Dodgy politics of Electoral Act amendment

Barely 100 days to the 2019 general election, the regulatory and legal framework for the conduct of the crucial poll is still awaiting assent by President Muhammadu Buhari, a situation that is raising apprehension among stakeholders. Patriotic citizens have cause to worry because given the time frame between now and February 16, 2019, how possible is it that the Electoral Act could be tidied up to moderate the conduct of the crucial poll?

In the hide-and-seek game being played by both the Presidency and the National Assembly, it is convenient to isolate the ruling party’s lack of zeal to have the Act to move up to the point of becoming law.Many commentators have alleged that the reluctance of President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the Electoral Bill into law could be traced to the fear of the ruling party losing the election. For a record four times, the bill was transmitted to the President, but on each occasion he found one reason or another to decline assent.

One particular issue that contributed in making the Electoral Bill so contentious is the frosty relationship between the Presidency and National Assembly. Despite enjoying majority in the bicameral federal legislature, the ruling All Progress Congress (APC) continued to display obvious lack of seriousness to put up an electoral law that would guarantee credible and transparent election, especially in 2019.

 While the lawmakers from APC treated the Electoral Bill as a sort of ambush or blackmail from their opposition colleagues, the opposition elements seemed to enjoy the political mileage from the President’s failure to assent to the bill even after passage. Taken together, the entire gimmicks over the 2018 Electoral Bill give the impression that politicians are on the same page to ensure that the legal instrument that would curb electoral malfeasance does not come into force. During elections, both opposition and politicians on the ruling party take advantage of the loopholes found in the legislative process.

Another crucial issue is why the lawmakers must wait till election draws very close before expediting actions on perfecting the legal instrument for controlling elections. The fact that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) performs ancillary functions in the making of the Electoral Bill does not equip the election umpire with adequate controls to curb the excesses of politicians during elections.

Thus the dynamism of rigging seems to have rendered INEC powerless to deliver on the mandate of credible, free and fair election. For instance, INEC has been relying on the 2010 Electoral Act to carry out its electoral activities up until recent times. However, popular sentiments across the political divides in the country indicate that the Act has become too defective, particularly as a basis for curbing contemporary electoral malpractices.

It is against that premise that the ongoing attempt to amend the Act, an exercise that dragged on for a year, is anchored. Right from the beginning of the amendment exercise, the relationship between the Presidency and the National Assembly was one steeped in deep-seated political suspicion, game of wits, and high level intrigues.

It was this mistrust that eventually culminated in the rejection of the first version of the Electoral Act amendment Bill, which reversed the order of elections and put the presidential election as the last in the sequence. Yet even when the issue of election sequence was sorted out, another obstacle, which the president called error of drafting in the Bill, crept up and the president refused to sign the bill into law.

However, beyond all these bottlenecks, it has also been alleged in many quarters within and outside the National Assembly that some powerful politicians are not comfortable with some clauses in the Electoral Bill, especially those that provide for strict adherence to the use of Card Reader and automatic Electronic Transfer of Votes from polling units. Consequently, the much-awaited presidential assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill may remain a pipedream.

“This is the point, which the leadership of the National Assembly wants to expose by continuously bending backwards to accommodate all views and concerns raised by the president in the Electoral Bill,” a source in the National Assembly disclosed. Nigerians may not have been told the true stories behind the rejection of the Electoral Bill. Politicians who favour the old order will not be disposed to the amendments because they effectively check the use of underage and alien voters, vote buying, alteration of results and manipulation of voter register.

“The amendment provides for instant transmission of results from the polling units to collation centre, thus eliminating interferences and possibility of alterations of results,” the source said, adding that the amendment also makes it mandatory for INEC to publish voter register online, thus eliminating any plot to doctor voter register to suit rigging schemes.It was similarly gathered that the inbuilt political suspicion is responsible for the fact that despite observations that it won’t matter which election comes first the Bill still suffers inattention.

What the latest Bill says PERHAPS noting the urgency of the bill, the two chambers of the National Assembly looked into the president’s observations, re-adjusted the bill for the president’s assent and sent it back again.

Findings reveal that the main objectives of the latest bill include its provision for the use of card readers and any other technological devices in conducting elections to provide a timeline for the submission of list of candidates as captured in Section 31(6) and 85(1) of the bill.Furthermore, the bill is also meant to identify criteria for substitution of candidates, limits of campaign expenses as well as addressing problems related to the omission of candidates’ names or political parties’ logos.

To accommodate the president’s observations, the National Assembly introduced clause 4 to amend Section 18 of the principal Act, which deals with erroneous cross-references made in the Bill earlier sent for assent.

Similarly, clause 10 was introduced to amend Section 36 (3) of the former Act that deals with qualifying language. Other observations on the latest bill are as follows: “Clause 14, amends Section 49 (4) of the Principal Act that deals with the failure of a card reader. Where a smart card reader deployed for accreditation of voters fail to function in any polling unit and a fresh card reader is not deployed 3 hours before the close of the election in that unit, then the election shall not hold but be rescheduled and conducted within 24 hours thereafter, provided that where the total possible votes from all the affected card readers in the unit or units does not affect the overall result in the constituency or election concerned, the commission shall notwithstanding the fact that a fresh card reader is not deployed as stipulated, announce the final results and declare a winner.

