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Electoral Bill: CSOs knock Senate over ‘consensus’ option as NASS re-amends bill

By Leo Sobechi, John Akubo, Msugh Ityokura, Sodiq Omolaoye and Ernest Nzor (Abuja)
20 January 2022   |   4:30 am
Exactly a month after President Muhammadu Buhari declined assent to the 2021 Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill on the grounds of insecurity and cost of conducting direct primary,....

Fireworks on new Electoral Act: Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila (right) and other principal officers putting heads together at the National Assembly…yesterday. PHOTO: LUCY LADIDI ATEKO

• Senate, Reps bow to Buhari’s request on electoral act
• Consensus option undemocratic, says CISLAC
• HURIWA: Legislature a captive of Buhari
• NASS attempt to over-regulate political parties unnecessary, says Olurode
• Buhari has no option but to assent to bill, says women forum

Exactly a month after President Muhammadu Buhari declined assent to the 2021 Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill on the grounds of insecurity and cost of conducting direct primary, which he said violate the spirit of democracy, the Senate, yesterday, re-amended the bill it passed on November 18, 2021, succumbing to President Buhari’s request for reworking to alter Clause 84, thereby accommodating the direct, indirect and consensus mode of electing candidates by political parties.

It also approved the recommended Clause 84(3) that “a political party that adopts the direct primary procedure shall ensure that all aspirants are given equal opportunity of being voted for by members of the party.”

Clause 84(4) further provides that “a political party that adopts the system of indirect primary for the choice of its candidate shall adopt the procedure outlined below: (a) In the case of nominations to the position of Presidential candidate, a political party shall, (i) hold special conventions in each of the 36 states and FCT, where delegates shall vote for each of the aspirants at designated centers in each state capital on specified dates.”

The clause provides that a National Convention shall be held for the ratification of the candidate with the highest number of votes.

The amendment followed a motion for its re-committal to the Committee of the Whole. The motion was sponsored by the Senate Leader, Yahaya Abdullahi (Kebbi North).

Abdullahi explained that the motion for re-committal of the bill was against the backdrop of the “need to address the observation by Mr. President and make necessary amendment in accordance with Order 87(c) of the Senate Standing Orders, 2022 (as amended).”

Accordingly, the red chamber rescinded its decision on the affected clause as passed and recommitted same to the Committee of the Whole for consideration and passage.

SIMILARLY, members of the House of Representatives, yesterday, expunged clause 84 (2) of the bill to incorporate a fresh stipulation that allows political parties to adopt direct and indirect primary methods of nominating candidates for election.

At the plenary, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila (APC, Surulere II), who presided over the consideration and review of amendment bill after returning from a closed-door session that lasted for an hour, enjoined his colleagues that the alteration was limited to the offensive clause the President objected to in his letter to the Green Chamber.

Motion to the effect was moved by the chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Abubakar Fulata (APC, Jigawa).

The fresh provision reads: “The procedure for nomination of candidates by political parties for various elective positions shall be by direct or indirect primaries.”

A member of the House, Awaji-Inombek Abiante (PDP, Rivers), alleged during the consideration of the bill that new clauses have been inputted into the electoral bill to ensure President Buhari rejects it. He raised a point of order that new items have been included in the bill to give President Buhari an excuse not to sign the bill.

“It is my suspicion Mr Chairman that it is intended for this electoral act not to be signed. These are all obstacles that have been put in the ways of Nigerians to actually determine who governs them so that they can provide effective leadership. Mr Chairman, we have to take all these clauses one after the other and allow members to make input,” he said.

Responding to the allegation, the Speaker said nothing was included in the bill. “The bill sent to the President ab initio is the same bill as it is, the only change is 84(2) where we have included indirect primary,” he said.

The bill was, however, passed despite the allegation by Abiante. Against the public held view that the parliament was cowed into taking President Buhari’s proposal, spokesman of the House, Benjamin Kalu, said the lawmakers acted to save democracy, noting that beside the controversial clause, there were so many other benefits in the bill as far as electoral reforms were concerned.

