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People should vote out incompetent office holders

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Two years after she retired as the 14th Chief Judge of Lagos on July 26, 2014, Justice Ayotunde Philips was sworn-in as the Chairman of the Lagos State Independent Electoral Commission (LASIEC). She spoke with TAJUDEEN ADEBANJO on the challenges of local government elections, election offences tribunal, electoric voting and other issues.

What really has changed between the judiciary and electoral world?

There is totally different; it is totally outside my comfort zone because we were used to adjudicating over results of the elections or results of nomination of a candidate. We were not really involved in dealing with candidates or dealing with politicians. In fact, politicians are people we don’t really relate with on one on one much outside the court but now I am relating with them, having meetings with them, talking to them, listening to their problem. After avoiding dealing with politicians in my entire career, I am now right in their midst.  So it was well outside my comfort zone but I have just been used to it and found them very interesting and now I am very comfortable talking to them.

In court, you were used to giving orders, but here, you have to pacify people. How were you to cope, especially during the last local government election?

Well, it wasn’t that difficult because even as a judge, your primary assignment is to settle issues between the parties not really to adjudicate or say you are wrong or you are right or to find fault. Your primary assignment is. If you see that there is a dispute between two persons, your initial reaction is to try and settle it. It is only when you can’t settle it, then, it goes to trial. So, dealing with politicians is not different. They usually have one complain or the other, so it came very natural to try and settle whatever complaints they had. And one thing about politicians that I have observed is that if you make sense to them, they will cooperate immediately. So, it wasn’t that difficult dealing with them.

There will be another local government election next year, how would you access the turnout of the last election?

The turnout three years ago was very poor and we have had several by-elections since then and they were not impressive. So, this time, we are trying to tackle voter apathy as much as we can, unfortunately, we were supposed to start preparing for the election early this year but then COVID-19 came and as you well known, most of our events involved large gatherings of people like our stakeholders’ meetings where we have the traders, communities leaders, traditional rulers and NGOs. We usually have them in large groups between 200 and 300 people but we can do that now because of COVID-19. So, we have to think outside the box by adopting zoom meeting because we can’t have more than 50 people for physical meeting. So, we are starting late. That notwithstanding, we have taken the bull by the horns and we have started well.

Will this not affect next year’s election?

It shouldn’t. It did affect not election in some countries that has had elections in spite of the COVID-19 and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) went ahead with Edo and Ondo Governorship elections. So, we were learning from them because we have targets for the next year’s election and we are working towards achieving them.

So, what are you doing to address voters’ apathy?

Well, what can we do, except to continue appeal to the voting populace to come out to vote and to sensitise the public as to how important their votes are. This time around, we have decided to target the youth in particular because we believe that if we can get the youth interested in voting because they really are not really interested in voting, so we need to get them on board. If we get them on board, I believe they could even mobilise their parents. If they see their sons and daughters rushing out to vote on Election Day, the parents and even grandparents might follow suit.  So, we are targeting the youths and we are doing our best to appeal to them in their own language – Facebook, twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms. We will get young people like them and motivational speakers to talk to them. This is what we are planning to do. It is still at the planning stages. We have appealed to the adults and we will continue to appeal to them too but you know this time around, let’s try and target the youth first, their population is massive. They need to be told why their votes are important because it’s their future.

One of the major causes of voters’ apathy is the perception that votes don’t count, especially at the local government level. How independent is LASIEC?

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve not seen us attached to any political party granted Lagos state is led at present by the All Progressives Congress (APC) government and we have to get out money from somewhere. So we get our money from the government, there’s nothing we can do about that. Outside that, nobody tells us what to do, we are independent, we carry out our duties independently of anybody, nobody tells us how to go about our business, we tell government what we want and they give it to us. The only way you can accuse us of being dependent on any party in power is if you can prove that when I give one bag of paper to one person, I give two bags of papers to a member of the ruling party, then you can say we are openly partial to any political party but as it is as far as I have seen, we have been left alone to do our work. It is the people that should learn to realise that their vote is important. Take for example, a big wig in a party says people must vote for Mr X and I say no I want to vote for Mr Y and all of you in the neighbourhood vote for Mr Y, nobody can question that, I’m just a big wig and you said no I’m not doing what you tell me to do. You see people don’t seem to realise how important their votes are, that is your constitutional rights and it’s your choice, nobody should choose for you but if you allow people to choose for you, then you’ve just wasted your own constitutional rights. You have no right to complain.

Opposition parties used to win some seats in an election conducted by INEC, but not by LASIEC. Why?

Well, that’s not true because in the last elections granted the APC won all the chairmanship seats but the PDP won four seats in the councillor seats. ACCORD won two and they got an extra one even in court. They have three councillorship seats whereas Labour I think has one councillorship seat. APC didn’t win all, even if they did win all the chairmanship seats, that’s the results but when it came to the councillorship seats, that’s the neighbourhood, it shows that people there can pick their own people and there is nothing we can do, if the result comes in that this man has clearly won, nobody will take it from him. So the allegations that they won chairmanship seats, that’s the results we got. If they had won the chairmanship seats at least there are some states where they win all the chairmanship seats and all the councillorship seats, what do you say about that but in Lagos state, it’s not so, they did win all the chairmanship seats, I can’t deny it but when it came to the councillorship seats, it was spread amongst the parties. So I don’t think the allegation is based on facts.

