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Electoral Bill: Senators delay recess, ‘collect’ signatures to override Buhari

By Leo Sobechi (Deputy Politics Editor), Adamu Abuh, Terhemba Daka, John Akubo, Sodiq Omalaoye, Msugh Ityokura and Matthew Ogune (Abuja)
22 December 2021   |   4:30 am
It was a death foretold. It was also a golden opportunity that presented itself for President Muhammadu Buhari to show that of a truth, he is a born-again democrat.

Nigerian Senate PHOTO:Twitter

• We’ll decide next line of action in 2022, says Gbajabiamila
• You have 30 days to override President or remove contentious clauses from bill, CSOs to NASS
• Falana: Buhari, a beneficiary of direct primary, reasons for rejecting bill misleading
• We’re not scared of direct primary, governors insist
• President has rubbished democracy, says NCFront

It was a death foretold. It was also a golden opportunity that presented itself for President Muhammadu Buhari to show that of a truth, he is a born-again democrat. But, the President blew it and disappointed Nigerians and there is outrage in the land!

Last Friday, The Guardian had extensively reported on concerns as hope dimmed on the electoral bill seeing the light of the day as President Buhari’s refusal to sign into law the bill was close to the 30 days deadline.

The overheated drama surrounding the jinxed bill continued with its twists and turns, yesterday, as the Senate held a closed-door session after President Muhammadu Buhari declined assent to the bill. The session lasted 37 minutes.

Apparently, the closed-door session convened by the Senate President was aimed at calming frayed nerves among a section of the lawmakers dissatisfied with the President’s position on the bill.

During the highly anticipated plenary, the lawmakers discussed President Buhari’s letter to them in which he explained his refusal to sign the bill. After the closed-door session, Senate President Ahmad Lawan said President Buhari reached the decision having received strong advice and carefully reviewed the bill and in light of present realities.

In an atmosphere of suspense, senators listened attentively as the correspondence by President Buhari on why he refused to assent to the bill was read. There was pin-drop silence as the Senate President Ahmad Lawan reeled out the reasons why President Buhari was opposed to the proposed legislation.

Direct primary, Buhari’s letter read, will have serious adverse legal and financial consequences, which cannot be accommodated just as the clause will have implications on the right of citizens to take part in governance.

Buhari further argued that the conduct of direct primaries by parties would lead to a significant spike in the cost of conducting elections. This, he maintained, will mean a huge financial burden on political parties and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

He added that amending the bill to only accommodate direct primary will stifle smaller parties, and thus not healthy for multi-party democracy. According to him, this will throw up security challenges and it will overstretch security agents because of the large turnout of party members who will vote in direct primary.

President Buhari added that the proposed amendment will give rise to a plethora of litigation, stating that he is constrained to withhold assent to the bill on the premise of all the points noted above. Political parties, he said, should be able to decide how to choose candidates for elections.

“I hereby signify to the National Assembly that I am constrained to withhold assent to the bill in line with section 58 (1) of the 1999 Constitution,” the President wrote.

But the development did not go well with some lawmakers, prompting the Senate to go into another closed-door session. This was after Senator George Sekibo requested that the house should go into a closed-door session to discuss Buhari’s letter and take a decision on it.

When the closed-door session ended, the Senate adjourned sitting to today, meaning they are not going on recess yet as planned.

THE letter was also read on the floor of the House of Representatives by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, saying that by 2022, the lower legislative chamber will decide the way forward on the bill.

He added that the House would do its best to deliver a credible and enduring electoral system. “This year, despite the differences of opinions, all of us in the House of Representatives and indeed, the entire National Assembly, worked to pass the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill. We included in that bill, provisions we hoped will significantly enhance the conduct of our national elections and improve public confidence in our electoral outcomes.

“As it is now, that bill has not received presidential assent, and it falls to parliament to decide the best way forward. When we return in the New Year, we will resume our efforts to reform the electoral system in our country. And we will do it together. That is what the Nigerian people expect of us, and we will do our duty for God and our country.

“Whichever way it pans out, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater and must deliver a credible and enduring electoral system to Nigerians. Every law is a living document and as long as it has breath, it must survive,” the Speaker said.

As the Reps members embark on recess, the Speaker urged them to rest and at the same time engage with their constituents as their concerns and opinions will allow for more effective legislation when they return on January 18, 2022.

This is coming two months after the President had publicly given his tacit support to efforts to increase the role of technology in the nation’s elections, on the heels of the clamour for electronic transmission of results by many Nigerians to make the process credible.

