Electoral Amendment Bill: Heating up the Polity

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The decision by President Muhammadu Buhari not to endorse the new amendment to the electoral bill is generating so much emotion in the polity as parties across the divide continue to accuse each other of plans to rig the 2019 general elections

By Olu Ojewale

The Nigerian political temperature is on the rise again. Since President Muhammadu Buhari declared his opposition to the new amendment to the 2018 electoral bill, Nigerian politicians with their supporters have literarily been up in arms exchanging altercations on the merits and demerits of the amendment to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2018.

Coming less than three months to the 2019 general elections, Nigerians are currently being entertained with fireworks by proponents and opponents of the amendment bill as they accuse each other of scheming to manipulate the electoral process.

Defending his refusal to sign the Electoral Act amendment bill into law, Buhari argued that it is “because I am concerned that passing a new Electoral Act this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general election, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.

“Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.”

Atiku
Atiku

In his letter to the National Assembly, read at the Senate on Tuesday, December 11, the president, said further: “This leads me to believe that it is in the best interest of the country and our democracy for the National Assembly to specifically state in the Bill that the Electoral Act will come into effect and be applicable to elections commencing after the 2019 General Elections.”

He suggested further amendment to the bill thus: ”A. Section 5 of the Bill, amending section 18 of the Principal Act should indicate the subsection to which the substitution of the figure ’30” for the figure “60” is to be effected.”

“B. Section 11 of the Bill, amending Section 36 should indicate the subsection in which the provision is to be introduced.

“C. Section 24 of the Bill which amends Section 85(1) should be redrafted in full as the introduction of the “electing” to the sentence may be interpreted to mean that the political parties may give 21 days’ notice of the .. intention to merge, as opposed to the 90 days provided in Section 84(2) of the Electoral Act which provides the provision for merger of political parties.

“D. The definition of the term “Ward Collection Officer” should be revised to reflect a more descriptive definition than the capitalized and undefined term “Registration Area Collation Officer.”

Buhari concluded his letter with greetings to the lawmakers and asked them to, “Please accept, Distinguished Senate President, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

Nevertheless, the president suggested that the National Assembly should allow the amendment to be applicable for future elections and not the 2019 election. Besides, Buhari has also consistently assured Nigerians that he will conduct elections that would qualify as one of the nation’s best.

The assurance appears not to assuage critics of the president’s action, which prompted the National Assembly to convene an emergency public hearing on how to improve the electoral process last Monday, December 10. At the occasion, stakeholders pointed out some of the nagging issues militating against a credible electoral process.

Exposing reasons for the public hearing, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, the Senate president, he said: “Our major concern should be entrenching global best practices in our electoral process, and ensuring that these are backed by legislations to make them sustainable and permanent. For example, the use of Incident Form to bypass the lawful process of accreditation and voting is not good for the country. We must do away with it.”

In his submission, Saraki explained the importance of signing the amendment of the bill into law, saying: “What the National Assembly has done with that bill is to raise the level of transparency, credibility and acceptability of the electoral process. We made sure that the law, if assented to and honestly applied by INEC and all those concerned, would give us an election that will be better than what we had in 2015.”

Besides, he said the president should have known that the survival of democracy, its development and the future of Nigeria, are far more important than the ambition of any individual or party.

Indeed, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, believes that the rejection of the bill by Buhari would give the president an opportunity to exploit the imperfections in the 2015 to his party’s advantage.

In its swift reaction to the president’s withdrawal of assent to the electoral amendment bill, the PDP accused Buhari of dragging the country to the brink and called on the National Assembly to override the veto. The party contended that overriding Buahri’s veto had become imperative, saying that president’s “decision is a calculated attempt to hold the nation to ransom, inject crisis into the electoral process and ultimately scuttle the conduct of the 2019 general elections, seeing that there is no way he can win in a free and fair contest.”

Saraki
Saraki

The party alleged that Buhari’s repeated refusal to sign amendments passed to check rigging in the election, raised issues of his sincerity of purpose, saying that “it has the capacity to trigger political unrest and violence, which can, in turn, truncate our hard-earned democracy.”

It noted that “this is the fourth time President Buhari is withholding assent on the amendment without any cogent reason following his rejection by Nigerians. President Buhari is mortally afraid of the amendments because they essentially checked the All Progressives Congress’s, APC, rigging plans, including the use of underage and alien voters, vote-buying, alteration of results and manipulation of voter register for which the APC and the Buhari Presidency have been boasting of winning the 2019 elections.”

Indeed, with the president’s unyielding position, the next option is for the National Assembly to gather two-thirds majority in both chambers and override the president’s veto or simply drop the amendment. Section 58(4) and (5) of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides that: “Where a bill is presented to the president for assent, he shall within thirty days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent.”

In the event that the National Assembly fails to override the veto and drops the amendments, it means Nigerians would have to cope with the observed lapses in the 2015 election, particularly in the areas of the accreditation by card readers as well as the irregularities associated with collation of results.

That notwithstanding, the suspicion over the reason why the president has refused to sign the bill is very much around.

Joining the fray, Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president and the presidential candidate of the PDP, urged Buhari to sign the Electoral Amendment Bill into law if he is sincere about having a free, fair and credible 2019 general elections.

Abubakar, who expressed concern over the forthcoming election, said that the only way to ensure a free and fair election is for government to be fair to all political parties and stakeholders involved.

On Wednesday, December 12, in Abuja, after signing the Peace Accord by the National Peace Committee, chaired by Abdulsalami Abubakar, a retired general and former military head of state, Abubakar said: “I am delighted that President Muhammadu Buhari has agreed to sign this peace accord. But we want to appeal to him to also sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. Mr. President needs to understand that as long as he refuses to sign this bill, we will have doubts that this government is thoroughly committed to free, fair and credible elections.”

Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim
Olawepo-Hashim

In a similar reaction, Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim, the presidential candidate of the Nationalists Congress Party, NCP, blamed both the ruling APC and PDP, the main opposition party, for the current electoral system. He asserted that the two major parties were not only toying with the destiny of Nigerians, but also playing politics with the nation’s stability through the way and manner they handle a serious bill such as the Electoral Act. He lamented that rather than presenting themselves as statesmen, the APC and PDP candidates were rather obsessed with immediate partisan gains.

During an interactive session with journalists in Lagos, Olawepo-Hashim recalled that although the PDP-controlled National Assembly passed the Electoral Act, the perceived top actors are falling below standards. He said: “The president is conducting himself like a typical Nigerian politician in the era of political decline, rather than behave as a patriot that I have always thought he is. By his actions, he is simply saying, “let me benefit from the fraudulent process for my 2019 bid. You can push for the new law in 2023 when I will not be contesting!”

He called on Buhari to be counted among political leaders who would take decisions in the national interest and not for self-aggrandisement.

On his part, Raph Nwosu, the national chairman of the African Democratic Congress, ADC, described Buhari’s refusal to sign the electoral bill as highly embarrassing, arrogant and uncalled for. He said: “The same president that went to court severally to challenge the outcome of elections that did not favour him is behaving this way. It is an obvious fact that if the bill is signed into law, the next election will be free, fair and credible. This shows how shallow those managing Buhari are.

“The APC has failed in every area it is supposed to show character. For instance, look at what happened in the Edo, Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, where the ruling party manipulated the entire processes to suit it. I do not see reasons why Buhari as a contestant like others would because of his selfish disposition refuse to sign the Act into law.”

Similarly, Yusuf Tanko, a university don, said Buhari was only acting out of selfish interest by not signing the bill, stressing, “If that Bill is not assented to, there is no way the country can conduct free, fair and credible election next year.” He disclosed that other political parties would take the issue up with the National Assembly, remarking that if expected result is not achieved “we will go on protest and even appeal to the international community to impress on Buhari to sign the Bill into law. I don’t think the president is ready for a free and fair election.”

But supporters of Buhari have also vowed to resist any attempt to overrule or force the president to change his mind. For instance, Solomon Adeola and Gbenga Ashafa, senators representing Lagos West and East in the National Assembly, lashed out at those urging the legislators to override the president’s decision. The lawmakers said those making the call do not have the national interest and the safety and sanctity of the 2019 election at heart.

Solomon Adeola
Adeola

Adeola argued: “I will not support any such move on the floor of the Senate as it is counterproductive at this late hour to the crucial 2019 election, scheduled to start February next year. If the previous Electoral Act that is being amended can produce the democratic landmark of an opposition party winning a free and fair election from a ruling party in power for 16 years in 2015 under the then ruling party, then it can be relied on even now to deliver free and fair election.”

He said any move to champion the override of the presidential veto would amount to wasting precious legislative time and overheating the polity in place of other important legislative agenda.

On his part, Ashafa boasted that progressive senators in the eighth Assembly will stand against any plan by the lawmakers to veto Buhari’s refusal to once again sign the recent amendments to the Electoral Act. After a stakeholders’ meeting in Epe over the weekend, Ashafa said: “I have had the opportunity of looking through the well thought-out reasons adduced by Buhari for not assenting to the version of the bill which has been forwarded to him and I am quite in agreement with him. Both the president and the National Assembly have shown good faith in the back and forth caused principally by drafting inconsistencies that have delayed the bill till now. We must all understand that both sides must be dispassionately and painstakingly disposed to ensuring that there is no loophole in the final result of the proposed amendments, considering the sensitive nature of the Electoral Act and overarching effect of same on national security and stability of the polity.”

Besides, Ashafa said it could not be in tandem with any standard democratic ethos to introduce new rules less than two months into a general election, saying that will be unfair.

In a similar tone, Femi Gbajabiamila, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, said that the APC caucus in the House will scuttle any plan to override Buhari’s veto of the 2018 Electoral Amendment Bill.

He told journalists on Wednesday, December 12, at the National Assembly, that the APC had more than the required number to stop the process. He noted that the call to veto the Bill could only be decided by numbers, saying, “To conduct a successful veto of the president’s position, the National Assembly would require a vote by two thirds of both houses. I am certain that the progressive block of Senators who have already seen reason with the president, would not be in support of such a veto.”

But Olalekan Bolarinwa, a senior journalist, said that the president’s action was premeditated. He pointed out that the National Assembly started work on the amendment to the bill in January and that Buhari kept sending it back and forth, after allowing 30 days to elapse clearly showed that he was playing for time. The current amendment bill was sent to him early in November and he announced his refusal to assent to the bill on Friday, November 30.

“Indeed, what the legislators did not say or have refused to admit while arguing in support of the president’s position is that the indictment for not signing the bill into law is their collective failure. Four times the president found excuses not to sign the bill and none of the lawmakers was able to read the line that the president was not interested in changing the rule. If the president was actually serious about having an amended bill all the purported mistakes being pointed out should have been trashed long before now,” Bolarinwa said.

Be that as it may; a political observer said it is now incumbent on the Presidency and the National Assembly to find a common ground on how to conduct the 2019 general elections to make them credible, free, fair and acceptable. Heating the polity over the electoral bill, is apparently, not an option.

– Dec. 14, 2018 @ 17:29 GMT |

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