…Says INEC disappointed Nigerians by failing to keep its promises


From Romanus Ugwu, Abuja

Former National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, is certainly a man who has climbed the top ladder of success, building himself into a sellable political brand.

Speaking with Sunday Sun in Abuja, the former Minister of Sports and Youth Development took a post-mortem of the just concluded 2023 general election, x-raying why he lost his senatorial bid, the factors that counted against his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in losing presidential election, and how monumental the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) failed Nigerians.

Abdullahi also set agenda for the incoming President-elect, Bola Tinubu on how to exploit the benefits of APC’s Muslim-Muslim joint ticket to the advantage of Nigerians, arguing that what the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC has done is apply shock therapy to that phobia.

He expressed shock and disappointment over the post-election victory leadership crisis rocking the APC.

He also emphatically insisted on the Southeast or South-south producing the Senate President for the 10th National Assembly.

Despite the confidence you exuded before the election, how did you lose with about 40,000 votes, did it come to you as a surprise and what are the lessons you have learnt?

Well, did it come to me as a surprise? Yes, in a way, even though it is not the loss. Like I always say, any politician, who goes into an electoral contest, must contemplate the possibility of losing, unless he is not a politician. So, it is either you win or you lose. But the manner of losing is so important, and why it is so important is because you can learn from it. One of the lessons I learnt is that I didn’t lose an election, I learnt from it. So, in the course of trying to see what lessons there to learn, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what truly happened. There are some I will say that were inevitable as a result of a kind of politics our opponent played that we were not prepared or not able to play. It is a combination of all those factors. And one of the dominant factors, I must say is the same issue I have always talked about which is the monetisation of the political space. We talk about what happened, how people were bought like commodities, and votes were procured, but like I said, it all started right from the presidential primaries. If you look at the primaries across the country, especially the presidential primaries, it was like a bazaar of money spending. People were bought with money, delegates returned home with bags of money to people who knew that they didn’t have anything when they left for Abuja a couple of days back. Many of them bought cars; many of them started building houses, married new wives, and spent money like drunken sailors. So, that was alert to the ordinary voters that this voting business could be lucrative, why can’t we also monetize our own votes? It also coincided at a point in time when the Federal Government embarked on a narrative naira redesign policy, and people could not have access to cash. But, unfortunately, our opponent had access to cash. They had access to cash because they are in the ruling party. They had access to cash and were buying people. You can’t blame the people because they stood no chance. That’s the truth. The people stood no chance because the onslaught of money made it impossible for people to have done otherwise. Because they had gone to POS, gone to the bank, but could not get ordinary N500 and they have kids at home to feed and someone comes up with N2,000, brand new notes, give them N1,000, tell them to vote and show them, and collect the N1,000 balance, people jumped at the offer. In fact, I am even surprised that we got the kind of votes we got, because we couldn’t play that game. We didn’t have the cash. So, the naira redesign policy we thought would work in our favour if it had continued the way it did and the grounds were level to the extent that nobody could actually bring out money as we thought, and that nobody would be able to monetise failed. Money for money we would not matched our opponent because they are in government, they are in power, they have access to resources, they have access to cash. We thought that the naira redesign policy would level the ground, but it didn’t work that way. Unfortunately, it did not work because they were busy buying votes everywhere. There was no surprise in the situation we found ourselves in. That is why I said I don’t blame the people, they had no chance against that kind of money onslaught. That was one important factor.

The second factor is that we were somewhat naive on our own side in believing INEC more than the people who own the commission. We went into the election feeling that INEC has promised that every polling unit will be a self-governing electoral entity and that the results will be sent directly to the INEC server. There was a lot of vigilance system or surveillance system that we could have put in place that we did not because we thought that they would be rendered superfluous by INEC declaration that the result will be uploaded straightforwardly from the polling unit. We trusted that, and we didn’t do all that our opponent did. They had a field day, and that is why you saw all those doctoring, manipulations and all that happened. I will want to say that it is lessons learnt, I don’t have any iota of regrets or bitterness.

Does that mean that you have decided against going to court and have you congratulated your opponent?

