The National Secretary of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Shehu Gabam, recently led some members of the party’s national working committee on a visit to the corporate headquarters of PREMIUM TIMES in Abuja.
During the visit, Mr Gabam fielded questions from the newspaper editors.
PT: Looking at the whole trajectory and pattern towards the 2019 election, do you have sufficient reasons to be confident that there would be a free and fair election? In other words, if you were going to rate INEC in terms of preparation, what would your assessment look like?
Gabam: Well, you know, perhaps if you know my history, if you follow my participation in some of these very sensitive issues even of recent, I believe INEC is not prepared for this election, and I have made my views known long ago. We keep on pretending about issues. Look at a lot of scandalous issues between the president and the National Assembly, competing for relevance instead of doing what I call national service, to protect the sanctity of the institutions. You see trading blames and counter blames. At the end of the day, INEC has not realised that their institution is designed by the constitution to protect the interest of Nigerians. They believe they are institutions that are made to be subservient to people that are in government. Unless we all rise up and ensure that INEC realises that they are being paid with Nigerian tax money and that their duty is a national duty, it is a very serious business to the extent that it (election) is a public holiday. Every revenue due for government on that very day stands at zero per cent. Every revenue both for private/individuals because of the public holiday is affected also. That is how serious election is and it is part of our constitution, a franchise of an individual to exercise it under very conducive atmosphere.
If you look at the recent by-elections we had both in Ekiti and Osun states and in parts of Bauchi and other places, you can see clearly they are not prepared or ill prepared for this election. If you look at the way some of the by-elections we had have been militarized, and the excessive money that was used, you also know that they haven’t done their job. In terms of sensitisation, I can’t remember when last I heard of the National Orientation Agency sensitising Nigerians on some of these things. It’s a collective responsibility. And also if you look at the conflict or the infractions between what the INEC says and what the Police say – who is to report, who is guilty, who has committed an offence – you will know that the institution is still suffering from a lot of deficiencies. And if you look at the budget itself, vis-a-vis what INEC has said, that if they have not gotten the resources six months to the election, it is going to affect whatever they are doing. I only saw today in the papers though I haven’t read through, INEC said the election is facing a lot of threat.
In 2015, I was one of those who raised alarm that INEC was not prepared and that this election could not hold. Certain people stood up and they wanted to roast me. They said Jonathan gave us N2 billion to scuttle the election but at the end of the day INEC came out and confessed and they had to shift the election. So the last programme I had with one of the directors of INEC on Channels TV I took him up but he couldn’t defend it. He kept on saying they were planning. This is a national election, it is not just one or two states that you deploy thousands of policemen. I wondered if the Nigerian government is going to apply to the United Nations or ECOWAS to deploy troops in Nigeria to monitor this election. Our security agencies are overstretched because of crisis. Boko Haram is all over the country and I haven’t seen anything on ground to suggest that this election will be conducted under free and fair atmosphere. So for me I will love to encourage IENC to be forthcoming, to be honest, and to be transparent so that we will not run into a very bad situation. All of us can put heads together particularly the political parties, to find a way to rescue the situation. So far, they are making us believe that they will conduct the election, that they are ready for the election, so we will keep on monitoring.
PT: Are you discussing all of this at the level of Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC)?
Gabam: You know IPAC is an association of different political parties. A political party is a party that has gone through the processes of election, have offices nationwide, maintaining their structures and they have been on physical elections, not a boardroom election and appointment and so on and so forth. So those that can tell you that clearly, the consequences or otherwise are mainly two to four parties who have been through the trenches and understand the dynamics and the topography that are involved in dealing with these issues. So, there is nothing much IPAC can do. It is a free association of political parties. But the major institutions that have the responsibility of fixing these problems are the presidency and the National Assembly. They have the overwhelming power and authority to fix this problem more than any other institution. The parties have no subvention from the federal government or through INEC. They survive on their own. Even if they meet to issue a communiqué, it takes the process of the National Assembly or the intervention of the presidency for any correction to be made. And so far, all the contributions IPAC has made, I have not seen any much changes. I have attended meetings of IPAC with INEC and so on and so forth. It has been argument and counter-argument, being on defensive and so on and so forth. So, generally, the politicians largely are not also prepared or facing the reality. You know we still whip up sentiments along ethnic and religious lines in political discourse and elections. So we have a long way to go as a nation and that is the practical truth about it. I do hope that the parties will brace up the way we will face the challenges or come of age to confront those who feel they have the monopoly of the status quo to create the balance. I do hope other parties will understand that it is a national service; it has nothing to do with personal ego.
PT: We understand that you zoned your presidential slot to the North but somebody from the South emerged as a candidate. One of the aspirants, Jerry Gana is still protesting the emergence of Donald Duke as your candidate? What do you have to say about this? Did you really zone your presidential slot to the North?
