BY AUGUSTINE AVWODE
The refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari to assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill has continued to attract criticisms and throw up conspiracy theories. The Bill was transmitted to the President on November 19, by the National Assembly following the harmonization of areas of disagreement between the Senate and the House of Representatives. The President was expected to assent or withhold assent within 30 days.
Not entirely unexpected, President Buhari kept the nation on edge till the very last minute before sending a letter to the National Assembly, intimating the two chambers of his refusal to assent the bill and the reasons for his action.
The letter read on the floor of the Senate by Ahmad Lawan, Senate President, was dated December 13th.
In it, President Buhari gave at least five reasons why he withheld assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021
The letter was read after the Senate came out of a closed session that lasted for almost forty minutes. It was learned that the session began at exactly 10:44 am and ended at 11:23 am.
Buhari stated in the letter that his decision was premised on careful consideration of the advice from relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies of Government and reinforced by a thorough review of the Bill.
According to the President, signing the bill into law would have serious adverse legal, financial, economic and security consequences on the country, particularly in view of Nigeria’s peculiarities.
He added that it would also impact negatively on the rights of citizens to participate in the government as constitutionally guaranteed.
The letter titled, “WITHHOLDING OF ASSENT TO ELECTORAL ACT (AMENDMENT) BILL 2021” reads, “Further to the letter dated 18th November, 2021 forwarded for Presidential assent, the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 as passed by the National Assembly, I have received informed advice from relevant Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Government, and have also carefully reviewed the Bill in light of the current realities prevalent in the Federal Republic of Nigeria in the circumstances…
“The Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 seeks to amend certain provisions of the extant Electoral Act 2010. Part of the objective of the Bill is the amendment of the present Section 87 of the Electoral Act, 2010 to delete the provision for the conduct of indirect primaries in the nomination of party candidates such that party candidates can henceforth only emerge through direct primaries…
“The addition of these costs with the already huge cost of conducting general elections will inevitably lead to huge financial burden on the political parties, INEC and the economy in general at a time of dwindling revenues.
“The indirect consequences of the issues of high cost and monetization are that it will raise financial crimes and constitute further strain on the economy. It will also stifle smaller parties without the enormous resources required to mobilise all party members for the primaries. This is not healthy for the sustenance of multi-party democracy in Nigeria.
“If the President wanted a genuine, Electoral Act that would meet the aspirations of the people, he would have done so seamlessly. He would have consulted with the leadership of the National Assembly early enough so that the matter is quietly resolved in a way that promotes growth, inclusion, national cohesion and electoral integrity
“In addition to increased costs identified above, conducting and monitoring primary elections across 8,809 wards will pose huge security challenges as the security agencies will also be overstretched, direct primaries will be open to participation from all and sundry and such large turn-out without effective security coordination will also engender intimidation and disruptions, thereby raising credibility issues for the outcomes of such elections.
“The amendment as proposed is a violation of the underlying spirit of democracy which is characterized by freedom of choices.
“Political party membership is a voluntary exercise of the constitutional right to freedom of association. Several millions of Nigerians are not card-carrying members of any political party.
“Thus, the emphasis should be on enabling qualified Nigerians to vote for the candidate of their choice during general elections as a means of participation in governance and furtherance of the concept of universal adult suffrage or universal franchise.”
He went on to add that,“Direct primaries are also subject or susceptible to manipulation or malpractices as most parties cannot boast of reliable and verified Membership Register or valid means of identification which therefore means non-members can be recruited to vote by wealthy contestants to influence the outcome. Rival parties can also conspire and mobilize people to vote against a good or popular candidate in a party during its primaries just to pave way for their own candidates. Whereas where voting is done by accredited delegates during indirect primaries, the above irregularities are not possible.
“The major conclusions arrived at upon the review are highlighted hereunder, to wit:
“Asides from its serious adverse legal, financial, economic and security consequences, the limitation or restriction of the nomination procedures available to political parties and their members constitutes an affront to the right to freedom of association. It is thus undemocratic to restrict the procedure or means of nomination of candidates by political parties, as it also amounts to undue interference in the affairs of political parties.
“Indirect primaries or collegiate elections are part of internationally accepted electoral practices. More so, direct primaries are not free from manipulations and do not particularly guarantees the emergence of the will of the people especially in circumstances like ours where it is near impossible to sustain a workable implementation framework or structure thereof.
“In the premise of the above, I hereby signify to the National Assembly that I am constrained to withhold assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 in line with the provisions of Section 58(1) & (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“It is my considered position that the political parties should be allowed to freely exercise right of choice in deciding which of direct or indirect primaries to adopt in the conduct of their primary elections as their respective realities may permit.”
