By Fred Itua, Abuja
The anticipated 2023 general elections, may have been won and lost, more than one year before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will conduct the polls. This assumption is hinged on last Thursday’s frustration of electronic transmission of results by senators, predominantly elected on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Prior to the development, Senators from Southern Nigeria led by Michael Bamidele Opeyemi, had agreed to collectively push for the inclusion of electronic transmission of results. However, when the issue came up on the floor of the Senate on July 15th, those who initially supported the electronic transmission of results from the South, joined their kith and kin in the North in frustrating it.
Meetings were held in the days leading to the historic vote on whether or not Nigeria would eventually embrace electronic voting. Southern governors had met and issued a communique, urging the National Assembly to include electronic transmission of results in the proposed Electoral Amendment Bill.
Days after the meeting, South West governors met with lawmakers in the National Assembly from the region and again urged them to support the inclusion. However, like Jesus Christ noted in the Bible, while men slept, the devil came and planted thorns. The result of that betrayal, especially by South West senators, manifested last Thursday.
Like a pundit has noted, all the senators from the South West who voted against electronic transmission of results, are loyalists of a former governor of Lagos State, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The group was led by his wife, Oluremi Tinubu. Other senators from the region, who until last Thursday, claimed to be progressives, dumped a popular demand and settled for their political survival and interest.
Though tempers are still high, this is not the first time the National Assembly will reject electronic voting. In 2007, INEC pioneered e-voting. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which was in office then, rallied its National Assembly Caucus and passed a resolution outlawing it. Fourteen years after, the APC, whose members were predominantly in the opposition then and championed it, kicked against it last week.
The plot against the electronic transmission of result did not start in the current National Assembly. While the electoral reforms under the PDP and in the 7th National Assembly piloted by the then Deputy Senate President and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Constitution Amendment Ekweremadu succeeded in removing the clause, which prohibited electronic voting ahead of the 2015 general election, subsequent efforts to increase the use of technology and electronic transmission of results during the 8th Assembly under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration were vehemently resisted.
It is recalled that the Senate chamber was invaded and its mace stolen by armed hoodlums, who allegedly followed the then suspended current Deputy Senate President, Ovie Omo-Agege into the chamber, on the 18th April 2018 when the report on the Electoral Act was to be laid before the upper chamber.
However, Ekweremadu, who presided on that fateful day refused to chicken out, but stood his ground.
Though the Electoral Act was passed four times, the President declined assent for various reasons, the last being that it was already past the six-month bar placed by ECOWAS Protocol on the amendment of electoral laws before any general election in the West African sub-region.
Fast-forward to the current effort to repeal and re-enact the Electoral Act. Impeccable sources at both the Joint Technical Committee on the Repeal and Re-enactment of the Electoral Act, which included INEC and members of the Civil Society as well as the Joint National Assembly Committee on INEC, said many APC lawmakers did all they could to ensure that electoral transmission of result was not part of the new electoral laws.
It was reliably gathered that while INEC insisted during the retreat of the Joint Technical Committee in Abuja that it had what it takes to do electronic voting and transmission of result, some APC lawmakers, who stood against it seemed to enjoy the sympathy of the Committee leadership.
They were however said to have reluctantly budged when Ekweremadu threatened to resign from the Committee and address a world press conference to tell the world that he was pulling out because the leadership of the Committee and APC, which benefitted from the numerous electoral reforms by the PDP, including card reader, were not yet ready for electoral reforms.
This accounted for the delay in laying the report for consideration and passage of the Bill in March as variously promised by the President, Ahmed Lawan. Though the report was ready since February as both the Joint Technical Committee and subsequently, the Joint NASS Committee on INEC, held marathon sessions at Transcorps Hotel Abuja to get it ready in February, the National Assembly leadership inexplicably kept mute about it.
It was only later in June Daily Sun reported that the Committee’s Report, which had since been adopted by Committee members and ready for submission since February had been doctored in the Senate with a clause inserted to bar INEC from electronic transmission of result.
While the adopted clause read “Voting at an election and transmission under this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission (INEC)”, the new version in circulation read: “Voting at an election and transmission under this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission, PROVIDED that the Commission shall not transmit results of elections by electronic means.”
