IDEAS Radio 7 August 2020

NBA Elections and IDEAS 

Aghogho Oboh: Alright, a fine, fine afternoon in the city of Lagos, and wherever you’re listening to, you’re on to the Public Square on 99.3 Nigeria Info, and I’m Aghogho Oboh, hot afternoon, still waiting for the for the rains to come back, but I guess … we just call this August break, right?  Yes, and we will be on, up and running straight away into the Square, where we’ll begin with IDEAS.  Remember, you can join the conversation on Public Square on our different handles on social media @PublicSquareNG, @NigeriaInfoFM, @ideasradiong, @AghoghoOboh, @RotimiSankore, @naijama, so several handles where you can get involved in the conversation on the Public Square.  

Today on Public Square where we have Ayo Obe has joined the discussion on Public Square, always great to have Ayo join us on Public Square, we’re going to be looking at the Nigerian Bar Association … held its elections for a new Executive which was last week.  So … it’s in anticipation of the Annual Convention.  The election was done through a digital online process that included some interesting features such as a real time tally throughout the voting process.  … Also … even though a result was declared, it was clear that many voters had been unable to vote, and unfortunately, it appears that Ayo was one of those unfortunate ones.  Hello Ayo, and good evening! … Alright … Ayo is in now.  Hello Ayo, good evening.

Ayo Obe: Good evening Aghogho.

AgO: Yeah, I didn’t open the gate wide into the Public Square for you, and you were knocking …

AO: I was knocking o!  I was knocking at another door last week too!

AgO: Okay, you were knocking at an online door last week and apparently it did not open.  So, for all the good stories we’ve heard about the election for the NBA’s President, it appears that the sore ones apparently, we’re just beginning to hear about just now.

AO: Well, I don’t know about sore, I mean it’s true Aghogho, that even though I’m a fully paid up member of the NBA and my branch, and even though I verified my registration through the NBA portal, and even though during the course of the day I made three telephone calls to the NBA help line and sent two emails, I was still unable to vote.  I mean I must say that the NBA help lines were very efficient in that they answered the calls without any delay, but essentially, all they could do was say: Send an email, and unfortunately when I did so, that was where the process ended.

But I mean Aghogho, the thing is that … a result has been declared, and it’s … it seems as though it’s another one of those elections where the general consensus seems to be that despite the failings in the process, the result that emerged reflected the wishes of the electorate.  And what I found interesting is that if you think back to the 2019 elections that were conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission, there are some interesting parallels that you could draw.  

But before I get to that, I think that the first IDEAS issue – you know, IDEAS is Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability; obviously an election is about Democracy, but I think also that it raises Integrity issues because we’re always thinking about the Integrity of elections.  And … I guess that for me as a lawyer, the real question is: Shouldn’t we be expecting the highest standards from elections conducted by and into a professional body like the Bar Association?  In fact Aghogho, I’m sure that by now, many of us will have heard reports of what happened when the Enugu branch of the Nigerian Medical Association met to conduct its own elections.  And for those who haven’t seen the shocking pictures of blood-soaked doctors – medical practitioners – let me quote from the report in The Guardian:

“Some members of the association who gathered for the election suffered serious injuries from thugs who invaded the venue allegedly sponsored by a faction of the body.  The thugs, numbering over thirty, stormed the venue with dangerous weapons while voting was going on and started destroying chairs, tables and canopies and objects used for the election.  They upturned the ballot boxes, pounced on the electoral committee … leading to doctors scampering … for fear of losing their lives.  And that many sustained injuries while they were trying to escape from the thugs, and others including the … NMA chairman in the state, were thoroughly beaten.

And the report also stated that: “The policemen who were drafted to the venue of the election …” (in other words, they were expecting to have need for police) “… had a hectic time preventing major casualties.”

So, I think that … that’s against the background of course, of an existing dispute and the attempt to conduct the elections without resolving that dispute, but I think that coming in the wake of the less-than-perfect elections conducted by the Nigerian Bar Association, it’s inevitable that a lot of disappointment is being expressed – forget about the fact that some lawyers are trying to claim the moral high ground because some doctors in one branch of the NMA fell below expectations – or at least lawyers are consoling themselves that: “At least, we’re not quite that bad!”  …  But … we seem to forget that we never hear about elections to the leadership of the Engineers, or the Accountants, and they too are professionals.

AgO: Ah ha!

