Ambassador Michel Arrion heads the European Union (EU) Delegation to Nigeria and West Africa. In an exclusive interview with Rotimi Lawrence Oyekanmi, he explains why INEC is so important to the EU and what it hopes to achieve by funding some of the Commission’s activities. Excerpts:
For how long has the European Union been supporting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Nigeria? What informed the choice of INEC and how much has been committed so far?
From the very beginning of the new dispensation, since the transition from the military to civilian rule, we have been supporting Nigeria. In a nutshell, I think we contributed to adding an “I” to make it INEC before the general elections.
So, since 1999, we have been supporting NEC, then INEC, and in particular, we had targeted the general elections of 2003, 2007, 2011 and then 2015. So, every four years, we were there with first and foremost, electoral observers from the EU, a process led jointly by the European Commission and the European Parliament. But we have also been giving financial support to INEC and other stakeholders. We have just made a calculation that since 2003, we have spent 85 million euro, which translates to almost $100 million. This is indeed a fair amount of money if you compare it with about one billion euro that we spent in Nigeria for five years. So, roughly 10 percent of our financial budget was spent on elections, but not only INEC.
We are currently working on a 25 million-euro support for this new cycle, and 10 million out of the 25 million euro will go to INEC.
Now, why have we chosen INEC? It is very simple because it is the agency, the institution with the kind of monopoly or exclusivity for organizing the elections. And it is not only in Nigeria that we are doing that. We are doing this in many countries in sub-Sahara Africa, where we’re also providing support for the electoral commissions.
What precisely is the European Delegation hoping to achieve by providing support for INEC?
The word credibility is the criteria. What does that mean? Having elections with credible results. This means elections that must reflect the will of the majority of the voters – a reflection of the reality. Of course, it (election) must be fair, transparent, it must be violent-free. But all those aspects of transparency and peaceful elections actually make an election credible or not credible. And that is the global objective of an electoral body to make sure that results reflect what the people want.
Why is the sustenance of democracy and democratic culture in Nigeria so important to the European Union?
Again, this is the primary objective of our cooperation with Nigeria and other sub-Saharan countries. There are two main reasons. The first one is that we believe in the long term. You cannot achieve a certain level of development in any country without democracy. You can put it in the other sense: there is no democracy without development. All countries must get to the point where there is democracy in the sense that there’s a consensus of the population to elect in a transparent way, their leaders.
It’s good that everybody has the right to vote, but if you are an illiterate, it puts into question how people are voting. If they don’t know why they are voting or why they are voting for Mr. X rather than Mr. Y or Z, then there’s a problem. That’s why in our own history, because we’ve gone through that by the way, we started our own democratization after the Americans or roughly after the French Revolution of the 18th century. Maybe in the United Kingdom (UK), they started a bit earlier.
I like to recall the very slow but determined revolution of the UK towards democracy, starting with Cromwell to the Westminster system that we have today. But it took the European nations 200 to 300 centuries to reach that point of democracy and it was accompanied by education, social and economic rights.
Credible elections are the cornerstone of the democratic development of a country and democracy is a necessary condition to achieve a certain level of sustainable development.
The second reason is that, it is in our own interest as Europeans to have stable neighbours. We see that today. Look at terrorism, migration, climate change, all global challenges. Of course, it is important that Vietnam, Malaysia or Thailand are developed and stable, but what is more important for us is that Africa is stable, because we are neighbours. We don’t have migrants coming from Thailand. We don’t have Muslim terrorists from the Philippines or Thailand. But you know, in Thailand, they have Muslim terrorists, but they are not planting bombs in London, Paris or Brussels. Unfortunately, northern African terrorists do it and we are not very far away from North Africa when we are in Abuja.
So we do consider West Africa as a strategic area where the stability, growth and the security pervading in this area is absolutely key for our own stability and security. West African countries are the neighbours of our neighbours, not only in terms of our historical links, but also by just looking at the maps, and you will understand why Africa is important to Europe.
And in a very selfish way (general laughter) no…I’m serious, I mean my security depends on your security and my stability depends on your stability. So, we have to work together.
With the quantum of resources the EU has committed to supporting INEC over the years, are you satisfied with the results you are getting?
Well, like all human endeavours, there’s room for improvement. Roughly speaking, I think we have through the years achieved a lot of things together and as you know, recently, we had the first, well before we had credible elections, but in 2015, we had not only a credible election but also one that led to a peaceful transition with the opposition party winning against a ruling party, leading to a change of administration. It was really a key event and I think that we must capitalize on that. We have achieved a lot altogether. But is it sustainable, I don’t know. I am not 100 percent sure, nobody can say that. So, we must work together to make sure that all the gains that have been made, we must build upon those gains.
So, yes, we are satisfied, but we are carefully and prudently satisfied.
