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OPINION: WHAT AND WHO ARE SHAPING NIGERIA’S 2023 POLLS?

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December 01, (THEWILL) – As the 2023 polls advance into its last ninety (90) days stretch before the February 25 and March 11 D-Day, issues around corruption and the like, which had defined the last general elections, particularly in 2011 and 2019, are not occupying right and centre in the campaign for next year’s general elections.

It is worth recalling that l had noted in a previous article published widely in the mass media in September, titled, “Presidency 2023: A Contest Between Three ‘Sinners’?“, that all the presidential front runners, having served in public offices are alleged by most Nigerians to have been corrupt and, therefore, deemed as sinners by the generality of folks, but without proof as no court of law has convicted any of the eighteen (18) political party flag bearers.

And despite all the noises being made about fighting corruption by the incumbent government in the past seven and a half (7+1/2) years of being in the saddle of governance from Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, a critical mass of Nigerians do not believe that anything good is coming from or can emanate from the much-vaunted anti-corruption fight, which as far as they are concerned has fizzled out.

Evidently, combating graft in our country is no longer a big deal as the rate of corruption in public service has increased exponentially in the current dispensation. This sorry situation is not only in the estimation of ordinary Nigerians, but also a position validated by prominent international graft monitoring and rating agencies such as Transparency International (TI).

In the corruption tracking organisation’s perception index of corruption in Nigeria, released in January of this year, Nigeria ranked 154 out of 180 countries in the world in the year 2021.

That indicates that the rating for our country has dipped by five (5) points between 2020 to 2021, which simply means corruption has gone from bad to worse in Nigeria.

Given the grim statistics, it would be surprising to ordinary folks, but not to pundits that corruption is not a significant campaign talking point in the 2023 polls. And it is what it is, basically because Nigerians appear to have become accustomed to graft being the present defining feature of public service.

And the relegation of corruption as a campaign issue is despite the fact that it has now been exposed that the monumental level of corruption in Nigeria is beyond what goes on in the Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs via contract, splitting, padding and non-execution of contracts to outright dipping of filthy hands into the treasury of MDAs.

Take the case of the ministry of finance, where the dismissed Accountant General of the Federation (AGF), Ahmed Idris, salted away N80 billion naira via fraudulent deductions by compromising the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), which is supposed to be a bulwark against corruption. But, he succeeded in stealing N16,000 monthly from every university lecturer enrolled in the salary payment system before he was caught.

Also, consider the situation with the Niger Delta Development Corporation (NDDC), which has been revealed as a cesspit of corruption for multiple scavengers pretending to be contractors, that have been stealing trillions of naira set aside for intervention in the Delta region, which is the bread basket of Nigeria, that has been highly despoiled by oil/gas explorers. The former managing director of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of NDDC, kemebradikumo Pondei, was said to have misappropriated and therefore, accounted for over N139 billion of the intervention agency’s funds missing between 2013 and 2018.

How can we forget the bilking of billions of naira in pension funds by Abdulrasheed Maina, who led the special task force set up by the government to recover looted funds lost via mismanagement and ended up looting fourteen billion naira (N14b), which is part of the pension funds that as chairman of the fraud prevention task force, he ought to have recovered for the government?

And the case of looters re-looting what was thought to have been recovered is not peculiar to the maladministration of pension funds.

That is as evidenced by the investigation and sacking of the former anti-corruption tzar of this administration, Ibrahim Magu, who as the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), got booted out following the report of the panel headed by former Appeal Court president, Justice Ayo Salami, that investigated corruption charges brought against him by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami.

The investigation according to the CableNewsOnline found that Magu failed to remit N48 billion naira recovered from looters and abandoned 14 fraud cases involving N118 billion naira and $309 million dollars.

AGF, Malami, also recently stated in the mass media that about one trillion naira has been recovered by anti-corruption agencies from treasury looters. And the recovered sum has been applied to poverty alleviation activities. I presume that it would be via programs of government such as the provision of meals for school children and payment of stipends to the poorest of the poor in our country, which are activities under the purview of the ministry of humanitarian affairs.

Typical of the pervasiveness of corruption, which has eastern deep into the fabric of our society, the apparent poor service delivery of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, with Sadiya Umar Farouq as Minister, has also come under close scrutiny with the stunning discovery of elements of corruption oozing out of it.

