I feel honoured that civil society activists have offered me this opportunity to give a keynote address to this important Conference on "Elections 2007: Protecting the Peoples' Mandate".
As a stakeholder, I am committed to supporting all initiatives that will strengthen the electoral process in both the political parties and democratic institutions of our country. It is only by so doing that we can institutionalise democracy in the Nigerian political system.
Free and fair elections are the building blocks for the consolidation of democracy. I acknowledge that many of our elections have not achieved the highest standards expected of democratic regimes. I, therefore, align myself with all efforts geared towards improving our electoral system. We believe that there is a consensus in Nigeria that an improved political and economic future requires the consolidation, and indeed, the deepening of democracy. This, in turn, requires improving the integrity of our electoral process.
Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, let me seize this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on democracy. I believe that democracy has become a universal core value that our society must uphold and consolidate. Responsible leadership in our society must, therefore, mean a deep commitment to and a strategy to deepen democracy by proactive measures that prevent democratic erosion or breakdown. This involves scrupulous respect for the Constitution, rule of law and the norms of democratic practice. The acceptance of multiple political parties and the role of opposition as part of the democratic project is part of this commitment.
One of the real tests of democracy is the acceptance by those in power that others who criticise them and are indeed trying to democratically take over their exalted positions are legitimate players in the system. This has been a major challenge in most African countries which we must face. It is also true that a commitment to democracy must ensure free and fair elections in the political parties and the democratic institutions of the State.
I am convinced that the task of reforming our political system cannot remain only at the level of state institutions. Political parties the world over are recognised as the building blocks of democracy. Parties cannot promote a strong democratic order unless they themselves are committed to democratic operations in their internal affairs. Parties can only promote the rule of law and democracy in the country if they practice these themselves. As we move towards the 2007 elections, it is essential that Party Congresses and Conventions and the nomination processes within the political parties are conducted in a free and fair manner and in accordance with the parties' Constitutions.
An essential element in promoting free and fair elections in the country is the free and fair conduct of party nominations. Most elections are "rigged" before they occur because candidates are eliminated through various methods. These include subverting Party Constitution and rules, the use of thugs, corrupting party officials to disqualify or annul the nomination of some candidates and other illegal methods of distorting the wishes of the electorate. In a recent interview with the Board of Editors of ThisDay, I stated that I was worried about the undemocratic tendencies in the Nigerian political parties. All Nigerians should be worried also.
The same must be said of civil society. The commitment of civil society to the democratic operation of their organisations will enhance their capacity to be watch-dogs of democracy and the rule of law in the wider political system.
For me, therefore, commitment to the electoral mandate of the people has a very clear meaning:
… That we respect the capacity of citizens to choose their leaders and protect their right to exercise one of the most important human rights - the right to vote and be voted for
… That we uphold the sanctity of the political parties as the bastion of democracy which must be allowed to operate in accordance with the Party Constitutions.
… That all stakeholders commit themselves to sustaining the constitutional imperative of regular elections. These enable the electors to review the performance of elected leaders and renew or terminate the mandate they had given them
… That the political class accepts that it is in its enlightened self-interest to respect opposition and create conditions in which people have choices between competing alternatives
… That we all recognise and encourage the operations of civil society as independent and effective promoters of the democracy project.
… That we respect and uphold the critical role of the judiciary:
- as an independent body that arbitrates in case of conflict;
- which imposes sanctions on unconstitutional transgressions of social and political norms and regulations and;
- which puts premium on protecting the rights and liberties of citizens against overzealous and highhanded officialdom; and
… That we accept court rulings and implement them.
Furthermore, elections must be managed efficiently and effectively. One of our biggest challenges in this country has been how to get elections right. That is why this Government deliberately embarked on various initiatives that will lead to electoral and constitutional reforms which will enable us to conduct free, fair and non-violent elections. We established the Presidential Committee on Constitutional Review in 1999 to set in motion the process of a profound review of our Constitution. The recently concluded National Political Reform Conference was also part of the efforts at reforming various aspects of our polity. Indeed, we are determined to conclude our political reform programme in a timely manner.
We also know that one of the key problems associated with the conduct of elections in our country relate to the composition and funding of our election management bodies. That is why this government has always tried to properly fund the Independent National Electoral Commission to enable it carry out its statutory responsibility of voters' registration and the conduct of elections. We have also deliberately tried to build the capacity of the judiciary to remain independent arbiters of electoral disputes. There have also been some cases of violence associated with our elections.
I hope this conference will deliberate on these issues in order to proffer ways in which we can improve on our elections. Such views can be fed into the Electoral Reform Bill that is currently under consideration in the National Assembly. As you are all aware this Administration is committed to reform. We are committed to a profound improvement, not only of our economy, but also, of our polity. We believe that all stakeholders in the Nigeria project have a major role to play in ensuring the success of the reform process.
These include the Executives, Legislatures, Judiciary, Civil Society, Religious Organisations and Community Leaders.
Mr Chairman, we believe that democracy cannot be successfully be entrenched in an environment of abject poverty, hunger and hopelessness. That is why we embarked on economic reforms that are meant to revamp our infrastructure, reorient our people and drastically reduce corruption. It is in this regard that we conceptualized the National Economic Empowerment and Development strategy (NEEDS). It is also what informs our other anti-poverty initiatives.
I thank the organizers of this conference, especially Global Rights, which I understand, works to promote and protect human rights and democracy all over the world. I also commend the various civil society organizations in this country, especially those that work to advance advocacy and legislative initiatives on women's rights, transparency and accountability, electoral and constitutional reforms, among others.
I am told that this Conference is a culmination of various zonal consultations in which involved civil society organisations, political parties, faith-based groups and political experts. I understand that they all worked together to improve their understanding of the problems that have bogged earlier elections and to work out modalities to guarantee free and fair elections in 2007 and beyond. I commend this effort. I know that this programme is consistent with the efforts of Nigerian civil society to advance and promote the cause of democracy in this country. This Government will always cooperate with the Nigerian civil society and all other sectors to promote such a noble cause.
Let me conclude this address by drawing your attention to some critical governance issues. Nigeria has experienced decades of military and authoritarian rule which has left deep imprints in our political culture. Consequently our political elite have become used to the centralisation, concentration and personalisation of political power - the central defining elements of modern despotism. The consolidation of democracy, however, requires the institutionalisation of political power in which due process and rules and regulations replace the exercise of personal power. That is the central thrust of our reform process. It must continue to be our focus. Individuals come and go but institutions endure.
Ladies and gentlemen the consolidation and deepening of our democracy is a task that we must all collectively engage in. The political class, community and religious leaders, civil society organisations all have a duty to contribute towards promoting the principles and practice of democratic institutionalisation.
I wish you successful deliberations. Thank you and God bless.