Tuesday, 26th September 2023
<To guardian.ng

ONUIGBO: Electoral Act 2022 a solid foundation to build upon for credible elections

By Leo Sobechi, Abuja
15 April 2023   |   3:12 am
As the representative of the Southeast from the House of Representatives for Technical Committee on Electoral Act 2022, he spoke on the relevance of the electoral legislation to the recent elections as well as lessons for Local Government Polls.

Samuel Ifeanyi Onuigbo is the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Climate Change, as well as Vice Chairman Globe International. As the representative of the Southeast from the House of Representatives for Technical Committee on Electoral Act 2022, he spoke to LEO SOBECHI on the relevance of the electoral legislation to the recent elections as well as lessons for Local Government Polls.

There are many takeaways from the recent general elections. As a major player in the enactment of the Electoral Act 2022, how do you rate the impact of the Electoral Act 2022 on the election?
My assessment or rating of the Electoral Act 2022 and its impact on the general elections will start from the primary election, because the Act makes clear-cut provisions on how parties can nominate candidates to participate in the elections.

And, the Act also tries to eliminate all those subterranean actions or moves by some party leaders or other major stakeholders after primary elections. That is why in section 84, subsection 1, the Act is very clear in stating how you nominate a candidate. And, that also has helped in the way that even some of the court decisions have come out, because some of the courts rallied on the express provisions of the Act

For any political party to nominate a candidate for election, such a political party must, of course, it put it shall: It says “political party seeking to nominate a candidate for elections under this Act shall hold primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which shall be monitored by the commission,” in this case, INEC.

So, this lays the foundation and has cleared a lot of under-the-table activities by party leaders or major stakeholders in the sense that in the past, after primary elections, that perhaps were not monitored and reported by INEC, some of those people attempted to change the list at the very last minute.

Hence, with this clear provision, I think it (the Electoral Act) has managed to streamline the operations, the modus operandi for selecting a candidate to represent a political party. So, making that clarity is one major step. And there were other areas that the Act also empowered INEC.

Now, flowing from that, the Act also helped or rekindled interest in very young people, ordinary people. It built up their enthusiasm to go and register, to enable them participate in the general elections, because they saw some rays of hope, some signs of transparency and clear-cut procedures for participation, with rules and processes very well spelt out.

And so, that way, I think that has also impacted on the outcome of the elections and provided that, well if you are not satisfied with the outcome, the process of challenging the outcome is also very clear. There is nothing nebulous; there is nothing ambiguous about the provisions of the Act.

In summary, the Electoral Act 2022 had impacted strongly, and meaningfully on our electoral process. And, I think, it is a solid foundation that we have to build upon as we go forward.

After the general elections, Nigerians are looking forward to the council elections. From your perspective as a lawmaker, do you think there are lessons to draw from the general elections for better conduct of council polls at the state level?

Yes, I think, there are very many lessons to be drawn. Like I said, the Electoral Act 2022 has made it clear that you need to have well-laid-out procedures, and processes that will lead you to a desired end.

I know that the council polls are held within the states, and they are often handled by the State Independent Electoral Commissions in line with section 197 of the constitution, which recognises such state executive bodies.

Apart from that, the Electoral Act 2022 has also taken interest in ensuring that states must maintain a certain standard to ensure that there is transparency; that their own process of electing those to lead the Local Government councils and the councillors, is not muddled up or buried in secrecy and ambiguous approaches.

So, that is probably why section 150, subsection 3 of the Electoral Act specifically states that any election to Local Government Council that is conducted by a state commission in violation of subsection 1 shall be invalid.

It is easy for some to say that this seems to run counter to the provisions of the state electoral commission, where they are supposed to organise and supervise elections. Yes, we know that it is there. But, this is to serve as a guide so that you maintain the national standard. I think that is the wisdom in getting this thing into the Electoral Act 2022: To maintain a national standard, to build transparency into the process, to ensure that people from different parties can participate and, where possible, win elections where they are popular.

You can see that this runs counter to the practice we are experiencing now, which does not make for transparency, where the governor sits down with a few of his people and selects people they want to be council chairman and councillors. And, once that list comes out, the state electoral commission does not do anything different from the list that the governor had issued.

But, if we have a situation where there is a standard, it will no doubt raise the interest of citizens of the place; I think it is going to go a long way to help us achieve that.

What would you point out as the driving spirit of section 150?
The driving spirit is just like I said, let there be a standard. Let the local government and the state government conform to these basic measures that are contained in the Electoral Act. The reason is simple. The Local Governments administer funds from the federation account.

So, if they are administering funds from the federation account, it is also important that their election, how they come into office; is in conformity with the prevailing laws. Otherwise, we will be witnessing a situation where somebody is only answerable to his appointer. Even if you want to call that an election, but it is purely a selection of people, who are only answerable to the governor, even when the resources being used to run the Local Government comes from the federation account.

Therefore, this is intended to introduce some measure of transparency in the management and use of Local Government resources, as well as to ensure that those who are there are truly accountable to the citizens.

Are you saying the Electoral Act 2022 has relevance in the conduct of Local Government elections?
It should have relevance. That is the wisdom in provision of that section 150, sub section 3, to make sure that you follow this and then do elections. This democratic practice has been in play now for nearly a quarter of a century. We are working towards building critical, very solid blocks, solid foundations on how to make our processes transparent and productive.

We do not want to continue with the old order, where resources, massive resources in the 774 Local Governments, are pushed down, if you like, push down the drain, because nobody is held accountable. Where leadership selection is through appointment instead of election.

So, the Electoral Act should have relevance. It has relevance, and I think that is the wisdom for in making the Electoral Act 2022.