President Buhari had made the vow at a meeting in Makkah with a select group of Nigerians resident in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia earlier in October.

A statement by the Presidency had said the introduction of the card reader and electronic register was God’s answer to President Buhari’s prayers, having been cheated of his victory in three previous elections. “After the third so-called defeat, I said, ‘God Dey.’ My opponents laughed at me, but God answered my prayers by bringing in technology.”

But his rejection, yesterday, of the electoral bill meant he had discarded, among other amendments, the electronic transmission of election results.

The Guardian gathered that some aggrieved Senators are talking tough and already compiling a list in the chamber presumably to override the President. Senator George Sekibo (PDP River East) told newsmen that some senators are planning to veto President Buhari on the electoral bill.

He said they have compiled 73 signatures to veto the President. The 109-member Senate will require a two-thirds majority to veto the bill into law.

Senator representing Benue South Senatorial District, Abba Moro, gave the assurance that majority of senators, including himself, are prepared this time around to override the President.

EVER since the official rejection of the bill was made public, reactions have continued to trail President Buhari’s action, with stakeholders expressing regret that it took so long to come to such negative turn.

Speaking to The Guardian, representative of Ekiti South Senatorial District, Senator Biodun Olujimi, disclosed how she, alongside other colleagues, expressed reservations about the direct primary based on INEC’s cost implications.

In a tone expressing relief, Olujimi said it was good that the President returned the amended bill before it lapsed, stressing that it leaves a window for correction and assent.

“My inference is that if it (30 days’ deadline) had lapsed, then we would have had to start it all over again if we didn’t veto. You know the last Electoral Act had both direct and indirect primaries. That is what we are going to revert to, so that any party can settle for either direct or indirect primaries, whichever suits them.

“We need to get the electoral act signed for a better performance from INEC. What is most important in that document is the electronic transmission of election results, because without that, elections would still be unpredictable and of course largely unacceptable,” she stated.

On his part, former Kano State governor, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso, said having experienced nominations through both direct and indirect method of primaries, it is obvious that direct primary is more democratic.

Kwankwaso, who represented Kano Central District in the eighth Assembly, noted that the direct primary option would rob powerful politicians, especially governors of the opportunity to impose their preferred candidates.

BUT irked by President Buhari’s reasons for refusing to assent to the bill, a former INEC national commissioner, Prof Lai Olurode, said the President’s reasons were not sufficient enough.

In a chat with The Guardian, Olurode expressed disappointment over the development, even as he urged the National Assembly to veto the President on the matter.

Olurode was particularly unhappy that President Buhari rejected the direct primary clause when he (the President) himself was a beneficiary of grassroots mobilisation.

“I am shocked by the President’s decision for two reasons. First, the President himself is a beneficiary of grassroots participation and autonomy of electors. Left to the big guns, people of power and influence, Buhari wouldn’t have been President. There was a movement in the country. If it were to be left to the political elites, only the people at the top would be deciding election winners.

“Secondly, APC as a party had promised that it was going to reform the electoral law in such a way that the downtrodden and people of little affluence and influence would be given a platform in terms of equality of elector whereby there would be no situation where some people who regard themselves as founders of party would have a greater say.

“In addition to that, the President’s action is amazing and unbelievable, because APC, as a party, has suffered tremendous rebellion because of its failure to adhere to majority tendency. They suffered in Kano where it became suicidal, even in Osun and others,” the sociology professor stated.

MEANWHILE, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), has said the reasons adduced for the rejection of the bill are grossly misleading. According to him, Section 87 of the current Electoral Act provides for either direct or indirect primaries.

“In fact, the APC used direct primary for the emergence of its presidential candidate in 2019. In other words, President Buhari is a beneficiary of direct primary.

“By rejecting the bill on the ground that it provided for direct primary, the President decided to throw away the baby and the bath water. Thus, the President rejected electronic voting, which he had endorsed when he admitted that he is a beneficiary of electronic accreditation of voters by the use of card readers.

“With respect, direct primary is in consonance with Section 223 of the Constitution, which has imposed a duty on political parties to elect their officers through democratic elections. There is no provision in the Constitution for imposition of candidates by money bags through indirect primary.

“INEC has submitted a bill of N305 billion for the entire 2023 general elections. So, who conjured the figure of N500 billion for the primaries to give the impression that it is an expensive venture? In any case, since electronic voting had been adopted by the National Assembly, it was going to be used for both primary and general elections. So, the cost would have been significantly reduced. The fear of insecurity is a red herring in that political parties have continued to hold huge rallies even in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Federal Government.

