Maurice and The Right to Recall
Okay, so there I was on the other side of the street from the Nigerian Embassy in London. It was 5.30pm on Friday, 15th January, 2010 and our demonstration was just winding down when a few rather more nattily-dressed Nigerians began to arrive on the scene. ‘You are late for the demonstration,’ we told them.
‘We’re all together in the struggle,’ they replied, ‘but we have another demonstration inside the embassy.’
Another demonstration inside? I was due to travel onwards to Nottingham… but investigating further, I realised that the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commision (INEC), Professor Maurice Iwu – of all people – was expected for an interactive session at the Embassy from 6pm. The sessions were due to start imminently, and although open to all Nigerians, pre-registration was compulsory.
Now, Iwu’s INEC was central to the vision of a transformed Nigeria. I was prepared to overlook the petty detail of a pre-registration if I could persuade the embassy to do the same. I crossed the road.
The interior of the embassy seemed in good nick. The registration desk had not been set up (and I was naturally quite impatient to thaw my frozen toes) so the nice gentleman at the gate accepted my assurances that I was ‘meant to be there’ and allowed me into a basement reception room where the press were still setting up cameras and microphones. So what exactly is supposed to be happening here? I asked the gentleman from BEN TV who explained that it was a meeting between Iwu and Diasporan Nigerians. He was pretty impressed at Prof. Iwu’s performance at the House of Commons the day before.
The room quickly filled up, mainly with men in dapper suits, with a sprinkling of ladies. We might have been in a conference room in Abuja secretariat, for the vigorous camaraderie in the room, and the overpowering aroma of okra soup wafting in from the anteroom. They missed their 6pm start by only a few minutes, then the ambassador led his guest out onto the high table. He made a welcome speech. This is an urbane ambassador, a medical doctor and former senator, the perfect host for this party of his countrymen. What followed were remarks from the CANUK chairman (Central Association of Nigerians in the UK) and an executive from NIDOE (Nigerians in Diaspora Europe). They all introduce a brilliant and affable Prof. Iwu who seemed entirely unrecognisable from the creature I read about in the Nigerian media. I began to reel from the condition sometimes described in medical journals as Diaspora Distortion, that disorientation that often causes lost exiles to ask familiarly after long-dead relations. This was going to be interesting.
Proceedings were led by a skillful master of ceremony who smoothly reeled in lengthy questions… although he did indulge a few excursions of his own.
Professor Iwu took the stand. He was clearly a good communciator. He has no doubt that the Nigerian electoral system was one of the best in the world. He would not even begin to compare it with the British system, which he considered a technically primitive one. (He gave a voter-registration example: in Britain, letters were sent to the ‘head of the household’ who mailed back the names of all the voters in his household. In Nigeria, voter registration was individual and personal, with biometric data capture.) The British system did not even pass UN standards, Prof Iwu said. The difference was down to the culture: if a similar letter were to go out to Nigerian householders, the electorate could swell to 280 million overnight… [okay, this figure is mine, but our laughter probably drowned out his own estimates].
So, Prof. Iwu refused to accept the blame that was properly the society’s, just to satisfy the Nigerian media and his detractors, some of who blame him for everything that was wrong in Nigeria – including (he added to laughter) their leaking roofs. He did accept the role of electoral coach, though, and with his new Electoral Academies, would undertake to inculcate a new culture into his intransigent compatriots, teaching ‘do not sell your votes’, ‘do not cheat’, among other electoral commandments. Most importantly, he refused to succumb to the intimidation of the Nigerian Press. His job was to call the results as he saw it.
There seemed an unnaturally high proportion of Anambra state citizens in this audience, so the subject of Ekiti and Anambra electoral shenanigans naturally came up. There were no new, startling revelations.
It also seemed an incredibly polite audience. A few tough questions were raised, but there was none sticky among them. This audience was interested in a right to vote (and perhaps be voted for) in the Diaspora, as soon as possible and the Prof was more than happy to pledge to facilitiate this. In his question time, the Prof. was barely shaken, never stirred. He took everything in his stride. Somebody asked if the several judgements upturning INEC results had not damaged the credibility of the commission. For Prof. Iwu, the upturned verdicts merely proved that the courts were independent and working well – besides whereever commission staff was indicted, the law should take its course.