I decided against going to court because I come from a community of Muslims and I really don’t think there is merit. I don’t think there is a need to go to court because when things like this happen, as a Muslim, you take it that it is the way God wants it. If God wanted me to be Senator at this time, I wouldn’t need to get it through the court. I don’t think so, I am a faithful Muslim and I don’t think there is a need for me to do that. You asked if I have congratulated him, I will say no, I didn’t. I don’t think I should because I didn’t think he won the election. Honestly, I think that you can’t steal from me and expect me to congratulate you. But, I don’t hold any grudge against him. I don’t wish him any ill. I wish him good luck. I pray and hope that he will be able to serve our people the way they deserve to be served. But, he doesn’t need my congratulations. So, I will not give it to him.

The 2023 general election has come and gone. What do you think is the biggest lesson and which outcome of the elections surprised you most?

The biggest surprise or do I say the biggest challenge that this election has thrown up is the ease with which citizens challenged the integrity of the election. I don’t think there has been any election in recent years that citizens have demonstrated so much confidence in us, as well as what has happened. You may explain it any way you want, and you may say it is justifiable, but for someone who participated in the election, I think that INEC did not live up to its promise. A lot of Nigerians expected so much because of the promise INEC gave. Maybe relative to previous elections, it is possible that it is even better, but holding INEC to the promise they made, made the expectations of the people very high. Yet INEC did not deliver. The kind of mess that has been witnessed as the aftermath of the election, the mutilation of the so-called results that have been the ugliness of what should be evidence of elections being conducted was the most surprising. I thought that we could build on what happened in the past. We can only get better, but what happened was the reverse.

I don’t think there is any Nigerian today, even those who won the election that could claim that they have been covered in glory as a result of the manner INEC conducted the election. I don’t think there is any Nigerian that will claim he is proud of this moment. We went through a similar situation, which wasn’t even as bad as this, in 2007, when President Yar’Adua emerged and we said it was the worst election in the history of Nigeria. I don’t think it has been anything near what has happened recently. President Yar’Adua admitted that the process that brought him was significantly faulty and one of his priorities will be to make sure he bequeathed to Nigeria a better electoral process. That was when they commenced the process of electoral reform by setting up the Justice Uwais Committee on electoral reform which President Jonathan continued with and which led to the first election in 2015 using the Smart Card Reader and things got a lot more sanitized. I remember President Jonathan used to tell us when I was in government at the time, that one of the biggest challenges his mandate with President Yar’Adua faced many weeks after the election, was shopping and begging for congratulatory messages from different countries of the world. They decided at that point never to allow it to happen again. And that was why he was so committed to the electoral reforms. You can see that even when he went to vote in 2015, and the Card Reader was not functioning, he refused to lose patience or criticize the system because that was the legacy he was going to be remembered for. My hope is that the incoming government will learn from that experience, and have the courage and wisdom to understand that a democratically elected government cannot sufficiently preside over a country until it has the credibility and the backing of the people. That is why it is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. One of the biggest challenges of the incoming government will be how to restore the confidence of the people in the system and how to gain the trust of the people. I am glad with the kind of thing coming from the President-elect, without prejudice to what is going on at the courts. He is talking about a government of national unity and bringing people together. The incoming administration will have to make getting the trust of the people its priority. The way the nation is fractured now, probably more than ever before, I expect that the first thing that the incoming government will do is to mend fences and bring everybody together because ordinarily the challenges we face as a country are so complicated. When you throw in this issue of legitimacy as a result of the manner that this election has gone, it makes every challenge infinitely even more complex. Another surprise, I will say, is quite significant in its own way, is the Peter Obi and Labour Party wave. I don’t think anybody saw that coming. I doubt that even Peter can explain what happened to him. And how LP galvanized the kind of interest they got. Nigeria is naturally a two-party state. So, what happened in 2023 is significant in many ways. It shows that Nigeria has space for a third party. It also shows that when you give people something to believe in, you can actually get traction and momentum in the political space. He has shown that maybe the political space is not as closed as we traditionally think it was. Maybe, it is actually more open than we ordinarily think and that was what Peter Obi has done for the political system.

What actually was responsible for PDP’s failure to win the presidential election in your own calculations?

Without prejudice to the ongoing legal process, I hope and pray that the judiciary of Nigeria will live up to the expectations of Nigerians to give judgment that will give every Nigerian confidence that justice has been served. I will say that a combination of factors put our party at a disadvantage.