“Clause 24 amends Section 87 (13) of the Principal Act that deals with the issue of a deadline for primary election. The dates of the Primaries shall not be earlier than 150 days and not later than 90 days before the date of the election to the elective offices.”The same section stipulates a specific period within which political party primaries are required to be held since the unintended consequences left INEC with only nine days to collate and compile lists of candidates and political parties for the various elections.

 “Clause 32, amends Section 140 (4) 0f the former Act that deals with the omission of the name of a candidate or logo of a political party.”The other sections of the main electoral act that were amended are 31, 33, 34, 38, 44, 67,76, 78, 82, 85, 87,91, 99, 112, 120,138, 143, 151, and the Schedule.On the issue of campaign funding, the Bill restricted all election expenses of any presidential candidate to N5 billion, while governorship candidates are expected to keep their expenditure within N1 billion threshold and Senatorial candidates restricted to N250 million, just as a N100 million ceiling was set for House of Representatives candidates.

Silence over election sequence
NOTWITHSTANDING the ruling by the Appeal Court that the National Assembly actually reserves the powers to reorder the sequence of elections, the two chambers of the federal legislature have not been able to override the President’s veto on the election sequence, unable to muster the needed vote, mainly because they are divided along political lines.

The president must have withheld his assent to the entire Electoral Bill on that account. As such, the only option open for the National Assembly, if it wanted, was to override the President’s Veto.But they were hindered from such action by the constitutional requirement of two third majorities. Accordingly, the National Assembly resolved to drop the most controversial issue, choosing rather to focus on other key matters in the Electoral Act.

Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over the Senate session during which the reordering of elections sequence was dropped, contended that Buhari did not fault the entire Bill, saying it is only good the Senate avoided the contentious areas and face others.He said: “The president has made observations in some parts of the bill. He did not say the bill we passed was entirely useless. It is therefore important that we remove all those areas he had objected to and pass the remaining items as a separate bill and send it back to him.”The Senate adopted his suggestions, worked on other areas the president complained about and remitted it back to the president for assent.

President’s fresh complaints
NO sooner had the issue of election sequence been dropped from the Bill and sent to the president for assent than a new twist was introduced. President Buhari, in an executive communication dated August 30, 2018 to the leadership of the National Assembly, raised fresh reasons he was withholding assent to the third Electoral Act Amendment Bill.

His Senior Special Assistant on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, had stated then that one of the concerns of the president was the period fixed for primaries, pointing out that the schedule for primaries provided that it should not be earlier than 120 days and not later than 90 days to elections.
According to Enang, the president contended that the schedule would allow Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) only nine days to collate a list of candidates among others, stressing: “His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, has declined assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2018 due to some drafting issues that remain unaddressed following the prior revisions to the Bill.”

While indicating that Section 87(14) of the bill among other sections, needed to be reviewed by the National Assembly, Enang said: “The proposed amendment to include a new Section 87 (14) which stipulates a specific period within which political party primaries are required to be held has the unintended consequence. It leaves INEC with only nine days to collate and compile lists of candidates and political parties as well as manage the primaries of 91 political parties for the various elections.

“This is because the Electoral Amendment Bill does not amend sections 31, 34 and 85 which stipulate times for the submission of lists of candidates, publication of lists of candidates and notice of convention, congresses for nominating candidates for elections.”

One of the offending clauses, he said, include Clause 87 (14), which states that the dates for the primaries shall not be earlier than 120 days and not later than 90 days before the date of elections to the offices.He added: “The Electoral Act 2010 referred to herein states in Section 31, “that every political party shall, not later than 60 days before the date appointed for a general elections, submit to the Commission the list of candidates the party proposes to sponsor at the elections.

“Section 34 stipulates that ‘the Commission shall at least 30 days before the day of the election publish a statement of the full names and addresses of all candidates standing nominated.“Section 85 (1) provides that a ‘political party shall give the Commission at least 21 days notice of any convention, congress etc., for electing members of its executive committees or nominating candidates for any of the elective offices.’’

Enang explained that for the avoidance of doubt, neither the Constitution nor any written law allowed a president or a governor to whom a Bill was forwarded by the legislature to edit, correct, amend or in any manner alter the provisions of any such Bill to reflect appropriate intent before assenting to same. He said such a person was to assent in the manner it was sent or withhold assent.

The presidential aide also listed other reasons for the withholding of assent by the president.A few of the outstanding issues are, he said, “ that there is a cross referencing error in the proposed amendment to Section 18 of the Bill. The appropriate amendment is to substitute the existing sub-section (2) with the proposed subsection (1A), while the proposed sub-section (1B) is the new sub-section (2A).”


Credit –  Leo Sobechi, (Assistant Politics Editor) and Azimazi Momoh Jimoh, Abuja (The Guardian)