From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
What will President Muhammadu Buhari do with the Electoral Act Amendment Bill? Will he assent to it or decline assent and return it to the National Assembly for more legislative work?
The National Assembly and governors have been on a warpath over the inclusion of direct primaries as the only mode of nominating candidates for elective positions by political parties, in the bill, which was passed by the parliament earlier in the month.
On November 19, the National Assembly formally transmitted the bill to President Buhari for his assent; thereby effectively shifting the battle over the proposed electoral law to the Presidency.
While the lawmakers argue that direct primaries will help to entrench internal democracy in political parties, the governors believe that direct primaries are not in the best interest of the country’s democracy.
However, beyond the public discourse, inside sources say the direct primaries imbroglio is more or less a battle of survival between members of the National Assembly and the governors.
According to sources, the introduction of direct primaries in the proposed electoral law is essentially aimed at whittling down their influence in the nomination of party candidates. The governors understand this, hence their stiff opposition to the clause.
In the aftermath of the passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, the Progressive Governors Forum( PGF), after a meeting, said direct primaries was cumbersome and would overstretch the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The chairman of the forum and governor of Kebbi State, Atiku Bagudu, told journalists after a meeting of the forum, that the governors would prefer that political parties are allowed to determine their mode of primaries.
According to him, “We discussed the pros and cons. There has been concern that political parties are voluntary organisations. We expressed concern that political parties be allowed to choose from the options that they so desire. There is an Executive Order, signed by Mr. President against large gathering. These are issues we discussed and hope that the best be achieved for Nigeria.
“We also noted that our ward Congresses were results of direct primaries. The process involves multiple roles by INEC. If we have to involve INEC, their resources will be overstretched.”
Recently, Benue State governor, Samuel Ortom, pointedly admonished President Buhari not to sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill in its present form.
Ortom said the President should return the bill to the National Assembly for the lawmakers to remove direct primaries from the electoral bill, before he gives his assent.
The Benue governor, in a interview with journalists, in Abuja, noted: “what the National Assembly did with the electoral act, honestly, it is not in the best interest of this country, because political parties would have been allowed to evolve a system that will help them to bring out candidates in their various primaries. It is more expensive. It is more disorganized.
“I still want to appeal to Mr President to reconsider that bill. He should send it back to National Assembly. They should allow political parties to decide whether to use direct or indirect primaries.”
Like the governors, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is opposed to direct primaries. The PDP in its immediate reaction to the passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill had said direct primaries are an invitation to chaos.
“The decision by the APC-controlled Senate is a humongous blow to the development of democratic norms and a plot to introduce anarchy during internal party elections as currently obtainable in the APC.
“The PDP holds that the provision is aimed at increasing the costs of nomination procedures thereby surrendering the processes to money bags against the wishes and aspiration of Nigerians.
“Our party makes bold to state that with the exception of the APC…hardly will there be any political party that will be able to raise the cost of conducting internal elections under a direct primary process,” the opposition party stated, in a statement by its national publicity secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan.
On the flipside, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, has been vehement in pushing for support for the bill. Gbajabiamila had championed the inclusion of the clause to make direct primaries compulsory for all political parties, in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, during consideration of the committee report in the Green Chamber.
“That debate on direct primaries, which I championed, is about the future of our country. Our position in the 9th House of Representatives is that everyone must have equal opportunities to participate in governance and the democratic process…
“Our young people must have a seat at the high table and we must create the enabling environment for them to be in leadership such that a young man with bold ideas can come out to vie for any position, be it legislator, governor or any other office. That can only be achieved through direct primaries, which will give a fair chance to the youth of this country to be involved in governance.”
Gbajabiamila, ahead of the transmission of the bill, had visited the President, apparently in connection to the proposed electoral law. After the visit, he told State House correspondents that he was optimistic that President Buhari will assent to the bill.
Nevertheless, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami says President Buhari will be guided by public interest amongst others in taking a decision on the proposed electoral law.
Malami, who spoke during television programme had noted: “One thing I can tell you is that whatever the decision the President will eventually make arising from the amendment will be a decision that will be based on justice that will be based on the public interest, the security interest and the economic interest of the nation.”