If you look at the political development in the last eight years that the APC had been in power, it has become largely established as a party of the North, especially with President Buhari at the head. If you look at PDP’s stronghold in the last eight years, it has always been in the Southeast and South-south. I think the emergence of Atiku Abubakar, a northerner, in the last presidential election, already put PDP in a situation where we were swimming against the current in the North. If the northerners had voted for him because he is a northerner, that would have been a win for PDP. But if they voted along party lines, if they voted for APC, who traditionally is their preferred political party, then there was no way we would not have had challenges in the North. Our support base, the South, is already undermined by Peter Obi candidacy. Obi emerging from the Southeast, with the kind of near fanatical following he received across the country, every vote for Obi is a vote against Atiku. From the benefit of hindsight, if the candidate of PDP had also emerged from the South, PDP would have won this election. As I said that without prejudice to everything that is going on, it was a tough task that the only thing that would have neutralized those obstacles would have been if the northerners had rallied around the PDP candidate. I doubt if it did happen the way that one would have expected it to happen. It didn’t happen. Historically, if you don’t win Kano, Rivers, and Lagos, I doubt if you could win the election. So, these are the situations, and the important lesson is that Nigerians are primed to do this turn-by-turn thing. I am not saying it is bad, or that it is good. But Nigerians are primed to do this turn by turn. I think after eight years of President Buhari, the mood in the room was for the Southern presidency. And that was why PDP was swimming against the tide. However, if we had managed to keep some people, within the house, happy, the likes of Governor Nyesom Wike and the four other governors, Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, and, of course, Peter Obi, himself, today, PDP would have won the election. So, you can see that it is not just one factor, but they are all academic now. Let’s hope and leave everything for the future, basically, but if we are trying to intellectualise on what happened, that will be my own explanation, without prejudice to my own political expedition.

I am dragging you to APC because you were there before, did it also come to you as a surprise that the party has been balkanised despite the victory at the presidential poll?

It is really surprising because most time when you see this kind of fractiousness it usually comes from the losing party. So, it’s the parties that lost elections that normally face this because of what happened next in the midst of the confusion. They will begin to mount inquiries and inquisitions on who was responsible for what. So, you normally don’t associate that kind of fractiousness with the victorious party. I think in the case of APC, I am not in the party now, so I don’t have access to the internal workings of the party or what has led to the kind of situation that has happened, but it is a bit strange. What one will expect is that this is the time for the APC to rally around, present a common front and form a government. By now, they should be doing what we did in 2015, even though it did not lead to so much. I remember that after the election in 2015, we had all kinds of policy teams in place for almost every sector, meeting every single day and putting together plans for the government, including budgeting systems, including thinking of where the money will come from to fund what. Of course, that didn’t lead to a vote because there were no uptakes within the powerbrokers at the time, our thought and understanding at the time was that we were going to get the job done. We thought that President Buhari was going to provide the moral leadership; the moral authority that we needed to turn the country around and some of us will think through the situations and come up with workable solutions. And we were actually doing it, always together, led by Dr. Fayemi, the leader of the policy team. We were always together thinking through situations and problems, what could be done in the immediate shortest possible time, in the long term, but he became victim to the real politics of who controls what at the time. I don’t see that happening at this moment. Yet we need it this time more than ever before. What we have experienced in the last eight years, must have disappointed so many people that fought for the changes we preached in 2015. Even people who were apostles of the change cannot look back and confidently tell themselves that this was the change APC promised in 2015. Despite all that has been expressed by them in the last eight years, without prejudice to whatever situations that happened at the elections, APC is having an opportunity for a second chance as it were. You will expect that things will happen differently, but the reality of power is that wherever power is at stake and the question is about who gets what to control what, you will see this kind of situation happening. In the interest of Nigeria, I hope that it will be surmounted as quickly as possible so that we can move forward.

Yes, you didn’t make it to the National Assembly, but you must be following the shenanigans going on over the principal officers, what is your take on this?

