• ‘Politicians even buy votes with dollars’
By DEMOLA AKINYEMI, Ilorin
Mallam Yusuf Olaolu Ali, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), bares his mind on the myriad of challenges confronting the country, including politics, the economy and pervasive insecurity.
What do you think is wrong with our political system in Nigeria that we haven’t got right all this while?
I have always held a view that, until we reform our political parties system, good governance is going to elude our country. Today in our country, I liken the political parties to a decayed tooth. That is the state of our parties. There is too much money in our politics but, unfortunately, it is not money meant to canvass for votes or to encourage people to register for votes. In other climes, money spent on elections and electoral processes is usually dedicated to advertisement, mobilisation and creating awareness for people on why they should vote for the parties they want. In our own clime, the money is not spent that way. An aspirant contesting for political office, first of all, has to spend money to buy delegates; we have heard stories of even dollars being spent to buy delegates.
Money is also set aside for those who will conduct and supervise election. If we want to make progress in this country, we must be truthful. And I give you an example. If a man has four buildings and he sold three because he wants to contest for an office, if he wins, the first thing he would do is to recoup his investment, and that’s what happens in this country. People sell property, mortgage assets to get to political office. So, if they get there, it is almost a foregone conclusion… or even if they don’t sell their own personal things, others sell their things to sponsor them to get there, and who pays the piper dictates the tune. I do not see how a man will invest millions or billions on your election and you stand and say it means nothing.
So, once you come from such a compromised position, no matter the ideals, no matter your principles, it is three quarters gone. We must find a way of getting back to the politics of the past. In the First Republic in this country and I was old enough to know, members of political parties had contribution cards. Whenever you attended the meetings of your party in your ward, you pay money. And that was the payment that sustained your name on the party’s register. Once you are not a member that was paying his dues, your name would be struck off from the register of the political parties.
Owners of parties
But we now have owners of parties in Nigeria, and you can identify them. And any party that is not owned by an individual, it is a conglomerate of individuals that owns it. All the parties that collapsed and became one, they had their own financiers differently. And my argument is simple: You can’t produce a clean government from a murky political environment. It is either you sold your own things to get into power or others sold their things to assist you to get to power. If you get there, you have to pay back one way or the other. You either pay back in cash or in kind. And if you want to pay back in kind, it gives rise to nepotism, cronyism, which is a form of corruption. If people get positions or entitlements for which ordinarily they are not entitled by law, what are we talking about? So, I think there must be proper reformation of political parties. I know that in the Electoral Act, there is a provision that political parties should not spend more than some amount in an election, but INEC is too weak to enforce that provision.
All the money that is spent at different congresses and conventions, nobody puts it in any account. So, in a money economy like we have, where there is too much money outside of the monetary system, not even the Central Bank can keep tab of how much money is in circulation. And not only that, there are offences created by the Electoral Act. I do not believe we need a special tribunal to try electoral offenders, no. We are creating too many things when the ones that exist are not being properly funded. We just need the political will to apprehend offenders. Getting things right starts from apprehending those who committed electoral offences. How many people have ever been arrested for electoral offences and what happened to them? So, even if you create a court for electoral offenders, they would have to be brought there first before they would be tried. So, if there are no offenders brought, who do you try? That is where to start. We must first of all ensure that those who committed electoral offences are apprehended and they are brought to justice.
Issues ahead of 2019
I believe that we must look at all these issues as we approach 2019: How we reduce the monetization of our electoral process, starting from within the political parties up to time of elections. I think that is a serious challenge. I’m not a pessimist but I don’t see a bright future in the implementation of some of these suggestions, at least not in this immediate foreseeable future.
If INEC is empowered to check the funding of political parties and it is not doing its work, are there any options available in the system?
I don’t think INEC is equipped sufficiently to do it. I’m not sure of any system in place, to track what incomes the parties are generating, to track what they spend when they are having their meetings and congresses. We must, first of all, know the quantum of what is spent before you know whether it is in excess or under. I don’t think there is any machinery in place to know the amount political parties or the godfathers are spending.
For INEC to do that, it must be independent not only in terms of the law but also in terms of the personnel, the character of the people who work there; and the same thing goes with the issue of fighting of corruption. Once you put men of character in strategic places to do these things, you will achieve result. I don’t think law is the problem we have; it is the implementation of what we have. There is no offence in the world that is not penalised in our laws. I have tried to check, I can’t see any.
But what is the level of implementation of those laws, and that is where you have people of character and then you talk of strong institutions, not strong men; institutions that can withstand the vagaries of politics and political manipulations, institutions that can stand firm even in the face of those who appointed the heads, institutions where Nigeria will come first, not elected officials coming first, institutions that hold their existence to the people, that know that tomorrow, there would be a day of account. America is not a super country. It is because they have strong institutions. In spite of the fact that (Donald) Trump had won an election, they continue with the probe of Russia meddling in the election of 2016. I can imagine that if it were to be this country, people would say why are you troubling them since they have won the election? But they are doing that because their institutions are strong. Until we build strong institutions in Nigeria, we will just be dancing round.
