Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu, National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in this interview with journalists, speaks on the latest developments in the party, his assessment of the 2019 presidential election, and other issues. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the just concluded 2019 elections?
This election cannot be likened to any previous election. It was unique in many ways. This is the first election where the bookmakers were off the mark in several respects. Not many could have imagined, for instance, that certain big name politicians could lose elections the way they did.
You saw what happened in Oyo State where Governor Ajimobi lost his senatorial election. That was one third of the state in which he has been acknowledged to perform so well. You saw what happened in Kwara State, where Bukola Saraki with his larger than life image lost practically everything. He could not win even his own ward. Under his watch, all contestants who associated with him lost elections.
You saw two sitting APC governors in Bauchi and Adamawa states battling to regain their seats as they faced questionable defeat from the opposition PDP. There are a number of issues we should pay attention to in this scenarios. One is the obvious and increasing sophistication of the voters. You could see voting patterns that showed the voters have become aware of their power to choose. You could see deliberate voting patterns, such that; in many states, the voters were targeting contestants with votes. In other words, you could see voters in a particular environment voting for candidate A in APC and candidate B in another party. What this means is that ballot papers are becoming instruments of political justice. Politicians can no longer take electorate for granted when they are in power. Voters understand the power of the ballot, more so; they understand that ballot is an instrument to punish political office holders they believe have performed below expectations.
Would you then say the 2019 elections were free and fair with the massive deployment of the police and soldiers?
I understand the fact that we would never appreciate the calamity we escaped because of the roles played by the security personnel. We can begin to question the deployment of the security agencies because we managed to minimise violence and saved numerous lives of innocent Nigerians that could have been wasted by desperate opposition politicians. It is normal for a patient to complain of the bitterness of the medicine after he has recovered from his ailment. Of course, it is easy to forget the magnitude of a disaster after averting it.
We owe the security agencies a lot of gratitude for their professionalism, their patriotic engagements with all the people and institutions that participated in the elections. But we must not forget that this was possible only because we have a President Buhari who showed uncommon statesmanship. This is the first time you have a President that was more desirous of guaranteeing the civic rights of the citizens than his own ambition for a renewal of his mandate to be able to govern for another four years.
This is contrary to the belief of the position. For instance, PDP would argue that President Buhari deployed the soldiers to intimidate opposition candidates across Nigeria to pave way for the victory of the APC candidates. You seem to disagree with this.
It is very shameful for PDP to accuse anyone, not to talk of President Buhari of intimidating voters or manipulating the electoral process. The records are there. All the elections conducted under the PDP witnessed brazen deployment of brute force. We witnessed open state sponsorship of violence against leaders and members of the opposition party. We witnessed outright disenfranchisement of voters in areas where PDP was unpopular.
How do you compare such a disgraceful mobilisation of state’s instruments of coercion under PDP as they forcibly foisted themselves over the country for those years of gruesome oppression of the electorate with the elections of 2019 under the watch of President Buhari?
This is where the media need to step up the game. They need to do more in playing their role as interpreters of events. The media is not making much meaning out of the events going on in the country. And that should bother industry stakeholders like us. Otherwise, the media would have led the celebration of the exemplary democratic credentials of President Muhammadu Buhari. How did the media miss the fact that the President did not mention a single member of opposition parties throughout his campaigns across the 36 states and FCT? How come the media missed the fact that the President stuck to issues and not personalities throughout his campaigns? That was a new vista in our politics. We need to underline this as a significant milestone in our democratic journey. Again, I shuddered to see the media misinterpreting the statement of President Buhari urging voters to vote across party lines. That was unprecedented. It did not go down well even with some APC members. But it showed that not a few Nigerians misunderstood the President’s intention. And I won’t blame anyone. We are not used to seeing a sitting President, with all the powers of suppression at his disposal, subsuming his own interest under his responsibility as a President to guarantee the freedom of the electorate to choose whomever they wished. There is no disputing the fact that President Buhari contested and won the 2019 Presidential election on the strength of his performance in the last four years. He demonstrated courage to choose to face other contestants in a level playing field. Under President Buhari, Nigeria has indeed reached a new positive height in democracy.