Without a doubt, the controversial direct primaries, decreed by the National Assembly, comes across as the most contentious provision. Mixed reactions and criticisms have continued to trail the President’s decision. While some commentators hailed some of his observations and arguments other knocked them as insufficient to cause withholding of assent.
Generally, the mood of the nation is that the controversial provision of direct primaries should be quickly expunged from the Bill and sent back to the President for assent, considering other laudable provisions in the Bill.
But it seems the Presidency is ready to throw both the baby and bath water away. Last week, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice rose stoutly in defence of the President’s refusal to sign the Bill. He did not even make any room or create any allowance for a possible speculation on what should be done, fueling speculations in many places that it was programmed to end this way.
In a radio phone in programme in Kano, Malami even painted a picture of a monster of a Bill which President Buhari must run away from. He said the new electoral law has an excessive cost implication, discriminatory, as well as supportive of insecurity adding that signing it into law will only initiate a new crisis that will lead to court cases.
He said, “What you should understand about the leadership of the country most especially as it regards President Muhammadu Buhari on any law presented to him for signing, the President is entitled to certain rights.
“When you talk about politics he has rights, if you talk about the economy, the business community also have rights on him, if you are talking about 60% of Nigerians that are not politicians, if you talk about the economy he also has rights, if you are talking about security, there is also what is expected from him. The President has to consider laws that are sustainable.
“The job of the President is that of politics, economy, business, security, legislation, politicians and non-politicians. This is because the leadership of the country is not for the politicians alone, it is a leadership that affects the social life of the people, their religion, economy, security and others. This is contrary to the leadership of the legislators which is solely political.
So intense was the backlash that the Presidency had to throw in more explanations all in a bid to justify the President’s refusal to assent the Bill leading to some Civil Society Organisations alleging that the Presidency was scavenging for reasons to give to the public.
The Presidency, in a release titled, “In Amending The Electoral Act, The Nation First, Always First For Mr President” and signed by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, stressed that the president wanted an electoral bill that would protect the interest of all Nigerians and not interest of APC as a party.
It further added that the president would do his best possible to protect the nation’s democracy, including withholding assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill.
“The President’s decision to withhold assent from the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 has come under scrutiny from media and political circles. This is quite correct, because it is a decision that will impact all Nigerians. The president’s office has decided, therefore, to issue an official statement to make its position clear.
“Nigeria’s strength as a nation and its status as one of the wealthiest economies in Africa with one of its highest standards of living owes above all to its proud democratic processes, which are enshrined in the Electoral Act of 2010.
“And who would shoulder these costs? The Nigerian taxpayer of course. And who would benefit? Only the richest of political parties.”
There was no talk in the least of the suggestion that if the Bill could be worked on and re-transmitted to the President, he would take a second look at it. The air of finality the Presidency seemed to be pushing has been most irksome to the Nigerian public.
A presenter of a popular political programme on radio told The Point on condition of anonymity that the long letter by the President was just to ensure that “seemingly convincing reasons are excavated from wherever to justify the refusal to assent the bill. Did you notice that the letter was dated 13th December? That was the previous Monday before it was eventually forwarded after a week and a day. That to me is a deliberate attempt to kill time. Besides, no letter of the President has been this long. It is about the longest letter to the National Assembly by President Buhari that I have seen and read. It was so because the writers went ferreting for reasons from anywhere in the globe, including those relevant and those that are patently irrelevant. And you can be sure, by the time the lawmakers resume by January 18, a lot of water must have gone under the bridge and that will be the end of the story. It happened before, so don’t expect anything different this time.”
Such were the conspiracy theories that have been advanced by critics of the rejection of the Bill.
The main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party, alleged that the Electoral Act Amendment Bill was deliberately scuttled by the ruling All Progressives Congress for fear of 2023.
The party in a statement by its newly inaugurated National Publicity Secretary, Debo Ologunagba, said among other things that the APC meticulously worked towards “scuttling the signing of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill because some key provisions in the Bill will not allow its grand design to rig the 2023 general elections.”
The PDP contended that “the APC has been in trepidation of the amendment to the Electoral Act, due mainly to the provision of electronic transmission of election results, which will completely eliminate APC’s manipulations and alteration of results at elections.”
It declared that “the APC and the Buhari Presidency were never committed to the amendment of the Electoral Act to ensure credible elections and as such triggered the controversy of the mode of primaries by political parties as camouflage to scuttle the entire Amendment Bill including provisions for electronic transmission of results among others.