Nigeria has organized five general elections in the last 17 years (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015) and the EU has observed each and every one of them. What is your assessment of Nigeria’s electoral process over this period?
It depends on which stakeholder you are looking at. If I look at INEC, we see INEC in a sustainable way, organizing credible elections and making progress. But if I look at the other stakeholders in the electoral process, I will be less positive. If I look at the political parties, the real problems are there, in terms of primaries, internal democracy, not a single woman governor, it’s unbelievable. And what we are witnessing today among the parties are many practices that are not sustainable for democracy. It is still a system of the godfathers.
Well, we also have our godfathers in our countries, but we are fighting against what we call partycracy. The power of some people within the (political) party is probably too strong, working on internal democracy in the parities is absolutely key, reducing the importance of money, ensuring that not only the rich people get the tickets. I am not talking about Presidential elections, but the gubernatorial, Senate, House of Representatives, State House of Assembly and so on.
And then, we need many more women to be involved by the parities in the elections. There could be, why not, affirmative action. In some countries, no parties are obliged to propose a couple for positions – Man and Woman. I am not saying Nigerians should do that, but it will be useful if Nigeria can look at other systems and they could impose a minimum of 25 percent (of women’s involvement) or 30 percent in the top 10 positions. And of course, for the gubernatorial, you could impose one third of women if not one half. We could start with one-third, and in 10 years, go to one half.
The other thing is the National Assembly. If you look at the list of recommendations of all our Observation Missions since 2003, let’s not go too far backwards, we have repeatedly made recommendations that INEC could not deliver just because it was the responsibility of the National Assembly (to make this happen).
The legal framework, the Electoral Law. So we probably need some reflections from the House and Senate Committees in charge of Electoral Law. You know we will have elections in 2019. They must start now to be ready by 2018. There is also the basic principle that you should not change the legal framework less than one year before the election. So if we do it properly, the changes should happen in 2017 to first half of 2018, otherwise it’s too late and people will have no time to adapt.
So, the trend is positive, no doubt about that, more because INEC is working well other than what is happening in the political parties. Also, I think we have a vibrant civil society in Nigeria, but I think they are good for meeting and talking a week before or after election and then, you don’t hear from them for three years. There should be more structured, more sustainable activities of the civil society and also to really hold politicians accountable – you (politicians) said this before the election, now that you have won, do it (fulfill your pledges); you haven’t done it, tell us why. Holding people accountable. Then inform the voters – you voted for him or her because he or she promised you this, they haven’t done it, don’t vote for him or her anymore. And why not? Those things happen in democracies, but here, it does not.
As a bloc of countries with the strong, old and experienced democratic institutions, what challenges has the EU noticed in Nigeria’s electoral system and how do you think these challenges can be effectively tackled?
There are two very technical things. I think it is all about population and demographic management. There has been no census since 2006 and will there be census this year, next year? I don’t think so. There are serious problems with registration of births, registration of deaths and managing your population. Nobody knows the exact size of the population. Cities are growing and growing and nobody knows. If I ask how many Nigerians are living in Port Harcourt, I get figures between 8 and 12 million. There is a real gap in population management, which has a direct impact on voter registration.
In theory, there are 170 million Nigerians. One half means 85 million potential voters. But how many are registered? Maybe 60 to 75 percent. The problem is that, if today, you have 60 or 70 million voters registered, five years have passed, and it is not just a question of registering the young adults who turned 18, but also cleaning the register and removing the names of all those who have died.
So, when we saw a year ago in a certain state, the distribution of 99 percent of voter’s cards, that was simply impossible. We knew that within the 100, about five to 10 percent were just ghosts – people who had died.
So, that is really a very serious, technical challenge but it is very important. It’s more global than voter registration because in an ideal situation, you should not have voter’s card, you should have an identification card and you should use your identification card to vote. I know that in many countries in West Africa, it’s a bit the French tradition by the way; people have an ID card and Voter’s card. In my country, Belgium, we don’t have an ID card. We have the voter’s card.
The second challenge I already mentioned is party internal democracy. INEC has no competence in influencing party democracy and this is something for INEC to look at. The third challenge is women – women as elected politicians, not enough. And I also don’t believe in genuine democracy without education. You have to educate the people. Then, you have the problem of violence. It’s a global problem in Nigeria. It has a direct impact on elections. If you remember, before the 2015 general elections, we the international community were really fearing a bloodbath; a lot of violence but it did not happen or not much. But in the south, there was a lot of violence unfortunately and we see the result today. Again, it is not INEC that is commanding or controlling the defence forces. But I think we need much more commitment of the security forces to secure the elections and also a pro-active INEC in this domain, which I know is not easy, but this is key. You can have the best system in place, but if people do not dare go to the polling stations, it’s the end of the story.
What is the EU assessment of the Edo governorship election?
We were a bit disappointed, not by the results, but by the postponement. We were disappointed because it doesn’t give a good image. We hope it is not the beginning of a series of postponements, because what happened in Edo should really not be repeated.
