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Electoral act amendments 2018: Divided between presidential and legislative veto

By Niyi Bello, Abuja Bureau Chief
16 December 2018   |   3:55 am
The refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari to give assent to the amended Electoral Bill, the fourth time this year, has once again brought to the fore, pitfalls in Nigeria’s election management and process of leadership selection. The controversy generated by the development that has pitched politicians on either side of the divide against one another…

The refusal of President Muhammadu Buhari to give assent to the amended Electoral Bill, the fourth time this year, has once again brought to the fore, pitfalls in Nigeria’s election management and process of leadership selection.

The controversy generated by the development that has pitched politicians on either side of the divide against one another has also exposed how the practice of democracy can be susceptible to manipulations by players, who if given the opportunity, would not hesitate to shift the goal post in the middle of a game.

While many may argued that the development is good for a growing democracy that needs to learn and improve on mistakes, others believe that the controversy has further shown that members of Nigeria’s political class are only concerned about acquisition of power not minding if the system is injured in their desperate bid.

In what looks like a cat and mouse game between the All Progressives Congress (APC)-controlled executive arm of government and a legislative arm that has shown, without any pretense, that it has pitched tent with opposition, a development that is against the normal practice in a presidential democracy, the dust being raised may create negative effects on the conduct and integrity of next year’s general elections.
 
Initially, the major issue about the amendment was on the 2019 election timetable as the legislators made to rearrange election sequence putting National Assembly poll before the presidential contest but with strong opposition from Buhari and the APC which saw in the proposal a plan to reduce the chances of the ruling party, the matter was dropped.

Because of the peculiar nature of election management in Nigeria where the outcome of one affects the others, the mainly opposition lawmakers had wanted the presidential and National Assembly elections separated in a way that Buhari will be boxed into a disadvantaged corner that will not allow him to reap the gains of a collective campaign.

Expectedly, the Presidency and the leadership of the APC rejected the proposal even after the matter was brought before the Judiciary, which ruled that only the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has the power to fix election timetable.
   
The issue, however, brought the executive/legislative feud to a new high while the roles of lawmakers in the debate also exposed the intrigues of the internal politics of the APC as the party prepared for the primary elections to pick candidates for 2019.

According to the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, the 8th session of the National Assembly began the process of amending the Electoral Act in 2016 to reduce post-election controversies, stressing that the main aim was “to raise the level of transparency, credibility and acceptability of our electoral process.”He added that if the law is approved by the president in accordance with the constitution “and honestly applied by INEC and all those concerned, it will give us an election that will be better than what we had in 2015.”

Part of the proposed amendments were inserted as a result of previous experiences in election management including finding a way out of the kind of scenario that was created when in the peak of the last Kogi governorship election, the leading candidate who was about to be announced as the winner died suddenly thus creating an unexpected crisis that took the judiciary up to the apex court to resolve.

Part of the new amendments also sought to redefine polling and collation of results in a way to bring more confidence and integrity to the system in a way, according to Saraki, “that democracy will be further strengthened.But in rejecting the proposed bill, the Presidency, short of accusing the lawmakers of doing a shoddy job, claimed that there were ambiguities and loose ends that needed to be tightened in some clauses of the amendment and that the operation of the new law may end up doing more damage to the country’s electoral system instead of strengthening it.

In a letter sent to the two chambers, Buhari said he was “concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process. Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.”

The refusal has, however, generated so much heat that Nigerians are questioning the sincerity of government to conduct the election in a free and fair manner even though President Buhari has repeatedly assured of a hitch-free and peaceful exercise.

The opposition PDP said the development has confirmed its allegations that the ruling party was planning to subvert the system, warning that “the plan to deny Nigerians the opportunity of electing a government that will better their lots,” would not be allowed to succeed in the country.
 
In the controversy that was engendered by the development, opposition politicians have accused the ruling party of holding on to some flaws that allowed for APC victory in 2015, which the new amendments sought to remove including the alleged non-usage of card readers in the northern part of the country.
 