AO: In fact, one of my … my virtual friends posed the question why some of such elections produce such very unlovely behaviour – and, really, levels of competition that really go beyond what is decorous – and I have to say that I don’t understand.  But the point is that when people who should be leaders in society, and from whom a higher standard is expected – standards of Ethics – then there is a reinforcing of cynicism and … whenever I see that, I fear that other people will say: Well, if gold has rusted, what do you expect iron to do?  And … this is the problem.

After all, the NBA prides itself as a profession for ‘gentlemen’ – which by the way, is not a reference to gender, but to standing … and quality … standing and quality in society.  So there is really no mileage or prestige in comparing the Bar Association with what happened at a particular election in the Nigerian Medical Association, and anyway, the Nigerian Medical Association held its own national elections in May, and they have produced a new President through an online voting process too (even though I know it’s being challenged).

But I think that with regard to the Bar, a higher standard is expected.  And I think that it started off as though the NBA was going to try and meet that standard – to be transparent, because … we always say that transparency is the key to Integrity!  So it did things like publishing the list of accredited voters, voting procedures, and also publishing that running tally.  But where it failed was in the execution, and … 

AgO: So what do you think in terms of Integrity, running a tally while the votes … voting is still going on?  What was the impact in your opinion, Ayo?

AO: Well I think that if you run the tally at the same time as voting is going on, it’s … it challenges, or it threatens the Integrity of the election.  I think actually it sets a bad example.  Because first of all, the Bar Association itself accepted that when voting started at 11 pm, it hadn’t sent out all the emails with the codes that would allow people to vote.  In fact, it only started sending them out at 10.45 pm!  So … many people said, Okay, they’ve just started … they went to sleep and woke up, and they already started hearing the tally.  Meanwhile, the NBA was saying it’s sending out the emails “in batches”.  I mean, come on, this is only about less than about 30,000 emails.

AgO: True.

AO: So, and … I should just give the example of why I think it challenges the Integrity, because just before 6pm on Thursday, when there were still five hours left for voting, there had been about sixteen and a half thousand votes cast.  Now the leading candidate had almost 9,000 votes, which was more than half of the votes cast that … thus far.  But if the remaining 13,000 voters who had not yet voted, had been able to vote, you don’t know whether they might have significantly changed the result.  Or, one of the two chasing candidates (you know, there were two other candidates who were coming up in the rear with about twenty-something percent of the vote each) they could have decided to say: Look, I’m standing down, and my supporters to vote for this other person.  And again, it could have changed the election.

Now of course, in national elections, you don’t have anything like a running tally while voting is going on – at least – for now.  But … and I say that because it’s interesting that the Independent National Electoral Commission has announced that for the forthcoming Nasarawa State House of Assembly by-election – it is going to create a Results Viewing Portal which is going to allow members of the public to view the results from the individual polling units.  Now Aghogho, this is not revolutionary … we saw … I mean in Kenya, you could have done that without anybody having to be special.  

AgO: Very true.

AO: Yeah.  And INEC has also been careful to say, quote: “The platform provides information for research purposes, it is NOT for Election Results Collation.”  But I think that’s a bit odd – even allowing for the fact that there may be cause to cancel an apparently declared result at a polling unit (though I personally can’t at the moment think what that might be), because 2+2 is going to be 4 whether it’s being added up for research or whether it’s being added up for the declaration of a  result.  

So I think that … the … I don’t know if you remember Aghogho, that during the run up to last year’s national elections, we spoke to Clement Nwankwo of the Civil Society Situation Room …

AgO: Very true.

AO: … and he had called on INEC to allow selected observers to be admitted to its own e-platform, so that they could observe – not just the results as they were coming in, but equally importantly, the rate of usage at which the Card Readers were accrediting voters.  Because … you have this situation as I said, where everything could turn on what happens in the last few hours, but if what happens in the last few hours is beyond the bounds of credibility, then that raises a red flag.  And what the Situation Room had been suggesting was that political parties, national and international observers should select representatives who would be at the centre where INEC has its e-platform, and it was even offered that those observers should remain incommunicado until the polls closed.  But as I said, in the case of the NBA, it had that running title … that running tally being shown while the voting was going on, and while some potential voters were struggling to vote!  I think that … that that is a problem.  But as to the idea that there should be publication of the results from polling units as they come out, I think that is something that would help the Integrity of the electoral process.

