…Tells his 2007 polls story
…Explains why elections are contentious in Nigeria
…Says ‘If parties had internal democracy governors will not be too powerful
…Reveals how lawmakers lobbied for contracts
…Wikileaks published my only ‘offence’
Since he left office as Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission years ago, Professor of Pharmacognosy, Maurice Iwu, refused to talk to anybody on the controversial 2007 poll that brought the late President Umaru Yar’Adua and Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to power.
He reveals a lot in this 2014 interview he granted Ikechukwu Amaechi and Ben Duru. All the points he made are still relevant today. Excerpts:
Since you left office in 2010, many Nigerians have not heard much from you; what have you been doing?
First of all, I have been following with keen interest what is going on in our country. But more importantly, I am a pharmacognosist by training and I have a business that is about 20 years old.
So, I went back to my business to take care of things. We have been involved in research on natural products, on sustainable use of biological resources. Recently, we decided to go into proper manufacturing. We manufacture dietary supplements and healthy living products. We pioneered a lot of work on Nigerian products and much more importantly, we have created a lot of jobs. We are taking the natural products agriculture to the next level.
But politically, there was tactical decision on my part not to get involved with politics for a while. I didn’t want a situation where we lose the main focus. It is the system and not individuals that is really the key issue. And I deliberately allowed some time to pass. Let everybody have their say, let people make their comments and at the appropriate time, I will be able to make my own position known.
In 2015, Nigerians will go into another round of elections. How prepared would you say INEC is?
It is really difficult from outside to know what is happening inside; what preparations INEC is making. They must be doing a whole lot that we don’t know about; but with time, what they are doing will manifest. Between 2005 and 2007, we laid the basic infrastructure that will help Nigeria for a long time to keep on conducting better elections.
It is like building a house. If you get the foundation right, which was what we did, then you have no problems. It is better that you have a very solid foundation, and that foundation we laid at the time helped us to have the successful election we had then. We hope it will keep making the election process in Nigeria better.
You just said the 2007 election in Nigeria was successful, but it remains one of the most controversial ever in Nigeria, and there are people who insist it is the worst.
That is really a very interesting position to take by some people. But we did something that was strategically different. It was the first time that science came into play in elections. It was also the very first time that Nigerians transited from one civilian regime to another. We were in a very difficult position that even the people who were supposed to participate in the election did not want the election to take place. All they were interested in was to score one goal against their supposed opponents. But when you have a situation like that in your hands, you take into consideration the big picture. What will Nigerians benefit if strategically we didn’t have that election, and our main focus was for that transition to take place?
But then, there are people who would tell you that the ballot paper did not arrive on time, or that and that didn’t happen. These are matters of details. What we did was to lay a foundation. Foundation digging is not a clean job. It is messy, but somebody has to do it. But once that foundation is properly laid with all the dirt that came with it, the building stands strong.
If I may ask, what have they been able to change structurally since I left office? Nothing! It is seven years since that election held and we are still using the same database structure. It doesn’t matter if you purge a database and put new one. We built an institute for electoral studies. We now have a director-general that is in charge of the institute. We were able to make INEC independent by insisting on the appointment of the secretary of the commission. The National Assembly is now trying to even give them powers to be able to renew the appointment. But somebody came up with the very first idea. We were able to also change the people who conduct elections by bringing National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) personnel into election practice, and all these changes were monumental. You can’t take them away. When you analyse 2007 elections from the point of statistics, there was nowhere people scored 90 per cent and above as it happened in 2011. It was not possible. The 2007 election met all the standards.
Yes, we had problems, but at the appropriate time, when I will be able to address the nation in detail to be able to call names, I will do that.
But President Goodluck Jonathan, the primary beneficiary of the 2007 elections, said recently he was ashamed of the election that brought him and the late President Yar’Adua to power?
I reserve my comment about what the president said, for very many reasons. One is that, no matter how rascally your child is, you don’t disown him. I can’t disown the fact that Jonathan and Yar’Adua were products of the election that we conducted in 2007 and that we believe they won.
Whether they are embarrassed or ashamed, it is left for them. But the one that amused me was the former Senate president, Ken Nnamani, who presented a report of a supposed stakeholders’ forum. Am I not a stakeholder? Nobody consulted me to ask what happened during the election and then use that as premise for making his recommendations. Recommendations were made on totally empty and unsubstantiated premise.
