The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, this week, raised a fundamental issue that is relevant to the 2023 elections. He had reminded federal lawmakers of the importance of working on and concluding everything relating to the Electoral Act amendment ahead of next general election. He had declared: “There should be clarity and certainly about the electoral framework to govern the 2023 general election.”
Speaking at the public hearing on the Electoral Offences Commission Bill organised by the National Assembly in Abuja, the INEC chairman said delay in the passage of the Electoral Act amendment could affect the 2023 elections, which are less than two years away. He announced INEC’s plan to hold the next presidential election on February 18, 2023, while pleading with the National Assembly to expedite action on the amendment of the Electoral Act.
Even though the 2023 general election is about 22 months away, Yakubu is right in stating that a law that defines the essential structure on which the elections would hold must be put in place. This must be done early enough to avoid past mistakes where amendments to the Electoral Act were done at the 11th hour, thereby laying the foundation for their rejection.
Indeed, the onus is on the National Assembly and the Presidency to play their parts well, with commitment to the general good, for the process to be completed. One thing is for the National Assembly to amend the Electoral Act. Another thing is for the President to assent to the bill passed by the National Assembly to make it a law.
Before the last general election, efforts to amend the Electoral Act and secure the assent of President Muhammadu Buhari ended as a hollow ritual. Despite all the assurances that the 2019 elections would be conducted on the provisions of an amended Electoral Act, the elections held using the previous parameter, with the inherent holes therein. The National Assembly actually played its part by amending the existing Electoral Act about one year to the general election, but its efforts were frustrated by the executive, nay President Buhari, who refused to assent to the bill on the flimsy excuse that the amendment came too late.
However, discerning minds knew that the amendment did not come too late, in the true sense of it. The Presidency only elected to play games to frustrate the process. It is a fact that, before March 2018, the National Assembly had passed the Electoral Act amendment bill 2018. The document was sent to President Buhari for assent but he declined to append his signature to it.
The issue at that time was the altering of the sequence of elections by the federal lawmakers. The Presidency rejected the ingenious provision for legislative polls to come before the presidential election, contrary to the timetable of INEC for the conduct of the presidential election first. The Presidency had insisted that the National Assembly expunged the vexed part before President Buhari could sign the bill into law.
Showing understanding, the National Assembly reordered the sequence of elections to tally with INEC’s timetable, and represented the bill for the President’s assent. For the second time, President Buhari rejected the bill, raising fresh issues that never arose before. For the third time, the National Assembly amended the areas complained of, only for President Buhari to raise yet other objections. President Buhari was to decline assent to the bill for the fourth time, giving lateness as the reason. In all, some of the excuses given for the rejection of the amendment bill, between 2018 and 2019 when the election held, were spelling errors, timing and other intangible things.
The 2018 Electoral Act amendment had tried to put a peg on the money political parties charge aspirants as expression of interest and nomination fees. This is still relevant, as political parties charge outrageous fees for expression of interest and nomination forms in various elections. In the coming Anambra State governorship election, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) collected a whopping N21 million from its aspirants. The All Progressives Congress (APC) is collecting a total of N25 million from its aspirants in the governorship race. Only moneybags or candidates of rich godfathers can afford this. This makes politics and elections exercises that only the rich could venture into.
The non-use of Incidence Form, in relation to smart card reader, is still imperative, as treated in the last Electoral Act amendment that was not signed by President Buhari into law. Giving use of smart card reader legal backing is germane. Of course, the provision for electronic transmission of election results from collation centres is important. We will not forget the controversy over the last presidential election result in 2019. While the PDP insists that result of the presidential election was transmitted electronically, the INEC and APC said it was not. A provision making transmission of election results compulsory would have forestalled such controversy.
Both the National Assembly and the Presidency have a role to play in the amendment of the Electoral Act. These two institutions must be transparent and committed to the task of giving the country a solid framework that would make our elections better. As the INEC chairman has appealed to the National Assembly to do the assignment on time, a similar appeal goes to President Buhari to play his part by signing the bill when presented. The National Assembly, which will initiate the process, should take action this year, so that, no matter the shenanigans of the executive, the bill would be ready and assented to way ahead of the 2023 elections.
Apart from the things earlier addressed by the Electoral Act amendment 2018, which never got the President’s imprimatur, the National Assembly should add other provisions that would make elections seamless and transparent. The lawmakers should take another look at electronic voting, for instance. Even if electronic voting would not be used now, there should be a provision legalising it, so that whenever it becomes expedient to use it there would be no legal encumbrances. Nobody knew that coronavirus, which caused global lockdowns for months, would ever plague the world. Has anybody wondered what would have happened if lockdown happened during the period of elections in Nigeria? No doubt, the government would take the easy way out, by postponing the election and then invoking another “doctrine of necessity.” A country like the United State did not have any issue whatsoever conducting its presidential election during lockdown and coronavirus. The U.S. held its election using electronic and mail voting because the law had made provisions for these.
The 9th National Assembly and the Presidency have an auspicious opportunity to contribute their quota towards electoral reforms in the country. By strengthening the Electoral Act, they would have added something to what the previous government did in electoral reforms. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan opened the vista of reforms with the card reader, among others. The current government should act wisely by doing further legal engineering, through Electoral Act amendment, to make elections better. It is only when the country succeeds in ensuring that ballot papers truly determine winners of elections that we could say that democracy is taking firm root.