How does LASIEC intend to accommodate large number of political parties?

Well, we found out that not all of them contest during local government elections. The last time, we only had between eight and 12 parties fielding candidates. The main contenders for the last local government elections were APC, PDP, Labour and Accord. Those were the four contenders. Other parties don’t bother with the local government elections. I don’t know how many would show interest this time around. We don’t usually have to contend with too many parties at the local government elections.

When you were the Chief Judge Lagos State, you introduced the use IT in delivering judgments and other innovative ideas. What about electronic voting in Lagos state?

Electronic voting is very expensive and it takes a lot of finances and planning. We were looking into it before the COVID-19 struck, but, now I’m not too sure whether we can afford it. It would have been my delight to introduce electronic voting, but I don’t think so.

But, Lagos is credited to be the Centre of Excellence. Why do we have to shy away from it?

Already, elections are very expensive. We are looking at about N3 to N4 billion for the election without even considering electronic voting and you know electronic voting has its own challenges – it has the problems of calibration, data and unfortunately in Lagos State, we still have to deal with INEC; they have all the data we need for the election.  So it’s a lot of work, I don’t think we have the time now. Even INEC is having difficulty introducing electronic voting. If you were in our shoes, you would know how difficult it is.

So, what is the new thing you are bringing on board?

The new thing we are bringing on board. At least, we are doing virtual meetings which are new. We are targeting the youth. This time, we are going to use social media to target as much as possible youths. I know you are still thinking along the line of electronic voting, that’s not going to be possible (laughter), but we are open to suggestions.

How has the performance of council chairmen been affecting interest of people in voting?

It might be, but then, who is going to correct it? They should correct it. The people, who voted them into power, should correct it since they have found out that the chosen candidate isn’t working, then they shouldn’t vote for them again. Like I said earlier, you can’t seat in your house, refuse to vote or be forced to vote for a person and that person gets into a position and then you complain that he is not good.  You have put a square peg in a round hole, you shouldn’t complain, rather you should get up and do something about it.

You that belong to that local government and not happy with your chairman’s performance, don’t vote for the person again if he or she comes out for a second term. You keep on trying someone else till you get the right person, but you don’t give a person who is openly incompetent a second term, you don’t. And that’s why I say people don’t know the value of their votes, just one vote can make a difference.

Lagos State government has extended tenure of chairmen and councillors from three years to four years, what effect does will that have on the populace?

I don’t know the rational for government doing that because we met it on ground. The law was amended just before we were sworn in, but I think it could be to tally with the term of the governor’s themselves because it was three years before, it’s now four years.

Do you think it does the society any good extending the tenure to four years?

Yeah, it gives them more time to start projects and then finish existing projects; I believe that should be enough for them to do it. Three years may not be enough for the voters to access them. If you spent years and couldn’t achieve much, why should I give you a second term?

Why is it difficult to persecute people that perpetuate violence during election?

Because the parties don’t allow it to work. Most times, these election offences are committed by party faithful. We might not know who they are and get hold of them. Then, all of a sudden, we don’t see them anymore. So, you can only prosecute who you can lay your hands on. Most time we can’t lay our hands on the person; the person just disappears.

Secondly, people don’t really complain, they just shout ‘Aah, they have stolen the ballot box.’ When we asked, ‘who is the person?’ they said ‘we don’t know.’ The party might know who the person is but won’t give him or her up. It’s difficult unless the police can catch the person red-handed doing it. Then, maybe we can have someone to prosecute.

Why do we have the delay in announcing election results?

Well, I can only speak from my own personal experience, the last election, we had a problem with one of the local government, and there was some delay.

There was some delay, we couldn’t start in time. If you could remember, it rained heavily on that day, so the whole area was flooded. Some polling booths were flooded, so they had to relocate those polling booths. I had a lot of phone calls from people who didn’t know where to go and vote. So, that caused a lot of delay. We couldn’t get those results till very late at night. That was what caused that delay. Every other result has come in before six o’clock. We got everything it was just that one local government and until we get that one local government before it got to the collection centre. It came very late because of the weather.

There is an organisation called the Forum of State Electoral Commissions in Nigeria (FOSIECON). What is the relationship between LASIEC and the body?

We are a member of it; it is for all the state chairmen of SIEC and right now we are working on presenting a paper consisting on the amendment of the constitution. For instance, we want the state SIECs to be on the Concurrent Legislative List. It’s in both the Executive Legislative List and Concurrent. So, we are trying to get that amendment. It’s still very active, we have meetings regularly and we are invited to observe elections in the various states regularly.

What is your advice to politicians and people out there on how to ensure that people come out to vote and to ensure there is sanity during electoral processes?

The political parties have the duties to tell their followers to come out and vote. It is the political parties that are canvassing for vote. And they are to ensure that their followers obey all the protocols that are going to be put in place for the voting process.

It’s going to change now because of COVID-19, they should educate themselves as to those protocols which we would tell them in due cause, they should in turn pass it down to their members and supporters, we have a lot of work to do they can’t leave all the work to us.

The community leaders and youths should come out and vote. Your vote is your power, your vote is your future and it is your constitutional right, use it wisely.

#EndSARS: Strictly speaking…

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