Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
How soon will the National Assembly complete work on the amendment of the Electoral Act? As the country inches closer to the 2023 general elections, with at least three off-season gubernatorial contests, all eyes are on the National Assembly to see what fundamental changes it will make in the country’s electoral laws.
Both the National Assembly and critical stakeholders are in agreement that there is a lot of lacuna and fundamental shortcomings in the existing electoral law, which must be addressed to improve the integrity of elections in the country.
Prior to the 2019 general elections, issues relating to the amendments of the Electoral Act had generated so much concerns in the polity, especially in the National Assembly, where members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and major opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) squared up against one another, in their bid to ensure that the amendments confer one advantage or the other on their respective political parties in the last general elections.
Though the parliament eventually succeeded in amending the Electoral Act, the process was truncated as President Muhammadu Buhari, repeatedly refused to assent to the bill. Four times, the bill was presented to President Buhari, four times he declined assents.
Stakeholders, particularly the opposition says the 2019 general election would have been better had President Buhari signed the last Electoral Act amendment Bill.
The chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Electoral Matters, Aisha Dukku, while speaking at the inaugural meeting of her Committee last year, had expressed disappointment that efforts to amend the Electoral Act in the eight assembly were unsuccessful.
Consequently, the lawmaker stated that the ninth House will tackle the amendment of the electoral act with renewed vigour.
Dukku noted: “As it stands, the Electoral Act amendment bill is still hanging, hence there is need for this committee to bring up because there are several important amendments that will improve our electoral process.“
Shortly after its inauguration in July 2019, both chambers of the National Assembly had promised to give passage of the Electoral Act Amendment bill priority. In the ninth House of Representatives, the amendment of the Electoral law featured prominently in the legislative agenda.
Therefore, expectations were high that the National Assembly would have by now completed work on the electoral act amendment bill so that, that off-season gubernatorial elections in Edo, Ondo and Anambra, as well as a litany of bye-elections that are likely to be conducted before the 2023 general elections can benefit from it.
Regardless, one year after, nothing concrete has been done in that regard, hence, dampening enthusiasm that many of the elections that would hold before the next general elections would benefit from an enhanced electoral law.
Nevertheless, the chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, says the electoral act amendment will be given a priority in the new legislative year, which commenced earlier in the month.
Kalu told journalists in Abuja recently that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted socio-economic activities across the globe, has made the retooling of the election act more compelling.
According to him, “If there was no reason to look at the Electoral Act, the Covid-19 has given us reasons to take another look at it. I am sure that INEC came out with new policies that include Covid 19 protocols and that is going to be used for the Edo and Ondo elections.
“We are watching to see how the application of that policy with regard to social distancing and others will work because you cannot use Covid 19 as an excuse to disenfranchise those who are supposed to participate in an election.
“Like you mentioned, there are gaps in the electoral act which we are all aware of. Nigerians should know that we are conscious of the fact that the reasons to amend the Electoral Act has increased when you take into consideration the impact and consequences of Covid-19.”
Dukku confirmed to Daily Sun in a telephone interview that the National Assembly has already commenced the process of the amendment of the electoral act.
She told our correspondent that prior to the outbreak of the COVID -19 pandemic in the country, the National Assembly joint committee on Electoral Matters had held a retreat on the proposed amendment to the electoral act.
However, the committee chairman was not forthcoming on how soon the process would be completed, noting that it is not appropriate to say the exact time work on the electoral act amendment bill will be completed, as the process of amending the law will start afresh in both chambers of the National Assembly.
Nevertheless, she explained that to ensure that both executive and the legislature are on the same page, the National Assembly joint committee on Electoral Matters is engaging with the Office of the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, on the bill, which will originate from the National Assembly, with the input of the executive, does not go the way of the last amendment.
Analysts opine there is need for a speedy enactment of a new electoral law, so that other elections scheduled to hold before 2023 general elections can benefit from it.
Last week, a Civil Society Organisation (CSO), The Centre for Advancement of Civil Liberty and Development, staged a protest at the National Assembly to demand the passage of the electoral act amendment bill, before the lawmakers begin their annual recess by the end of July.
The Co-covener of the group, Ariyo Dare said: “we are asking the National Assembly not to go on its annual long recess until the electoral act 2020 is passed. It is the citizen charter of demand, it is the people’s article of faith, it is the people’s bill, therefore we are asking the National Assembly not to go in recess until the Electoral Act 2020 is passed.
“We want it as Electoral Act 2020 because Nigerians are yearning for a positive change. Nigerians are tired of bad elections. Nigerians are tired of rigged elections; Nigerians want to see a reformed electoral process. Nigerians want to see elections that work. Nigerians want to see elections that will be a good recruitment ground for producing good leaders for us to have a nation that works.
“We are tired of seeing policemen dying, we are tired of seeing Corps members being killed, we are tired of seeing the electorate being destroyed, we are tired of seeing properties being destroyed, we want free, fair, credible elections being done in Nigeria and that is why we are here asking the National Assembly to please suspend your planned recess for 2020 until the Electoral Act amendment is passed.”
However, there are no indications that the National Assembly will complete the electoral act anytime soon, as demanded by the group.
The question, however, is how soon will the process be completed so that it does not get bugged down by unnecessary politics as was the case in 2014 and what fundamental changes should Nigerians expect from the impending amendment?
Analysts say there are two major challenges before the National Assembly regarding the enactment of a new electoral act. These are getting the process completed well ahead of the next general elections and making fundamental changes that will improve the integrity of elections in the country.
The chairman, Partners for Electoral Reforms, Ezenwa Nwangwu, told Daily Sun that most times both the legislature and the executive arm of government conspire to put off the amendment of the electoral laws, until very close to elections, when nothing meaningful can be achieved.
Nwangwu noted “what politicians do is that they create emergency. They ensure that they keep prolonging this process until it is about six months to election. They start talking about amendment. Both the executive and legislature are in that conspiracy together. The international convention is very clear that you cannot amend electoral law six months to any election.. They all know it. They are aware of it. They play the game. They make sure that there are errors that are fundamental in the amendment that they have made, such that if it is taken to the President, the president will turn it down and we get into the blame game” .
The pro-democracy activist wants the National Assembly to resolve issues around the funding of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), as well as remove ambiguity on the use of technology in elections, in the proposed electoral law.
According to him, the main task of the National Assembly in the impending electoral act amendment should be “to chronicle what was passed and what is left. What is left could be issues around the independence of INEC. Those are critical. By independence, we are talking about the politics of funding.
“You have to put out a timeline when fund should be released to INEC. Because you can’t have an institution that always comes cap in hand for resources it needs to do a job, when it is called independent. So, the politics of funding should be resolved. Yes, their money is in the first line charge. But politicians have ensured that they can influence them through release of funds.”
Nwangwu added that there is: “the ambiguity, vagueness in the already made legal provisions both in the electoral act that empowers INEC to use electronic devices. The Supreme Court has given that nod that the thing is what it is. So, that legal lacuna has to be removed.. Clarity has to be brought. Are we using technology? It has to be cleared. Ambiguity can be manipulated by lawyers when they want.”
Dukku told our correspondent that the parliament will be guided by the desires of Nigerians in the proposed electoral act amendment, adding that the country should expect an electoral law that will strengthen the electoral system.
“That is reform processes that will bring democracy and its effectiveness and free and fair election that is acceptable to the citizens of the country. That is what we are out for,” she added.