The policy forum on Nigeria's plans and preparations for the 2015 round of elections in Washington D.C, USA, on Monday, presented Nigerian politicians as the lot quick to agree on the basic tenets of democracy, but, perhaps, only on foreign soil.
It was an unprecedented sight for many onlookers, on Monday, when self-styled attack lion of the president, Dr. Doyin Okupe embraced Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the spokesman of the opposition All Progressives Congress, APC.
Of course, it did not happen in Nigeria. It was in Washington D.C., United States, US, at a forum on Nigeria's preparations for the 2015 round of elections where the inner instinct of being your brother's keeper initially prevailed over the mutual antagonism that has marked utterances between the two major parties in the high stakes rivalry for political power.
The forum organised by the Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, was a follow up to the January forum featuring the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. However, the initial camradiere immediately turned stormy once Okupe roared like a lion in defence of his principal, President Goodluck Jonathan.
The forum was attended by many stakeholders in the Nigeria's democratic project and many Africa specialists from within the US. Okupe led the joint delegation of the Presidency and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that also included a Senior Special Assistant to the President, Sanya Awosan; political adviser to the governor of Delta State, Fed Majemite; and Mr. Oma Djebah, senior advisor to the Delta governor on foreign affairs.The APC was represented by Mohammed and Senator Babafemi Ojudu, APC, Ekiti Central.
Among dignitaries present at the forum were Ambassador Howard Jetter, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, and Dr. Usman Bugaje who served as political adviser to former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. The programme moderated by Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa programme at CSIS, kicked off with opening statements on preparations by the two sides ahead of the 2015 elections offered by Mohammed and Okupe.
The APC spokesman started by noting his party's preparations which he said was flagged off with ward congresses across the country the week before the programme. He, however, drew attention to the party's concerns on free and fair elections and particularly on the integrity of the voters register. He was quick to note that recent experiences, particularly the 2013 governorship election in Anambra State, did not give much room for confidence.
"Elections are not rigged only on election day, it is the process that leads to election day that are so crucial. I am happy that we all agreed on one issue, that is, a credible voters register," Mohammed said.
"If the voter has no access to cast his vote, that election is flawed and the experience we had in Anambra State where different sets of registers were given to different political parties and another one on election day and where many people ran around and they couldnt find their names, a situation where even the Chairman of the
commission had to admit that one of his officers was induced with money to disenfranchise thousands of people is worrisome. We are not asking for much, we are only asking that, let there be a voters' register which is credible, let the people be able to vote and let their votes count."
While the APC spokesman was disposed to the intervention by the CSIS and saw it as a way of securing Nigeria's democracy, Okupe was clearly reserved as he calmly claimed that issues about Nigeria should not be brought to the outside world.
He was, however, quick to indicate the coming tone of his roar when he sternly warned Mohammed not to bring the President into consideration in the discussions.
"Alhaji Lai Mohammed must restrict himself to the questions being asked. He must not under any circumstances cast aspersion on the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. If he does, he knows me," he said to some applause obviously from sympathisers of the administration in the CSIS hall.
The senior presidential aide was to further assert that President Jonathan had promised not to allow the shedding of blood for the purpose of winning an election.
His assertion was, however, interjected by Ms Cooke who observed that the President's election in 2011 was trailed by more than 200 deaths.
Okupe, in defence, threw the fault to those he described as desperate politicians who he claimed instigated the post-election violence. "There are desperate people in Nigeria who, unfortunately, went and incited these people to go on the rampage. That is our problem in the country. It is not the process of the election that killed them. If the winner clearly emerges and the loser is a spoil sport, what can we do about it? That is what we should be discussing."
The President's spokesman was to add that he met with his principal just before departing Nigeria who told him to tell the American people that he had not made up his mind on seeking re-election.
Following him, Senator Ojudu, who made name in the Nigeria's pro-democracy agitations in the 90s, was quick to dismiss Okupe's assertion of internalising Nigeria's democracy contentions as he was called upon to answer how the opposition is preparing to select its candidate for the 2015 presidential election.
