Is Buhari interested in electoral reforms?
President Muhammadu Buhari fought for the presidential diadem with the tenacity of a war horse. He went into the field three times, campaigning in various parts of the country to become the president of Nigeria. Three times he failed but didn’t stop there. He took his fate into the hands of the courts as a true warrior. On all three occasions he had his grouses against the electoral system. Then the fourth time he got lucky. The APC was sewn together from three or four disparate groups to form a formidable platform on which Buhari ran and won.
Then as President he contested for the second term and won. In all, Buhari tested his popularity five times before the voters. He lost three times and won twice. Contesting for the presidency five times translates to a lot of experience on the electoral processes, the good, the bad and the ugly. No one in Nigeria has that level of election experience at that high level. The expectation of the public is that a man with such a vast experience of how our elections have been manipulated, managed or mismanaged would be happy to work with the National Assembly and other stakeholders to usher in reforms that can help to improve our election management process and thereby deepen our democracy. Since Buhari became president he has been presented with electoral amendment bills five times and five times he has failed or refused to append his signature to these proposals that could have transformed our election management. The amazing thing is not simply the withholding of assent but largely some of the puerile excuses put forward as the reasons for refusing to support the reforms.
The ingeniously fraudulent excuses have included clerical, typographical and drafting errors, (which are easily correctable), proximity to elections (which INEC never complained about) and re-ordering of election sequence (which is neither here nor there). The National Assembly has a majority of members from the President’s party, APC. The leadership of the National Assembly is widely acknowledged as the bed mate of the presidency. From the two perspectives it can be assumed that if there is a deep desire on the president’s part to bring about reforms that can change our electoral system for good it was easy to accomplish. The latest episode of Electoral Amendment Bill had been debated for weeks in both houses of the National Assembly. Their positions were also widely canvassed in the media. If the President was interested in helping to effect reforms in the electoral process he had every opportunity to do so even before the document was submitted to him for assent.
Don’t tell me that separation of powers between the three arms of government forbids that. It doesn’t. And on several occasions the Senate President, Dr Ahmad Lawan and the Speaker of the House of Representatives Mr. Femi Gbajabiamila have carried themselves to the Villa for consultations with the President on a number of issues. Nigerians would have no objection to cooperative federalism once it is in the public interest. After all, there is nothing like a perfect separation of powers between the arms of government anywhere in the world.
The President made heavy weather of the disadvantages in the direct primaries for parties to choose candidates: infringement of the right of citizens and parties to choose their election formula, a possible rash of litigations and high cost of conducting those elections by parties and supervision by INEC. The President is largely correct on those issues but the strongest argument for direct primaries is that it puts the power of choice of candidates directly in the hands of party members rather than in the hands of godfathers who handpick their favourites as delegates. The direct primaries can create room for fairer competition, transparency and a level playing field for all competitors. The President also seems to worry about the small parties and the likelihood of their failure to successfully conduct elections under the direct primary arrangement. The truth is that small parties are designed to be suffocated under the present arrangement whereby they are expected to have national spread with offices in every nook and cranny of the country. Of all the small parties it is only APGA that has managed to hold on to its Anambra State. When you look at results of the past elections you will discover that we already have a two party system with no formidable third party in sight despite the best efforts of third party theoreticians. In 2023, it may not be different, I bet. If it is different Nigeria will be the better for it because it will offer the voters more voting options and a basis for comparison with the two juggernauts that are now in a state of sharp decline.
The view in some quarters is that the National Assembly members did not favour the e-transmission of results so they decided to inject the direct primary into the amendment bill so as to make it easy for the President to reject it. That way the baby (e-transmission) can be conveniently thrown away with the bath water (direct primaries). From the history of the debate on the electronic transmission of results it is obvious that the National Assembly members were opposed to it. In fact, the Senate dragged the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) into the fray giving the Commission the power to determine when e-voting would occur. On its part, the NCC said that e-transmission of results can only be possible in about 50 per cent of the 8, 809 electoral wards in Nigeria. Those who know said that their statement was an unvarnished lie when money can be easily sent and received electronically in the rural areas. Of course, there was a huge national uproar and the National Assembly had no choice but to bow to public pressure for inclusion of e-transmission in the amended act. Both chambers reluctantly agreed to e-transmission of results. If the members of the National Assembly would like to be taken seriously then they must do something to salvage the bill. If direct primary is the major bone of contention then it should be deleted and a new electoral amendment bill submitted to the President for assent. The most important provision in the bill is e-transmission of results. This can add a lot of value to the effort of INEC to give us free, fair and credible elections. Without e-transmission our elections will continue to be a product of mago mago and wuru wuru which have given our democracy a bad name.
Buhari came to power with a change agenda. What I understand by this is that he wanted to do things differently, run the country differently and impose a new culture of governance that will improve the living conditions of the people and make the country a better, safer and united country. That has not happened yet. The country has sunk deeper into debt; he has failed to unite the country and he is about delivering a most disunited country to his successor if he does nothing substantial now to reverse the situation; the economy is flat on its back; workers have been on one strike after another for unfulfilled promises; the country is calling for structural reforms which is not happening; the ship of state is drifting aimlessly; people are being kidnapped or killed daily in various parts of the country. If these issues are not significantly tackled now they are unlikely to be tackled before 2023 since most politicians will be in the field campaigning soon.
In the next six months, the government will fall into a lame duck phase because of the elections. Anything of consequence not achieved within the next six months may as well be forgotten. So Buhari can make some attempts to redeem himself by paying attention to people who bother about his legacy rather than to obnoxious partisans who care not about how history will treat him. He has said several times that he hopes to leave a legacy of free, fair and credible elections when he quits in 2023. It is not by simply saying so that this can come about. It is by taking deliberate steps to reform the electoral system. The starting point is to give his assent to an amended electoral act that prescribes e-transmission of results during elections. That is the least he can do. If he does that, history will remember him kindly in that sector of our national life. The success of our democracy depends on the success of our electoral system. If the electoral system fails, democracy fails. If Buhari continues to cough up all kinds of untenable excuses to save himself from reforming the electoral process it will be easy to conclude that he is not really interested in electoral reforms. That conclusion will hurt his legacy irredeemably because he will be seen as paying only lip service to democracy.