“Direct primaries are cumbersome, very expensive and easy to manipulate. The ease with which direct primaries can be manipulated was demonstrated in the fraudulent Anambra APC governorship primaries this year
“It is imperative to remind Nigerians of how the APC, in collusion with their leaders in the National Assembly fought hard to stop the electronic transmission of results provided in the Bill but were resisted by Nigerians supported by the courageous action of the PDP Caucus in the House of Representatives which staged a walkout only for the APC to orchestrate controversies and set the stage for the withholding of assent by Mr. President.
“The main reason for this manipulation of the legislative process by the APC, is to prevent the electronic transmission of results so that it can continue in its culture of rigging and electoral impunities including alteration of results at collation, ballot box snatching, destruction of data among others; just to cling to power against the will of Nigerians,” the party claimed.
Legal practitioner and three times commissioner in Rivers State, Emma Okah, told The Point that he was not surprised at the turn of events as far as the Electoral Bill was concerned.
“I am not surprised that President Muhammadu Buhari refused to assent to the Electoral Act passed by the National Assembly. How can l be? On May 7, 2021, l wrote on my Facebook page as follows: ‘Nigeria: A basket of water! I see no hope in 3 things before 2023: 1. Good security. 2. Good Electoral Act. 3. State Police. Again, on July 30, 2021, I also wrote on my Facebook wall that ‘You cannot build a strong nation when leaders focus more on religion, ethnicity and narrow interests than nation’
Okah argued that there are no conscious efforts by government actors to change the situation. “There is no conscious effort to build a nation. We prioritize and stay too preoccupied by selfish, tribal, religious and partisan sentiments to the point that they blind us and keep us away from focusing on nationhood.
“Credible election is the most potent weapon that can take Nigeria out of the present mess. When votes begin to count, when institutions begin to bloom, when a nation comes first, when rule of law reigns, democracy and good governance will be a matter of course. This is elementary and everyone knows it but no one wants to be bound by it. So by choice, we are stunted.”
Okah stated that the reasons adduced by President Buhari for withholding his assent constitute what he called a “basket of the good and the bad.”
He added that, “The reason of the high cost of conducting direct party primaries all over Nigeria is unimpeachable. Many of the other reasons are rhetoric. In a situation like this, reasons only serve the motive of the author. If the President wanted a genuine, Electoral Act that would meet the aspirations of the people, he would have done so seamlessly. He would have consulted with the leadership of the National Assembly early enough so that the matter is quietly resolved in a way that promotes growth, inclusion, national cohesion and electoral integrity. It’s possible they could have held private consultations but the result shows that they were not for the purpose of turning on the light but to enthrone darkness.”
He submitted that the Electoral Bill should not be discarded because of the direct primary issue but regretted that the trajectory the Bill has taken would lead inexorably to it being discarded.
“We should not (discard the Bill) but unfortunately, that is where we are heading to and it has been plotted to be so.”
He added that allegation of conspiracy is difficult to reject.
“It is difficult not to agree. Furthermore, it is safe to say that it may have been designed to create confusion, provoke bitter debates and buy time so that there will be ample reasons to abort the process. The reason is that there is no effort on the part of most Nigerians to build a nation,” Okah asserted.
Tanko Yunusa, National Chairman of the National Conscience Party and Head Public Affairs Bureau of the National Consultative Front told The Point that he was not speaking as an individual but for the NC Front.
He said, “The refusal to sign the latest amendments as was the case in 2019 glaringly reflects the antics of people who are determined to frustrate overwhelming expectations of transparent elections.
“NCF, therefore, calls on well-meaning Nigerians as well as stakeholders and partners at the domestic and international fronts to remain steadfast and unbowed in demanding these reforms notwithstanding the latest delay tactics by President Buhari to assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill.
“While it is worrisome that the President has again failed to live up to expectations in the overall desire to entrench credibility in Nigeria’s electoral process, NCF calls on Nigerians through their various popular platforms to immediately begin mobilisation on the next line of actions to either compel presidential assent or demand that the National Assembly take the necessary constitutional steps to override the President.
“The decision by President Buhari to withhold assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill offends the sensibilities of Nigerians and must therefore be resisted by all legitimate means necessary. Refusal by Mr. President to sign the Electoral Amendment Bill is dubious and constitutes an assault on democracy. This is yet a demonstration of insincerity and abuse of privilege that is antithetical to overriding national interest.”
The NC Front also had some harsh words for the ruling party. It questioned the sincerity and commitment of the party to deepening electoral reforms.
