Presidential candidates gathered yesterday in Abuja to pledge their commitment to a peaceful election next year.

But frontline contender and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Atiku Abubakar was not at the ceremony, an initiative of the Abdulsalami Abubakar National Peace Committee. He said he was not invited.

Also absent at the International Conference Centre were many other contenders, including Oby Ezekwesili (Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, ACPN) and Donald Duke (Social Democratic Party, SDP). There are 73 presidential candidates.

The candidates agreed to:

run issue-based campaigns at national, state and local government levels. “In, this, we pledge to refrain from campaigns that will involve religious incitements, ethnic or tribal profiling, both by ourselves and by all agents in our names”;

refrain from making or causing to make in our names and that of our parties, any public statements, pronouncements, declarations or speeches that have the capacity to incite any form of violence, before, during and after the elections;

commit ourselves and political parties to the monitoring of the adherence to this Accord by a National Peace Committee made up of respected statesmen and women, traditional and religious leaders;

support all institutions of government including INEC and the security agencies to act and be seen to act with impartially; and

forcefully and publicly speak out against provocative utterances and oppose all acts of electoral violence whether perpetuated by our supporters and/or opponents.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who was there urged the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to put Nigeria first on its agenda in organising free, fair and credible elections next year.

He also noted that building on trust in any election was the collective responsibility of all citizens.

Buhari spoke during the signing of peace accord for the 2019 elections by Presidential candidate’s and their political parties in Abuja.

The President, who noted that past elections in Nigeria had been marred by violence perpetrated by political leaders and their followers, said that without trust, the country cannot be successful in its quest for growth.

He said: “We are gathered here today to perform a very important part of our quest for peaceful political process. We are here to install trust into various contestants.

“Given the central role that governance plays in our nation state, it is clear that without trust our society cannot thrive or develop.

“Today, our primary concern is to sign into law, norms, guidelines that will guide the conduct of our national election.” he said

President Buhari also said that as part of democratic practice, methods of electing leaders had been difficult for people because Nigeria had no long tradition of democracy and because of so many changes in the system, that have made it difficult for the people to imbibe the principles of democracy, such as tolerance, sacrifice and commitment for our country.

He said: “The conduct of our elections has been consistently marred by violence caused by the behaviours of most sections of the political class and their supporters, but there are encouraging signs that we are learning to embrace the responsibilities expected of us.

“We are here to commit ourselves, as key actors in the political process; party leaders and presidential candidates, to peaceful and credible conduct of the process.

“We, the candidates, pledge to uphold the highest standard of conducts and encourage our teeming supporters to do same.

“I wish to call on  INEC and all arms of security agencies to put the nation first in their conduct. The world is watching us and the task of building or institutionalising trust in our political system and institutions is fundamental to the growth and development of our country,” he stated.

Speaking earlier, Gen. Abubakar, underscored the essence of peace towards ensuring credible polls.

He thanked President Buhari for his commitment to ensuring peace and credible election as well as being present to sign the peace agreement and advised him to lead by example.

He, however, noted that security should be a source of worry to everyone, especially the leaders, whose acts of commission or omission could worsen matters.

He urged them to temper their utterances and action with responsibility and patriotism.

“We have now entered the electioneering period; proper keeping of peace becomes the overriding objective. The election itself will not hold in the absence of peaceful atmosphere. Disharmony among political parties hinders all peaceful efforts,” Gen. Abubakar said.

He also condemned the subtle incitement coming from some religious houses, saying that they do not portend well for the country.

Gen. Abubakar urged all participants to stick to the contents of the peace pact they signed, and to INEC to carry out its mandate.

To him, the candidates have the capacity to make or mar the process. He urged that they watch their utterances and conduct ahead of next year’s elections and beyond.

He added that mere signing of the document will not achieve anything, except all concerned accept to work by the rules.

The keynote speaker at the occasion and former head of state, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, said the peace accord should be seen as development for the country.

He noted that some Nigerians had criticised the number of political parties and even cited examples with Europe and the United States that political parties were reduced to two main parties. He stressed that the people also refused to realise that there were other smaller parties in those countries whose interests were not to contest elections at the highest level.

According to him, the more the platforms, the more people of all generations find opportunity to participate in the process.

Gowon, who spoke on the theme, “Trust and Democracy”, said it was multifaceted, and covering every area of life and permeates every aspect of the society, adding that it was on the shoulder of the political class that the duty of managing the society rests.

He advised leaders not to betray their role in properly managing the country’s resources.

Gowon said: “The beauty of democracy is that it avails citizens the right to have a say in how they are governed; this right is abridged by the most brutal dictators in the word democracy despite persuasion and the use of force.