Since the 2019 elections are around the corner, don’t you think it is time a bill is sponsored at the National Assembly to curtail this pervasive money politics in the country?
It is the willpower that we need. You can make the law, human beings, by nature, look for loopholes in things. It is everywhere in the world. Why our own situation is dire, and very serious, is because there is no willpower to enforce the laws, and because there are no consequences where there are infractions. In other countries, people know that there are consequences and they are careful. But here, it appears impunity is part of our system, and few people who say things must be done properly are called names or sometimes be hounded and forced to recapitulate.
We deify human beings here. The ideal thing is, don’t be abusive, be respectful but you can criticise people. But criticising people in power here is a very dangerous venture. It doesn’t matter whether they are civilian or anything, because people tend to think that those who are in power can never go wrong. For those who take positions, for example in most places in our country even at the national level, government would do a N250million project and, to declare it open, you will spend almost the same amount, because of the funfair that would attend it. Quite frankly, I think Nigeria is a country of jokers, by jokers, for jokers.
Are we there yet in terms of democracy in Nigeria?
Let me say that America is not even there yet. That is why, after 2016, they are still talking about meddling in their own election. It is a process. Democracy is not a cut and dry thing. It is like a new born baby, there are stages of development. When you give birth to a baby, he has to be taught how to suck the breast. From there, you try to introduce some external things. He later learns to sit down, crawl and walk. That is a human being. That does not mean we are re-inventing the wave. It doesn’t mean that we have to start where America started. Because we already have a template, it is just for us to get it right and, of course, adapt it to our peculiarity as a people. I think that is the issue.
A former Defence Minister, General Danjuma, alleged military complicity in the conflict between farmers and herdsmen. Looking at the quantum of recent killings, do you think the position of the general is justified?
Nigeria and Nigerians will be making a big mistake if Danjuma, given his vantage position in this country, makes that kind of allegation and we think he has said nothing. In Nigeria, we are very dismissive of anything we don’t like. Transparency International has said that you have gone down on corruption index, we dismissed it. Danjuma has been on the military landscape since 1967. He rose to become the Chief of the Army Staff; he was our Defence Minister and retired as a full general in the army. If such a man sees something that has to do with security, in other places, people will take it serious. I’m not saying what he said was right or wrong, because I have no means of knowing. But the fact that we keep on having heightened security challenges should tell us you cannot be doing the same thing in the old way and expect a new result. It wouldn’t happen.
I think there is need for us to go back to the drawing board and look at the totality of our security architecture, both the human and material, and even the psychological part of it. Because we are easily fixated, we jump to conclusions about very complex issues when we have not done proper investigation. What I said the other time that when you criticize people in government, you run a lot of risk, see even what is happening to Danjuma, he has now become the butt of abuses, left, right and centre, and that is because of his stature. If it had been a lesser mortal, if gold rusts, only God can save lesser metals. I think it speaks volumes.
Nigeria was recently rated as the poorest state by Broken Pot despite the on-going war against corruption. What do you make of this?
The country is rated poor per GDP or by living standard. From what I see on daily basis with our people, to say that 80 per cent of Nigerians are poor is an understatement. It is very true we are poor as a country. The economic challenges have exacerbated the level of poverty. For those of us that are in town, I know 10 years ago the number of people that called for assistance. And I know that, today, that number has increased by more than 1, 000 per cent, that sometimes you feel overwhelmed.
That is why I once said that recession only went off the Central Bank books; it is still living with Nigerians. For an average Nigerian who lives on his or her sweat, he or she would tell you that things are difficult economically. I have heard instances of law firms downsizing even in Abuja, because of the economic condition. For those of us who grew up around here and in other places, if you know Ilorin well, this Ajase-Ipo Road was an industrial hub. In Ibadan, it is the same. So, I think there is poverty in the land except we deceive ourselves.
A Federal High Court in Abuja granted a former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (ret.), bail. This is the sixth time such a bail will be granted but the Department of State Service has continued to keep him in detention. Is Nigeria not aware of the danger of not obeying court order?
Those of us who are schooled in the nuances of the rule of law know that the most precious possession of a citizen is liberty. We should look beyond the law in ensuring that we respect the liberties of the citizenry. We should, at least, in the name of morality, and I always tell people, ‘what goes round would come around’, know that no matter where we are today, let’s be circumspect… because power belongs only to Allah.
What is your message to political players as we prepare for the 2019 general elections?
Let all politicians know that power is a trust from God and that there would always be a day of account. To us the ordinary people, let us stop selling our franchise, because once you sell your vote, you don’t have the moral right to challenge those who get elected if they perform less than expected. But once you vote according to your conscience, whoever emerges the winner, you can challenge and hold him or her accountable for your vote. So, once you sell your vote, you lose your moral voice, and it is very important that we are be able to keep our moral voices. Not only for us but generation yet unborn, because when you sell your votes, you are selling the votes of your children and you are helping to destroy the country. I believe it is important for us, the leader and the led, let’s play by the rules.