In what manner did the lobby come?
It was very obvious that some people go into elections not hoping to win but praying for their opponents to stumble, and if their opponents didn’t stumble, then they would want something else to happen.
I said at the time that it was only the PDP that was prepared for the election and I still maintain the position.
If ACN was able to win the election on its own, why did it merge with CPC and ANPP? They simply didn’t have the numbers. Some of them restricted their campaigns to the North; some restricted theirs to the West. You cannot win election in Nigeria without having the totality of the country behind you and, yet, they were prepared to bring down the house because they lost election.
And if we don’t look at the bigger strategic goal of any country, if you compromise because of short-term gain, if you compromise because Prof. Iwu wants to look good, that I cancelled the election because I didn’t like the face of Yar’Adua and Jonathan, I will be a hero among the so-called opposition parties and that will really be sacrificing the future of a people for short-term gains. The average Nigerian anywhere I go on the streets is very proud of what I did, that I kept Nigeria going; I didn’t allow the ball to drop from my hands.
Why are elections so contentious in Nigeria?
Elections are contentious in Nigeria because we are backing the wrong horse. The problem is with the political parties. You cannot give what you don’t have. There is no internal democracy in all the parties. If you now have your selection process for candidates not based on popular mandate, whoever you elect subsequently is unpopular. He comes there with a handicap because he didn’t come through popular will.
So, the contention starts from the parties. That is why you see people migrating and because of the excessive powers of the governors, if it is a true democracy, it should be the other way round. The governors should be fighting to remain loyal to the party, to be in the party’s good books, but it is the other way round.
So, who is to blame for bad elections in Nigeria: the umpire or politicians?
The Nigerian election management body, INEC, is one of the best in the world. Look at the calibre of staff they have, the structure and the wherewithal. America does not have a national voter register. Britain does not have a national voter register. They compile them in segments, in units and they still don’t have a voter card. In Britain, all you need to do is to identify yourself.
But one thing is for the umpire to be ready. The nature and beauty of the play still rest with players. If Nigerian politicians don’t want any rigging to take place, it will not happen. Read the interview by the former governor of Cross River State, Donald Duke; he made it very clear. It is they (players) that decide to do the rough tackle. It is neither the umpire nor the coach. It doesn’t matter what the coach tells you, when you enter the field of play, you are on your own. It doesn’t matter how rigid the umpire is, all he keeps doing is to blow his whistle. But some players are so rough that they don’t mind how many times you blow the whistle against them or ultimately remove them from the game, but they will still make the game rough.
But your successor, Attahiru Jega, has equally said that what he met on ground was not an ideal umpire. He has particularly criticised the voter register that INEC under you prepared. Of course, we had the issue of foreign celebrities having their names in the register, what went wrong? Were the politicians also to blame for that anomaly?
I don’t want to join issues with my successor, Prof. Jega. We are friends and I know him very well.
It is rather an unfortunate statement because the voter register we had in 2007 was a gold standard. The register can be compared to any register anywhere in the whole world. What happened was that sometimes people want to play to the gallery. We know what happened in Anambra State when they conducted the last election. We saw the mess in the INEC register, but it is not the fault of the INEC chairman.
I didn’t know that Nigeria was stupendously rich and wasteful. There was no need to have spent N84 billion which they claimed they spent on voter register.
If a register is bad, if a database is bad, what you do is to purge it and then refill it; you don’t remove the infrastructure and re-do it. Where is the young man, the Kenyan, who led them into it? Ask government and INEC where he is now.
The problem with this country and why I have refused to talk is that we are in a situation where people don’t follow logic. It is he who shouts loudest that wins the argument. That is why I don’t have the time to get into that. I am busy with my own professional work.
I didn’t get into the business of database for the first time. I had done bigger database in Cameroun at the KORUP forest where we did a database of plants and we were able to count them and know where each plant stood, let alone human beings who can talk and will be able to tell you no, you gave me wrong name.
The cardinal issue – if you call it a mistake, but it is not a mistake because I will do it again – is the fact that my administration was nationalistic. I did three things. I refused to share that database with any foreigner because the fingerprints of Nigerians were there.
If you read Wikileaks, you would see that the offence I committed was that I refused to share the database with anybody. Second, throughout my tenure, I had a policy of not awarding contracts to foreigners. All the projects, all the contracts, were done by Nigerians. The reason was very simple. You create jobs for our people and you are able to learn from your mistakes.
