Hassan: Instead of campaign centres, we have fake news factories churning out falsehood

Idayat Hassan is director at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a foremost civil society organisation canvassing good governance and sustainable development. In this exchange with The Guardian she takes a swipe at politicians, who instead of engaging issues that affect citizens are busy falsifying and trading invectives and falsehood.

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CDD was the first to track 2015 campaign promises of the All Progressives Congress (APC), with a view to ascertaining compliance; are you currently documenting ongoing campaign promises of parties?
During the 2015 elections, we decided to disaggregate and simplify the manifestoes and policy documents of the political parties to citizens for proper voter education. We organised debates between the APC and PDP on sectoral issues, and that was the only debate attended by the two parties during that election.

Tracking the promises was a follow up to all these prior interventions, and it was conceived as post-election mandate protection, simply put, track, fact check, do rigorous policy analysis and surveys to promote accountability.

We are tracking the promises this time around; it is interesting to note that there are 91 political parties; 65 have their manifestoes uploaded on INEC website, another 11 also have same on their political parties website. Interestingly, around 31 parties have the same manifestoes, precisely the same, nothing different only the name. Some six presidential candidates have also unveiled policy documents. We have disaggregated all these promises and policy documents once again, and very few speak to the current reality of the country. We know the numbers of pledges contained, and we are tracking the promises they are also making on the campaign trail. However the current reality is there are few campaigns ongoing, asides the PDP campaigns, then APCN and YPP, there are few campaigns ongoing at the moment. CDD is continuing to track campaign promises, and we will present it to whosoever wins after the elections. For details on the promises made, you can visit http://ngmanifesto.org

In the early days of your checks, you made very bold revelations of failure on the part of the APC government to keep to campaign promises. But you seem to abandon the exercise after the government launched attacks at your organisation. Were you deterred, frustrated or harassed? 
No, we never abandoned tracking the promises; instead, we infused more innovations into it. In 2018 alone, we conducted a survey across the nation on the approval rating of the APC government and also on critical sectors, this was widely published locally and internationally. We had seven fact-checks alone in 2018; you may recollect the brouhaha over the ANCHOR Borrowers Program (ABP). It was CDD fact check with our partners that revealed the anomalies in the ABP program, in particular. Our first fact check was kind of positive with challenges identified for the government to tackle, when we conducted the second one, we discover the scheme was far from perfect, around four groups are now petitioning the CBN as a follow up.

Another fact check on the NPOWER program, in particular, the N-Teach reveals the positive influence the scheme is having on the economy and the beneficiaries and also identified other positive impacts of infrastructure. We continue to fact check, we have just concluded another report, but we will not be publishing because we are in the thick of campaigns. We have held several engagements with the government and citizens separately to review the administration. Rather than been deterred we became more resolute with on-ground engagements.

What do you find unusual in the current campaigns, promises that you know are merely outlandish and calculated at deceiving voters across all parties?
Synonymous with campaigns in Nigeria, there are few engagements on issues; instead emphasis is on dancing and throwing invectives. However, the most distinguishing characteristics of this campaign are the disinformation campaigns, with politicians manipulating facts to win votes, and unfortunately, we have unsuspecting consumers of this fake news who unknowingly spread it. Distilling the truth from untruth has become so complicated. Instead of establishing campaign centres, the politicians established a fake news factory churning out daily falsehoods.

And what do you find realistic and achievable in the manifestoes and policy documents of the parties, based on revenue projections and capacities of candidates?
The manifestoes and policy documents released by the parties are mostly aspirational and with no valid implementation strategy, timeline and cost implications. It is important to note that most of these documents also did not take cognisance of the prevailing economic reality of the country. For instance, there is no relationship between the revenue base, which mainly is still oil, the price of crude on the market, what OPEC position may be, insecurity, should it be agriculture, vocation training vis-à-vis skills acquisition to mitigate unemployment figures? We don’t have such details. The numbers mentioned are also quite ludicrous, creating millions of jobs. I have found only one or two policy documents useful and futuristic. Some of the manifestoes again did not even take into cognisance the country’s current reality, what if insecurity pervades, and the cost of long-term containment?

Are you comfortable with INEC’s plan, especially use of card readers and incident forms at the same time?
The card reader has come to stay in Nigeria’s electoral landscape, the authentication value it adds to the process is always welcome, and importantly the features are now enhanced reducing the chances of it rejecting Permanent Voters Card or biometrics.

On the incident forms, the question we have raised at the CDD is, what and how will it be if eligible voters are disenfranchised for no fault of theirs. What we should do is to recognize that the threshold of electoral integrity has finally been increased. With the new incident form format, political parties are free to undertake a forensic audit to ascertain the integrity of the thumbprint and information such as phone numbers supplied. Importantly, the incident form format on the voter register makes it difficult for anybody to sit somewhere and start filling the forms to make up the numbers, it will be a near impossibility to capture a voter register and start filling it to circumvent processes. The onus is now on citizens to protect their votes during the elections, “vote, stay and ensure your votes count”. An election is a stakeholders’ affair, so citizens are essential in the process, not just INEC, security or CSOs. The largest democracy in the world India conducts elections, and the counting and declaration of results take few days.

Don’t you think Nigeria should go full electronic voting, say by 2023, given that smaller and less endowed African countries have gone completely electronic, including Diaspora voting?
Diaspora voting is critical; it is more about inclusion, not just the remittances sent in. Diasporans are more interested in day to day running of the country than citizens resident in the country. They must have the opportunity to vote. While technology is vital, we must not place too much emphasis on technology as the key, even in the US, we saw voting machine flipping votes in Texas, and we also have the challenge of hacking, which is rife all over the world.

Are you comfortable with the current level of women participation, especially in the frontline parties?
No, it is so unfortunate that only five political parties fielded women as presidential candidates, and three of them have since dropped off the race in favour of other candidates. No female candidate is standing in the 29 governorship elections. It is only APC Adamawa that fielded two female candidates for its North and Central senatorial districts; there are just around 32 candidates for the polls, which means that the number of women parliamentarian in the next National Assembly will be lower than the present 25.

Why do you think women still have challenges in staying in the frontline?
The problems confronting women political participation are cultural, religious, cost and nature of politics and in some instances capacity. The cost of politics is too high, how many women can afford at least 25million to buy nomination form, let alone the war chest needed for the elections.

Do you have fears for 2019, including the menace of vote buying?
The insecurity and violence pervading the country are the most significant challenges militating against this election, spanning Boko Haram, banditry, kidnapping, cultism amongst others, will affect the accessibility of the polling stations and also the security of INEC officials and materials during the elections.

How far can civil societies go to ensure that 2019 polls are markedly better than the last experience in Osun?
In the forthcoming elections, our work is clear cut one; we are mobilising to have citizens secure the votes themselves, we are not doing conventional election observation, we are monitoring all processes and gathering evidence. We are deploying in all polling units. We are emphasising the collation stage of the result, thus gathering results at the 8809 wards and also 774 local governments in the Presidential elections. Our mandate is to ensure the integrity of the vote and infuse confidence in the electoral system.

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