In the past two weeks, we witnessed two events that provided a ray of hope for Civil Society Organisations CSOs working in democracy and governance in the country.
One of their major concerns has always been how to establish an effective working relationship with the people's representatives in the two legislative houses.
They are also apprehensive about what will happen to the report of the Electoral Reform Committee which was established by the government to review the country's electoral processes and make recommendations for reform.
The first of these events was a one day sensitization workshop on the National Assembly Legislative Process organised by the National Democratic Institute NDI at the NICON Luxury Hotel Abuja on March 19. The theme of the workshop was "Towards a more fruitful engagement with the National Assembly"The objective of the forum was to acquaint the participating civil society groups with the internal process of the National Assembly and empower them to better perform their advocacy agenda through the use of the National Assembly Civil Society Organization Liaison Office (CSOLO).
The office is a perfect example of the benefits a partnership between government, civil society organisations and development partners can yield. It came into being as a result of the work done by the National Democratic Institute NDI's project known as Strengthening National Assembly Project (SNAP). The three year project implemented the following activities: worked with the National Assembly on budget and budget tracking, pro - poor reform bills, oversight and public hearing, study tours for legislators, CSO engagement with National Assembly on various issues, specific training and workshops, scoping work with State Houses of Assembly and establishment of the CSOLO.
The SNAP project was designed by the CSOs and supported by UK Department For International Development DFID and the United States Agency for International Development USAID. The workshop attracted 67 participants in . Among them were former members of the National Assembly, members of the Advisory Board of the Civil Society Liaison Office, CSOs and the media. My humble self was privileged to participate at the workshop as a Board member of CSOLO and media person. The NDI Country Director, James Oliver welcomed participants and highlighted the importance of the CSOLO, The first part of the workshop set the tone with Clement Nwankwo, the Deputy Country Director of NDI providing a background to the SNAP project.
The second part of the workshop focused on a variety of presentations. Among them were a paper titled Overview/Analysis of the Functioning of the Bills and Legislative Process in the National Assembly presented by the Clerk, House Committee on Rules and Business of the National Assembly, The CSO Advocacy in the Legislative Process: An Engagement Story by Honorable Uche Onyeagucha, Strategies for Issue Based Advocacy Campaign by Miss Stella Amadi of the Centre for Democracy and Development CDD and Strategising for an Effective Civil Society Liaison Office by Prince Yemi Ogunyomi, the Deputy Clerk of the National Assembly .The presentations were followed by interactive sessions. At the end of the presentations, the participants issued a communiqué in which they made recommendations as follows :
- That the CSOLO should facilitate access for civil society in the National Assembly.
- That the CSOLO and its Advisory Committee should develop best mechanisms to improve engagements between the National Assembly and CSOs.
- That civil society organisations are encouraged to utilise the CSOLO to improve their engagement with the National Assembly
- That there is a need for civil society groups to streamline their advocacy and positions to align with the people in such a way that ownership of these views and opinions remains that of the people.
The second event which held on March 31 was the National Dialogue on Electoral Reform. It was supported by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems IFES, International Republican Institute IRI and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The partners have provided assistance to the ERC, political parties, civil society, and other actors throughout the electoral reform process. They believe that it is critical to continue supporting the development of the legal frameworks for inclusive governance, building broad dialogue and political consensus. The venue of the dialogue was Rockview Hotel, Abuja. According to the organizers the objectives of the dialogue are to:
- Provide a forum for stakeholders to review and analyze the recommendations of the ERC and the government White Paper and the implications on Nigeria's electoral process.
- Provide stakeholders and non-governmental actors with a platform to continue to engage in the electoral reform process.
- Continue building open communication and confidence in the process.
Many stakeholders subscribed to this and the Zuma Hall at Rockview was full as stakeholders drawn from a critical group of CSOs and dignitaries honoured the invitation to the two day event. There were representatives of political parties. Labour, activists former legislators etc. There were also heavy weight participants who honoured the event and made presentations. Among them were former Head of State General Muhammadu Buhari, a Presidential candidate of the ANPP in the 2007 election, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, Chairman, Electoral Reform Committee, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, President, ECOWAS Commission Abuja, Dr. Christiana Thorpe, Chief Electoral Commissioner, Sierra Leone National Electoral Commission, Senator Ken Nnamani, former, Senate President who served as the Chairman of the opening session, Hon. Aminu Bello Masari, former Speaker House of Representatives who served as a panelist.