Gabam: You know I have a long historical relationship with Jerry Gana, dated back to G7. He was the pioneer secretary of the party you know as of then and I was SA and so we know ourselves too well. Then I want you to know that this period is a peak period of crises for all parties that have gone through elections. You will find out that about five or six persons are contesting for one position. Out of this five, one will win and the others will complain. So every party that goes through election has this crisis to manage but how you deploy skill to manage it is what matters so that they will not escalate. You see we are managing the ones we have more than what PDP and APC are managing. They are chasing even APC chairman out of office. We have been managing ours successfully.
Before I answer that question, I want to remind you that in 1999, PDP zoned the presidency to the South, not just the South, to the south west, not just the south west but to a state, Ogun State and to a man that was in prison then. I was privileged to know because I was part of the whole movement and some of us opposed it. I was the first person who took PDP to court in 1999. Afe Babalola was defending the party. When we went to court, the court said ‘no, you have no right to say a fellow citizen who wants to aspire to be a president cannot.’ That was the judgement. But then when the party came back, they said it was their internal arrangement, which means if there is internal arrangement, diplomacy must follow, other considerations must follow to resolve the issues. Now it is the same thing that comes to our situation in SDP. Naturally, zoning is not a constitutional thing but it is a provisional, a law, an understanding of laws of parties themselves, which is subject to the federal law. Now the presidency, because of PDP zoning, affected the decision of other parties to say ‘okay, we are also zoning to a particular zone, targeting votes.’ That is what zoning is all about. It is vote-targeting. Now despite we said it is coming to the North, we don’t have the right to say you cannot buy a form to contest. But ultimately we know there are people who decide, who will be and who will not be, not the party itself but the delegates of the party. They are the ones to decide. And if we say we disqualify this, he goes to court knowing there are previous judgments, it is an exercise in futility. So, Professor Jerry Gana was one of the first to indicate his interest to run for the presidency. John Dara was one of them; Professor Hagher was one of them; Ambassador Osakwe was one of them, Donald Duke was among the first who picked the form, and they all went through process of screening. There was no objection throughout the exercise up till the end of the convention and that is why if you go through, there is nowhere he questioned the process of the convention from beginning to the end. He said it is the right of his zone. We said fine but what we did was to allow the delegates to decide with their votes and we ensured that we did it in a way that we managed the image of the party. We ensured that the cameras were focused on the entire boxes live and every individual will go and vote. It was covered live. The presumption before the end of the voting was that Jerry Gana is popular (and) he was likely to win. There are people that you expect are going to win. The result turned out to be something else. Each of them went and met delegates and campaigned for their votes. We were not part of. We didn’t accompany the aspirants when they were visiting the delegates. At the same time, the issue is in court and we are also handling it internally to solve the problem. We have gone a long way to solving the issue diplomatically, politically to ensure that we are strong, vibrant and intact in the course of all this. So, there is no cause for alarm.
PT: You said you are not comfortable with INEC’s preparations so far. Does that mean that if for example the election had taken place in February and SDP did not actually pull weight as expected, will you have associated that to this particular point you are making that INEC is not prepared?
Gabam: We are talking of preparedness of INEC as an institution, with a series of activities including deployment of materials and ensuring that the polling units where people are coming to vote are properly secured etc. You see it is a two-way thing. INEC would make preparations. If they are fully prepared, then also citizens who are going to vote is another way. It is not just for the institution to put everything in perfect shape and you have people who are disorderly. They will be sponsored by politicians to disrupt the process and you cannot blame INEC for that. What we are talking about the preparedness of INEC to provide the basic requirement for a voter to come freely and cast his vote and go. That is the area we are talking about. Basically, those are the problems of INEC long ago, not just now. It is still the problem. Even the by-election that took place, they still suffered that problem. Some of the card readers were not working. So these are the challenges we are talking about. After every election, INEC has an avalanche of another four years to prepare for an election unless you have midterm or by-elections. So, there is no excuse for you to tell me that within those four years you have not developed capacity to provide the basic technological equipment, produce voters register. There is no moral justification for that. What about the plastic cards? What of the boxes? You will go and register for the voter cards and it will take you six months before you get it. Are you telling me such institution is prepared for elections – when you are disenfranchised? The by-election we had, a lot of people who had temporary voters card that was used before because people couldn’t get original, were denied the right of voting. I was there. So can you describe that as part of an institution that is prepared for an election? You cannot. Now those that were denied to vote, if they decided to create a chaotic situation, you cannot have election in that polling unit.
Number two, when citizens are not prepared to exercise their franchise and defend it because they are abusing people of incompetence in terms of governance, ineptitude and your conscience was bought over, you sold your vote for a chicken change or even if you are given N1 million, you were told to fast for another four years………. It is a lot of moral issues that as citizens we have to talk about to enlighten the younger ones who do not understand their fundamental basics of exercising that right for change that will directly impact on their lives or their families.
