Nigerian environmental and human rights activist Nnimmo Bassey talks to The Africa Report's Khadija Sharife about Nigeria's upcoming elections, the prospects for political change and whether Nigeria will go the way of North Africa.
KHADIJA SHARIFE: Will the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia spark a similar response in Nigeria?
NNIMMO BASSEY: Nigerians at the moment are demonstrating their desire for change and for the respect of their right to choose who leads them through the eagerness they are showing in the ongoing voter registration exercise in the country. People have had to go to the registration centres as early as 4am to be sure they get attended to early enough in the day. If the political elite scuttle the next election coming up in April through rigging, violence and ballot box snatching or stuffing, I believe what we appear to be cushioned from by the desert buffer will happen here. The energy of people power released in Tunisia and Egypt will find a place here. There is no doubt about it.
KHADIJA SHARIFE: Is there a similarity between the repression of the North African states, where regimes are interlocked with foreign governments, and Nigeria's historical and present reality?
NNIMMO BASSEY: In the case of the North African states, the US interest is greased by the need for unrestricted access to crude oil and gas. Their security interests are locked into this. It is clear that the US diplomacy in Nigeria is also hinged on open and unhindered flows of crude oil and gas.
When it comes to crude, there is no sync between diplomacy and democracy. It appears dictatorships and repression serve the interest of the volatile industry and US leaders. This explains why we do not hear any denunciations of the rampant impunity and human rights abuses recorded since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
Whole communities have been attacked by state military forces and thousands have been killed, hundreds of women raped and properties destroyed. I name a few here: Odi, Odioma (under Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency), Gbaramatu (under late President Umaru Yar’Adua) and recently Ayakoromo (under President Goodluck Jonathan).
KHADIJA SHARIFE: Are ballots perceived by Nigeria's youth as a means of change or is there a general feeling that the current rot in the political system cannot be upended by voting?
NNIMMO BASSEY: Nigerians are incurable optimists and believe the ballot is the way to effect change. This will clearly not go on forever. As it is said, if you fool a person once you are a fool, but if you fool that person twice then for sure that person is a fool. I don’t think the Nigerian youth is a fool.
KHADIJA SHARIFE: What are your thoughts on President Goodluck Jonathan?
NNIMMO BASSEY: If he wins the election he will have a moral duty to take up the environmental challenge not only of the Niger Delta, where he comes from, but the entire devastated Nigerian environment. He will have to tackle the rising violence in the land and also tackle corruption and sectarian politics. He will have no excuses. Nigerians will not be patient with him.
KHADIJA SHARIFE: What are some of the primary faultlines of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)? What are your thoughts on Attahiru Jega?
Jega has impeccable credentials as a trustworthy person and has a history as a human rights crusader. I cannot personally think of a better person for the job. The system is the challenge. Can he succeed despite the system? That is his test. That is our test as Nigerians. The INEC has a good man as its chair, but having just a good head is not enough. It is not at all clear that the present structures and state of readiness will secure a hitch-free election in April.
Rigging is a big element of corruption and is never limited to any region. It has always been more brazen in the more remote areas where communication is limited and election materials may not be recalled on time. We are also waiting to see if the computerised system can detect multiple registrations. Some people have already been arrested for being in possession of multiple cards. If the machines could not detect such duplications, despite the fact that such persons were finger printed, then we have reason to worry about multiple voting.
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* Nnimmo Bassey is a poet, the executive director of Environmental Rights Action, the chair of Friends of the Earth International and was named a Time magazine 'Hero of the Environment' 2009.
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