There were also allegations that the Presidency was uncomfortable with the amendments’ proposal for immediate on- the-spot announcements and electronic transmission of results from the polling units to remove incidents of manipulation and figure joggling and to add more credibility to the process.
 
Describing Buhari’s refusal as “an assault on democracy,” the presidential candidate of Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Oby Ezekwesili, also called on Buhari to sign the electoral amendments into law.
 
According to her, “The reasons given by the president for withholding assent have no iota of credibility, does not stand the test of scrutiny and therefore should be rejected by Nigerians. Any sort of excuse is not true. The 2015 electoral amendment act came into place two days before the election.She, therefore, urged the legislature to override the decision adding, “The National Assembly has enough majorities to be able to override this unpopular position of the President as far as the electoral bill is concerned.”
 
With this suggestion of a legislative veto, a fresh controversy, this time on whether the National Assembly as presently constituted could put aside political affiliations to do the needful, has been introduced to the narratives as lawmakers burrowed into party trenches to support or oppose the decision of the president.
 
Last Thursday, it was an open argument on the floor of the Senate when the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu and the Senate Leader, Ahmed Lawan, disagreed on which party had majority – the APC or the PDP.
 
Although it is impossible to get the required two-third majority for a legislative veto that would automatically turn the bill into law without presidential assent, it is believed that a lot of underground lobbying has commenced to make the task an impossible one.
 
Sources told The Guardian that of particular target are those senators who lost out in their bid to secure a return ticket in the recently concluded primary elections of the ruling party who may want to take their pound of flesh by voting against the President’s position.
 
It was learnt that in the unfolding politicking, this group of Senators, who have no personal stake in the coming poll, could be approached by the opposition to swing the pendulum against the presidency in the proposed legislative veto even though the matter is yet to be officially tabled in the Red Chamber.

At the Lower Chamber, members of the ruling party have vowed to block any proposal for legislative veto against the President describing the electoral amendment bill as an imperfect document on which Buhari should not put his signature.For instance, Leader of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila argued the bill as amended has no alternative provision for manual accreditation of voters, and that it would lead to the disenfranchisement of millions of Nigerians during elections.

He said that the situation was witnessed in 2015 when even the sitting president had difficulties getting accredited stressing that “constitutionally, the president is not compelled to give reasons for declining assent to any piece of legislation.”But the PDP, which had swapped role with APC in a repeat of a pre-election publicity blitz, seized the controversy with both hands as an opportunity to castigate the politics of the ruling party in the build-up to next year’s election and draw the attention of Nigerians to “the underground plan to rig the exercise.”

In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, the party said “this legislative action of overriding the president’s veto has become imperative as the President’s decision is a calculated attempt to hold the nation to ransom, inject crisis into the electoral process and ultimately scuttle the conduct of the 2019 general elections, seeing that there is no way he can win in a free and fair contest.”

“Nigerians can recall how the Buhari Presidency plotted to plunge the 2019 elections into a needless controversy by delaying the submission of the election budget to the National Assembly, presenting it at the time the legislators were commencing their annual vacation and asking for virement of funds already approved for development projects, instead of sending a fresh supplementary budget for the election.”

According to the main opposition party, “President Buhari is mortally afraid of the amendments because they essentially checked the APC rigging plans, including the use of underage and alien voters, vote-buying, alteration of results and manipulation of voter register; for which the APC and the Buhari Presidency have been boasting of winning the 2019 elections.”

In all these, the INEC has come out to declare that despite the controversy generated by the amendments, the elections would be conducted in a free and rancour-free atmosphere and that the outcome would be credible enough to satisfy majority of Nigerians.

However, as the clock ticks towards the cast of the first ballot, and in the continued arguments over the desirability or otherwise of a legislative veto in the midst of political intrigues and opportunities for politicians to manipulate the development to hug the limelight through half-truths and outright falsehood, those saddled with the electoral process should ensure transparency, which will put the stamp of integrity on the exercise, whether the proposed amendments take effect or not.