So, given the highlighted cases, corruption has more or less become a popular culture in Nigeria, such that it appears not to be reprehensible anymore that people entrusted with the responsibility to manage our assets for public good, brazenly engage in fraudulent practices in the management of the resources entrusted in their care.

That disposition stems from the fact that over the past few years, our fellow countrymen and women appear to have been benumbed by the sheer size of corruption in the country, (which is very weighty and overwhelming) and they have, therefore, become sort of jinxed, jaded, attuned or accustomed to the culture of sleaze that is practically the norm rather than the exception in the polity.

Is it not astonishing that Nigerian Senators have been regaled with ridiculous claims that termites ‘ate up’ vouchers containing expenditure of seventeen billion naira (N17b) in the National Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, as contained in the 2018 audit report of the Office of the Auditor General of the Government of the Federation, OAUGF?

In another instance in 2018, Nigerians were also assailed with the ludicrous claims that serpents also swallowed thirty-six million naira (N36m) of Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board, JAMB, funds in the vault. That is money paid by Nigerian youths to enable them sit for examinations that would qualify them to get admitted into universities.

Just as most Nigerians thought they had heard the worst of the phantasmagoric tales of corruption in the management of public assets by those entrusted to curate them, a couple of months ago, the beleaguered and long suffering masses were exposed to a pandora box of sleaze in the oil/gas sector.

This time it was from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, that against the run of play or popular opinion granted Ekpemulo Government, a.k.a Tompolo, company a contract for the security of oil/gas assets in the Niger Delta, which has turned out to be a major saving grace and a turning point in the production and export of crude oil that is considered the lifeblood in the veins of our country and critical to the sustenance of its corporate existence.

It is heartening that when it matters most, a former militant has come to the rescue of Nigeria by shinning the light on the dark recesses of the Niger Delta, where our country’s oil wealth, which is our common patrimony was being willfully stolen by a few nefarious ambassadors.

Without a doubt, the oil/gas assets security contract is a positive reference point or model in government and host communities’ collaboration in the best interest of our country that should be replicated in other parts of Nigeria like Gombe and Zamfara States, where natural resources like gold, bauxite, uranium etc abound and organised criminals are having a field day stealing them.

Hitherto, it was estimated that as much as 80% of crude oil fed into the Trans Forcados pipeline is stolen by crude oil thieves via illegal pipelines grafted into the main pipeline to the export terminal, from which the product is siphoned into vessels and sold in the black market by organised crime syndicates. This is estimated in some quarters to amount to about $10 billion dollars loss to the nation’s treasury, which is about 50% of the average of Nigeria’s external reserves.

Arising from such criminal activities that undermined our country’s ability and capacity to meet her 1.9m barrels a day quota by the Organization Of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, resulting in the shortage of foreign exchange inflow with attendant consequences on the treasury and near insolvency of our country, our country’s economy went into a tailspin as foreign exchange scarcity exacerbated the already high naira-dollar exchange rate.

With the discovery and plugging of the illegal crude oil taps, where nearly 437,000 barrels were said to have been stolen on a daily basis, the management of NNPC ltd has stated that the nation is currently on track to meet its OPEC quota and that would lead to improved foreign exchange inflow.

Hopefully, the sanctity in the oil/gas sector would be sustained and the sunken naira exchange rate against other currencies can be on a rebound to shore up our sagging economy.

And perhaps a similar initiative of assigning individuals and organizations with vast knowledge of the local terrain the task of protecting our highly valuable assets or resources like gold, uranium, bauxite etc, would be replicated in the northern parts of our country like Gombe and Zamfara states axis, where they abound.

In addition to the existing no-fly-zone imposed over the skies in the natural metals-rich zones by President Mohammadu Buhari, earlier cited, a move to physically secure the minerals would save the nation further loss of income to those, who are currently illegally mining and spiriting out of Nigeria, our precious gemstones into Dubai etc with aircraft that can land and take off from short tracks.

In fact, it is amazing that all these aforementioned corrupt practices that amount to the pillaging of our natural resources and the haemorrhaging of the country’s treasury that boil down to economic sabotage, which appears to be so unreal, therefore, are what movies are made of in other climes, are happening in our country, yet Nigeria has not become a failed nation like Venezuela — an oil-rich but insolvent country.

