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Much ado about election sequence


NASS, Presidency In For Another Tug-of-War Over Electoral Act
The issue of sequence of election has gradually attained the status of a new rift item in the incessant Legislature versus Presidency friction that has defined the current dispensation. At the centre of the budding tension is the insertion of Section 25 (1) into the amendment of Section 25 of the Electoral Act.

By that singular act, which was the culmination of the harmonization of positions of both the upper and lower chambers of the National Assembly, all that remains before the political battles begin is its passage at the disparate plenaries in the Red and Green chambers. Thereafter, Nigerians would look in the direction of the Presidency to see what becomes of that piece of legislation: Would President Muhammadu Buhari append his signature on the document so it become law, without listening to his underlings?

Nigerian electorate will learn two major things from what happens to the rearrangement of election sequence by NASS. It should be noted that the amendment of section 25 of the Electoral Act, makes a mess of the timetable earlier released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

INEC had uncharacteristically released the timetable one year ahead, stating that both the Presidential and National Assembly election were to hold on February 16, 2019, just as the Governorship and State Assembly polls were fixed for March 2, 2019.

But, with Section 25 (1) being introduced, elections for National Assembly seats are to be held first, followed by State Houses of Assembly, then the Governorship and Presidency trailing in that order.

The lawmakers believe that the alteration was necessary to remove the deleterious influence of having the Presidential election first on other elections, which seems to dispose the Presidency to despotic tendencies. That could be why the President’s handlers are crying blue murder.

Consequently, if the President refuses to assent to the bill as passed by both chambers of the federal legislature, the two basic lessons it would impart on Nigerians are that the President is not confident of himself and that he is not a democrat after all.

The second lesson to be learnt from the politics of the new sequential order is the temperament of the current INEC leadership. If the electoral commission goes to court to challenge the decision of the National Assembly, it would have convinced Nigerians that it (the electoral umpire) has lost its impartiality and non-alignment. That course of action would also buttress the speculations in some quarters that INEC as presently constituted has failed to inspire public confidence on its ability to deliver free, fair and credible poll in 2019.

The bandwagon or balloon effect that holding of the Presidential poll before other positions has on the polity are far reaching. First of all, it confers absolute advantage on the victorious Presidential candidate’s party and disposes him to winner-takes-all stature.

What the National Assembly did therefore could be likened to deregulating the political space and handing power back to the people. And if votes count as INEC has continued to assure Nigerians, the amendment would place the more than three score political parties on an even kiln. The outcome of the general election could therefore become a basis for INEC to weed out mushroom political organisations that clutter the ballot.

History of Election Sequencing
Nigeria settled for the Presidential system of government partly to solve the challenges of choking ethnicism and the volatility of the parliamentary system, in 1979.

Being a product of the 1998 Constituent Assembly, the Presidential system was chosen and supported by the military, which had usurped political power after the fall of the first republic.

In the first election under the Presidential system, which was midwifed by the military, National Assembly and Presidential were held on separate days, with that of lawmakers preceding the presidential. But four years after, political jobbers and contractors in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) decided on altering the arrangement to confer unfair advantages on its candidates by making sure that the Presidential election preceded others.

The bandwagon effect aided the party’s moon slide victory that attended the 1983 election. Nigeria in their docility sulked at the ‘daylight robbery’ so much so that three months after NPN came back for a second term, the citizens trooped to the streets in ecstasy for the military coup that removed the party from office.

As such, perhaps in a bid to avoid that pitfall during the Ibrahim Babangida transition experiment in 1992, both the House of Representatives and Senatorial elections were held almost a year before the Presidential poll.

Although the military President was tactically experimenting with the idea of diarchy, the pattern of holding the election into the federal legislature before the Presidency was retained in 1999, when Nigeria returned to Presidential democracy. While the National Assembly poll took place on February 20, the Presidential came a week later.

Benefits Of Inverted Sequence
The Chairman of Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Aliu Sabi Abdullahi, made a poignant statement about the senate decision to concur with the House of Representatives position on the reordering of the sequence of elections. He said the amendment was in the interest of Nigeria’s democracy, particularly to “strengthen the electoral process and ensure credible elections.”

In the light of that clarification, the position of the opponents of the amendment does not seem to hold out any positive benefit either for democracy or the institutional progress of electoral umpire.

The first major benefit of the new order is that in situations of stalemate or where it becomes difficult for a clear winner to emerge at the Presidential poll and runoff, the country would be saved the quagmire of a constitutional lacuna. The outgoing President could proclaim a new legislature from which the senators-elect could select its President to administer the country until a determinate Presidential election is held.

