By Daniel Kanu

Former President, Southeast and South-south Professionals, and founder, NESH Foundation, Mr Emeka Ugwuoji, in this chat with Sunday Sun speaks on the 2023 election, the PVC collection challenge, the way out, security challenge, the president Nigeria needs, among others. Excerpts:  

You have been vocal about the 2023 elections, particularly the awareness on the collection of PVCs. Now that the date of collection has been extended, are you satisfied?

Let me give a bit of background information before I comment on specifics. I am the founder of Nigeria and Entrepreneurship Summit and Honours (NESH). It’s a foundation, NESH Foundation. It’s a not for profit organisation, which came into existence about seven years ago and we have always focused on how to support, promote and celebrate Nigerian entrepreneurship and Nigerian entrepreneurs. Some of the things we do are in form of round tables for some sectors. We also focus on the area of SMEs, especially the young Nigerian entrepreneurs, then the oil and gas sector, maritime sector, and the health sector, among others. So, coming to the issue of election and the electoral processes and on the issue of the PVC, under normal circumstances, INEC business is not the focus of NESH Foundation, but based on the situation in the country which most right thinking Nigerians say that we are at a stage where if we don’t get it right, we might not again have a country called Nigeria. That is the reality; some people can play the ostrich, but we are all witnesses to what is going on as regards to insecurity, economy etc; so, if we don’t get it right, we have almost reached the limit, we have almost exhausted our luck. So, based on that, we decided that we should also play our own role, a sort of, corporate social responsibility (CRS). NESH present project is to be part of ensuring that Nigeria gets it right and that has led to where we are getting involved with the election process, which we are driving under the theme: ‘A new and better Nigeria is possible.’ And one of the anchors of that theme is that leadership is very important and we now have opportunity to get the new crop of leaders in the country at various levels in February and March this year. So, we are trying to do our advocacy to ensure that Nigerians, all over the country really understand that they are in a position to get the leadership right, by ensuring that they vote right in February and in March elections, at various levels. The NESH Foundation is currently planning its 2023 tour across the country to amplify our four key messages that; a new and better Nigeria is possible, if the Nigerian electorate will rise above ethnic and religious bias and ensure that a new leadership comprising persons with character, competence, capacity and vision are voted for the different offices in the 2023 elections.

Secondly, the imperative of enthroning a culture of meritocracy, equity and justice in the country.

Thirdly, moving Nigeria from consumption to production and the expected roles of ALGON and NACCIMA finally, revamp National Primary Healthcare in Nigeria, as contained in NESH Health Roundtable communiqué.

Talking about the collection of PVC and the difficulty in getting it from INEC. Is your group making any plan on how to assist INEC?