"The world is one single humanity and whatever affects the people of Nigeria affects the world. I believe today that there is nothing happening in Nigeria that is not known to the world and it was only in those dark ages that one would say what is happening in Nigeria should be restricted to Nigeria," he stated.
Ojudu cited what he claimed as challenges to free and fair elections fanned by the administration. Prominent among them was what he called the President's dithering procrastination on giving assent to the State of the Nation Address and the reluctance of the ruling PDP to push through a Bill to provide for debate by candidates for election.
"People would like to ask what you (candidates) are going to do about employment, and you keep on hearing of $20 billion missing and people want to know," he said as he noted that the PDP candidate in the 2011 presidential election debated with himself ahead of the vote.
'The deaf conversation'
Cooke was, quick to thumb up the idea of debate among candidates and jocularly said the CSIS would willingly offer to host such a debate in the US.Before asking Majemite to answer how the PDP would select its candidate, Okupe quarreled with the anecdotes contained in Ojudu's contribution, saying the senator deviated from answering the questions to throwing brickbats. "We have to turn this discussion away the conversation of the deaf. I can also pretend to be deaf," Okupe warned.
Majemite, in his own contribution, used the opportunity to throw darts at the APC, pointing out that the PDP has a history of internal democracy. "We have a history of internal democracy, we do not impose candidates," he said as he went on to dismiss Ojudu's claim of lack of transparency in the management of oil receipts.
Focussing on the senator's claim that the PDP is fearful of debates, he said:
"The issue of debate is not new to us, we have been having debates; so I don't know why the distinguished senator is saying that. We are not new, we have been having congresses. Alhaji Lai Mohammed just said that they are having their congresses, so let them come out with their officials and it is only then we will know whether the APC will stand or not."
Following that, Cooke charged the two parties to state what they believe would be the basis of credible elections.
Mohammed itemised issues including biometrics, the removal of soldiers from election process, the design of a ballot paper not to confuse the electorate and the integrity of the media. He also charged that international observers must look at elections beyond what happened in urban centres and focus on what happens in remote areas where the INEC on election eve normally came up with polling booths only known to the ruling party.
He called for the removal of religion as an issue in politics. "A situation where our President has been going from church to church to make pronouncements on policy issues is not helpful," The APC spokesman said.
Okupe dismissed APC's call on the use of biometrics as he said that INEC had made it clear that it is not possible.
"When they lose elections, they say biometrics was not used. Biometrics or no biometrics, nobody is going to be specially favoured and let the APC know that now so that when the elections are won and lost, nobody would say it is because they didn't use biometrics and that is why we lost."
The presidential aide was to further agree with Mohammed that the voters register is the most crucial element in the election process as he called on the APC to join the PDP in ensuring the integrity of the register. "So that we can avoid what happened in Anambra State where there were two sets of voters register. Some said this is the new one, some said it is that," he said as he claimed he was being "honest" with Anambra.
His sincerity was soon taken up by Ojudu who lauded him on his sincerity in claiming that the Anambra election was marred by fraud as claimed by the APC. As Ojudu said that to the obvious embarrassment of Okupe, the audience muttered with suppressed applause.
But, the President's spokesma was to press on with what he described as his boss' sincerity to free and fair election saying: "The man at the helm of affairs presently is a man that is committed to rebuilding Nigeria and he recognises that the starting block of this is by having free and fair elections. He has distanced himself and resisted party pressure to intervene in elections that have taken place since he became President and to ensure that the will of the people is not thwarted. There are many elections that have taken place where PDP, the party in power, lost."
Nigeria's ambassador to the United States, Prof. Ade Adefuye, in his summary of the discussions, praised the two sides, saying the articulation of the two parties was reflective of the high level of political discourse in Nigeria. He, nevertheless, warned the two sides not to wash the country's linen in public even as he raised questions about Nigerians coming to discuss their country in the US.