“It is unfortunate that the leadership and government of All Progressive Congress remain impervious, uncommitted and insincere to the popular clamour to consolidate on the electoral reforms.
It is indeed regrettable that President Buhari and the APC appear recalcitrant in their determination to reverse the gains recorded with the introduction of the biometric system.
“Under President Buhari, there appears to be a deliberate attempt to undermine INEC and frustrate further reforms that will invest the electoral system with transparency. NCF therefore categorically decries the self-centered and retrogressive agenda targeted at eroding the faith of the citizens in electoral process through deliberate orchestration of barriers against reforms by INEC.”
The NCFront joined the league of those alleging conspiracies. It claimed that “It is unfortunate that President Buhari anchored his refusal to assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill on the provision on direct primaries, which now largely appears a booby trap activated to frustrate popular demands for electronic transmission of results. It is recalled that electronic voting was overwhelmingly canvassed by Nigerians following rejection by both chambers of the National Assembly.
“We perceive the conundrum of direct primaries in the Electoral Amendment Bill as a smokescreen by enemies of electoral reforms deployed to frustrate electronic transmission of results. It is unfortunate that President Buhari refused to assent electronic transmission of results as introduced by INEC in spite of the high level of transparency witnessed in the polls conducted recently; particularly during the November 6 Governorship Election in Anambra State.
“Nigerians are not unaware of the deceitful antics of beneficiaries of electoral reforms playing the Ostrich with the future of electoral democracy for self-serving reasons. It should be instructive that President Buhari also delayed signing electoral amendment bill ahead of 2019 general election for flimsy reasons following deliberate prevarications.”
Presidential candidate of the National Conscience Party during the 2015 general elections, Martin Onovo, canvassed the removal of the direct primaries as provided for in the discredited Bill. He wondered why on earth, any lawmaker would propose that as an amendment to a Bill.
Onovo told The Point that “Direct primaries must be removed from the Electoral Bill to prevent further deterioration of this pseudo-democracy. We do not understand why politicians serving as legislators will propose such.”
He then reeled out several reasons why direct primaries should not be on the menu.
“First the National Assembly may be unlawfully interfering with the legitimate authority of political parties and freedom of association. The National Assembly makes laws for the country and not for political parties.
“We have practiced indirect primaries and have become very familiar with it. Changing it now will introduce a high risk from management of change perspective and take us back to a learning curve.
“Direct primaries are cumbersome, very expensive and easy to manipulate. The ease with which direct primaries can be manipulated was demonstrated in the fraudulent Anambra APC governorship primaries this year.
“It is clearly impossible for INEC to monitor direct primaries of 18 different political parties across the entire country for general elections.
“Direct primaries are very obviously unrealistic and may be the strategy of the ruling party to disrupt democracy in Nigeria. Direct primaries will promote electoral fraud and corruption.
Candidates can hire non-party members and thugs to register and vote in the direct primaries of different parties and impose candidates in different parties as we have seen the same thugs attending the rallies of different parties.
“INEC lacks the capacity to monitor direct primaries and so manipulations will prevail. Direct primaries will corrupt the different identities of different parties. It will promote corruption. If we agree that corruption is cancer and that it is endemic, then we must mitigate corruption decisively. To mitigate corruption decisively, we must understand the key drivers and mitigate them.”
Onovo then suggested that curbing excessive campaign funds should be encouraged and enforced.
“The cost of campaigning and the source of campaign funds are some of the confirmed drivers for corruption in Nigeria. Therefore, it may be expedient to mitigate the cost of campaigns; enforce campaign finance limits and then, disqualify and prosecute any candidates that use slush funds or state facilities.
“Indirect primary elections naturally cost less and are less complex and so easier to prevent manipulations. Parties should independently decide what mode of primary elections they prefer direct or indirect in compliance with their different Constitutions.”
As a way out of the quagmire, Onovo suggested that “The National Assembly must delete the provision for direct primaries in the bill and allow political parties to decide that. The National Assembly must act immediately so that INEC can have sufficient time to plan the 2023 general elections.”
Interestingly, the National Assembly has embarked on recess that will be on till January 17, 2022.
The lawmakers are billed to resume on January 18, 2022. The fate of the Bill is effectively now in the hands of both the Legislature and the Executive. Will the National Assembly act fast and return the Bill to Mr. President or will it allow it to be consigned into the dustbin of history? Should it act fast by expunging the offensive prescription, and transmit it a second time to President Buhari, will he still decline or assent it and thus wave by to the 2010 Act currently guiding Nigeria’s electoral contests? Only time will tell.