Well, as you said, I am not in the National Assembly, but to comment as a politician, I would say that these things are pretty simple. There are rules that should guide who could contest for the leadership of the National Assembly. And those rules are very clear. Number two is that we are a country always preoccupied with balancing, in terms of the diversity of our ethnicity, and diversity of our religion. So, that should also be pretty simple on who can even show interest. The leadership of the Senate especially should go to a Christian and it should go to the Southeast or the South-south. It is very important to be able to build the kind of national cohesion that we need. The biggest challenge that the Asiwaju presidency will face is how to carry everybody along. It is quite significant that out of the over eight million votes he got, about 60 per cent actually preferred other candidates to him. It is quite significant that more than half of the people who voted didn’t vote for me. I am glad that he acknowledged this. I think that makes it very clear where the work should start, how to convince these people that he is actually the right person to lead this country at this time, and how to carry everybody along. I think this is not the time to embark on any sense of triumphalism, but the time to be sober. This is the time to ask ourselves how come we are having this kind of divisiveness, and what we can do to unite the country. It should reflect on what happens at the National Assembly. We have Muslim-Muslim joint ticket. Let me say something about Muslim-Muslim ticket and this is without prejudice to the need for balancing. I believe that in a federation like Nigeria, everybody needs to be given a sense of belonging, and everybody should be given a stake in the system. But I must say something that I find quite fascinating with the Muslim-Muslim ticket by the APC. Now that they are successful, we will say it was a stroke of genius. If they had failed with it we would blame it for their failure. I want to look at it from a positive perspective. We must continue to see how we can look at the cup as half full rather than half empty. You can say that it is misplaced optimism, but I am optimistic in the possibilities of this country surviving and becoming great. What I find quite interesting is that Nigeria is a country, maybe as a result of our history; whose national aspiration has been limited quite significantly. Nigeria’s political conversations, even our Constitution, everything seems to rally around the need to hold the country together – national unity, ethnic balancing, giving everybody a sense of belonging, carrying everybody along, it is a national obsession. Nigeria’s national phobia appears to be the fear of break up. Nigeria is a country with a national phobia of breakup. Maybe as a result of the experiences of the civil war, anything that happens will show that Nigeria is obsessed with the fear of breakup. Without dismissing the need for carrying everybody, Nigeria needs to start to aim for something higher than just holding the country together. I think we need to dream bigger dreams than just holding this country together. We need to aspire for something bigger. If you read the Constitution of Nigeria, it is even talking about the distribution of infrastructure; it did not say the provision of infrastructure for the purpose of economic development. It is a way to give everybody a sense of belonging. What the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC has done is it will apply shock therapy to that phobia. That again compounds the burden on the Asiwaju-Shettima ticket. They must prove that every Nigerian, regardless of how they worship God, where they live, and what language they speak, will get a sense of justice and fairness and that Nigeria will not collapse because they have Muslim-Muslim ticket, and that Christians and other faiths in Nigeria will not be annihilated because it is a Muslim-Muslim ticket. If they are able to do that, and Christians can see that they have a sense of belonging, even though it is a Muslim-Muslim ticket, they will have contributed immensely to the unity and the development of this country.

One issue that is almost eluding the current administration is insecurity. What is your advice to the incoming administration on the best approach to tackle it?

I am glad that it is also APC that is coming into power. I mean that they are continuing where they stopped. I don’t mean that my party lost the election. I wish it was the PDP that won the election. But I always tell people who say that our parties lack ideology, that to the best of my knowledge, APC is built on something, PDP also built on something. Coming on the back of military rule in 1999, PDP was a creation of an amalgamation of politicians of diverse backgrounds, who agree to come together to build the party big to give everybody a sense of belonging. So, inclusiveness is the philosophy of PDP. You can ask what their economic, political, and social philosophy is? But, I can tell you that the grand norm of the PDP, the founding philosophy of PDP is inclusion, giving everybody a sense of belonging. And that is why it is still the party you can see in every village, even though the party is on the decline now. The same thing applies to the APC. Unfortunately, I still don’t know what the philosophy of LP is. I hope maybe they will build on the significant success of these elections and begin to articulate something that is clearer and transcends beyond the emotiveness that we have seen, something more articulate and clearer as their objectives. There are immense possibilities for the LP in that regard. Now for the APC, I argue that if you take restructuring out of APC you don’t have APC. That is the philosophy of APC. That is the grand norm of the APC. APC is having an opportunity to demonstrate the essence of its claim to progressive politics which is the restructuring of Nigeria. When you talk of restructuring, you talk of it in terms of the governance system. It is an era when a centralized police system was sufficient for the entirety of Nigeria and can no longer work for Nigeria. They need to be deliberate and I am not talking about these isolated actions of the state government setting up state security outfits. I am talking of an articulate centrally controlled system of restructuring of the security system in such a way that it can dig down to the grassroots. These people taking money from people for kidnapping are not human beings, and they make phone calls. If we say that every phone number is registered to NIN, it means that their numbers can be traced. How come when they did the naira redesign, we did not hear about kidnapping again? Who are these people, they are not spirits, and they live among people. So, the place to start in dealing with this insecurity problem is to re-engineer the entire security system in the country. And that falls squarely within the APC promise of restructuring.