Third, I was convinced that the white man is not better than me, that we can do it on our own. We were asked to take technical advice from Europe. I rejected the advice. There was no need for that. We went to the same school. Is it because of my skin colour?
Now, do you hear about Save Nigeria Group (SNG)? Do you hear about 3Gs, all those flight by night organisations that were sponsored to orchestrate a campaign against Iwu, where are they now?
So, I don’t want to join issues with Jega. You can talk to INEC staff. Just go to INEC now and conduct a referendum. They are the professionals. Ask them, Prof. Iwu’s time in INEC and now, which is better? But I don’t want to go there. I just want to see how Nigeria can be made better; how we can stop the senseless waste of lives.
The 2007 poll still remains a landmark. They cannot remove it. It was the first transition from civilian to civilian regime; so it was not supposed to be easy. And it was not easy. But by God’s grace, we did it. Let Nigerians compare that election and every other one that we have had. They will understand that we were firm, resolute, knew exactly what we wanted to do, and achieved what we wanted to do, namely to transit Nigeria from one civilian regime to another.
There was the issue of inadequate funding of the 2007 elections. How were you able to conduct those elections with such paltry sum compared to the money INEC got in 2011?
That is an issue for Nigerians to debate. We did it with less than 10 per cent of the current INEC budget. And people were shouting. Even when we asked for N3 billion for the same voter register that they now spent N84 billion on, it was in all the newspapers that Iwu asked for more money. It is Iwu, not INEC. But now, nobody talks about Jega or any other person. They talk about INEC.
The issue there is that we were able to do what we did because our whole focus was on delivering that transition from civilian to civilian regime. It was surprising to the whole country that I was not involved in the issue of the ballot paper that was used for the election, which was supposed to be done by our MINT – Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company (NSPMC). It was the Nigerian MINT that we contracted it to, based on the same philosophy that we didn’t want to have any foreigner involved in anything.
If you say you have this technology, we will say get a Nigerian to bid for the job. That the MINT contracted it to a South African firm, we were not involved. So you can see the level of detachment we had in that whole process. I didn’t ever get involved in contracts. All I did was to be focused, and my colleagues and I were focused on making a successful transition.
The kind of sacrifice people made was unbelievable. The national commissioners slaved themselves. One Ekpenyong almost slept at the airport waiting for those ballot papers that were to come from South Africa.
Remember, it is just four years apart – 2007 to 2011 – but the cost was monumental because, first of all, as soon as the estimates were made, the foreigners said “pay up quickly”.
So, as I said, I don’t want to join issues with my successor; but I am prepared, if they want to join issues with me.
But if the 2007 elections were as credible as you insist, why were many of the results upturned by the courts.
Read our Electoral Act. The review process is part of the election and I instructed people who worked with me to allow the courts access to all information they needed. If you cannot sustain the election, then it should be upturned. I had no problems with that. It is the system; it is not the individual. The system allows for a review and the people knew that if they try XYX, it will not be sustainable in court.
But subsequently, the commission did not give information in the election conducted after we left office. For instance, in the last presidential election, INEC denied the opposition information. If it were during our time, they would have asked for my head. The same court didn’t call for any indictment on the commission. We gave access to everything we had, warts and all. It has to be a transparent process.
Many politicians, especially those from the South West, still insist that you are the worst thing that happened to INEC.
Well, they should go ahead and ask people at the INEC and ask Nigerians. They have their say and I have mine. I don’t want to join issues with anybody because I keep making the point that it has nothing to do with individuals. The system needed to be fixed and we succeeded in doing what we had to do.
Of course, they wouldn’t be happy that we didn’t blink. If ACN was in a position to win the election, then why did they merge to form APC?
How independent is INEC?
Compared to many other jurisdictions, INEC is independent. I don’t see what Jega can do to influence the outcome of an election because the structure is so wide that there is nothing somebody from Abuja can do; absolutely nothing.
What is annoying is the level of sacrifice one made to make sure that this same election that so vilified us was held.
Is it true that some politicians didn’t actually want the election to hold? And what was their game plan?
It was very simple. A lot of people didn’t want the election for different reasons. Some people believed that they were not ready and they wanted the status quo to remain. Some people believed that the best way to achieve their objective (whatever that was, I wouldn’t know) would be for that election not to hold.