When you tell people that they have the opportunity to get the kind of leaders they want, they will tell you that their votes don’t count. Then, we now have to start being part of the education process. Now, with what we have seen, your votes, our votes will count based on the new system of voting using the BVAS. This ensures, all things being equal, that the problems we had with our votes counting which is, people cooking up results because they have original sheets, but now manipulating the figures will be a thing of the past with regards to the use of BVAS.  When they cook up results, INEC announces it and they will tell you to go to court, but with the use of BVAS now, everybody will get the result at the polling booths, collation will be done by everybody present, not just INEC, so the INEC result can’t be different from that of others present. So, in that process, you can see that a lot of people want to vote in this election. We saw the problem with registration, it has come and gone, but still quite a sizeable number of people couldn’t register, which we hope this should be the last time. Any Nigerian that wants to register should be able to register, no rocket science is there, and we don’t know why that has happened. But maybe, people like us, and some other critical stakeholders that have something to offer didn’t get involved to let them know how it can be done with ease. Now we are at the stage that those who actually registered are having problem, collecting their cards when we know that with the present law you can’t vote if you don’t have the PVC, although we know that PVC is not really necessary for voting based on BVAS technology, but because it is in the Electoral Act, we know that after this election the law has to change with regards to the issue of PVC being mandated because it’s just like a car that gets you into the voting area, nothing else.  So, coming to the issue of collection of PVC, it’s really mind-boggling on what we are experiencing here, it’s something that shouldn’t be a problem, but it has become a problem. This is just ordinary distribution of cards for crying out loud. If it is in some other jurisdictions, you don’t have to go and collect your card, rather the card will be delivered to you through the mailing system. If it is in the USA, for instance, it will be delivered to your home, you just pick it up from your box.  But we have a solution which we want to share. The first question to ask is what is the problem? The problem is, people registered at so many wards. Now, you want everybody to come and collect at one point in a local government, that is madness. At a point in time, you now saw the madness and you say okay ward, ward is like a town, it’s still large, with bottlenecks. So, now that the election is nearby, what is the solution? The solution is INEC should be in a position working with stakeholders, we will give them advice. We in the NESH Foundation will give them advice for free. We will even bring stakeholders for them, including groups like Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG), religious groups; not excluding the political parties to help INEC distribute these cards (PVC). Based on the current system, the extension date of one week will not still be enough giving the way we are going. So, what is the short term solution, first, INEC should start preparing that immediately it is February 5, they should take records of all the cards that have not been collected and let Nigerians know, polling booths by polling booths, the number of cards that have not been collected and names of those that have not been collected. And from that we should also know if the people that have registered that their cards have actually been printed and not the issue of saying, go and collect your card and the cards are not printed. I have a personal example where my daughter has gone three times, even leaving work to go and queue for hours and still did not collect her PVC. It was last Saturday that they finally said that maybe, her card is not even there, that she should go to what they call escalation line, maybe, for you to report that your card is not there. That means that there are people who have registered and their cards have not been printed and you allow them to go and waste time on queues for days, that is very unfair.  Maybe because we don’t consider about the man hours that we lose, we still see government declaring public holidays, just to collect PVC, which is not even a sensitive material. So, when the record is taken on the cards that are available then we will now know if all the people who are registered, because they can now verify that their cards have actually been printed and if they have not, it should not take more than a week from the 5th of February to do that. Then when that is completed, the people who have registered, but who can’t still see their names can now ask INEC where their card is and to produce it for them. A week after, we should assume that everything has been sorted out, all the people who are registered, their cards have been printed. Then it will be only those whose cards are printed, but haven’t been collected. So, on the day of the election or a day before the election it will be made available in every polling booth in the country. We can help with logistics, but if a day before the election is not okay for them (INEC), it can be done on the day of the election. Since they are in possession of them (PVCs), then we can say, when they are bringing the election materials, they should bring the uncollected PVCs together.  We will have something like a Help Desk within a few distances, about 100 meters, to the voting area, for people to collect their cards (PVC). It will not take more than an hour or two for people to collect their PVC. With this approach people do not need to waste unnecessary money to go and queue at INEC offices for collection. INEC does not need to spend one kobo, it is we (the stakeholders) helping out with better understanding of their logistics. We will bring in the help once they key into it. Nigerians are interested in this 2023 election, knowing its importance. They (Nigerians) now know that they cannot afford to joke with this coming election. People who are interested in this election, knowing its importance who want to vote should be assisted to vote. So, every good assistance to make more Nigerians be part of the voting exercise should be welcomed. The advantage also will be that all the people who came to collect their PVC on that election day will vote. So, what we are saying is simple, let INEC bring all uncollected, printed PVCs to the voting areas, close to their polling booths, create a Help Desk, to be manned by stakeholders like us (NESH, NESG etc) and we will distribute the PVCs with ease, and it will not add to their cost.  All this can be done if INEC is serious in ensuring that anybody who registered and wants to collect his/her PVC collects it and also vote on election day. We can assist INEC achieve this feat, and it will not cost them any extra kobo for this distribution. With this solution there will be no waste of time, and it will equally make the electorate to come out and vote.

Some observers say the insecurity in your zone, the Southeast, is imported to distabilise the region. Do you share in this opinion?

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I do not know what you mean by my zone, the Southeast, because NESH Foundation is a Nigerian organisation, so, all the zones are our zone, the reason we are visiting all the states in the country before the election. We have members from each geo-political zone in Nigeria. But if you mean, me, as part of NESH, and my state of origin is Enugu State, which happens to be in the Southeast, but my state of residence is Lagos…

(Cuts in) Yes, that is what I mean. That you are from Enugu State in the Southeast and that the security challenge or violence there is imported from outside to discredit the region?