In my estimation, it is a miracle and a testimony to the resilience of Nigeria as a country and Nigerians as incredibly tenacious people.

The pretence to fighting corruption by this government is particularly gutting because pundits aver that what has been documented and in the public domain as having been stolen from the public treasury in the past decade certainly makes the previous records of stealing by public servants pale into nothing. But, l will not delve into that aspect in this intervention, as l only intend to only focus on activities leading to next year’s election viz-a-viz 2019.

In comparison, at this stage of campaigns for general elections in the past, particularly in 2011, 2015 and 2019, accusations and counter-accusations about the NNPC being the Automated Teller Machine, ATM, of the government in power had filled the political space or attained stratospheric dimensions.

That unedifying experience that marked the electioneering processes of the past is currently not prevalent in the NNPC or any other MDAs that used to be the so-called cash cows of incumbent governments such as the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, Nigerian Maritime Administration Safety Agency, NlMASA, Nigerian Communications Corporation, NCC etc.

It is commendable that the above-listed public institutions now appear to be free of such perfidy in light of the fact that the ruling APC seem to have devised a less brazen method of funding its political campaigns without dipping their hands into public treasury in the way that they did in the past.

Perhaps the high cost of procuring political office nomination forms by politicians, which netted a couple of billions of naira into the coffers of some of the political parties has helped.

Otherwise, a more ingenious method must have been introduced by the two main political parties, APC and PDP, that have control of government at the centre and sub-national levels to raise funds for campaigns.

As for Labor Party, LP, which is not in control of government at any level that could have generated funding for it, the only source of income available to it is largely from donations by party faithful, especially Nigerians in the diaspora.

In the case of the New Nigeria National Party, NNPP, whose source of funds is definitely not from government appointees, since its leader is currently not in government, its funding source has remained somewhat opaque and perhaps one of the reasons its campaign has not been as vibrant and dynamic as that of the other leading parties including the LP, which is getting a lot of diaspora funding.

So far, not even the resort to using the funds earmarked for the purchase of arms and ammunition for the military to effectively prosecute the war against terrorism and banditry, which is a crime that Goodluck Jonathan’s government was accused by the incumbent government of engaging in, (hence then National Security Adviser, NSA Sambo Dasuki was incarcerated for the better part of the first term of the outgoing government) has been an issue in the 2023 campaign.

It is rather fortuitous that the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC has finally come out with political parties funding guidelines. The amount of funds that can be applied by a candidate for a presidential contest has been pegged at five (N5) billion naira and the governorship election is capped at one (N1) billion naira.

Most importantly, the rule requires the parties to declare to INEC its sources of funds up to N50m from foreign sources. To me, the rule is okay, but it does not go far enough as it did not require a candidate to disclose all sources of income, including funds sourced locally.

That could have enabled the tax authorities to do their job better by identifying moneybags and corporate bodies that might have been understating their net worth to cheat on tax payments.

Remarkably, all of the above-listed errant and deviant behaviours of public office holders, which approximate corrupt practices that imperil our country and jeopardize the chances of the critical mass of Nigerians getting out of the poverty trap, are not the issues driving 2023 polls.

Apparently, Nigerians are weary of hearing that APC presidential flag bearer, Asiwaju of Lagos, Bola Tinubu, has a vice grip on Lagos state and his alleged firm, Alfa Beta, has been collecting tax on behalf of the government and helping himself to a huge chunk of it.

That is largely because the allegation has been resolved in court in his favour, as such the claim remains unsubstantiated and hackneyed.

Similarly, the wild allegations against the PDP candidate, Waziri Adamawa Atiku Abubakar, that during the privatization of government corporations exercise under the watch of former president Olusegun Obasanjo, where he served as vice president, he is corrupt or sold government assets to himself and his friends have also been unproven and, therefore, a mere conjecture in the fertile minds of the purveyors of such conspiracy theorists. That is also owed to the fact that strictly speaking, Atiku Abubakar has no corruption conviction against him in Nigeria or anywhere abroad, period!

The same applies to LP candidate Mr Peter Obi, who has not been found wanting with respect to dipping his hands in the treasury during his stewardship as a two-term governor of Anambra state. And despite the claim in some quarters that Fidelity bank, where he has a personal stake is one of the three banks where he saved $50m each on behalf of the State Government and that he is one of those recently exposed as having undisclosed offshore bank accounts in international safe havens, as revealed in the Panama Papers scandal, Obi was already a self-made billionaire retail goods trader before dabbling into politics.