We were having stumbling blocks at every corner. You mentioned, for example, the voter register in Ondo that had names of Mike Tyson and others; somebody inserted those names and it couldn’t have been the INEC chairman. Somebody went to Canada to ask for software and boasted about that.
So, there were intrigues all over the place, but why I have not talked and why I will still keep my cool after this interview is that some of the people concerned are still active players in the political arena. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s political career. My joy is that despite all their machinations and intrigues, we were able to transit. We should be grateful to God, but there are lessons.
I am more interested in the lessons that Nigerians should learn. One is that you cannot have a good outcome in elections without internal democracy in the parties. The parties must be made to be democratic. Let our politicians have the courage to accept whoever wins elections.
I was very happy with the process of the PDP primaries in Ekiti State where Ayo Fayose emerged against the feelings of most of the people who contested with him. If they had done it by the so-called consensus, he wouldn’t have emerged from what I saw. But doing it based on democratic norms, he emerged winner. The same thing happened in Osun.
So, if they can keep that up all over the country, that will be fine. The second issue is the sanctity of the ballot itself. We have had a situation now where people come together and then there is accreditation, and voting is done. If the voting that is done is held sacrosanct, the outcome of the ultimate election will be different. They know as much as I know that there is voting after voting, and there is nothing INEC can do about it. They know and Nigerians don’t know that it is security agencies that determine the movement of people and materials during elections and there is nothing the INEC chairman can do about it.
We put into play, when I was in office, enough electronic surveillance to make it possible to announce the elections simultaneously from every local government. That was why when we were doing the collation during our time, people said I announced results early. I did that because electronic data came before the paper work. It is just like your GSM. Even now, the system we have, if I tell you that there is actually no need for voter card, you will be surprised. But because we are used to the ritual, you must have a permanent voter card and so much money is sunk into it because what we have now is almost a modified Option A4. Everybody is there to do accreditation and vote. So, all that huge investment on permanent voter card and so on may not be necessary.
But do you think that 15 years into this democracy, Nigerians have learnt or are even learning these lessons you talk about?
Nigerians are learning the lessons, but the political elite are so bent on holding all of us to ransom. They are so bent on making sure that Nigeria doesn’t rise. They are so bent on making sure that the will of the people is never realised. It is a cabal. They are into a bubble of their own. They know what they want.
So, how can you change that? The president cannot do it. INEC chairman cannot do it. It is the Nigerian political elite. When they are ready, the changes will happen. But they are not ready.
But there is the impression that Obasanjo didn’t actually want a successful transition in 2007. As INEC chairman then, did you have that impression?
I cannot discuss individuals now. Like I said earlier, if there are issues to be discussed, I would rather face that.
Why are you shying away from discussing the challenges you faced conducting the 2007 polls, even when every blame for the systemic failure is laid at your doorstep?
I will talk, but there is nothing I can say in abstraction, and since I will mention people’s names, I would rather leave them until when we get there.
You mentioned the issue of funding. Remember INEC issued a cheque that bounced? Yet the same INEC, when I was in office, returned billions of naira that was erroneously credited to us but nobody gave us credit for that. And yet, we were being starved of funds. There were so many things and we were also mindful of the sanctity of life.
I am a Christian; a knight of the Catholic Church. I cannot allow one individual to die just because of my carelessness. How many people died following the 2011 elections? Instead, their families were paid compensation. Over 500 people died immediately after the elections. Is that a good way to judge the success of an election? So, from my own humanistic Christian point of view, I cannot even begin to compare the impact of 2011 election to 2007, which was peaceful despite all the problems we had. When the time comes, we will tell the full story.
There was also the politics of Atiku candidacy. There was a list of those said not to be eligible to contest election. How did that come about and what role did INEC play?
You touched again on one sensitive area that I wouldn’t want to discuss. Atiku Abubakar was the vice president of Nigeria, and I believed and still believe that he needed to be treated with decorum. That the system that compiled that list, I think, it emanated from government itself. And then the government went to the EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu and sent us the list.
One of my national commissioners, the lawyer from Bauchi, was detained because of that list. We looked at the list and turned it back to them, saying we have read the law and it says that these people must be indicted by a panel. There has to be an indictment. Within 10 days, some of the superstars who were parading themselves – I have the names of everybody in that committee – sat and convicted these people and published a White Paper. White Papers are to be obeyed. They issued a White Paper. What was INEC supposed to do? A White Paper issued by the Attorney.
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