…As the new amendment to the Electoral Act gives rise to political intrigues
Barely one year to the 2019 general elections, the sequence of the conduct of the poll has become a subject of political intrigues and controversy. The machination and contention have their roots in the recent amendment to the Electoral Act by members of the National Assembly (NASS), which re-ordered the sequence of elections in the country. With the amendment, the National Assembly elections would come first, followed by the governorship and State Assembly elections and then the presidential election. If the bill gets the assent of President Muhammadu Buhari, the 2019 election and subsequent general elections would hold on three separate days to be decided by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The amendment has, however, been viewed with suspicion by some active players in the political space, including ranking members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Expectedly, it has triggered heated debate among Nigerians with even some members of the NASS also distancing themselves from it and accusing their colleagues of pursuing a selfish agenda.
Senator Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa, APC) had shortly after the Senate passed the amendment on February 14, led nine other senators to oppose the passage. “We are part of the whole body of senators who oppose the process by which the so-called conference report was laid and considered and rushed. I had the opportunity to speak, I was heard but the Senate President said my observation was being noted,” Adamu had said during a press conference he addressed with senators Ovie Omo-Agege, Abu Ibrahim, Benjamin Uwajumogu, Ali Wakil, Abdullahi Gumel, Binta Masi, Yahaya Abdullahi, Andrew Uchendu and Umaru Kurfi.
The senators had pointedly accused their colleagues of amending the law to get at President Buhari who is rumoured to be eyeing re-election. For voicing their dissension publicly, Adamu and his group are now being probed by the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions. If the committee is able to establish that the claims made by the group were false, the affected lawmakers might face suspension. Apparently to evade any form of punishment, Omo-Agege tendered an apology to the Senate during last Wednesday’s sitting but others have remained resolute. Meanwhile, Adamu has already lost his position as chairman of Northern Senators Forum, allegedly on account of the issue, the allegation of financial impropriety leveled against him notwithstanding.
But aside from the senators, many individuals and groups have also raised concerns about the amendment. The Buhari Support Organisation (BSO), Enugu State chapter, which has faulted the amendment, accused the NASS of violating the 1999 constitution with the amendment. The Publicity Secretary of BSO, Mr. Chibueze Eze, said the amendment “no doubt infringes upon the constitutional powers vested on the INEC by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.”
“We are at a loss and yet to locate the economic, patriotic or any valid reason for infringing on the Constitution which in the Third Schedule, expressly bestows INEC with the powers to organise, undertake and supervise all elections to the offices of the president and vice president, the governor and deputy governor, the Senate, House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each state of the federation.
“The fact and the law is that sequence of elections is an integral component of organisation and supervision of elections, which are the primary functions of INEC. This is why since 1960, neither the 1960 parliament, the Second Republic nor the Third Republic National Assembly had ever inserted the sequence of elections in our Electoral Act. We stand to be contradicted,” Eze said.
Speaking on the issue last Thursday at a workshop in Abuja, former chairman of INEC, Prof. Attahiru Jega, urged both INEC and the Federal Government to seek judicial interpretation of the matter.
Jega said: “Both INEC and the interested parties have been reluctant to go to court for interpretation of constitutional provisions and this is significant because this has to do with the independence of electoral bodies.
“Frankly, a lot of the arguments on this cannot be wished away and I think it is necessary for the independence of the electoral commission because that is key to the integrity of the electoral process, because if we allow people to jettison and undermine that independence for whatever reason, then we are in a serious problem. I think there is serious justification to test this matter in court.”
From the foregoing, it’s clear that the fuss in the polity over this particular amendment to the Electoral Act would not abate soon. But why should the order of elections become an issue when in actual fact electoral contests are meant to test the popularity and peoples’ acceptance of those seeking to represent them? How will the amendment impact on the 2019 elections if signed into law? Why do some Nigerians not trust the NASS on this particular matter? Are the NASS members truly after their own selfish interest as alleged or they are working to deepen democracy in the country?
It is noteworthy that since the adoption of the presidential system of government in 1979, Nigeria has experienced the re-ordering of election sequence almost every election year. In the 1979 elections, which was conducted by the military administration of then Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the NASS elections were held on July 9, while the presidential election was held on August 11. In 1983, the sequence was re-ordered with the presidential election coming first on August 6, while the NASS elections were held on August 20 (Senate) and August 27 (House of Representatives). During Gen. Ibrahim Babangida’s transition to civil rule pprogramnme in1993, the NASS elections were held first on July 4, 1992, while the presidential election was held almost a year later on June 12, 1993.
