Yunusa Zakari Yau, a telecommunication engineer with over 17 years of lecturing career, is more known for his over 30 years’ involvement in the struggle for the entrenchment of democracy in Nigeria, a role he has been playing through his activities in civil society organisations. In this interview, the convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, a body of over 70 CSOs primarily working in synergy to achieve credible elections in the country, speaks on why Nigerians have not got the dividends of democracy despite enjoying uninterrupted civil rule for over 24 years, agendas of the Situation Room to help deepen electoral reform before the next election circle, among other issues.
Not a lot of people knew your trajectory before your role in the Situation Room took you to national limelight in Nigerian politics. How did you get here?
I trained as telecommunications engineer at Bayero University and Ahmadu Bello University, then I lectured at Bayero University for about 17 years, teaching various courses in telecommunications and information technology.
Of course I found myself here, not by accident. In my student days I was an activist of the student union. Upon graduation we found that we needed to find a means to pitch our activism. We didn’t find the appropriate platforms, so we created some for ourselves. One of those I remember early is Women in Nigeria (WIN), which resulted out of a conference at the Ahmadu Bello University on that theme. It became one of the active organisations pushing for gender justice and so forth before feminism became the trend.
It was in 1994 that we formed the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO), the first human right body in Nigeria. We worked there. We later realised that because the leading team at that time – Olisa Abakoba, Clement Nwankwo etc – were lawyers, it was primarily focused on using legal instruments to enforce the rights of students.
We realised that we needed to combine the legal activism with other forms of engagements, so we moved on and formed what we call the Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP). I became the president of the CAPP and also served on the Governing Board of the CLO for two terms.
Then the fight against military rule came through the United Action for Democracy, and of course, in the process we got bruised. I went on detention for quite a number of times during that period. So, when eventually we succeeded as a country to got the military out, some said let’s join the political parties and contest election, but some said no, let’s observe. That was how the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) was formed so that we could observe elections and ensure that the votes actually counted.
The democracy the CSOs helped midwife has been uninterrupted for 24 years. Would you say that with the activities of the organisations over the years, Nigerians have actually gotten the dividends of democracy?
Let me just clarify that we have had civilian rule for the past 24 years, not democracy. We are working to build democracy. We haven’t really gotten democracy in this country, and that is why our civilian leaders have not been delivering as much as we expected them to do.
For example, recently government withdrew subsidy on petroleum and threw everybody into serious hardship, but at the same time we see legislators buying vehicles worth millions from taxpayers’ money, even when they are telling us that the government is broke. So you know there is no sense of justice, responsibility and accountability on the part of leadership.
So we can’t say we have democracy, we cannot say it is delivering, but I think we are building the foundation for democracy to deliver in this country. I am optimistic that we would get it, but it is not a short journey. It is also not an easy journey.
We must also differentiate between the processes of democracy, such as elections, rule of law and democratic culture, which is how we as individuals behave. The way we behave determines, to a large degree, how we respond to democracy as an institution.
If you were brought up under an authoritarian family, you are likely not going to appreciate what democracy is. So we need to recognise that democracy is a readily expanding phenomenal. You need to conquer your immediate space in order to have the space to democratise the wider horizon.
It means that at our family level, school and the community, we must mainstream democratic cultures, processes; and unfortunately, that is lacking at the moment.
Do you mean the problem with Nigeria’s democracy is that of followership and not leadership as espoused by many?
Leadership comes out of a community. So if the leaders come out from us, that means we are the people producing the bad leaders. And of course, the process of recruitment and so forth can be faulty; therefore, making the bad ones to become our leaders. That also tells how we are as a community, citizens and country. And if our recruitment process is faulty, it will always pick the bad ones among us. That means there is something fundamentally wrong with our society. If we want accountability on the part of leaders we will demand and enforce accountability.
Talking about the process that produces the country’s leadership, despite complaints, the election process becomes more expensive, why is it so?
You see, money doesn’t make elections better, it rather corrupts the processes. Now, having monetised elections, the only people who can contest and be able to win are those who have money, which is not necessarily made legitimately.
But even the electoral umpire’s budget keeps increasing. Recently, the N18billion allocated to them in the supplementary budget almost turned the country upside down, yet the election process doesn’t seem to be getting better in the eyes of some members of the public. What exactly is the problem with the electoral umpire?
I think it is more than just the electoral umpire. First, we need to understand where the money goes. It goes into the processes and procurement. Of course there will be genuine procurement; there will also be corrupt procurement. That is one problem. But elections are not just determined by what you procure, the processes and so forth, it is also about the conduct of the people.
Now, you need to have a process in which the people you appoint are independent, nonpartisan, neutral; that is what we haven’t gotten in this country.
The second is that you have politicians who, by and large, are not interested in democracy but power, so they want to get it by all means – legitimately or illegitimately.
Let’s talk about your role in the Situation Room, vis-à-vis the electoral process. Issues have continued to trail the conduct of CSOs, especially with many working at cross purposes; what is your take?
By the time I came, the Situation Room was at a crossroad of sorts. There were disagreements and so forth. I think that by and large, we are getting towards a common voice because people who left are coming back. We are getting back the respect.
But people need to know that the civil society is not one single homogenous body. You have all sorts of civil societies in this country. Before Buhari left, the government registered about 665 CSOs that are just for government, not necessarily independent thing.
When you unleash that, the purpose is to back the government at whatever point and whatever issue. So you will never at any given point expect that civil societies will just be one single voice, but in the Civil Society Situation Room, we speak for independent civil society groups.
How do you intend to shed off this toga that CSOs work for the highest bidder when they go for elections?
There are quite some ways in which citizens know which CSOs are speaking for themselves, so we are not worried about what they do. My value as a leader of a civil society organisation is not what I say but what my constituency thinks about what I am doing. So, the moment people perceive me as partisan in my community, I lose relevance. People who value working with communities will never want to be for the highest bidder.
In the Situation Room, we put certain criteria, minimum things for members, including visible structures, with a governing board with credible people, audited account, proper registration with the Corporate Affairs Commission. And you must also have your SCUMOL, which the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) issues for organisations to attest to your source of income.
What are the agendas for the coming years for the Situation Room?
First of all, we want to deepen electoral reform in this country. As you can see, last year we were all happy that we had one of the best electoral acts. After the Supreme Court ruling we found that there had been loopholes, so we need to address those challenges we observed since the 2023 general elections.
The second agenda is that we will be having a conference on governance. We want to make sure we recognise elections as a means and not an end in itself.
The third agenda is that we want to address the conduct of local government elections in this country. We have made so much progress at the level of national elections, but so far, our elections at the local government level leave so much to be desired.