I had obviously not prepared any question, but I did have a burning issue related to the entire project of enfranchising the Followership. It was on the subject of the Electoral Recall. Let me explain:
Once the Nigerian Legislator is elected, there are a few sure ways to remove him before the end of his tenure. There is the Assassin’s Bullet, there is the Godfather’s Presigned Letter (and Prerecorded Videotape), then there is also Conviction and Disgrace (poor Speaker Salisu Buhari of Toronto fame. The Iborian version of The Audacity of Hope has rendered old-fashioned, the silliness of rolling over upon the approach of a damning charge sheet).
Yet, the most important constitutional route, the Electoral Recall by constituents, has never once been used successfully in this Republic. I asked the professor why this was so, and what he was doing as electoral coach to change this.
Prof. Iwu explained that his commission had actually facilitated a few attempts that petered out. He is frustrated that in Nigeria sometimes the person who calls the cops is the same person who comes back to beg you not to prosecute. (Naija-style settlement?) He conceded that the law as it stands does not help: it requires the signatures of half the registered voters. This is harder than it sounds because in one constituency in Ekiti for instance, with 18,000 odd registered voters, only 6000 voted. Yet, a whopping 9000 voters’ signatures would be required to remove a candidate elected by, say, 3001 voters before the end of his tenure.
This is clearly a boobytrap for the voters, with important implications for responsive democracy. An employer must be able to sack an employee who turns out to be a disaster. The Nigerian public effectively lacks this power. This must change, if we are serious about changing Nigeria. If we had a responsive legislature, we won’t have to leave work and pound the pavements of London, Lagos, Abuja, Kiev… Our legislators would listen to our whispers and do our biddings – or lose their jobs. If I hired a chef I couldn’t sack, I would have to cook my own food, while he stuffed my wealth into ghana mus’ go bags throughout the four years of his guaranteed employment. This is the situation of the Nigerian Legislator in the 50th year of our recolonisation by the Tribe of Thieves.
The National Assembly will not voluntarily gift us this power in a year of Sundays, because no thief voluntarily casts the shackles for his own detention. All Legislators have their favourite bills. Bills that increase their own furniture and other allowances are near the top, being the first or second to be passed in every National Assembly. Bills that simplify the process of sacking legislators simply won’t feature on their agenda at all. For this reason the campaign to change the law is OUR responsibility. It is the Duty of the Followership.
Prof. Iwu is himself not too keen on changing laws generally. He thinks our electoral laws and consitution are first class, and that rather than changing ourselves and our defective cultures, we are perpetually swapping constitutions and laws, . Other countries run their constitutions for four hundred years. We run ours for four years and begin to shop around again. Still he does concede that the Recall procedure (which indeed has received the attentions of the Supreme Court) is ripe for change. Indeed, he is so fully in support of it, that I know he will support this campaign as Chair of the INEC.
A Tale of 2 Nigerias
And here is another Nigeria entirely. As I sit in this warm room (my toes are fully thawed now, and presently, Ambassador Tafida rises in the estimation of many Nigerian tummies by interrupting the MC so that we can fill our plates in the anteroom, before resuming the question and answer session). I do not protest this suggestion. As I stand in queue, I talk with other compatriots on the problems before us. There is disdain among some for the ‘unseemly’ street protests earlier that evening that casts Nigeria in poor light in England, (and not a little consternation when I mention that, actually, I was part of the rally). Inside this genial circle of federal power, people are willing to be patient: Rome was not built in a day, as Iwu explained. He remembered how it was in 1960, when his father’s car was the only one in his entire Local Government area. Today his mother in the village was gsmed. There were still problems, of course, but Nigeria was definitely improving for the better. What we had to attack was this ultra-cynical aspect nature of Nigerians who can never see any good in anybody.