Aghogho: Absolutely, and which takes us to another big question Ayo, in fact I’m just thinking about voting during the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up a number of questions and options on what to do.  I mean, the United States has got elections on the 3rd of November, and the mail-in ballot system is controversial in the sense that someone like Donald Trump thinks it’s going to be the worst election in the US history because it’s a system that’s never been used in that sort of magnitude.  Five states only passed laws to use that and then, now an entire country will have to use that system to vote because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

But the Bar Association has raised the bar in terms of digital voting, this isn’t the first experience for it, but in terms of pluses and minuses, what would you say has been – in terms of IDEAS – for digital voting with the NBA.

Ayo: Well Aghogho, I would say that despite its shortcomings, and … as I said, this is one of those elections where … because just last year, you remember, we had a national election, some people were very dissatisfied about the way that they were not able to vote, or their votes were not counted, but in the end, there was this sort of national consensus (and I appreciate that some people didn’t … will still not accept) … but there was a national … that this is the result that would have come out … and so on, because when you go to court over these matters actually, the test is substantial compliance, did the shortcomings substantially affect the outcome of the elections?  So I think that the NBA has given us so a very useful learning experience, and those of us who were not able to vote, we … apart from the candidates …  because I should say also Aghogho, that in elections, it’s generally the candidates who can go complain and go to court; certainly in a national election, an ordinary voter cannot go to court and say: I wasn’t allowed to vote, because of my one vote cancel the whole election.  It can’t be done.  But in this case, the … the NBA is … learning, and it’s taking it on.  And I think that really it set up a system that tried an unprecedented level of transparency and security for the election.  …  And unfortunately, I think it didn’t allow itself enough time.  I mean I really don’t know why they couldn’t send the voting codes out until practically voting had started.  And it didn’t really have a genuine real time process to make sure that people could vote.  

And … but I should say that I am one of the supporters of a group called ‘Restore Naija’, and it’s one of many groups and individuals who are seeking to bring about electronic or digital voting, particularly using the blockchain method which is supposed to be not only genuine, but also verifiable and transparent, and … people like me, people of my age, we don’t really understand all the details, but I am getting more and more sold on the idea that we need to embrace this kind of technology and process.  I don’t know if it will be possible in time for our 2023 elections, but I do think that … we have to … we have to go forward with it, and I think that when INEC says it’s opening this portal, now, it’s trying to get on board with the idea that elections, voting, election observation, all of these things can be done online.  It has to of course, secure its systems.

But at the same time, I think that the inability of a professional body like the Nigerian Bar Association to properly organise a mere 29,600 odd voters, it’s … it’s not a good example.  However, I have to say Aghogho, I don’t believe … I don’t have any truck with those who say: “How will lawyers be able to criticise INEC if they can’t organise their own elections?”  We are not barred from criticising INEC for not conducting a free and fair election if they don’t!  But there’s no doubt, I think that the lawyers need to set a better example!

AgO: Yes, I mean … I’ve seen NBA elections in the past that would make us wonder.  But this is a big step away from what it used to be in the past, how contentious it’s been.  I know that the NLC hasn’t even fared better in terms of how it organised its own elections, and would criticise.  But we’re ending this segment, but I think we can still just spare a few words for the Olumide Akpata-led NBA executive, in terms … I know it will form the basis for discussion in the coming weeks, what sort of agenda he has in place.  But very quickly, what would you say about this new executive?

AO: Well, I think that the executive, it’s by the fruits that you will know them, and I think that for me, I do think that it was important to break the jinx of having only silks, senior advocates as candidates or as NBA Presidents, simply because … and I think there was possibly a wrong idea that once you were an old or senior member of the Bar, you were automatically this or that.  I think it’s also been a little bit funny that some of the people who complained about last year’s elections were among the first to congratulate the President-elect of the Bar Association.

But on the whole, I think that we are all facing challenges in every profession and not least the Nigerian Bar Association, and I do think that the leadership of the Bar needs to not just attend to the welfare and issues of concern to the … to the profession, but also to recognise that the profession operates within a wider society  and to make sure that it is … it is not silent when it needs to speak.  I think it’s always difficult in these days of partisan politics for an organisation, a professional organisation to tread that line but I think that there are some areas where it should be able to … to speak for the profession and insist on the right thing being done, and also of course, to prepare against the next set of elections that we will have, that we will indeed be pace-setters for the Nigerian people in the conduct of Democracy and elections with Integrity and in an Ethical manner.

AgO: Alright, a perfect way for us to end the discussion, thank you very much Ayo Obe on IDEAS. 

AO: Thank you, Aghogho.

AgO: Alright.

AO: Bye bye.