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Short-termism versus long-termism

By Dan Agbese
14 December 2018   |   2:59 am
Third time unlucky. That about sums up the fate of the 2018 electoral amendment bill. Three times it was submitted to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. And three times he pocketed his red or green biro and left his signature page blank. The bill needs the president’s signature to turn it from a mere piece…

[FILE PHOTO] Senate President Saraki

Third time unlucky. That about sums up the fate of the 2018 electoral amendment bill.

Three times it was submitted to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. And three times he pocketed his red or green biro and left his signature page blank.

The bill needs the president’s signature to turn it from a mere piece of paper into a law intended to guide the conduct of the 2019 general elections – and other national elections from this point forward.

Do you see how powerful one man’s signature is in a democracy? Amazing.

Buhari has had a long quarrel with this piece of legislation since the national assembly put it together last year.

He has his reasons but not everyone outside his small circle of advisers agrees with him. That is not unusual or unexpected. You know that there is democracy in action in a country when the choruses of yes and no rend the air.

If noise were to determine the depth of democratic development, we would hold the candle to no country.

The president must have expected the furore that has greeted his latest no to the bill and was prepared to take it in his stride. But I am sure he too must be shaken by the vehemence of some of the reactions accusing him of putting the future of the country in either jeopardy or uncertainty for his personal interests.

Hyperbole is not strange to politicians but there is a sense in which the president’s action could rightly be viewed as more partisan than patriotic.

In the previous editions of the bill, Buhari said no because he queried some of the provisions he considered contradictory or that could be inimical to the conduct of free and fair elections.

He quarrelled, for instance, with the assumed right of the legislators to legislate on the sequence of elections.

If allowed that amendment would deny INEC the constitutional right to discharge that responsibility.

The law-makers quietly went back to the drawing board and removed that provision and allowed the INEC decision to conduct the forthcoming elections in two tranches, beginning with the presidential and the national assembly elections on February 16 and ending with the governorship and state houses of assembly elections on March 2, to stand. That was sensible.

It was sensible because the proposed election sequence nearly tore the national assembly into pieces.

A new group of legislators calling themselves The Buhari Support Group, soon emerged and took on the rest of their colleagues in a determined fight against the bill.

The invasion of the senate while it was in session, during which the symbol of authority of the upper house was snatched and was later abandoned by the roadside somewhere in the federal capital, was part of the intimidating tactics blamed on the president’s support group. We must be grateful that matters did not get worse.

It would seem that the president has no objection to the latest amendments to the electoral bill. But he still declined assent this time because of its timing.

In a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Right Honourable Yakubu Dogara dated December 6, the president wrote: “I am declining assent to the bill principally because I am concerned that passing the 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 rule this close to the elections may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.”

One can always find plausible reasons for saying yes or no. On the face of it, Buhari’s no sounds reasonable. A faulty timing in the electoral process could be detrimental to the integrity of the fairness of the elections. The president, the chief electoral umpire, has a duty to ensure that no law confuses the electorate or cripples the capacity of INEC to fully discharge its duty to the nation and the people.

But there is more here than meets the eye. The rest of us may never know the real reasons why the president prefers to put the electoral amendments bill on the bottom of his book shelf and simply forget it there.

From the bits and pieces one gathers from the news media, it should be easy to see that the bill is a victim of a power tussle between the president and the national assembly.

His strength here is that he has the final say. As long as he says no, the bill will never, to the discomfiture of the law-makers, become law, whatever might be its merits in helping to strengthen INEC as a critical democratic institution.

Olisa Agbakoba’s reaction to the president’s refusal to sign the bill points to this fact. The senior lawyer pointed out that Buhari’s decision “makes no sense (because) the final bill was considered by NASS, was agreed with the president, precisely to avoid challenges such as now occurred.”

Perhaps, that is why the president is not quarrelling any longer with the content of the bill but with its timing. We have a serious case of sophistry here. It is worrisome.

The national assembly’s decision to amend the electoral act was to principally accommodate current advances in electronic technology as they relate to the free and fair conduct of modern elections elsewhere in the world, including some poor African countries.

As Agbakoba pointed out and from what I know, “INEC is ready to deploy this technology for the 2019 elections and only requires that the electoral act provide a legal framework” for it.

The electronic technology we are talking about here is the e-card reader.

The e-card reader accredits the voter, using his biometrics, and allows him to vote immediately. He no longer has to be accredited and told to come back later to vote.

With this system in place, only bona fide registered voters would pass through the eye of the needle. Unregistered voters cannot infiltrate the system any longer. It could reduce possibility of vote buying.

With the electronic transmission of votes, ballot boxes cannot be snatched in transit because none would be transited from polling units to collation centres.

This also means that results cannot be falsified between the polling units and the collation centres.

Things could not be looking better for our electoral system and the integrity of our elections. Or so I thought.

The e-card reader puts our country in the league of countries that use the same system to modernise their system to ensure that every vote counts.

It leaves no room for all the mago-mago that has bedevilled our elections all these years. The e-card reader does not disenfranchise genuinely registered voters.

If it fails, there is a legal room to help such voters to still perform their civic duty.

This would be a vast, if not the ultimate improvement, in our electoral system. It would reduce disputes and the litigations that arise after every election.

It would enhance the integrity of our electoral system and make our elections respectable.

I do not for one moment doubt the capacity of the commission under its current chairman, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu, to fully embrace this system. I believe he and the commission are ready.

The problem is not with the commission. It is with the politicians.

The commission is fully ready to deliver on its promise of free and fair elections. But the politicians are not ready to make every vote count.

The current system serves them well because it sustains all the mago-mago and the wuru-wuru. But it ill-serves the national interest.

I do not believe that if it becomes law, the act would end fraud and rigging. That would be profoundly naïve. But I verily believe that with the new electronic system, Nigeria would put one firm step forward in its long and tiresome journey into an electoral system that best serves its needs as a democracy now and in the foreseeable future.

The responsibility for improving on the 2015 elections rests squarely with the president. He can choose to be a politician by standing in the way of necessary and needed changes to strengthen our electoral system or he can choose to be a statesman and commit to a legacy of an electoral system that best serves the country long after the curtain comes down on his act as president.

If he plays the statesman he would have helped the country to take a big step towards ensuring that a presidential candidate who feels cheated by the system does not spend eternity fighting it in the courts as he did in 2003 and 2007.