The transition programme was later truncated with the military seizing power again on November 17, 1993, through the late Gen. Sani Abacha, only to restore democracy in 1999 through Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, who took the reins of power after Abacha mysteriously died on June 8, 1998. In the transition programme, the NASS and State Assembly elections came first on February 20, 1999, while the governorship and presidential elections held on February 27. In 2003, the NASS and State Assembly elections were on April 12, while the governorship and presidential election were held on April 19. In 2007, there was a re-ordering of the elections as the governorship and State Assembly elections were held on April 14, while the presidential and NASS elections were held together a week later on April 21. In 2011, the NASS and State Assembly elections held on April 9, while the governorship and presidential elections held jointly on April 16. In 2015, the NASS and presidential elections held the same day on March 28 while the governorship and State Assembly elections held on April 12.
Thus, with no particular order of elections adopted since 1979, the National Chairman and founder of United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, believe there is nothing unusual in the new amendment to the Electoral Act.
Okorie, who spoke with Sunday Sun on the issue, lauded the NASS for the initiative, saying the amendment would encourage participatory democracy.
“The re-ordering of the sequence of elections by the NASS is nothing unusual; it’s nothing that Nigerians had not seen before. As a matter of fact, we have had more elections with the presidential election coming last than we have had elections with the presidential election coming first. If I can recall properly, in recent times, it is only the 2015 elections that was conducted with the presidential election coming first. So, if we talk about the tradition, it’s actually the other way round; that is what the NASS members are now trying to return to,” he said.
Okorie, who is a former presidential candidate, said the allegation that the amendment is targeted at Buhari is unfounded. He noted: “I do not see the point of those who are imputing that the amendment is targeted at Buhari. Buhari will stand election with other people, so how is the amendment targeted at him. He will win on his own merit if he is still popular. Those who appear to be more vocal about this are mostly those who think that they can ride on President Buhari’s back to win via the bandwagon effect.”
He stressed that the amendment if signed into law would deepen Nigeria’s democracy, arguing that it would encourage robust campaigns and eliminate disenchantment in the electoral process. “In Nigeria, the presidential election is almost a matter of do or die because the various sections of the country, ethnic nationalities and even religious bodies put so much premium on who becomes the president, irrespective of whether the person will effectively perform the functions of that office or not, but rather based on certain primordial sentiments and prejudices. So, if the presidential election is held first and a candidate from one part of the country wins it, immediately all the other sections will feel disenchanted and may not have any further interest to participate in the remaining elections. Even the NASS members who made the amendment stated that they want an arrangement that will encourage voter participation. This is because the voters will be looking forward to the D-day. It’s just like a football competition that will end with a final. People will continue to watch and follow the game until the final is played. If you play the final before playing the qualifications there will be no interest. But when the final comes last, people will continue watching to see who carries the cup. So, it’s a very simple logic. The new arrangement, if it finally becomes law, would ensure increased voter participation. It will also make the contestants to work harder on their own merit. So, campaigns will be more robust because nobody will be leaning on anybody’s shoulder to win.”
Okorie also picked holes in the suggestion that the NASS members might be pursuing a selfish agenda, saying: “I think that if the NASS members had other motives, they would have put their own election somewhere after the first election. In the first election, nobody has any advantage over the other. Even as we are talking about bandwagon effect, if the result of the first election is announced and a particular party is winning overwhelmingly, it will still to some extent rub off on the remaining elections. So, it is the first election that is actually conducted without anybody having any advantage over the other. Subsequent elections are sure to draw from the outcome of the first election.”
He wondered why some people were urging INEC to go to court over the issue. “I am thoroughly disappointed that the person of former INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, in spite of his intellectual height, experience and exposure, having managed the electoral commission could come out in a public workshop to recommend that the Federal Government and INEC should proceed to court to seek interpretation on the re-ordering of election. I say so because the re-ordering we are talking about is not going to be predicated on the present Electoral Act; it is a new law coming up and Jega should have been patient enough to see the provisions of the new law. Even the constitution is being amended. And the president is yet to assent to this law. So, why would he suggest things that would bring further confusion and probably delay the process of marching smoothly to the 2019 elections? His utterances in that workshop has given me the impression that those who accuse him of working against former president Jonathan in 2015 may be right after all,” he said.
Also, the Conference of Nigeria Political Parties (CNPP) has described the re-ordered elections as the best thing the current NASS has done for Nigeria and democracy in the country.
Secretary General of the CNPP, Chief Willy Ezugwu, had in a recent statement, stated that those opposed to the amendment were haters of Nigerian democracy. “Anyone against it is a hater of Nigerian democracy. The issue is not about President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election bid. It is about Nigeria after President Buhari. If INEC wants to conduct free, fair and credible elections in the country devoid of rigging, the Commission should listen to the voice of the representatives of the Nigerian people, who are working hard to reduce bandwagon effects in voting,” he noted.
With the unending fuss in the polity over the amendment, it remains to be seen whether it would stand or not. But whichever way it goes, the interest of the country should be paramount.