And I had to confess (as I did to him) that Iwu was a charismatic presenter. It was possible that many in that room would resume the Iwu is a monster with horns refrain tomorrow evening, but they could not do it in that room. Under the high wattage of the Iwu grin there was palpable goodwill in the air, there was the sense of possibility. As the event closed, there were flashes of hopeful complimentary cards and photographs. There was not the same rawness on the streets, by people who had no safety nets, who cannot take the long – or even medium – view of things. We had a warm bed somewhere, so there was not the urgency of the footloose Nigerian Londoner who would sleep in a bus stop tonight, wishing he could find the guts and the 400 pounds to taken himself back to his boys quarters in Oguta. There was not the desperation of the mother on Tejuosho Street, Lagos looking to sell herself tonight so that her sick daughter did not die by morning. No, I was inside a circle now, this close to the patronage of power, influence, contacts and sumptuous embassy meals… by next month, next year, Nigeria may still not have regular mains electricity, but I may well have bought my own diesel generator…
This was the selfishness that powers the Nigerian Divide. People who found themselves in positions of power and lost the sense of urgency, the recognition that as they waited patiently for Godot, people were DYING, educational careers were ENDING, and our country was tottering on the brink. Every day another riot broke out. Another schism opened up in a country whose leaders had taken leave of their responsibilities to their people.
This Movement is about Fixing the mains, not sorting out private generators for the connected and their cliques. Many years ago, when I met General Ibrahim Babangida in person, I felt the same undeniable charisma of a man gifted with the power to sway his fellow men. When I listened to the rambling speech with which he junked Abiola’ s victory, I heard the same unmistakable hum of a whip-taut intelligence. And yet the result of his seductive inventions, the upshoot of his appeal for the structural adjustment of the Nigerian waistline, was wealth for self and cliques, and poverty for all the rest.
Two types of people collaborate with the operators of our broken systems, to the loss of all of us. The first are those in a postion to make a difference for Nigeria, but who are swayed by the opportunity to make a difference for themselves and their families. The result of course are these gargoyles of obscene privilege in a miasma of want, like delectable custard cakes served on beds of faeces.
The second are those who honestly buy the gab of a charismatic – or even a truly gifted – leader who is working excellently within the constraints of his office – and do nothing to FIX the BROKEN SYSTEM. We have thousands of instances of great Nigerians who give their 40 years of honest service to the system. Yet, all the benefits, savings, and achievements of a gifted leader in ten years of industry, will be destroyed and embezzled in one month by the next moron who will replace him. And life teaches us that the moron will always come. [My forthcoming 2010 story collection is called The Ghost of Sani Abacha. ]
So, What Next? A Campaign for Electoral Reform!
We must create a system that makes it easy for us to sack our representatives. The arrogance of incumbency must be broken. Even if a court throws out a 200-count indictment for legal reasons too esoteric for common understanding [God, where do we start from?], we the people should still be able to throw out the technically innocent legislator. It’s our job after all. Plus, if the legislature is properly responsive to the Followership, both the Governor and the President will recognise that the loyalty of the weilders of the impeachment sanction can only be secured by good governance… not the disbursement of bribes. Whatever the fate, and timing of the Uwais recommendations, this Recall Procedure is critical. It must be in place well before the next general elections. This is how to take back our country. How to do it intelligently, without the risk of spilling innocent blood.
We are working ourselves into a frenzy because our president has been absent for two months. Some legislators are wondering what the fuss is about. Two months will barely register on their own scales of truancy. We must have a system that automatically triggers a recall process for specific truancies, convictions, and certainly upon the signature of half the majority that voted him in – as opposed to half the names on the Electoral Roll. But I do not speak as an oracle: we must have this debate now. We must educate ourselves and debate with others. By independence day when this law takes effect, the danfo driver should have his four page leaflet showing how to take out the councillor without an assassin.
We must strike a balance between legislators who spend their time worrying over opposition plots to unseat them – which we do not want, and unsackable legislators – which we must not have.
Iwu ends his session with an Ashanti joke to end all jokes (might just relate it – but I have gone on too long already). It brings the house down. Indeed it probably earned him the enthusiatic standing ovation that came a few moments later (which, by applying myself meticulously to my plate of okra, I contrive to sit out). He has come across as a lovely man to share a Nigerian meal with, but I will reserve my applause until after next year’s elections.
If you agree that Electoral Recall is the way to go, please send your name and address for now, along with any special skills you may want to contribute to this campaign, to email@example.com. And spread the word. We will contact you in the days and weeks ahead.
The Movement has started.