Having said that, how can the citizens themselves be mobilised to ensure that these laws rule during elections?
Well, sensitisation is very important. Sensitisation is important, because once people are sensitised, then you have the chance to mobilise them to do something. But, if they are unaware or ignorant of the provisions of the law, they are likely to sit back and say it is the same old game. So, sensitisation is important, the awareness campaign is very important here.

Let the citizens know that there is such a provision in the Electoral Act 2022, that you are not going to continue with the old order, where you write a list and the list you are writing is of Local Government chairmen that will be receiving money from federation account and administering such money without being accountable, but only accountable to his appointed.

So, sensitisation, and awareness campaign; is very important because we are moving forward. We are not moving backwards, because unless we have fiscal transparency in the way resources that come in are managed and accounted for, we will continue to see a situation where the Local Governments are not even able to pay salaries.

They don’t carry out the basic functions they are supposed to carry out, market, construct coverts, rural roads. They are not doing all those; it is just, that the money comes in and goes out without trace.

With concerns about the huge gap between legislation and execution, how does the issue of fiscal responsibility and transparency factor in?
It is a simple thing. What accounts for the huge gap between legislation and execution is particularly that at the lower level, at the sub-national level; the governors are very powerful such that even the members of the states’ Houses of Assembly are almost helpless. So, even when they make a law, to say we have made this law, who is going to execute the laws you have made? It is the executive; it is under the governor.

Even in places where you are supposed to have very effective audit processes under a very strong Auditor General, who is supposed to be working with the state House of Assembly, you don’t see those Auditor Generals having their powers. They are crippled, either directly from the governor’s office, or even through the House of Assembly or whoever is the chairman of Public Accounts Committee. The committee is supposed to be working hand-in-hand with the Auditor General. But, sometimes they prefer to listen to something else, instead of working to ensure transparency.

So, that huge gap exists between legislation and execution because of the structure, because of the internal weaknesses. Even when you make the constitutional provisions, but what is being done is completely different.

So, now that Mr President has signed (March 17) the constitutional amendment bill that grants fiscal autonomy to the legislature, let us hope to see a situation where the state Houses of Assembly, will now work in collaboration with office of the Auditor General to be able to check the excesses of the executive. We not only have legislation, but we will see those laws being implemented and where possible sanctions imposed. That is the only way we can reduce this huge gap between legislation and execution, because if you make a law, you make provisions for sanctions.

You are working with someone who is supposed to check the activities of the executive, in this case, the office of the Auditor General, working with the public accounts committee in the House of Assembly or at the federal level.

If there are infractions, they should be able to highlight it and then provisions are made and sanctions for such infractions should be put in place.

In fact, some of these infractions, you don’t need to go and maybe arrest the governor, arrest the commissioner of finance, they should be made public and once they are made public, you know what it means when you have negative image.

Public opprobrium about the actions of either the executive or his representative or even the head of a major agency of government that is abusing is punishment. So, we do not only legislate, we have to attach sanctions so that if the execution is poor, then those we elected, those we hired to jobs for us, are made to be held accountable. There is need for accountability; otherwise we will not be able to make progress.

How did you feel when some state governors went to court against the President Buhari’s executive order granting autonomy to Local Governments?
Well, I didn’t feel good, but I think I had spoken on that on one occasion. I did not feel good, because it shows that perhaps, there is something someone is hiding. And of course, we have talked so much now about election of Local Government chairmen and councillors.

Once that is compromised, it is directly the governor that is running the Local Government, not even supervise, but running them, because a lot of the Local Government chairmen don’t do anything.

All they do is just attend JAC (Joint Account Committees) meetings, sign papers and that is it. Some of them are even finding it difficult to pay salaries.

So, when they went to court, it was a source of concern to me, because it created the impression that some people do not want fiscal transparency to be built into our system.

And, that is why I am particular about the signing of the bill, on the autonomy of state Houses of Assembly, because you will recall that in the 6th Assembly, the thing was passed at the National Assembly, that was under the leadership of Rt. Hon. Dimeji Bankole, because I was a Special Adviser in his office by then.

And even after they thought they had secured the two-third of the state Houses of Assembly, I think under Hon. Haruna Istifanus Gbana, then the chairman of conference of speakers, they came and said they needed to correct something and all that.

By the time they came back, the thing had dropped from 24 to 22 and that was how the legislation failed in the 6th Assembly. State lawmakers were the ones that voted against granting autonomy to the Houses of Assembly. They were the ones that eventually voted against their own autonomy.

And I think in the 7th Assembly under Rt. Hon. Samuel Ekong, who was then the chairman of the conference of speakers, they achieved that, under Senator David Mark as the Senate President then. Dr. David Mark and, I think, Hon Aminu Tambuwal as the speaker, they achieved that and got to the point of getting assent from Mr President.

But, between the office of the Attorney General and coming back to the National Assembly, and in fact it got to a point where the National Assembly raised a complaint and said they wanted the original papers and they just went back and forth on it.

So, if you checked from the 6th Assembly, 7th Assembly and then we passed through 8th Assembly and we are only able to get this in the 9th Assembly, it means we have lost a lot of time in granting autonomy to the Houses of Assembly to see if they could stand on their own. Not that they should go into confrontation, but there are some basic things they should be able to do by themselves instead of at all time going cap-in-hand to another arm of government.

I think it is a major achievement for the 9th Assembly of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and also major achievement by Mr President for signing that as well as that of the judiciary and a lot other ones. Like the bills on states being able to build their own railways, national grid and all that. So, I think we are getting them piecemeal. It is not coming as early as we wanted them, but these are achievements worthy of recognition and commendation.