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Direct primary in Electoral Act: Pain or panacea?

By Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor, Abuja
05 December 2021   |   3:05 am
At what point the compulsory direct primary mode of candidate selection by political parties find its way into the Electoral Act Amendment Bill already passed by the two chambers of the National Assembly

Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila. Photo/FACEBOOK/SPEAKERGBAJA

Reps Move To Prevent Presidential Breach

At what point the compulsory direct primary mode of candidate selection by political parties found its way into the Electoral Act Amendment Bill already passed by the two chambers of the National Assembly, is one big puzzle that even some members of the National Assembly find so hard to explain.

The inclusion of that piece of legislation did much to remind Nigerians of a similar development in the life of the Eighth National Assembly, when the duo of Dr. Bukola Saraki and Ike Ekweremadu, Senate President and Deputy President of Senate (DSP) respectively, were charged to court for allegedly forging Senate Rules, which guided the secret ballot system in the election of principal officers.

Given the surprising way that both emerged as president and deputy president of the Senate, Saraki and Ekweremadu, alongside a former clerk of National Assembly, Salisu Maikasuwa, and his deputy, Benedict Efeturi, were charged to court for criminal conspiracy and forgery of the Senate Standing Rules 2015.

On June 9, 2015, when the Eighth National Assembly was proclaimed, members-elect from the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) were summoned to a caucus meeting at the International Conference Centre, Abuja.
 

  
As most of the APC lawmakers-elect trooped to the International Conference Centre for the controversial meeting, Saraki and others joined the rest of mainly opposition elements to sit at the plenary. Being a member of the New Peoples Democratic Party (nPDP) that collaborated with the All Progressives Congress (APC) to defeat the PDP in the general election, Saraki rode on the back of the simple majority of PDP lawmakers to become President of Senate, while Ekweremadu, who led the PDP caucus to vote for Saraki, was also returned as DSP.
 
Although the charges were later withdrawn by the Federal Government, the division and bad blood, which the development engendered in the Eighth National Assembly accentuated the executive versus legislature schism that defined that plenary.

Similarly, in the life of the Ninth National Assembly, where the governing APC enjoys a commanding majority, nothing has challenged the unity of the two chambers as some items in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. Top on the list of contentious issues is the electronic transmission of election results, and lately, the mandatory direct primary mode of candidate selection for all the political parties.

Devious Tactics
IT took the massive agitation of the electorate for the National Assembly to accede to the stipulation for electronic transmission of election results. While APC lawmakers in the Senate found it easy to ride roughshod over the opposition and defeat the item, in the House of Representatives, the division attracted national attention.

Civil society groups joined the fray, just as Nigerians insisted on having electronic transmission of proceeds of the ballot entrenched in the Electoral Act so as to strengthen the fidelity of the country’s electoral system.
  
However, when it seemed that victory was won by the masses, another contentious matter was covertly inserted in the Electoral Act Amended Bill. Nice as the issue of direct primary sounds, there were recriminations within the political class that the right to choose, which mode of candidate selection should be left at the discretion of individual political parties.

   
Adding his voice from experience, President of the Eighth Senate, Dr. Saraki, urged members of the upper legislative chamber not to make the direct primary option compulsory for political parties. Speaking through his Media Aide, Yusuph Olaniyonu, the immediate past Senate president noted that making direct primary mandatory for political parties would compound the situation for political parties.
  
Saraki raised two red flags against the adoption of direct primary, even as he expressed optimism that the method could work for the country in future.

He asked: “Do most of the parties have valid and verified membership registers and other logistics needed for the successful conduct of direct primaries? The direct primaries option will also put pressure on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), whose officials must monitor all the primaries.”

  
The former Senate helmsman also noted the time factor, remarking that the country does not seem to be prepared for it as the primaries may hold next June, which is just nine months from now.”

He disclosed that the idea of making a law for the compulsory direct method of choosing candidates for an election reared its head during the Eighth National Assembly, adding that the plan always crops up in the build-up to general elections.

Being privy to the workings and the legislative process, Saraki pleaded with the federal lawmakers not to “take a position on critical issues based on partisan and personal considerations.”

  
He said: “The two options on the table are to make direct primaries compulsory for all the parties, or to leave it open for parties to decide. We should take the latter option. Let us leave each party to decide how it wants to source its candidates.   
  
