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Uwais report remains roadmap for credible elections — Oguche

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Festus Oguche


Rights activist and constitutional lawyer, Festus Oguche says that Nigeria may go into the next elections without the right legal framework for a truly free and fair election, going by the lackadaisical attitude of political elite. He spoke to ADAMU ABUH 

What exactly are the factors militating against the passage of the Electoral Act?
The major impediment to the passage of the Electoral Amendment Bill 2018 simply stems from the reluctance of the political elites to effect radical changes to the electoral system necessary for the emergence of credible and acceptable polls in the country. Obviously, it could alter the status quo and push them out of power.

The only exception was our very dear late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua. He took a look at the process within which he emerged as President, and upon observing the flaws inherent therein, constituted the Uwais Committee on Electoral reforms. The recommendations were apt and I consider them as the roadmap for the conduct of credible elections that will meet every standard and value. But the National Assembly, which was then constituted by the beneficiaries of the farcical 2007 elections, outrightly rejected the Uwais report and threw it overboard. Similar misfortune has dogged the path of the Electoral Amendment Bill since the National Assembly passed it. Four times, it was sent to the President, and each of the times he discountenanced them for reasons that are frivolous, tendentious or baseless. All the reasons given are anchored on mere drafting issues, which in the normal course of things could be resolved by draftsmen on a roundtable in a matter of days.

Why do you think it has been difficult for the Presidency and NASS to come to agreement on all aspects of the electoral reforms Act, given the back and forth between the arms of government?
The reasons are far from being cogent – attempt by the NASS to change the sequence of elections and the conflict of some aspects of the bill with the provisions of the Constitution. The earlier reason can be explained away on the need to streamline election dates with the convenience of the voters and the credibility of the process, being also that election sequence as contained in the Electoral Act are not sacrosanct such that they can also be altered.

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The latter reason is unsupported by any convincing proof as the Presidency failed to clearly show or demonstrate the specific areas of inconsistency. Assuming that actual conflicts exist, all it entailed was to indicate them and have them corrected by the legislature and returned to the President for assent. This was done four times and till date the bill is yet to receive the needed executive nod. This is a President who, before he got on the saddle, was in the forefront of the advocacy for vigorous electoral reforms. It is surprising though that the President was quick to assent to related bills touching on pre and post election enactments that restrict the tenure of the Deputy Governor or vice president who assumes office upon the demise of the incumbent to one extra tenure, expansion of the time frame for the conduct of bye elections by INEC and the like. The issues that touch on the core aspects of electoral conduct in terms of candidature and voting as contained in the bill are kept in abeyance. It tells us so much of the insincerity of the political leadership and its lukewarmness to creating a veritable milieu for the proper functioning of democratic rules, principles and tenets through the entrenchment of credible polls.

What should civil society and opposition parties do to pressurize the powers-that-be to assent the bill?
Civil society has a vital role to play in bringing strong advocacy to bear on the authorities to get them do the things that are necessary or discard the ones that are antithetical to the society. But that can only happen where the system allows for a governance space that recognises the right to free speech, and tolerant of vigorous public advocacy with all its attendant correlations of effective opposition and activism. In Nigeria, there has been a gradual and systematic erosion of this all important democratic norm, which has thus advanced to a rather precarious level in more recent times that one can boldly infer a deliberate emasculation of civil society. The handling of the EndSARS protests is a pointer to that fact.

Just the other day, the DSS made a Press Release threatening members of the clergy over their comments on the appalling state of insecurity in the country. Channels Television was sanctioned for airing an interview with IPOB members. Civil society groups cannot flourish in an ambience that is averse to, or intolerant of criticism, and that’s the situation we find ourselves. It must be stated though that the electoral amendment bill itself has not reached a dead end or cul de sac, as it is a misnomer to conceive that the National Assembly can constitutionally be held under siege by the President on matters relating to the exercise of legislative power. Section 58(5) of the Constitution provides that where the President withholds assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two-thirds majority, it automatically becomes law and in that circumstance, presidential assent is discarded and completely unnecessary. The National Assembly has yet to demonstrate its willingness to have the bill passed into law by exercising their powers to adorn the bill with the vestment of legality by simply conforming to the provisions of section 58(5) of the Constitution.
 
Indeed, the underhand maneuvers and the near open-ended shuttles of the bill between the National Assembly and the Presidency for a good number of times without the two Houses actually passing the bill a second time as required evokes suspicions as to the disposition of the legislature to accord the bill the legal efficacy it deserves. This goes to my earlier thesis on the reluctance of the political elites to allow for effectual change in the system, no matter how lofty they may be, particularly in the areas that threaten their positions, and is capable of upturning their rollercoaster applecart.

The ball is yet to be in the court of civil society and public advocates as the legislators are yet to push the matter to its reasonable hilt with the full exhibition of their constitutional prowess. The Assembly members have not shown or displayed any iota of helplessness in this regard, and civil society attention and (probably) agitation may shift to the Assembly itself to get its members do the needful if the game of hide and seek lingers unnecessarily.

However, it is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the legislature could undermine its law making powers under the Constitution and by having same authority subsumed into executive whims. What then is the essence of its existence as an arm of government? Frankly, the antecedents of the current National Assembly give me very strong premonitions that the amendment bill may not see the light of the day after all, unless serious compelling measures through social advocacy are brought to bear and this is exactly where civil society would come in.

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In specific terms, how would the Electoral Act affect the integrity of the nation’s electoral process?
The Electoral Act provides the rules, regulations and guidelines for the conduct of elections. But within the act itself are inherent flaws and inadequacies, which necessitated the amendment in the first place.

Secondly, in an ideal democracy, the authority of government derives from the will of the people as expressed in genuine free and fair elections. Electoral integrity guarantees the effective participation of citizens in democratic processes and in governance but experience has shown that in our clime, these principles are merely illusory. The amendments sought to be effected in the bill are not as far-reaching and comprehensive as the reforms prescribed by the Uwais panel. The President had earlier constituted the Ken Nnamani committee on electoral reforms against genuine counsel that all there needed to be done was to implement the Justice Uwais recommendations. At the end of the day, the Nnamani Committee never added value or improved on any aspect of the Uwais report and ended up a wild goose chase. Any effort at reforms in an area as vital as the electoral system and elections must be sufficiently effectual to address the shortcomings, and half-hearted and impotent measures are only cosmetic and will do nothing at reforms.

To this end, the implementation of the Uwais report is imperative to addressing the seeming shortcomings, loopholes and flaws in our elections and electoral system to bring our democratic practice within global standards and in conformity with the African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, which is the prime focus of the Uwais panel recommendations. The ultimate goal of any electoral process is that any citizen entitled to vote, may vote and his vote may be sent forward and counted in exercise of his right of sovereignty. That’s the whole essence of voter sanctity and electoral integrity, which are necessary ingredients for the advancement of our democratic credentials and practice.

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