By the same token, Dr Musa Kwakwanso of NNPP, who has also served as two terms Governor, Minister and Senator is also deemed to be unencumbered by corruption charges.

Although he was charged to court by the EFFC on allegations that he was involved in corrupt practices during his term as Governor of Kano State, he too currently remains unencumbered by any corruption conviction, otherwise, he would not be on the ballot.

Given that Nigerians appear to have become used to or accepted corruption as part of the DNA of their country, it is understandable why it would be feckless for the malaise of corruption to be the driving force of the campaigns to win over the hearts and minds of the electorate by the demagogues as February 25 date for the presidential ballot and March 11 governorship polls draws closer.

Having said that, it is rather striking, stunning and scary at the same time that what would make or mar 2023 polls is the weaponization of fake news for political gains and violence by members of opposing political parties, particularly the traditional parties, APC, PDP and to a less extent, LP and NNPP.

Take for instance when the PDP launched its campaign in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State capital.’Obi kekerenke’ was reported to have been the song sung in a corner of the venue. Reportedly, Obidients were taunting PDP supporters. Although it has been debunked as fake news, imagine the provocation it might have generated if it were to be the reality.

However, a real breach of the peace occurred in Maiduguri, Borno State, to the PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar.

In the cause of campaigning in kano in the north, the APC presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, was also reportedly harassed by opposition party members.

In like manner, Peter Obi and LP, have also been victims of harassment by other party members in a couple of campaign locations.

Very concerning are the video footages in social media that indicated that someone was even reportedly apprehended with a knife as he was standing in a path where Mr Obi was to pass through during one of the rallies.

Given how a flag bearer in Pakistan, Imran Khan, who is the former Prime Minister, was viciously attacked via a gunshot to his leg during a campaign rally as recent as 3rd November, the preachments to party members in Nigeria to tone down the rhetorics of hate and violence cannot be overemphasized.

It may also be recalled that in July this year, former Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, died from gunshot wounds during a political campaign event.

Before then, in 2007 to be specific, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistani, was also assassinated after an election campaign activity.

With regards to physical clashes between rival parties,l am yet to read or hear of facilities but the destruction of INEC’s assets nationwide has been legion.

As we advance towards the 2023 general elections, it is unfortunate that about twenty-four (24) precious Nigerian lives have been lost in unfortunate deadly incidents of election violence.

That is reportedly revealed by the National Security Adviser, NSA, Babagana Mongonu.

Hopefully, the 2023 electioneering process would not descend into the sort of orgy of violent destruction that happened in south-west Nigeria, in the lbadan axis, in the nascent stages of our practice of democratic governance tagged ‘operation wetie’ — an euphemism for dousing political opponents with petrol before setting the fellow human being ablaze.

That barbaric act earned the zone the infamous epithet, Wild, Wild, West in the early 1960s.

Now, the authorities(government and non-governmental) charged with preventing violence amongst politicians to ensure that the conduct of peaceful campaigns is achieved in 2023 polls, must not only bark but bite in order to avoid what seems like a disaster waiting to happen, if the apparent violent tendencies of fanatical party supporters are not reined in.

The second and probably most potent and looming threat to 2023 polls, which is fake news, is even riskier to lovers of peace than the physical brawl that could be instigated via taunting by fanatical supporters earlier outlined.

That is because it is fake news owing to its ubiquitous nature that triggers and sustains violent clashes between party supporters.

Take for instance the fake letter purportedly written by INEC stating that APC candidate, Tinubu, is being investigated by the election regulatory agency based on the court report about Tinubu’s alleged indictment in Chicago, USA court, on narcotics charges.

Until INEC came out to disown the letter, the falsehood was gaining currency and who knows what type of reaction from APC supporters it could have triggered?

That is on top of the numerous trolls about Tinubu’s academic qualifications and questions about his ancestry, which had been trending online.

Also, a trending video of the endorsement of LP candidate, Obi, by international celebrities in other climes is another sort of fake news that is negatively affecting the 2023 polls.

That is amongst many other falsehoods promoting the candidacy of Obi and peddling lies about the opposing candidates that have practically seized the social media space.