“The experience we had in the past shows that direct primary will lead to a crisis if forced on the parties. We saw how people sent from the national headquarters to conduct primary elections stayed in hotel rooms and conjured up figures, which were announced as the result of direct primary elections. Even if the big parties have the funds and facilities to organise direct primaries nationwide, how about the smaller parties?” He asked.

However, the fact that the two chambers of the National Assembly did not consult with INEC as it did during debates on electronic transmission seems to be raising a red flag against the entire piece of legislative work called the Electoral Act Amendment Bill.

   
The precarious position of the Electoral Act amendment could be seen from the fate that could befall it at the Presidency, where President Buhari is now the target of two contending forces lobbying for assent or declining of assent.

Various stakeholders, commentators and interest groups, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, have argued in favour of presidential assent.
   
The speaker told State House correspondents that Buhari is a product of direct primary is disposed to signing the bill into law.

Also a former Director of Foreign Operations in Nigeria’s Central Bank (CBN), Da Jonathan Sunday Akuns, told The Guardian in an interview that the Electoral Act Amendment Bill was about the best legislation to come from the Ninth National Assembly.
   
Akuns, who is also the Galadima Daffo, in Bakkos Local Council of Plateau State, noted that the contents of the bill as passed by the two chambers of the National Assembly have far-reaching implications for Nigeria’s electoral system.
   
Conversely, as the two forces for and against the signing of the Electoral Act amendment bill take their pressure on President Buhari, a lot now depend on the sentiments of power players outside the National Assembly. And, perhaps, knowing how technical and intricate the issues surrounding the bill is, President Buhari decided to seek the input of INEC. However, many have questioned whether the president is trying to behave like Pontius Pilate bypassing that buck to the electoral umpire.

And just like the constitutional amendment efforts of the Fifth National Assembly, which was thrown away entirely on account of the third term item, in the event that the president recommends that some aspects of the legislation be reviewed before his assent, the development would leave the bill at the mercy of political exigencies.
  
The National Assembly would in the next two weeks proceed on Yuletide break. As such, the latest they could summon a committee of the whole to reflect on President Buhari’s observations would be next year. Already, the governing APC had tentatively scheduled its national convention for February 5, 2022.
  
Furthermore, going by INEC’s timelines towards the 2023 general elections, parties are expected to organise primaries by August. The National Assembly would therefore be racing against time to rework the Electoral Act Amendment Bill for the president’s assent.

Patchwork
THE House of Representatives must have seen the red flags against the amended bill, and therefore, decided to augment its work by engaging INEC, especially against the background of recent speculations that the electoral body has expressed alarm that N500b would be required to monitor party primaries.
  
Last Thursday, the lower chamber of the National Assembly resolved to invite the INEC chairman, Prof. Yakubu Mahmood, in a bid to ensure that the electoral umpire does not endanger the amendment bill.
   
Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila charged the house committees “on INEC and Appropriation to please invite the INEC chairman so that he can give us the possible cost implications of direct primary.”

  
It would be recalled that speculations made the rounds, especially on social and online media platforms suggesting that INEC had advised Buhari against assenting to the bill, which among others, provide new stipulations, and mandatory direct primaries for political parties.
  
But, following a resolution on a motion of urgent public importance moved by the lawmaker representing Yagba East/Yagba West/Mopa-Muro Federal Constituency of Kogi State, Leke Abejide, the plenary unanimously agreed to invite the INEC chairman.
  
The Kogi lawmaker had alerted lawmakers to speculation making the rounds on social media that it would cost over N500b for political parties to conduct direct primaries ahead of the 2023 general elections, a development that was interpreted as a serious danger signal against the bill.

The Electoral Act (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill 2021, which is now pending President Buhari’s assent contains crucial items, including direct primaries and electronic transmission of election results.
    
At the plenary, Abejide contended that the INEC chairman is the appropriate official to clear the air on the cost implications of direct primary since according to him, INEC is the umpire supervising both political parties’ primaries and the election proper.

    
“We all know the importance of direct primaries. Some people said it will cost N500b. This is mere speculation because the cost of direct primaries may be within the budget of INEC,” he asserted.
   
While stressing that “the best time to invite Prof. Yakubu would be now that the 2022 budget was still pending before the National Assembly,” the lawmaker maintained that the INEC chairman’s visit would help the legislature to decide on appropriate budgeting.
   
There are indications that federal lawmakers are determined to see the bill through not minding the attempt to scare President Buhari from assenting to the bill on account of alleged humongous financial implication for the exercise.