“We did not jettison direct primary, we only made it an option. Political parties are left with whichever options they prefer according to their realities. There are so many other benefits in the bill,” he said.

On whether the House’s action went contrary to the desires of majority of Nigerians, Kalu explained that the President’s reasons were placed on a good scale, in view of the reality of the times before taking the action.

MEANWHILE, the lawmakers received knocks from Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), yesterday, as against the applause it got in November 19, 2021 when the rescinded bill was passed. Some of the CSOs had been at the forefront of championing the bill to effect reforms in the nation’s elections.

According to YIAGA Africa, the addition of consensus option as a method by parties to select candidates for election by the Senate raises questions on the commitment of the upper chamber to speedy passage of the bill. 

Speaking to The Guardian, its Director of Programmes, Cynthia Mbamalu, urged the harmonisation committee to adopt the House of Representatives’ position, which provides either direct or indirect primaries.  

While commending the NASS members for prioritising the electoral bill, Mbamalu said the idea of consensus negates the principles of democratic and transparent primaries.  

She said: “Both Senate and House of Representatives now have divergent bills on clause 84 on mode of primaries. While the house adopted direct or indirect primaries, the Senate included consensus option.    

“The House must immediately constitute a committee to harmonise the bill considering that we have a short timeline. The committee should, however, adopt the House of Representatives’ position, which provides either direct or indirect primaries. Those are primaries that are more in line with democratic principles. 

“The idea of consensus negates the principles of democratic and transparent primaries. With consensus, you limit the opportunities for other aspirant to contest in a primary. It also subjects the party to a candidate who may not be popular.  

“I don’t know the minds of the Senate. However, this introduction of consensus raises a lot of question because it is not in line with citizens’ demand. The conversation was around direct or indirect.”  

The Executive Director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, also condemned the Senate for including the consensus option in its own version.  

According to Rafsanjani, the inclusion of the consensus option for parties’ primary by the Senate was undemocratic and would hinder democratic participation

“What this means is that only a handful of people will just sit down and say this is what they want and who they want to be the party flagbearer. That is against the spirit of popular participation. 

“I do not support the introduction of consensus option. We urge members of the conference committee both in the House and Senate to ensure that they don’t take the bill to the President with the option of consensus.”  

Former National Commissioner with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof Lai Olurode, however, said the National Assembly was wasting the nation’s time on the electoral bill in what he described as an attempt to over-regulate political parties’ affairs.  

According to him, what the NASS has taken the nation through is unnecessary. “They can actually leave the clause there with just a minor amendment allowing parties to adopt whatever primary suits them at a particular time. It should be left open. All these back and forth are just unnecessary. We have lost a lot of time and INEC needs time to understand the law so that they won’t fall foul of the law.”

He expressed confidence that the President would assent to the bill when transmitted to him, adding that INEC has enough time to implement the bill if assented to by the President.  

“The president had said he is committed to democracy. Right now what is offensive to the executive has been corrected and so the President has no excuse again,” he added. 

The Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), in its reaction, has said the legislature has become a captive of President Buhari.

National Coordinator of HURIWA, Comrade Emmanuel Onwubiko, said: “It is the death nail to the coffin of the independence of the legislature. It is a demonstration that the legislature is a captive of President Buhari because they now can’t on their own initiate policies and laws that they are elected to do. Nigerians should begin to recall the Senators.”

The Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), though commended the Senate for making a u-turn on the bill. Chairman of IPAC, Yabagi Sani, said: “We are happy, it shows that the National Assembly is a listening arm of government that respects the views of the electorate that voted them into office. We hope that both houses will be in sync with the provision of direct, indirect and consensus primaries as it was in the Electoral Act 2010. So far, our democracy is progressing.”

The President, Women in Politics Forum (WIPF), Ebere Ifendu, said there are far more important things in the bill than the debate on party primaries mode. 

Ifendu cautioned Nigerians against starting another debate on the consensus option included by the Senate to avoid another excuse from the President.

“There is no time to waste; so we don’t lose out on other valuable things in the bill. We didn’t talk about consensus, but for me, I don’t think there is a need to start going round again. Let us have what they have just done submitted to the President and wait for his decision.”