What happened during the 2015 governorship election in Kogi State was an eye opener that anything is possible in a democratic setting. The Constitution and Electoral Act might have provided for presidential runoffs, but not being a parliamentary system, there is no guarantee that runoffs would always produce clear-cut winners. This may be a hypothetical projection, but it is better to err on the path of caution.

What the National Assembly has done could be said to be a forward-looking piece of legislation that could undergird the nation’s democracy. It goes further to enhance the obvious merit of eliminating adventitious advantage to candidates and political parties that ambush the sysvtem to benefit from bandwagon or domino effect.

Additionally, the new sequence of elections will go a long way to provide actionable data for INEC to determine serious political parties and sentimental or psychedelic groups with a view to deconstructing the electoral space.

In the area of functionality, the provision would ensure that the electorate select legislators based on their competences and preferences, such that the emergent National Assembly would be a collage of various tendencies. The NASS and legislatures so produced would witness robust debates and discussions, which would culminate in good governance as the President and Governors would no longer coral lawmakers with the trap of anti-party and such limiting shibboleths.

Naysayers Arguments
Opponents of a new sequence hinge their dissent not on the functional, but on idiosyncratic perspectives. Senator Abdullahi Adamu, who led the naysayers out of the Senate plenary said the sequence was disadvantageous to incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who, it is becoming obvious by the day, is set to seek a second term in office.

Senator Adamu also pointed out the constitutional angle, contending that the 1999 Constitution at Section 76, stipulates that, “elections to each houses of the National Assembly shall be held on the date to be appointed by INEC.”

But as the President of Senate, Dr. Bukola Saraki, pointed out, it is better to strengthen institutions that pander to the whims of individuals. “I know every politics is local (but) as much as it is local, we also have to maintain the integrity of these institutions,” Saraki replied.

The implication of the exchange is that insofar as the constitution actually grants to INEC the right to fix dates of elections, what the National Assembly by ordering the sequence of elections does not in any way abrogate or derogate that power.

Furthermore, being a creation of law, INEC is not self-actuating either in form or function. And instead of focusing on institutional comportment or individual comfort, the overriding public good should trump every other consideration. When allusion is made to free, fair and credible election, what comes into perspective is the need to ensure that the electorate enjoy unfettered opportunity to express their preferences through the ballot.

Rearranging the sequence of elections therefore removes the shadow of an all-powerful President during elections by way of exorcising the spectre of bandwagon, whipping every shade of opinion onto the line. The reordered sequence could therefore be said to be the highpoint of open secret ballot.

It is also remarkable that the Senate concurred with the position of the House of Representatives on the matter, because being closer to the masses the members in the Green chamber are wont to have a better feel of the pulse at the grassroots. The fact that there was no dissent at the Green chamber overrides Senator Kabiru Gaya’s argument that the issue of order of election was not debated in the Red chamber.

Other Novelties And Implications Of Presidential Veto
Recriminations over the amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act appear to obfuscate other salient initiatives on the contentious bill. Nigerians would have the Speaker Yakubu Dogara-led House of Representatives to thank for the new impetus on the electoral process.

For instance, on the proposed Electoral Act, INEC is mandated to transmit the result of voting from polling units directly to collation centres. This practically removes the incidence of manipulation and mutilation of poll results. The Act also enjoins INEC to publish the list of registered voters online 30 days to the election so that the voter register is accessible to all.

When it becomes law, the new Electoral Act empowers INEC to exploit full biometric accreditation of voters with smart card readers and/or other technological devices it might deem necessary for elections from time to time.

Apparently responding to the experience in Kogi governorship poll, the lawmakers have through the new Electoral Act provided that the names of candidates must be submitted not earlier than 90 days and not later than 60 days before the election. It stipulated that candidates can only be substituted not later than 30 days before the election.

In the case of death of a candidate before an election, the Act mandates that such election will be suspended for 21 days and a replacement chosen within 14 days, while the remaining seven days will be used for campaigning.

However, should the President decide to veto the bill as most of his supporters are urging him to, the National Assembly will allow thirty days after its transmission to make it operational.

What the President’s foot soldiers are insinuating by their resentment to the amended sequence of election is that he cannot win the election without extraneous assistance.

The Buhari Support Organisation (BSO), Enugu State chapter in a statement by its Publicity Secretary, Eze Chibueze, said, “the amendment was done in bad faith, hence erosion of INEC powers as an electoral umpire, which had already issued sequence and order of 2019 general elections.”

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