2023: N’Assembly candidates take back seat as campaigns hot up

In the forthcoming general elections, most eyes seem to be on the presidential poll, even though the exercise is to fill vacancies in over 4,500 public offices. The myriad challenges confronting the country have largely been blamed on leadership — and partly on followership. However, pundits have noted that only the president does not constitute the “leadership” of a country; he or she only leads the leadership.

One of those who share the opinion is a former governor of Lagos State, who is now the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola (SAN), who in September 2022, urged Nigerians to pay more attention to local elections in their domains. According to him, rather than putting all attention on the central elections at the federal level, especially who becomes the next president, Nigerians should give more attention to polls at the state and local government levels.

Fashola, while speaking at the annual lecture of The Niche online newspaper, which was held at the MUSON Centre, Onikan, Lagos State, stressed that those saddled with the responsibility of ensuring Nigerians enjoy dividends of democracy are those in local elective offices, and as such, the people must be interested in local elections as opposed to more attention being paid to central elections.

Nigeria operates a constitutional democracy with a federal system of government. The government has three tiers: federal, state and local, each of which has three arms: the executive, legislature, and judiciary. People are voted for and elected into offices in the executive and legislative arms across the three tiers.

The Independent National Electoral Commission, Nigeria’s electoral umpire, has just released a fresh list of candidates fielded by the 18 registered political parties for elective offices. The list has 18 parties fielding presidential candidates and their running mates. For National Assembly membership, 1,101 candidates are vying for the 109-seat Senate and 3,122 for the 360-seat House of Representatives, meaning that a total of 4,223 candidates are contesting 469 legislative positions.

According to INEC, the youth are the country’s highest voting population in the age demographic of 93.5 million registered voters for the general election. Out of a total of 9,518,756 newly registered voters between June 28, 2021, and July 31, 2022, a total of 7,286,871, or 76.56 per cent, were between ages 18 and 34.

The list earlier released by INEC in September 2022 indicated that 3,875 of the candidates are male, including 35 running for offices of the president and vice president; 1,008 for the Senate; and 2,832 for the House of Representatives, whereas 381 females are contesting elections, including one for the presidency, 92 for the Senate; and 288 for the House of Representatives. The list also had the names of the 11 participants living with disabilities.

From the figures released by INEC come equal opportunity issues and participation in politics and governance, especially for women and PLWDs. There is also a clear understanding of the population that awareness campaigns and sensitisation should be designed for and targeted at. The figures also reflect the size of the general election and how costly it would be to successfully conduct it.

Meanwhile, out of the 35 candidates running for president and vice president, four parties are widely believed to be the top contenders in the presidential race, regardless of the eligibility, capacity, and competence of the candidates of the other parties. Observers of the ongoing electioneering have also noted the public debates and town halls being organised for presidential candidates, where their programmes and agendas are known and their capabilities put to the test. Already, the presidential candidates have reeled out their respective manifestos, most of which have been widely criticised.

For instance, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and his running mate, Senator Kashim Shettima, released an 80-page manifesto titled “Renewed Hope 2023: Action Plan for a Better Nigeria.”

The Peoples Democratic Party candidate, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and his running mate, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, also have a 74-page, five-point development plan titled, “My Covenant with Nigerians.”

Another frontrunner in the presidential race, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso and his running mate, Bishop Isaac Idahosa of the New Nigeria Peoples Party, have a 152-page manifesto titled, “My Pledges to You,” while Peter Obi and Datti Baba-Ahmed of the Labour Party have a 72-page manifesto titled “It’s Possible: Our Pact with Nigerians.”

However, candidates for the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly may not go through the litmus test till the elections are over. Close watchers of the unfolding events have noted that the development is one of the reasons many Nigerians do not even know those representing them in the Senate, House of Representatives, and state Houses of Assembly, making it difficult for their representatives to be held accountable.

The campaigns should have been an avenue to educate the electorate about the candidates and their manifestos. They should have been the opportunity through which the candidates reach a deal or sign a pact with the voters.

However, the likes of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, and the Director-General of the National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies, Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman, believe that the lack of adequate knowledge of the primary responsibilities of those in the executive and the legislature has often led to faulty criticism of those elected into public offices.

Delivering his lecture at the second edition of the Distinguished Parliamentarians Lecture Series organised by NILDS in December 2022, Gbajabiamila noted the public’s misconceptions about the legislature’s role in a democracy.

“This is a hugely significant problem. It is even more disturbing when you realise that these misunderstandings are not segregated by class or education; they are widely held, even by those you would expect to know better. As a result, there is a dangerous disconnect between the actual role of the legislature and the expectations by which the individual legislator is assessed and adjudged by the media and constituents,” he stated.

According to the Speaker, the collapse of the local government administration in the country has created a situation where legislators are expected to fill in the gap by providing municipal public services.

He stated, “The legislature is primarily a policy-making institution. The legislator’s job is to work within that process to advance ideas, recommendations, and proposals that define the structure of the state and society, set spending priorities, and oversee government expenditure to ensure compliance with appropriation laws. The legislator is a representative and an advocate, elected to make laws and design public policy for the country’s good governance.

“These should be the primary basis for assessing a legislator’s capacity, competence, and quality of service. By every means necessary, we must endeavour to educate our citizens to understand this so that they can make the right electoral decisions to ensure the men and women they send to parliament are the right fit.”

Sulaiman also called for a change in the public’s perception and recognition of the legislature in his lecture on “High Turnover of Lawmakers: Impact and Way Forward” at the House of Representatives Press Corps Week/Award held in November 2022.

He said, “There is also the need for more public education on the democratic process and the role of the legislature at all levels of government, a situation in which the electorate expects the legislature to perform the statutory role of the executive, particularly the provision of infrastructure and facilities. They will always subject lawmakers to incorrect performance indices, portraying them as ineffective despite their diligence in legislative duties.

“There is a need for more public enlightenment and engagement, not only by the government and its agencies but also by NGOs, CSOs, and even the media. This sustained campaign will help to change the democratic culture in the country and change the perception of the electorate towards the legislature.”