The Chairman Senator Nnamani said in his opening remarks that electoral reform is the most important business of the year and stressed the need for CSOs to engage with the legislators because the buck stops at the National Assembly. In his welcome address, Dr. Mourtada Deme, the Country Director, International Republican Institute (IRI) said 'Nigeria is at a political crossroads'. He recalled that 'in August 2007, President Musa Yar' Adua set up a 22 member Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) with the mandate to reform Nigeria's electoral system to conform to international best practices. The call for recommendations on reform was not limited to the electoral process, but inclusive of suggestions on reforms to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the 2006 Electoral Act and other matters relating to the electoral process.'
The keynote address was presented by Dr Christiana Thorpe who conducted elections that were universally credited to be free and fair. For this achievement she had earlier been given the African of the year award by the Media Trust group of Newspapers in January at an impressive ceremony here in Abuja. She shared her experience as the Chief Electoral Commissioner of National Electoral Commission NEC in Sierra Leone. Her paper was titled "Impact of the Political Environment of a Country and its Electoral Framework on the Credibility of an Electoral Process. A Case Study of Sierra Leone's Electoral Reform Programme 2005-2008. She outlined the seven steps of the NEC adopted to ensure comprehensive electoral reform programme and make the commission to meet international standards.
They include the following: Restructuring of the existing NEC, staff capacity development, infrastructural development, establishment of an information technology system, reform of the electoral laws and regulations, electoral boundary definition and establishment of a permanent voters register. She also highlighted some lessons learnt which are worth sharing, good planning well ahead of time, promoting the collective responsibility which involved effective collaboration with other democratic institutions such as Political Party Registration Commission PPRC, National Commission for Democracy, Human Rights Commission. The establishment of the District Monitoring Committees by the PPRC to monitor political party adherence to their code of campaign ethics, regular press conferences and establishment of independent radio network of about twenty community radio stations.
The President of the ECOWAS Commission, Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas presented a goodwill message. He commended the organizers of the dialogue and underscored the fact the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance of 2001 sets the constitutional convergence principles that underpin ECOWAS membership. Central to the Protocol are the principles of zero tolerance of power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means, the separation of powers as well as modalities for conducting credible, transparent, free and fair elections. ECOWAS has therefore been assisting member states in the preparation, organisation and supervision of elections.
The first working session had as its theme Overview of the Electoral Committee's Recommendations and their Implications on Nigeria's Electoral Process. The panelists were three members of the of Electoral Commission .Hajiya Dije Bala, Festus Okoye, and Comrade John Odah. The second focused on Electoral Reform Committee's Recommendations and the Executive White Paper on Electoral Reform: Prospects and Challenges for Nigeria's' Electoral Process. This civil society panel had the following members Emma Ezeazu of Alliance for Credible Elections Abuja, Mrs Oby Nwankwo of CIRDDOC Enugu, Imoni Amarere of African Independent Television and Danlami Bashru of the Joint National Association of People with Disabilities. Professor Etanibi Alemika moderated the session.
The fourth session provided the political parties' perspectives and the panelists were, Dr Usman Bugaje of Action Congress, General Muhammadu Buhari who was represented by Mal Buba Galadima of the ANPP and Professor Rufai Alkali of the PDP who sent a representative. The moderator was Anthony Ubani the Director General of the People's Democratic Institute.
The last session was titled Building Confidence in the Electoral Process: the Way Forward. The moderator was Mr Jide Ojo and the main presenter was Hon Chris Asoluka. Other panelists were Dr Saddiq Mohammed of Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Dr Robito Ekpiken Ekanem of W. A. O Calabar. And Hon. Bello Masari, former Speaker of the House of Representatives. The highlight of the presentation showed the disenchantment of the CSOs with the political parties and their discomfort with the Federal Executive Council's rejection of certain provisions contained in the report of the ERC. Several panelists called for mass protests and the need for constituency accountability on the ERC report.