So it is a two-way traffic. We are talking about technical issues for INEC to get prepared. Once you are prepared, you cannot go back and say you are not prepared, then you blame those who subvert the process; that is the electorate and the politicians because the biggest challenge of democracy are politicians. The biggest problem the nation has is the politicians. All these ethnic, religious, breach of security are being driven by politicians. So the politician must be first patriotic and understand that they have a duty to stabilise the system that they want to preside over. So whether SDP won or not, it is an act that people will decide. If they decide and the institution that you rely on to provide basic transparency, basic decency have done their job, why would you complain?
PT: If four months to the election a party is still accusing the umpire of poor preparation………
Gabam: It is not only we that are saying it, they themselves are complaining. For instance, they are saying what they budgeted for, they have not gotten it. Are we the ones complaining? No, they are complaining to the institution that is supposed to do their jobs and providing the basic needs they demanded. So, you can see the infractions from where they are coming from. But as a party, we have the right to keep on hitting the issues that matter for INEC to pick up those issues and adjust. The parties are playing a very critical role in ensuring that INEC complies and INEC is taking the heat to ensure they are doing what they are supposed to do. If we do not act from our own side and ensure that we put the necessary heat on INEC, they will go and sleep. Look, we are having a situation where the National Assembly is saying this is the process, the executive is saying no. We are having a problem where the National Assembly has amended the Electoral Act and the president says he is not going to sign and that we should go back to the primitive way of conducting election through manual way of writing result which is very easy to tamper with. Who is programming the card readers? Have you ever found out? What are they programming? Can Nigerians know what they are programming? Can Nigerians know if the card reader can be breached? These are questions you need to ask INEC as part of their contribution to ensure that you keep the heat that you know whatever that is happening and you can explain as an informed journalist. We are doing that as a political party, as part of our national service, not just for SDP but to keep the democratic system very strong and vibrant. We have no other option. We can’t think of any other option apart from democracy. So, we are doing our best as political parties.
PT: Before now, political parties were given money by the government to manage their affairs but they were abusing it. We believe that SDP is one of the parties that believe parties should be given grants. If that is achieved, how do you think we should manage this to ensure parties don’t abuse it?
Gabam: One, the laws are faulty. If you are giving a grant to either farmers or anybody, there are laws attached to it that guide these processes. You don’t just give money to political parties that you are sure they don’t have the perquisite structures to service those structures. Because the system is being abused, and people have this mentality of lobbying, even if they don’t have what is required to run a party, they will tell you they have. Just like you have mentioned, people go to INEC follow the procedures, cut corners, get their parties registered and put it in the briefcase; but they use that as an instrument to negotiate to get something.
So it’s a structural deficiency which we have to deal with as a nation. There is nothing wrong with subvention, but that subvention must be tied to what you have on ground because political parties have large number of people they employ and they have to pay them every month. You have to pay for offices from local government, to state and to national. That is why you can’t find the presence of majority of the political parties anywhere. Because it is not easy to fund it and if you say you can’t assist because others have abused it, it means that you are incapable of managing the situation yourself. When you are releasing funds, you must monitor the funds not just by mouth but by physical inspection. If SDP says we have offices throughout Nigeria the federal government has agencies throughout Nigeria that can pinpoint clearly where these offices, the location of the offices. That gives you physical evidence that this party is on the ground apart from paperwork. Funding will be justified to an extent that those things are being followed to the latter. And once the party meets those criteria, it is right to fund them because they also employ. They reduce unemployment, they reduce insecurity in the system, they have taken away redundancy and other issues related to what we are suffering today. If you want to fund parties, you must do what is right, what is necessary, and you must follow to the latter those parties that claim they have structures throughout the country. After all, there are laws of registering political parties that the party has presence everywhere including FCT. Was there any investigation before you gave them the license? The answer is no. So when you look at it you find out where the problem is coming from. It is not about the funding but about due diligence.
PT: Can you tell us your issues or your challenges with your candidate in the last governorship election in Osun State, Iyiola Omisore?
Gabam: We don’t have any major issue with Omisore. The party has had some little issues to settle and understand what went wrong which is the legitimate right of the party and we are investigating what went wrong. Before the election, everybody was convinced that SDP was going to take Osun State given his experience, his dexterity, his sagacity and for the fact that he won an election while he was in prison. Every definition of quality you are looking for, you can find in him. How SDP was shortchanged was quite a worrisome thing for SDP as an institution.
PT: So, he didn’t consult you when he went into talks with APC and PDP?
Gabam: I think we have reacted to that in our press release that they acted on their own without the approval of the party at the national level. It is part of what we are investigating so that it will serve as a deterrent to other individuals or other state chapters not to do anything outside the directive of the headquarters of the party.