However, following the uproar generated by the alleged illegal proviso, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Kabiru Gaya had summoned an emergency meeting of the Senate Committee on Monday, July 5.
The meeting was aimed at getting the members to adopt the new provision. But sources at the closed-door session said PDP senators, prominent among whom is Ekweremadu, told the Committee that what they would not be a party to such.
Ekweremadu in particular was said to have told Gaya that he had been in the Senate for about 20 years, 12 of which he was a presiding officer, but had never seen a situation where an adopted report of a Committee would be tinkered without the opinion of anybody, including the Senate leadership, except during consideration by a Committee of the whole. Senator Seriaki Dickson, was also said to have backed Ekweremadu’s argument, having been a ranking member of the House of Representatives before joining the Senate last year.
The amendment, which was later proposed by Senator Sabi Abdullahi passed by the Senate was also said to have been made during the meeting. They had earlier tried to sell same to Lawan, but was vehemently resisted. After a long back and forth argument, our source said, the Committee settled for a redrafted Section 50 (2), which reads: “Voting at an election and transmission under this Bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission, which may include electronic voting means where and when practicable”.
This was more reinforcing than the earlier clause adopted by the Committee. To ensure that no one played a fast one on Nigerians, Ekweremadu and PDP senators had insisted that the report be reproduced and duly ratified by members of the Committee.
Day of long knives
Provisions of clause 52(3) of the Electoral Act (Amendment ) Bill 2021, tore senators apart across party lines last Thursday as unexpected. The report contained 154 clauses. The clause which as recommended by the Senate Committee on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), provides for electronic transmission of election results by INEC where and when practicable was rejected by an amendment made by Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC Niger North).
Abdullahi, while calling for the amendment through a point of order, added a proviso that such an electronic transmission of results by INEC should be subjected to certification of network coverage by the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC).
The clause as originally recommended by the committee states “The Commission may transmit results of elections by electronic means where and when practicable.”
The amended version adopted by the Senate after voice votes and votes counted during division states that “INEC may consider electronic transmission of results provided the National Network coverage is adjudged to be adequate and secure by the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC).”
The clause which took Senate about three hours to consider and approve, first created a stalemate when Albert Akpan Bassey (PDP Akwa Ibom North East ), countered the amendment made by Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi.
Akpan in his own amendment sought for the retention of the provision as originally proposed by the committee which was however voted against when put to voice votes as ruled by the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan .
After the ruling, the Senate was in stalemate for about 15 minutes, which led to a hurried closed door session.
Apparently unable to reach a consensus on the matter at the closed door session which lasted for about an hour, the Senate Minority Leader, Enyinnaya Abaribe rose through order 73 of the Senate Standing Rules to call for a division on amendment sought by Bassey Akpan.
Though the Leader of the Senate, Yahaya Abdullahi (APC Kebbi North) and Micheal Opeyemi Bamidele ( APC Ekiti Central), separately made spirited efforts to make Abaribe withdraw his motion on division, Abaribe stood his ground for the division and physical counting of votes.
Before the physical voting done by calling the senators one after the other per state, the President of the Senate explained to them that those in favour of amendment made by Abdullahi should say no, while those for the counter amendment made by Bassey should say yes.
After the explanation, the Clerk of the Senate, Ibrahim El – Ladan presided over the election by calling the senators one after the other on the basis of state by state.
At the end of the physical voting which lasted for about 40 minutes, a total of 80 senators voted, out of which 52 were for the amendment made by Abdullahi and 28 for the original provision of the clause.
As announced by the Clerk, 28 senators were absent during the division and voting session.
While all the 52 Senators who voted for the amendment belonged to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), 26 out of the 28 senators who voted against the amendment belonged to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), indicating party line of voting.
Ironically, Chairman of Senate Committee on INEC, Kabiru Gaya who presented the report with original provision of clause 52(3), voted against it by saying no to Bassey’s call for its retention.
All the three senators from Anambra and Ogun states, ran away at the start of the physical voting. The same way two out of the three senators from Oyo State, hurriedly bolted out of the chamber before the commencement of voting.
Highly surprising within the no category were the Lagos senators excluding Tokunbo Abiru who was absent.