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IA-Forum Interview: Josephine Osikena
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International Affairs Forum discusses upcoming elections in West Africa and development issues with Josephine Osikena, Programme Manager for Democracy and Development at the Foreign Policy Centre. Before joining the FPC Josephine completed various interim assignments in central and local government which included: preparations for the UK 2005 presidency of EU at the Cabinet Office, strategic and financial sponsorship of the Environment Agency at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as well as urban regeneration at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. International Affairs Forum: In Cameroon, upcoming elections are being clouded by opposition party threats to boycott it, claiming electoral laws are poor and make it susceptible to fraud. Do you think a boycott would be justified? If they do boycott, what effect will they have on the election? Josephine Osikena: There’s a lot of unease among opposition parties. The largest of which is the Social Democratic Front (SDF) They have presented a number of concerns and argued for a postponement until later this year. This will work to synchronize presidential and legislative elections. In addition there is general apathy and disappointment amongst the electorate. During the last elections public agencies were unable to properly oversee the elections and ensure that they were free and fair. There is also the issue around the publication of census data. This data is quite important for those contesting the elections in terms of trying to determine what the parliamentary seat distribution will be, what the constituencies are, what percentage of the population is of voting age etc.. Public mistrust of the public agencies responsible for overseeing the last election has lead to the creation of a new body – ELECAM. This will be responsible for overseeing the preparations and delivery of multi-party elections but actually that body won’t come into operation for another eighteen months. That’s another reason the opposition gives to push the elections back. Perhaps the main reason opposition parties may not be too keen about moving forward with elections in June is that they really haven’t started to galvanize – or mobilize – their supporters. There are internal tensions within their parties about leadership issues. As it stands today, if the opposition party is unable to mobilize its supporters, it’s likely the ruling party will win the elections because they’ve got the resources and are arguably more effectively organized at campaigning (the ruling party always has an advantage in this regard). Generally, across Africa the political process marginalizes opposition parties. They find it very difficult to campaign because of their limited networks of funding and they find themselves locked out of the overall political process. Even if they came to power, it would be hard to rule effectively. They aren’t familiar with the mechanisms and running of government because they’ve been in opposition. Most of opposition parties are marginalized and isolated from government and power. They don’t hold office – obviously they won’t be Cabinet Ministers – but at least be part of the political machinery – but they never are. So it’s difficult for them to govern because they haven’t had the experience it takes. A long term approach would be to see how opposition parties can be involved in government – not necessarily suggesting coalition governments – but being involved in day-to-day running of governments. Not only will it make them more effective as opposition parties but provides some training in the event that they may come to power. IA-Forum: In Nigeria, there is a concern over the prospects of increasing instability as the April election approach. There is a feud between outgoing President Obasanjo and Vice President Abubakar regarding term limits and fear that the President is trying to manipulate the political process. Meanwhile, there is popular unrest about the government’s performance. Is there cause for alarm? Ms. Osikena: Nigeria has a large populace, an important economy, and the largest democracy in Africa. So, in sense, a lot is riding on these Presidential and local elections. It will be unprecedented to have a transition from one civil administration to another. What’s important is that transition takes place, even more so than who actually becomes President. For that to happen, it’s important that the election violence is reduced considerable. The Presidential candidates are a recycling of the old guard. I really don’t thing that the Nigeria electorate are overly impressed. There has been tension within the PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) about the nomination of Yar’Adua as their presidential candidate. This blocked the VP Abubakar Atiku from contesting the elections on a PDP ticket, so he switched party. In some ways this is arguably a constitutional anomaly because he became Vice President under the PDP then while in office he shifted to another party. If we look at the Presidential candidates and their parties, there are two important absences: one, a lack of distinct ideology. You can’t tell the difference between the PDP and the Action Congress and so on. Where are their defining ideas? What distinguishes their manifestos? It’s more of an election based on personalities (however, this is no different elsewhere in the world). Secondly, there’s the absence of the women. IA-Forum: Sierra Leone – a country marked by its recent Civil War - also faces elections in July. How have women fared in the political process there? Ms. Osikena: One important element is the participation of women in politics. I know that women’s rights groups have complained and are disappointed that there hasn’t been enough progress made to have women included in the ballots. When a country has come out of a period of long term conflict, there are opportunities to make real changes and progress. Certainly the women of Sierra Leone were prime targets during the period of conflict so it’s important that they are part of the political process. IA-Forum: Do you view international NGO’s operating in West Africa as a positive force? Ms. Osikena: What has often been done is to equate international NGOs with civil society but it’s really not the same. NGOs are one aspect of civil society. In terms of the NGO movement’s ability to advocate, some have done some very interesting work in holding governments accountable, providing advocacy, and raising priority issues on the international agenda where that might not have been noted. But people on the ground don’t necessarily need others to speak for them particularly when they are keen to speak for themselves. They’re more than capable of voicing their own concerns and can articulate them in their own way, they need access to mechanisms to help them do this. Often NGOs look on themselves as replacing government in terms delivering services. It’s important that the contract between the state and its citizens is upheld. Often the roles NGOs play usurp or substitute state power. Governments begin to loose their capacity as it transfers to the NGO sector were salaries are higher etc. It’s important that NGOs don’t skew the relationship citizens have with their governments. NGOs are not elected governments are. The role of NGOs and other is civil society is to hold governments to account (amongst other things) not replace them. The other side of the coin is that civil society organizations need to ensure their independence for government to maintain their credibility, as often government can co-opt or capture civil society and citizen of a country loose a critical voice holding government to account. IA-Forum: Do you expect any of the French presidential candidates, if elected, to take a different position on development in Africa? Ms. Osikena: That’s a difficult question. I don’t envisage a shift in terms of the focus of international development as you saw in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party can to power in 1997 election and increased its aid commitment and role in central role poverty alleviation by in international development. On one side, France in the EU, has been the biggest opponents of Doha development trade round because of tensions regarding its impact on French farmers a fall in agricultural tariffs. On the other have the Evian G8 Summit saw the French make commitments on issues such as water (this has been sluggishly followed through by all rich countries however. The French government has committed to reaching the U.N. target of 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) to international development by 2015. But will there be a huge shift when Chirac steps down? I doubt it. IA-Forum: In the subject of Doha, what do you think should be done to reconcile the differences between African and U.S. cotton growers? Ms. Osikena: What has happened is the U.S. provides considerable subsidies to their cotton farmers. This displaces African farmers who don’t have that kind of assistance from their own governments, they are unable to compete. In addition there has been an erosion of preferential treatment. Low-income countries had had preferential access to markets in the rich countries; that can no longer happen under WTO rules. In agriculture, if countries like the U.S. and regional powers like the E.U. make concessions regarding cutting tariffs and subsidies, that will give African farmers – cotton and others producers – more access to international markets. The U.S. should therefore eliminate subsidies to their farmers, particularly considering that farming and agriculture in Africa is a huge part of peoples livelihoods, it is not as significant in the US If the U.S. where serious about economic development in low-income countries, then they would see these unfair subsidies as something that hurts the lives and livelihoods of the global poor.

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