The AGF added: “All these things will be factored by the President on arriving at a decision on whether to assent to a bill or not and I do not see this electoral bill being different in terms of the exercise of the discretion of the President.
“All the necessary material factors both economic, security, judicial, legal and otherwise will naturally come in as far as the discretion of the President is concerned.”
The 2019 electoral bill amendment imbroglio
The controversy trailing the proposed electoral law, is not different in what obtained prior to the 2019 general elections. Efforts by the National Assembly to amend the Electoral Act were enmeshed in controversy over a clause altering the sequence of elections.
The proposed sequence of election had put the National Assembly election first, followed by the governorship and state houses of assembly, with the presidential poll scheduled last.
However, President Buhari declined assent, saying that the proposal was a usurpation of the power of INEC. The sequence of elections, which the parliament sought to alter had put presidential poll, alongside National Assembly elections, first.
Subsequent efforts by the 8th National Assembly to amend electoral act, after removing the new clause reordering the sequence of elections, also failed to get the buy-in of the Presidency. In all, President Buhari declined assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, prior to the 2019 general elections ,on three occasions, citing various reasons.
Expectedly, the rejection of the bill was trailed by controversy as members of the All Progressives Congress ( APC) and the PDP squared up against themselves.
There are fears that the current controversy may jeopardize current efforts to give the country a new electoral act ahead of the 2023 polls.
Ironically, in a bid to avoid the pitfall of the past, the National Assembly joint committee on Electoral Matters, had worked closely with INEC and the Office of the AGF in drafting the amendment bill.
The chairman, House Committee on Electoral Matters, Aisha Dukku, had told our correspondent, last year that the collaboration between the legislature and the executive was necessary to ensure the bill will not be bogged down by controversy, like what obtained prior to the 2019 polls.
The efforts of the joint committee notwithstanding, the controversy over the clause on direct primary is threatening the entire bill.
However, unlike in the 2018 scenario, opposition and support for the proposed electoral law cut across party lines. In 2018, APC members within and outside the parliament were united on the electoral act amendment bill, but reverse in this case this time around.
Recall that a tripartite meeting of the APC, its governors and members of the National Assembly on the direct primary, had ended in a stalemate, recently.
However, what is the implication of the President not signing the bill? Analysts fear that that failure of President Buhari to assent to the bill might jeopardize the current efforts to amend the electoral act. In which case, the country will go to the 2023 general elections with the existing electoral laws with its many flaws.
Nevertheless, there are two possibilities in the event that President Buhari declines assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. The first is to override the President’s veto by the National Assembly. However, pundits say that is likely not going to happen, as the lawmakers, judging by their antecedents, consider it an anathema to disagree with the President.
The other possibility is for the lawmakers to delete the clause on direct primaries and re-transmit the bill to President Buhari for his assent.
Regardless, pundits say the parliament seem not to have the luxury of time, as the lawmakers are set to commence their Christmas vacation in less than a month from now. The implication is that the bill might be kept in abeyance until next year.
But former Senate President, Bukola Saraki said politicians should not allow the controversy over direct primaries scuttle the entire electoral amendment.
Saraki, who spoke at an event in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital, recently, said it is imperative for President Buhari to sign the bill for the benefit of the country.
According to him, “direct primary is best for political parties if properly done. But I am sure Nigerians are not prepared for it because there is still a lot of work to be done.
“But now that the National Assembly has passed it, we should make the best out of the situation rather than allowing the controversy, which is one item, to throw away the other good parts of the bill.
“What is important is for the President to sign it and enable Nigerians to benefit from the other parts.”
Analysts say rather than allow the controversy over direct primaries scuttle the entire electoral amendment, politicians across board, should encourage President Buhari to sign the bill. Thereafter, any aggrieved party can challenge specific sections of the law in the court.
However, as the gladiators continue to lobby the Presidency over the proposed electoral law, the question is will President Buhari sign the bill as passed by the National Assembly or succumb to pressure by the governors and return the bill to the parliament?