Although these unwholesome acts may not be with the consent of Obi and his campaign council, l have had cause in the past to caution and reprimand Obidients — LP devoted supporters to thread with more caution in the article earlier referenced because their unwholesome practice of manipulating video or facts to promote their principal and disparage his opponents may hurt rather than help Obi.

The caution is simply underscored by the basic fact that sooner or later, fact checking would be conducted and the truth would prevail, thereafter, voters may develop scepticism about Obi’s candidacy.

Equally of concern is the mindset of some Obidients that, even when the political mathematics don’t add up, if Peter Obi is not declared the winner in the February 25, 2023, contest after the balloting, it would be that he was rigged out.

Does that not suggest that the crisis of ejection deniers intending to upend our democracy may be on the horizon?

Nursing and peddling such outrageous notions may lead to unnecessary and damning post election consequences, hence it is imperative that we should all be weaned of such incendiary thought processes in order to nip in the bud, discard and eradicate such sense of denial from the minds of those that are toying with it.

Since the internet and social media are unmanaged spaces, but they remain the most effective communication platforms, Nigerian authorities, particularly INEC and security agencies must work out a formula to rein in fake news purveyors either via persuasion,’moral-suation’ or sanction that should be fashioned or hashed out sooner than later.

The aforementioned pact between political parties, especially presidential candidates with civil society organizations compelling them not to engage in violence or rhetorics that could engender hatred between members of opposing political parties, should be replicated in the social media space.

As a matter of urgency, civil society organizations such as the one led by former Military Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar and Bishop Hassan Mathew Kukah, on non-violence by politicians should be expanded into the social media space or replicated.

The necessity and urgency of the intervention are underscored by the fact that fake news currently symbolizes, represents and embodies the greatest threat to peaceful elections next year as it has assumed the dimension of a ticking time bomb or can be said to be like a keg of gunpowder that our country is seating on, if the nefarious ambassadors are allowed to continue to ride roughshod with Nigerians with their reckless predilections with fake news as the 2023 polls draw nearer.

To be explicit, the potency of fake news is evident in the violence that led to the Tutsi and Hutus self-annihilation cauldron that boiled over in Rwanda in 1994, during which between 500 to 800 lives are believed to have been lost. So also is the post-election violence that ensued between the supporters of Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, in the East African country, Kenya, in 2007, which resulted in the death of 1300 Kenyans in the aftermath of the bloody confrontation.

It is worth pointing out that the aforementioned conflicts that had horrific and devastating consequences in the referenced countries were triggered by reckless and fake rhetorics in the mass media.

As opposed to abusing the massive opportunities offered by social media to grow our nascent democracy as were the cases in Rwanda and Kenya, I would like to recommend that Nigerians take to heart the following recommendation by former US president Donald Trump’s ex chief of staff, General Kelly, who made the remark about the qualities that Americans should look out for in choosing their president:

“We need to look infinitely harder at who we elect to any office in our land.

At the office seeker’s character,at their morals, at their ethical record,their integrity, their honesty,their flaws,what they have said about women and minorities, why they are asking to serve in public office in the first place, and only then consider the policies they espouse.”

In addition to General Kelly’s recommended value proposition or criteria for choosing whoever is aspiring for the office of the president of the USA, the sensitivity of public office seekers in Nigeria to ethnic and religious differences that have been magnified in the last decade should also be focused on, especially for those seeking to be president.

The ongoing consultations that non-political, regional, ethnic and religious groups such as the Arewa Consultative Forum, Ohaneze Ndigbo and Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, are having with presidential standard bearers of the main political parties, as well as the efforts of media organizations like the Thisday/AriseTv group, in organizing town hall meetings to interrogate the policies and programs of the candidates that have agreed to participate, are quite encouraging.

Nevertheless, more needs to be done to eliminate the clear and present dangers of fake news in our body polity.

While the new rules to mitigate fake news are being processed or prepared, public office seekers in our beloved country and their supporters should make the substance of their manifestoes and talking points, and be careful not to throw caution to the winds by resorting to the use of fake news as a political weapon as we approach this very consequential process of recruiting those that would be our new leaders via 2023 polls.

*** Written by Magnus Onyibe, an entrepreneur, public policy analyst, author, development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, and a former commissioner in Delta State Government, sent this piece from Lagos.