Cash crunch: Resisting vote-selling will be difficult, says Okei-Odumakin


Josephine Okei-Odumakin is is the president of the pressure group, Campaign for Democracy and the founder of the Women Arise for Change Initiative. She shares her thoughts on the general election, the naira crisis, and the way forward to a prosperous Nigeria, among others, with DIRISU YAKUBU

What, in your opinion, is the biggest thing Nigerians need at the moment that should inform how and who they vote for as their next president?

No individual would be able to solve the problem, but a restructured system would. However, a voter should look at what a candidate’s pedigree is. What has been done is more important than what has been said; talk is cheap!

I say this because virtually all the candidates have been making a lot of promises about what they would do if elected. This is not particularly new because in past elections, sweet promises were made, but the country is still where it is. Restructuring will unlock the potential of this great nation and fast-track our march to prosperity.

In the past, politicians have used the country’s poverty as an advantage to buy votes during elections. How can the people, despite their condition, resist the temptation to mortgage their conscience this time?

The energy to resist vote-selling has been further sapped by the Central Bank of Nigeria’s mess. The energy to buy has been boosted. It is now on steroids.

As a people, we have been exposed to artificial hazards many times in our history. The past few weeks have been very difficult for the common man. Millions of Nigerians who have been living from hand to mouth have not been able to access their own money deposited with commercial banks. Many of them are hungry and unable to meet their basic needs owing to the naira redesign policy of the Federal Government. How many of them would be able to resist the temptation of selling their votes when the opportunity arises? Yes, the policy is likely aimed at preventing vote-buying, but those who have been in the system know how to get out. We hope they don’t succeed this time because we want Nigerians to elect their leaders at all levels freely and without any form of inducement.

The naira crisis is affecting businesses and even social life. Do you see this as capable of causing voter apathy in this election?

It will result in serious low turnout on the one hand and a poll bazaar on the other hand. It makes no sense to say this was to prevent vote-buying. Those who would have jumped in their cars and driven to their polling units would find it difficult to get fuel even if they had the money. Many will prefer to use the little in their hands to buy food for their families rather than go to the polling units to cast their votes. I think many will prefer to remain in their homes given the hardship they have endured since the implementation of this policy began. The few who have stock money for the sole purpose of buying up votes will ply their illicit trade, taking advantage of the hunger in the land to test the will of the people to resist the cancer of vote-buying. That is why I earlier said that the will to resist vote-selling has been weakened by this policy.

There was huge excitement a few years ago when the “Not Too Young to Run” bill was signed into law. Today, very few youths made it through the primaries. Will you say the nation’s recruitment system has not done much to encourage youth participation?

No, it is the entire leadership processing system we have to look at, not just the youth registration drive. The old order that was also registered will also tell you where to sit and what to say. They have the money, and the youth want the money. They call the shots.

In any case, who says that young people are only concerned with money? We can make bills but how do we make will? Many of those who were at the forefront, pushing for the bill to be signed into law several years ago, have since lost their enthusiasm. The push into the next phase of youth participation is on the wane. The question we need to ask is, was this all about having a law lowering the age of participation in politics? I do not think so. The leadership process is faulty.

When people are impoverished, such that all they think about year in and year out is how to afford the necessities of life—clothing, food, and shelter—there will always be a limit to their capacity to effect change in the order of things.

Many Nigerians today, especially the youth, do not know where their next meal will come from. As a result, it is easier for politicians to lure them with money. They do dirty work for politicians in exchange for meagre pay that barely covers their basic needs.

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You have been an activist for decades, always out on the streets with the likes of Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana, and the late Gani Fawehinmi. Activism today is quite different from what obtained in your time, as we now see activists mobilising for politicians rather than issues. What could be responsible for this?

Culture or let me say, popular culture. You see, we were introduced to activism through education, global events, and personalities. Pop culture was “say it loud, I’m black and proud.” Communist/socialist arguments against capitalist philosophy were a driving force. Those were the realities of activism as interpreted on the continent, embraced by us, and applied to our local situation. We were lucky to have the type of activism ancestors you mentioned, some of them already resting in power. For many reasons, our moments are different. I will not entirely blame the youth. That would be too simplistic.

But let me add here that the education we had was different from what obtains today. We didn’t go to school for the sole purpose of passing our examinations. We saw education as an instrument for advancing society and championing better living conditions for the people. Life was better in our time than it is today.

Circumstances are changing, and people are motivated differently based on their understanding of issues. We still have activists who are committed to the good of the land. We can’t fault anyone for what they stand for because posterity will judge when it matters most. You are here now, reminding me of the philosophy that drove me to the streets with legendary and eminent Nigerians. I am proud of what I have been able to achieve for the masses. I am grateful for the mentorship I got while travelling this route.

As I previously stated, those who choose to be activists for reasons other than the common good have the right to do so.

You founded Women Arise to, among other things, push for women to have their place in the scheme of things in every aspect of national development. Are you impressed that in all 28 states where the governorship election is being held this year, only Adamawa has a female candidate?

I am not disappointed that women don’t have more slots at the governorship level. Even the Adamawa State you mentioned could be rigged. At this point, I am more into the girl than the woman. You remember the ‘catching them young’ campaign? If we get the girl right, we won’t be wrong with the woman. At that point, we should be counting beyond Adamawa. Let’s take care of the egg first. We need to mentor the girl child, and the woman will be ready to face life squarely. It is a process that is fated to rub off positively on the nation.

In the past, women didn’t have many opportunities, but we have made little progress over the past few years. I want to see more women in the National Assembly this year, and we will continue to encourage them not to feel intimidated by the men. But again, it is not only in politics that we need to have more women’s voices because national development cuts across the public and private sectors of our lives. The emphasis should be on gender equality based on merit. It is not a mistake that gender equality is one of the cardinal goals of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. We will get there if we do not faint.

Who has impressed you the most among the presidential candidates in terms of preparation, quality of the blueprint, and capacity?

(Laughs.) I am an observer in this election. So, I am going to observe and make a report. As an observer, I am supposed to be impartial. Voters should clearly look before they leap. What are the issues, and what capacity do these candidates have to address those issues? This is a fundamental question every Nigerian should ask himself and get an answer to before filing out to vote. It is our fervent hope that we will make the right choice. The Federal Government should provide a conducive environment for a free, fair, credible, and transparent election. The political parties and their candidates should play by the rules, while we expect INEC and security agencies to live above board. Together, we can elect the leaders we deserve.

What are your fears about the elections?

I don’t have any fears other than the usual ones: thuggery, militarisation of elections, INEC lapses, academic discounting, and judicial incompetence, to name a few.

We hope that the Electoral Act 2022 will minimise these vices, particularly with the sanctions for breaches in the case of electoral offences as provided in Section 92 of the Act. The challenges before the new government that will be inaugurated on May 29 this year are quite enormous, but we must not despair. The first step is to have a smooth election, which starts this Saturday, and we will take it from there. The stakeholders in this election—INEC, security agencies, political parties, and their candidates—must remember that they owe Nigeria and the rest of the world a duty to conduct themselves decently. Candidates should learn to see elections as sports. If you don’t win today, you may win tomorrow. God bless Nigeria!


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