I understand that for INEC, it was difficult to hold the election due to the report received from the security forces, and I know it is difficult to assume this responsibility of going on when you are told of the risk to the population, so as not to put the lives of the voters at risk. But still, it’s really sad. Let’s be clear, it’s not the security forces, probably, because behind them, I think the politicians may have influenced the kind of statement from the security forces.
We are back with the issue of political parties. Behind the scene, we still have a lot of politicians, they still want to keep the system where they could rig, manipulate, influence and decide who gets what, using money and also using violence. And now, using the security forces. I hope what happened in Edo will not happen again.
Will the planned exit of Britain from the EU affect the Delegation’s ability to financially support INEC?
I would say, as a matter of principle, we do not comment on that, not because it is a very sensitive issue, but just because nobody knows.
In which other areas (apart from INEC) is the Delegation supporting Nigeria and how much is involved in total?
For electoral support, it is 10 percent. We have basically three or four main areas of activities. One is global governance and democracy – that’s what election is part of. But in the same domain of governance, we are working on the fight against trafficking – trafficking of human beings, of drugs; fight against corruption and also the improvement of criminal justice, the promotion of human rights. So that’s one big chapter.
Second is energy, electricity. We hope to inject some funds soon to assist the government in the reform of the electricity sector and improving access to electricity either on grid or off grid (solar panels) and working on all aspects of the sector like generation, transmission and distribution of power. Here, it is important to know that our funds are grants, not loans. So the grants can be mixed with the loans from other donors to facilitate the financing because electricity and energy are usually very financially viable, but you need first to make it bankable, and to make it bankable, you need studies. We can finance financial or economic studies or environmental impact and then the banks will come with the loans if the studies are positive. We make a project bankable.
The third one is health, nutrition and food security. We are almost everywhere, which is not necessarily a good thing because I think we should concentrate our activities more in a few states to have the critical mass. But it’s difficult because the needs are everywhere and what is important is good coordination and our main partner in government is the Ministry of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udo Udoma and the Minister of State, Zanab Ahmed. They do the coordination among donors. We are working with five or six main donors in this country – World Bank, Africa Development Bank, USAID, DFID, the French, the Germans the Japanese.
We are involved in humanitarian assistance, unfortunately because of the humanitarian crisis in the northeast. Altogether, that represents about 500 million euro for five years, about 100 million euros a year.
For how long you have been in Nigeria?
I’m in my fourth year
What has your personal experience been since your arrival in Nigeria? What is your impression about Nigerians?
Well, when new people arrive in Nigeria, I always insist on the federal character of this country, the necessity to visit the states. So, as much as I can, I really crisscross the country. I have been to Katsina, Anambra, Lagos and almost every month, I am somewhere. In two and a half years, I managed to meet about 20 (state) governors, so I have been almost everywhere. And I like to drive. When I fly to a place, I like to drive back so I have an idea of what is going on in the countryside.
The experience has been good. I have had an African experience. I worked before in Mali, Liberia, Cote d’ Ivoire, Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, so I know West and East Africa.
Nigeria is a bit of Africa itself. You have everything in Nigeria. You have the sea, you have the mountain, you have the Sahel, you have the tropical rainforest, so Nigeria is huge although not the biggest in Africa and not as big as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The north is quite dry and it reminds me of Mali. Kano and Bamako have some things in common.
But weren’t you afraid of moving around the country especially by road? The Western media often paints Nigeria as a dangerous place.
Yes, there are some places that are dangerous for me to go, but I will also not go to the train station in Brussels, my country, at 2am in the morning. There are some places in Lagos for instance that are dangerous and we know that. But dangerous places are everywhere. You just have to be careful and use your common sense. I know there’s a high risk of kidnapping in some places and I am not going travel to Maiduguri by road of course. Nigeria is a big country and we are careful.
Do you interact with the rural women when you travel though the countryside?
Of course! I see them and I stop at their markets to interact with them and they are very friendly, extremely friendly. And some of them are educated. They speak English with you, pidgin English, but there are parts of Africa where they don’t speak English at all. They speak only their local language, which is a bit complicated. But here in Nigeria, you can go to the market anywhere alongside the road, people will speak English, but I know that in the middle of the bush, some people will only speak their language.
Finally sir, do you eat Nigerian food? Do you eat, for instance, pounded yam with vegetable stew?
My wife is Congolese. So, I eat Congolese local food of course. I also eat pounded yam, I eat amala, I eat moin moin, waterleaf. I eat Congolese food that is similar. My problem with Nigerian food is that sometimes, it’s a bit unhealthy. Palm oil is really not good for your health, it is too saturated – fatty acid. So, sometimes, we replace palm oil with groundnut oil or olive oil. But I like pepper and I like fish, however not everyday (general laughter).