PDP has gone to the Tribunal to reclaim what Alhaji Abubakar Atiku has repeatedly called his stolen mandate. Are you bothered about the possible outcome of the court process?
Far from it! Why should anyone bother about such fallacious allegations contained in Alhaji Atiku’s affidavit? That is a theatre of the absurd. Well, there is something to laugh about in its absurdity. Is it the purported figures PDP claimed to have fetched from INEC server? Is it the figures he awarded himself? Well, to be fair to him, he extended his generosity to us in APC by awarding extra one million plus votes to our over 15 million votes. Of course, we do not need such concocted figures. We are satisfied with what the electorate voluntarily gave us during the elections.
Your party, APC appears to be heading into another crisis over the election of the leaders of the 9th National Assembly. Many lawmakers are already kicking publicly and insisting they will resist the imposition by your party. How will your party handle this imminent crisis?
I know one cannot be wrong for doing the right thing. Even when it appears you are being misunderstood or blamed for doing what is right, time would always vitiate your position. On this matter of choosing the leaders of the National Assembly, the APC is absolutely right.
There appears to be a lot of ignorance in the polity. I think it is because we have seen anomaly going on for too long under PDP that we begin to see it as the new normal. What the National Working Committee of the party is doing is in line with international democratic practice.
Let me provide some education on this matter. What we practised in Nigeria is called Presidential system of government, which is fashioned after the American Presidential system. It is different from parliamentary political system we practised in the First Republic, which was copied from Britain. In party politics as we have in Nigeria, the only recognised vehicle for electoral contest is political party. Our constitution does not have provision for independent candidate as at now. What this means is that anyone who wishes to contest to become a senator or member of the House of Reps or for any other political office for that matter must be a member of a political party.
It goes without saying, therefore, that such a person has invariably subscribed to the ethics and beliefs of such a party. Our progressive beliefs and worldviews in APC are further expressed through our manifesto. So we conduct primary elections to select candidates who would be given our party’s tickets to represent us in the National Assembly towards the fulfillment of our manifesto. Do not forget that the electorate voted for us based on the promises contained in our manifesto. So in other words, every person elected on the ticket of APC is a trustee of our collective mandate as a ruling party. By association and membership, he has accepted to be part of the delivery of our promises wherever he finds himself, whether; he finds himself at the National Assembly, in the state, local government or the presidency.
So you are saying the National Assembly cannot claim independence? This is contrary to the Principle of Separation of Powers or what do you think?
I have read many otherwise experienced politicians mixing things up in this regard. Let me state clearly that the National Assembly is not a political party. So it is an abnormality for the National Assembly or the Senate or House of Representatives as institutions to be in opposition to the executive. The opposition in the National Assembly is PDP and other political parties that have members elected into legislative arm. The members of the National Assembly elected on the tickets of APC cannot be in opposition to their own government. They are part of the ruling party. They are in the National Assembly to help the ruling party deliver on its mandate. The APC lawmakers are the legislative arm of the ruling party, APC. And because they are in the majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, they automatically produce the leaders of the two chambers. Let me emphasise the word produce, not elected. The rule allows for simple majority and APC has that already.
You may need to ask those who are posting unfounded opinion about this issue when did they see the Democrat and the Republican in the United States’ congress conducting elections as a unit to choose leaders. If the Democrat is in the majority in the House of Representatives in the US, they automatically produce the Speaker and other leadership positions that belong to the majority party. The Republican would also produce leaders for the positions that belong to the minority positions. If the situation were reversed, then the leadership positions would be reversed in like manner. The respective party normally handles this matter and they would return to the chambers to announce their respective new leaders. The process of election in the chambers, therefore, becomes a mere formality.
