(PUNCH) The Head of European Union Delegation in Nigeria, Michel Arrion, in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA, challenges Nigerians to uphold their status as the biggest democracy in Africa
How long have you been in Nigeria and what has been your experience?
I arrived in Nigeria in October 2013. I came in from Rwanda where I had spent four years. Before then, I was in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Mali. Thus, I have relatively large experience of West Africa and Africa.
What is EU’s relationship with Nigeria and what areas do you think Nigeria’s government needs to improve?
There are two things: first of all, institutions. I think globally, Nigeria has made a lot of progress in terms of deepening democracy in this country, from military rule to civilian rule, from one single man to a group of people, from one single party to bi-partisan system, almost bi-partisan system. So, in the long term, you see a progression with all kinds of hiccups and difficulties, but the trend is good and is accompanied by basic freedoms and liberties. These include: media freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of belief. Those are the core of freedoms and liberties for citizens. It’s more than a declaration of human rights, but it’s a declaration that is translated into reality. I think one can assume there is freedom of press here and freedom of belief. But it is not enough. Social and economic rights are really not guaranteed in this country, de facto and efficiently. Maybe on paper and in the constitution, they are, but in reality, they are not. Here, I want to emphasise also that it is important also for those who believe that it is more important to develop the economy or the business or growth rather than re-distribute everything to the poor. To really develop in a sustainable way the economy, you need not only democracy, but you need also to re-distribute social benefits to the people and to do that is a question of leadership and people. It is also a question of institution. Therefore, strengthening the institutions, not on paper, but in reality is absolutely key. We are working a lot in those sectors related to rule of law, democracy, human rights, elections, and police and criminal justice. There are a lot of things to do to really defend basic rights of the people who were in prisons, who were involved in any case of criminal proceedings.
Why do you think many African nations, including Nigeria, struggle to conduct peaceful and credible elections?
I started working in Africa since the late 80’s. Hence, I have seen progression since 89, 90, 91. We have seen a lot of relatively credible, peaceful and transparent elections with good turnover of leadership and the emergence of new political parties in addition to the old traditional single parties. We have seen also the basic transformation of the African politics from nationalism to something different. What we miss today is certainly, political parties that really have to make choices in the field of economy and those questions of re-distribution. In other words, I personally miss the liberal party or socialist party. The role of the state is always a big issue between the left and the right, between the labour and the conservative. You don’t have that in Africa in most cases, with a few exceptions of course. Thus, you always have the old traditional party, the one where the founding father, the nationalist, created and built since the 60’s, 70’s. Their successors, the new comers, come without any real economic or political platform.
How does voters’ education impart democracy?
It is absolutely necessary to have elections to foster democracy, but it’s not sufficient, because to give the right to vote to a population with so many illiterate persons or uneducated people is not at all sufficient. I think one cannot develop democracy without educating the people, without reaching a height where a very percentage of the people would go to school until they are 18. And that’s not the case in most countries in Africa. When people are not being well educated, they cannot understand the issues and challenges at stake and also because the parties do not offer different views, I mean there is the ‘party for freedom and democracy’ and the ‘party for democracy and freedom’, so what’s the difference, frankly? The issue of the third mandate is not as difficult as it can be in other countries in Africa, where you have presidents changing the constitution the year before the expiration of their second mandate. That would not happen in Nigeria although I am aware of the debate on the issue of President Goodluck Jonathan being in power to terminate the mandate after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, there have been some discussions on that. The role of the electoral commission is absolutely key. In many well established democracies, there is no electoral commission, it is the Ministry of Home Affairs or Internal Affairs. It’s just like civil registration, why do you have voter cards? If you had ID cards, you won’t have voter cards. In my country, there is no voter card.
You need a better management of the population and it is linked to other aspects of what I call managing the population. It is not only managing births and deaths. It is each step in the life of the citizens, going to school, leaving the school, getting married, having children that you have to manage. It used to be managed in the past in nice books but today, with IT technology, it should be much easier. That is, I think, an issue, that right after the election, the new government should really address. With good census, we had the 2006 census; nobody knows how many Nigerians are in Nigeria. Frankly, there is the competition state by state, ‘I need more citizens in order to get more percentages of revenue,’ we know that. That is not good because how can you plan your development if you don’t know how many citizens you have in your state.
Political parties also have to take responsibility for good elections, it is not only INEC, it involves the political parties. The media, each and every stakeholder including the citizens are needed to deliver good elections including the security forces, the executive, the judiciary.
What would be your message for the winner of the presidential election?
The world is watching Nigeria, you have seen President Barack Obama recording a video tape to Nigeria. Today (Thursday) the EU President has written to President Jonathan and Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd). I just got the letter an hour ago, emphasising a few things. Africa is important to the US and EU, but Africa and West Africa are also watching Nigeria. To the politicians and the political parties, there is no place in democracy for violence. I just read what the Deputy Governor of Rivers State, Ikulu, said, “don’t hesitate to spill blood.” This is not acceptable. It is absolutely not acceptable to say things like that. A few weeks ago, we reacted quite badly to the Governor of Katsina calling the opposition cockroaches. What is that? You cannot compare a human being to an animal. You cannot shed human blood, even that of your worst enemy or the worst person. If you are a democrat and you want to develop democracy, you do not use that kind of terms and you do not use violence. Unfortunately, we do very much fear post-electoral violence. And like I said earlier, we are watching you, everybody is watching Nigeria because we are expecting a new step forward towards an enhanced and strengthened democracy. But we are also watching what people are saying and what people will be held accountable. I don’t know how we would hold people accountable, but there are many ways of holding people accountable and I think it’s a general consensus among the Nigerian population. They want their leaders held accountable not only on their political commitments but also those kind of things. Impunity and violence have no place in democracy. We are happy we have been invited to observe the elections, but I want to clarify here, it is not the EU delegation that is observing the elections. We have an independent autonomous mission with a chief observer, he is totally autonomous, I don’t have to give him instructions, he doesn’t choose between any of the candidates. He has no political agenda at all, but people don’t believe that. There are no friends in international relations, you only have interests.
What sanctions will the EU impose on politicians who instigate violence during the elections?
I think it’s too early to say and I don’t want to mention the word, sanction, because it is already pre-empting the fact that there would be a good reason to impose sanction. We don’t call it sanctions, we call it appropriate measures. We would see what kind of measures, but it is something the EU is always looking at in the global framework. If there are UN sanctions, we follow with EU sanctions. But we believe much more in prevention. Thus, imposing sanctions is, frankly, the last resort. We prefer to act in terms of prevention and preparations. We want to be clear that there is indeed a red line that should not be crossed.
If the election was rigged, should the loser accept the result?
First of all, it is not black or white. There will always be places where people would try to rig. In every country in the world, you always have people doing that kind of thing. There is a large spectrum of possibilities, so it is not yes or no. What is more important is not to judge whether the process has been rigged or not. The main point is, is the final result really reflecting the will of the population? I don’t believe 100 per cent polling units will be opened from 8 to 5 to give a chance to everyone to vote. There would be problems, we will have a storm, heavy rain somewhere, it may be impossible to reach a polling unit, we will have all kinds of incidence, but what will be the impact on the final result is more important.