“Military incursion into our politics has led to misery and underdevelopment of our richly endowed nation and contributed to defective democracy.  All hope is not lost for the enthronement of true democracy in the country, which is why we must commend the NPC in sensitising everyone that elections are not do-or-die contests. We should encourage them to consolidate on the success of 2015, so that we can have even better polls in 2019.

“There are better issues of development than pursuing agenda of violence and hate speech. Promotion of ethnic and religious or mutual suspicion will not make us see the best in us, and will defeat the essence of democracy.

“There will be no benefit to allow the negatives override the positives in us. All those who aspire to lead the people should be acceptable and be seen to be acceptable to the people. That has worked and continues to work in good societies.

“I commend the political parties and candidates here for showing commitment and putting the nation above political differences. Nigeria must win, and the nation will lose if we set aside the gains of this conference.

“I’m hopeful you will honour the pledge of ensuring our elections are free of violence. Your conduct will determine how the game is played and I plead with you to ensure your supporters play by the rules,” he said

Gowon also said hate speeches and promotion of sectional and ethnic interests would do the country no good.

In his goodwill message, former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Mohammed Uwais canvassed concerted efforts by stakeholders towards ensuring peaceful elections next year.

Head of Europen Union (EU) delegation to Nigeria Ketil Karlsen recalled that Nigeria set an example for Africa and the world in 2015.

“We welcome steps taken so far towards 2019 and we continue to support free and fair polls. We urge all to avoid hate speech, violence and vote buying and say yes to peace, inclusiveness, gender equality and access for disabled persons. We again stress our impartiality as we do not support any particular party or candidate, but support for institutions responsible for carrying out the appropriate mandate.”

Some presidential candidates were absent at the ceremony held at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.

Absent were former Vice President and presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of Social Democratic Party (SDP) Donald Duke and that of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) Dr. Oby Ezekwesili.

The ceremony was attended by members of the diplomatic corps, international community, religious and traditional rulers.

It was organised by the National Peace Committee for the 91 chairmen of the registered political parties and the 73 presidential candidates participating in next year’s election.

While Atiku  said he stayed away from the event because he was not invited, there was no information from the SDP presidential candidate, Donald Duke, the ACPN candidate, Dr. Ezekwesili and some other presidential candidates on why they were absent.

However, there was a protest by some chairmen of political parties, who claimed the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was given undue advantage at the ceremony.

The aggrieved party chairmen wondered why President Buhari, who is the APC candidate in the 2019 election, should be given preferential treatment and why the APC Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole should be allowed to have a group photograph with committee members, excluding other chairmen.

The protest drew the attention of the Chairman of the National Peace Committee and former Head of State, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd), who apologised to the aggrieved chairmen and their presidential candidates for any lapses recorded.

Atiku, who was expected to join President Buhari,  while speaking through his media aide,  Paul Ibe, said he got no invitation to attend the event, adding that as a result, he chose not to attend.

“I can authoritatively inform you that His Excellency,  Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, did not receive a letter of invitation to attend the event and that is why he did not go there.”

But in an interview on the allegation that Atiku was not invited, Gen. Abubakar said every presidential candidate and their chairmen were invited.

He said: “You have seen the number of parties that have been invited. He will answer for himself but speaking for the committee, everybody was invited. What reasons do we have not to invite somebody? This accord was for all political parties to sign to be of goodwill and good behaviour during elections.”

On whether Atiku’s absence would weaken the accord, he said: “How will it? One candiate? I don’t think it will weaken the accord.”

Also asked whether he was worried that Atiku , Ezekwesili and Duke were not at the peace accord, thereby presenting the event as being monopolised by the President in power, he said: “Are you accusing the Peace Committee of working for the President?

“So if you are not accusing us as far as we are concerned every party was invited and you can see the number of people that came.”

On whether there was room for those that did not attend to sign, he said: “Of course, they are open to come and sign the peace accord. What surprises me is that when we had the conference with the political parties, he agreed on this agenda, the parties agreed and it was the recommendation that the peace committee has taken.”

Other notable personalities present were Vice Chairman of the National Peace Committee and former Chief of General Staff, Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe; Chairman of Vanguard Media, Mr. Sam Amuka, United Nations Secretary-General Special Representative in West Africa and the Sahel, Mohammed Ibn Chambas; Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu;  Interior Minister Abdulrahman Dambazau; the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar 111;  the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi; former Chief Justice of the Federation, Mohammed Uwais; Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Matthew Hassan  Kukah, Head of the EU Delegation to Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States, Chairman Dangote Group, Alhaji Aliko Dangote among others.

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