What I will say is that many zones in Nigeria are challenged, but the three or four most challenged zones are: the Northeast, Northwest, North-central and Southeast. The issue of what are the root causes, somebody could speculate, but I don’t want to go into speculation, but what we are saying is that the responsibility of guaranteeing the security of all the zones lies with the Commander-in-Chief, which is the president and I believe that if he gives the marching order to the different divisions under his watch which includes, the Nigerian Army, Navy, Airforce, Nigeria Police, Defence Corps, State Security Services etc, if all of them are serious then there will be nothing to worry about, but as at today, there is much to worry about, much to bother. If all of them are up and doing, we may not have zero security, but it will be brought to a tolerable level. So, we hope and pray that the Commander-in-Chief, will do the needful because as he has rightly said that the legacy he wants to leave behind is a free and fair election, but you cannot have a free and fair election if there is insecurity in many parts of the country.  So, let’s hope, Mr. President works his talk.

When you say that Nigeria is gone, just like some other observers have said, if we fail to get it right in this coming election, what do you mean?   

Well, I don’t want to be a pessimist, but I think that I will side with those who think that way, that this country has degenerated badly as we have seen before our very eyes. What is helping now is even the seeming appearance of what I will call hope by some candidates, especially at the presidential level, who seem to have come up with a new roadmap different from what people have seen since 1999. So, this is an opportunity for us to try this new roadmap when the elections hold. They think that the result if free and fair will give them the hope, but if they see that the election is not free and fair then it will be dashing of hopes. And when hope is dashed in a situation where people have reached their tolerance limit, we know what it could resort to, because you can’t contain millions of people who say: Enough is enough. We don’t think that with what we have seen in the past eight years that we can have another eight years again based on the result of the election. All relevant stakeholders should be made to be involved in this election because we cannot afford to make mistakes.

What can you say about the Obi-dient movement, looking at the massive spaces they have occupied so far from nowhere?  Are you in anyway referring to that movement as the new hope that Nigerians seem to be keying into?

I think every Nigerian is seeing what the Obi-dient movement is doing and from what I see, a lot of young people are part of that movement, there are old people there, but it’s a preponderance of young people who say that this is the new pathway to a new Nigeria, and they are hanging their hopes on that. Of course, there are some people, the Kwankwasia movement that think that their approach, their ideology is better, but from what we have seen so far, it appears they are limited to a certain part of the country and not nationwide as their Obi-dient counterpart. But then, that is why you have election, the election will show whether the Obi-dient movement are in the majority or not. I hope and pray that the election is free and fair, so that if it doesn’t go the way of Obi-dient movement they will see that they didn’t win. Where we will have a big problem is if the election is not transparent and the Obi-dient movement and whom they are supporting does not win, that will be a very big problem that any right thinking Nigerian will not want to wish away, because we will have a big problem.  So I think that the key thing will be to ensure that we have a transparent and fair election. Nigerians can come together and handle the outcome if it is free, fair, transparent and a credible election.

What kind of president does Nigeria need at the moment to navigate the situation the country now finds itself?

For the NESH Foundation, in terms of advocacy, we are saying that based on what we have seen and what other Nigerians are saying, especially on the outcome of the platform which took place in October 1, where Nigerians from different background shared views on how we can have a better Nigeria and what the next leadership should do if they come into office. The takeaways after the engagement is that leadership matters very much and by that, we are also amplifying that leadership matter should not be limited to the presidency. Leadership matters at all levels, not just the president, but other smaller components of leadership equally matter. If you get only the president right and we don’t get the governors, National Assembly, state Assemblies and others right, it becomes a big problem because the president can’t be the change agent alone. But , the president no doubt, has much to influence, the reason we need one that is visionary, one with competence, capacity, focus, strong, intelligent, etc. So, in all, going by what you are asking, that leader whether at sub-national or national level, must be competent, have capacity, has to be a visionary and must be one that will give Nigeria hope and trust, going by where we are today. The person must have character, that people can trust because trust is a major currency. The next president, for instance, will meet a bad economy, so people have to trust him to be able to believe him. So, if the president says, tighten your belt they know that everybody, including the president is tightening his belt and not that the people are tightening their belt while the president is going to Dubai, or London to have breakfast with their private jets. When the people trust the leader with character they will make all the sacrifices needed because they know that both the leader and the led are on the same page or wave length.