As a party in the majority in the two chambers, APC does not require the support of the PDP members to elect the Senate President, the Speaker and the other principal positions. Just as the PDP does not require the support of APC to elect the minority leaders and those other positions that belong to the minority party. This is the convention.
Then where does the Separation of Powers come in?
There are both the Principles of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances between the three arms of government. That is bringing the judiciary into the fold. But let me address the tenets of these principles between the legislature and the executive. The Principles of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances have to do with the responsibilities of each arm of government. You cannot, for instance, because APC is in the majority for the ministers who are part of the executive arm to pass laws or put legislation in place, just as it would be wrong for APC lawmakers to say because they are part of the ruling party to begin to award contract or execute policies. It is the role of the lawmakers to make laws. The difference is that when there is a bill being considered in any of the chambers, the norm is that the APC lawmakers would seek to serve the interest of their own party, while the opposition would seek to serve the interest of the minority party. It is their different perspectives on the floor that distinguish the ideology of the party they represent. So both in passing laws and in over sighting the policies, programmes and projects being executed by the executives, the members of the National Assembly have separate powers. But as I said earlier, this is in their responsibilities. In affiliation and advocacy, lawmakers align with the political parties that presented them for election.
You do not think this would create chaos in the National Assembly? Where does the national interest come in?
Thank you for this question. You do not have chaos because debate, conflictual positions, and conflict resolutions are healthy for the country. For instance, the majority of voters who believe in our government have elected our party. And we have over 15 million Nigerians who said so. But we must also understand and in fact, we must not forget that there are over 11 million Nigerians who said no to APC in the last election. The difference is that they are in the minority. In addition to that, we have been given majority in both chambers. But the people who do not want APC have also elected members into the National Assembly to represent their opinions. These issues are very important to the development of party politics and representative democracy. PDP members cannot get to the National Assembly and insist on obliterating the dividing line between the majority and the minority. The line must be maintained to protect the weak against the strong. It is not for nothing that they say the minority must have their say, while the majority have their way. If they do anything contrary to the norm, as we have had all through the 16 years of PDP, and particularly with the abnormality that subsists in the National Assembly following the 2015 desperate moves by some over ambitious lawmakers, we would be stewing in absurdity.
PDP has a responsibility to represent those who believe in them and sent them to the National Assembly.
In all of this, national interest becomes the mediating factor. PDP members are not expected to oppose a policy that would benefit Nigerians just for the purpose of preventing the APC government from fulfilling its mandate. If they do so, they would be hurting even the minority that elected them. So, national interest has to be the common denominator. You expect the APC lawmakers to seek cooperation when necessary to secure a smooth sail for an APC policy. So you can maintain your lane, while negotiating when you need more lawmakers to make the number.
Many believe that the party chairman, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole is too dictatorial and treating lawmakers like school pupils. Do you agree with this position?
That would be unfortunate. We cannot forget so soon that Comrade Oshiomhole spent the better part of his adult life fighting for the oppressed, stomping his feet on the podiums in the defence of citizens rights. He grew in the community of progressives. Rather than labelling him a dictator, we should admit he is a man of conviction.
He does not act of his own volition. Saying he is doing that would mean you are saying the rest of us in the NWC are dumbasses. What you need to know about him is that he is a great team player and an outstanding mobiliser. He knows how to build consensus. Even when his opinion does not fly, he would canvass the position of the majority with the same vigour.
On this issue of electing the leadership of the National Assembly, you cannot imagine the level of consultations the party has embarked upon. When we say the party has taken a position, it doesn’t mean just those of us who are privileged to be in the National Working Committee. You have the President who is the chief driver of our government, you have party leaders like Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, you have the APC governors, you have the lawmakers, and many more stakeholders, including members of the National Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees. These are all critical stakeholders that we always consult, whose opinions count. When we have been able to build consensus around an issue, then you have the party chairman taking responsibility. You have someone like me as the town crier delivering the messages.