on this script, the call for the scrapping of state independent electoral commissions is the one I find most concerning.

Now, there’re Nigerians that we know exactly where they stand on national issues. In fact, we know where they stand in this nation’s history. Prof. Ango Abdullahi is one of them. Like many in his generation who now speak for the part of the country they come from, he speaks in the interest of northerners and for this, he’s an immensely popular figure across the North. But  Abdullahi, whom I visited at his Zaria residence last year, is an elder statesman who transcends the North. For he’s always taken a position that ensures that Nigeria moves forward. He did this in the past, and he continues to do it, so he’s an elder statesman I have enormous respect for.  Abdullahi has a prominent seat in our nation’s political history.

The call for the scrapping of SIECs has been in the public space for some years. I’ve followed all the arguments. They go thus: SIECs are tools used by state governments to manipulate elections. If they’re scrapped, FG’s electoral commission can take the process over and do a better job. But I’ve always taken a different view and, here again, I state my reasons. In our nation, we like shortcuts. Some still want a uniformed man in Abuja to point a finger and everything magically happens in the 36 states. They’re impatient to have things painstakingly worked at and improved.

But democracy isn’t just about having men, who wear flowing babariga as elected officials. Democracy is also about painstakingly building structures and improving processes that make democratic practice work. We started this work two decades ago.  The kind of call Abdullahi and his men made could truncate it.  Each time some impatiently mumble military rule I remind them that it’s a shortcut. The military will still have to step aside for elected civilians and when they do the problems we avoid by impatiently calling on boys in khaki will still be there waiting for us to fix. No outsider would fix them. Boys in uniform won’t. It’s a job for you and me.  That’s the experience in western democracies.

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Each time calls are made that amount to taking a shortcut, my concern is that we’re avoiding the tedious job needed in strengthening our democratic structures, norms, and processes. Such calls amount to pursuing a policy of “technology transfer” rather than developing ours, something that hasn’t worked for the development of our economy. The resort to shortcuts, which the call for the scrapping of SIECs amounts to, is like asking to be given fish rather than being taught how to fish. This call is the same as arguing that we shouldn’t have state police because state governments would use the police to victimise opposition party members as though that’s the original aim of establishing a police force.

Calls such as asking that SIECs be scrapped because they aren’t perfect and, then, giving their duties to FG’s Independent National Electoral Commission amount to saying that FG is perfect and that its operatives cannot be compromised. We know from evidence that such a view is far from reality.  We know past INEC chairmen and their subordinates, whose names are enmeshed in accusations of doing the bidding of state governors. Each time we have issues with the conduct of affairs at the state level, we advocate giving the responsibility to the FG. When Local Government Areas don’t perform on some indices we ask that states take such over. This is escapism. Shortcut.  No nation goes anywhere that way.

The call made by Abdullahi and his men also overlooks the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to sit up and demand that state institutions serve the people. If SIECs aren’t working fine, there’s the place of legal provisions that can remedy the lapses. There’s also the place of people who should collectively demand that SIECs work in their interest as citizens. This is majorly how the effective electoral machinery in western democracies arrived where they are. A reading of some of the strange historical occurrences in the US balloting processes, for instance, would show this to be the case.  Here in Nigeria though, we want to have everything like fast food without citizens doing anything to demand that the election machinery be made to function as it should.

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Meanwhile, many NGOs have taken on the task of advocating that not just SIECs but INEC works for citizens and that elections are transparent, free and fair. The call by Abdullahi and his men will make nonsense of the achievements recorded so far. Years of striving and gaining, one step at a time, on some of the reforms already carried out mainly due to the efforts of these NGOs would be wasted. Meanwhile, if SIECs are scrapped and their roles are given to INEC, one day there will still be a call to set them up. Then we start all over the process of getting SIECs to work well for citizens. That’s taking one step forward and taking ten backwards.  Our democratic practices can’t be improved that way.

Here, I return to the matter of the relationship between Abuja and the 36 states. There were reasons we adopted federalism as some of us were taught in Government and in Political Science. Those reasons are why we have states and state electoral commissions. With their call, Abdullahi and his men are saying we should discard our federalism, however imperfect, and replace it with a unitary system. How many Nigerians would support that at a time most activists are out demanding decentralisation of power. At a time many Nigerians go to courts with the intention of taking powers from Abuja, the call by Abdullahi and his men means they want more powers for Abuja.  They’re moving against the trend and this, to me, leaves Abdullahi and his men in the minority with regard to any measures that could further empower the FG.

NEF’s call also brings up the matter of the fear of the unknown that seems to make many Nigerians call for shortcuts.  Meanwhile, most of such calls aren’t fully considered to the point that they can really address the root causes of whatever it is that people fear.  Shortcuts can’t obliterate our challenges. Rather they postpone them. Note: The development of any nation itself is a journey into the unknown. A democratic journey such as the one we’ve embarked upon is a journey into the unknown. Every effort we make to improve the resilience of our democratic structures is a journey into the unknown. Knowledge of the political history of western democracies would make one realise that citizens who started the democratic journey centuries ago only hopefully forged on, realising that failure to fight and improve their democracies was worse than painstakingly doing something. People sweated, lost their lives to make possible the shining democratic structures that we point to in western democracies. Here we don’t want to lift a finger,  organise our people,  strive and ensure that our democratic institutions work as we wish.

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Rather than continue to make the call to scrap SIECs, I think Abdullahi and the wise men he leads should use their good offices to try and fix whatever is wrong with SIECs since this matters to them so much. For instance, eminent Nigerians such as the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence, Saad Abubakar, and Bishop Martin Kukah of the Sokoto Catholic Diocese are doing their bit to keep violence out of our elections. This is the kind of thing I want our wise elders such as Abdullahi to be doing for us at this time.  Working to improve the performance of our democratic institutions, including SIECs, is what we should all engage in rather than sidestep the challenges this entails by seeking shortcuts.

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