“The challenge before the National Assembly is to invoke the provision of Section 58 (5) of the Constitution to pass the bill into law by the resolution of two thirds majority of the members. However, if the National Assembly cannot muster the required two thirds majority, section 87 of the Act, which allows direct or indirect primaries should be left intact so that the other provisions of the Electoral Amendment Bill 2021 can be passed again by the legislators and assented to by the President.”

IN a swift reaction, governors have dismissed growing insinuations that they are the reason for President Buhari’s decision to withhold assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill. Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) and governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, dismissed the reports, saying the governors were not scared of the use of direct primary as the means by political parties to select election candidates as being speculated.

Fayemi spoke to newsmen after he met President Buhari at the Presidential Villa in Abuja yesterday.

Dismissing suggestions that the President had aligned with their tune by declining assent to the piece of legislation, he pointedly stated that governors do not care whether the mode of primary is direct or otherwise.

This is despite the decision of governors of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), who recently joined in the opposition to the clause making direct primary mandatory for parties.

He said as someone who had gone through both systems during his first and second elections to pick his party’s ticket, he is comfortable with either of the modes of choice.

The governor also observed that by declining assent, President Buhari was standing on the side of the people, adding that the President was neither for nor against direct primary but wants all options properly taken care of. He said President Buhari’s courage must therefore be commended for standing on the side of the people.

“I think we all should commend the courage of Mr. President to stand with the people. And the President, you know, just like me, is not afraid of whatever mode you decide to use.

“When I chaired the primary, the historic primary that brought him in as a presidential candidate in 2014, it was an indirect primary. But in 2019, when he was coming back, he came back via a direct primary. So, Mr. President has also tasted both. And I don’t think he’s somebody to be lectured about the pros and cons of either processes.”

TO avert further complications and logjam in efforts to strengthen the electoral process, Abuja-based Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have called on the National Assembly to either override the President’s decision or remove the contentious clause(s) from the electoral amendment bill and transmit it back to the President for assent within the next 30 days.

The CSOs made this demand in a statement signed by YIAGA Africa, International Press Centre (IPC), Centre for Citizens with Disability (CCD), The Albino Foundation, CLEEN Foundation, Institute for Media and Society (IMS), Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF) and Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ).

The statement reads: “The National Assembly should ensure that all clerical, editorial, and cross-referencing gaps in the current bill are resolved before transference back to the President. The President should expeditiously assent to the revised bill upon receipt from the National Assembly.

“Civil society groups, media, and development partners must sustain the effort to protect the will of the people and safeguard the electoral reform process from policy capture and manipulation.

“More disappointing is the fact that the President delayed his response until the effluxion of time required for assenting to legislation when the lawmakers were about proceeding for the Christmas and New Year holiday.

“The President’s decision to withhold assent to the bill will have serious implication for INEC as it prepares for the FCT Area Council election, Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, and ultimately the 2023 general elections.

“The non-conclusion of the electoral amendment process will mean that these elections will be conducted using the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) denying INEC the opportunity to test the efficacy of some of the new innovations introduced in the proposed Electoral Bill 2021.”

THE National Consultative Front (NCF) has denounced President Buhari’s refusal to assent to the much expected electoral reform. Head Public Affairs bureau, National Consultative Front (NCFront), Dr Tanko Yunusa, in a statement issued in Abuja, yesterday, said the NCF regrets that the decision of President Buhari amounts to indiscretion and in utter disregard for the mood of the country and expectations of international community.

“By refusing the assent to the electoral bill expected to empower INEC in the quest for electronic transmission of results, President Buhari has left no one in doubt about the ploy to undermine democratic wishes of Nigerians in 2023.

“It is unfortunate that the leadership and government of APC remain impervious, uncommitted and insincere to the popular clamour to consolidate on the electoral reform, which paved the way for peaceful transfer of power in 2015.

“It is indeed regrettable that President Buhari and the APC appear recalcitrant in the determination to reverse the gains recorded with the introduction of biometric system that led to the deployment of Permanent Voter Card (PVCs) and card reader machines during the 2015 election. Under President Buhari, there appears to be deliberate attempt to undermine INEC and frustrate further reforms that will invest the electoral system with transparency.

“NCF, therefore, categorically decried the selfish and retrogressive agenda targeted at eroding the faith of the citizens in electoral process through deliberate orchestration of barriers against reforms by INEC.

“Refusal by Mr. President to sign the bill is insensitive and constitutes assault on democracy. This is yet a demonstration of autocracy and abuse of privilege that is antithetical to overriding national interest. Once again, Mr President has destroyed his legacy and rubbished a system he benefited from.”