;l-r;President Muhammadu Buhari (left), President of the Senate and Chairman of the National Assembly, Ahmad Ibrahim Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt (Hon.) Femi Gbajabiamila, during the 2020 Budget presentation by the President at the National Assembly


Five days to the December 19 deadline for presidential assent to the amended electoral Act bill submitted to President Muhammadu Buhari on November 19, it’s become clear that the new bill will suffer similar fate to the amended bill passed by 8th assembly in the lead up to the 2019 general election, which was vetoed by the president four times, citing closeness to the polls.

Last week, report emerged that the president had returned the amended bill to the national assembly, declining his accent, a report that has been dismissed by both chambers of the assembly, as well as the presidency. But an Aso Rock source told our correspondent at the weekend that the president won’t sign the bill in its present form.

“I can assure you that the president will not sign it. There is no way. The direct primary provision is not realistic, and can’t be passed into law,” the source said.

On the previous occasion, the contentious issue was electronic transmission of results, which the president argued could not be implemented because the country was not ready for it. It ended up being the most crucial factor that tipped the ultimate outcome of the polls in favour of the president and the All Progressive Congress (APC) in an election whose outcome was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court by the losing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who argued that based on results transmitted electronically by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from different polling units, he won the election. But the constitution does not recognize electronic transmission and Atiku could not successfully argue his case in that regard.

The 9th senate would subsequently take up the job of amending the act to accommodate electronic transmission of results, and even though it initially wanted to jettison same on the basis that the country didn’t have the capacity to do so, it would eventually bow to pressure from both the Nigerian populace and INEC to reluctantly allow the electoral body to make the decision as to whether to transmit results electronically or manually depending on practicality.

The amended bill, after two years of back and forth, was eventually transmitted to President Buhari on November 19, and not standing for another election, many expected the president to sign the bill into law, especially given that it was passed by a more friendly national assembly. But this has not been the case.

But this time, over a different matter, the clause of direct primaries smuggled into the electoral bill by lawmakers whose intention is to check the overarching control of party structures at state levels by governors.

Indirect primary, which involves the selection of delegates, be it at the ward, local government or state levels – depending on the election – is strictly controlled by governors, which makes it impossible for lawmakers who are not in the good books of their governors to return to Abuja. To check this power therefore, the lawmakers captured direct primaries as the mode of choosing the candidates of political parties for elections in the amended act.

But the move soon sparked fresh controversy. Governors went up in arms, lobbied the president to not let it pass. INEC, which had itself been vociferous in its support of electronic transmission, was taken aback. There was the logistics of monitoring the primary election of the existing 18 political parties in the country, which the electoral body was said to have put at a whooping N500 billion; an estimate that attracted umbrage from civil society organisations.

Amid the controversy, Buhari on November 29 wrote a memo through his chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, asking INEC and other critical stakeholders to submit their “detailed and considered view” regarding electronic transmission of results and the adoption of direct primary by parties on the amendment by December 3.

INEC wrote back to the president, reportedly endorsing electronic transmission, but held back on direct primaries.

“The commission specifically mentioned the electronic transmission of results and the early nomination of candidates for elections,” a presidential was quoted to have said.

“INEC also told the president it is good that the commission will now have the power to review election results announced by its officials under duress. But it did not endorse direct primaries.”

On Thursday, news emerged that the president has refused to sign the bill, and had reportedly wrote leaders of the two chambers of the national assembly after refusing to sign it because of the huge cost of conducting direct primaries, among other reasons.

The report triggered confusion. Spokesmen of the Senate and House of Representatives denied knowledge of the president’s rejection letter.
“I am not aware of such. The Senate President has not discussed anything with me on the matter,” Senator Ajibola Basiru, Senate spokesperson said.

His House of Representatives Counterpart, Benjamin Kalu also told journalists on Thursday that there was no communication from President Buhari to suggest that the bill had been rejected and returned to the National Assembly.
“I have been confronted by this issue left, right and centre since that publication came out till now but I want to tell you that if President Buhari sent a communications to the House of Representatives, the spokesperson of the House should be one of the first to know,” he said.” And I can tell you with every audacity that there’s no communication from Mr. President to that effect.”

Similarly, senior special assistant to the president on National Assembly Matters (House of Representatives), Hon. Umar El-Yakub, told a national daily on Thursday that his principal is yet to decide on whether to assent or veto the bill, noting that the communications between the president and the National Assembly is not a secret affair.

“The long and short of it is that there has never been any communication of such; there is nothing like that. If there is any communication, it will be disclosed publicly at the National Assembly,” he said.

However, what’s obvious is that the president has so far failed to sign the bill, and is unlikely to do so before the December 19 deadline date. The national assembly can, however, override his veto by two-thirds major, but it’s unlikely in a clime when many lawmakers, especially those in the ruling party, often act in deference to the president.

Opinions Divided

The amendment bill has, meanwhile continued to divide opinions between those, particularly governors, who say it’s unrealistic, and those, mostly national assembly members and civil society groups, who insist it’s the best way to guarantee internal party democracy.

Speaking when he received the leadership of the National Examination Council, NECO, led by the Registrar/Chief Executive, Prof. Dantani Wushishi, at the new Government House, Abakaliki on Thursday, Dave Umahi, governor of Ebonyi State said he was in support of Buhari’s decision to reject the bill.

He argued that the bill had the capacity of truncating democracy as it would have led to incessant litigation from personalities and political parties.

“Let me congratulate Mr. President for refusing to sign that Electoral Bill. You see, when we are making laws we have to look at all the factors. This is a country that when you are defeated in any primary, you refuse to accept defeat,” he said.

“Now, imagine the number of our local governments, 774. Imagine the number of wards. You now go to conduct primaries in all these wards, maybe for the President and after that, the Senate and the rest of the positions. Even if you are doing all of them in one day, expect petitions by the number of political parties multiplied by the number of wards. It will just truncate our democracy; there is no doubt about that.”

It’s the same argument put forward by Diran Adeyemi, former deputy national publicity secretary of the PDP.

“As far as I’m concerned, the president has done well by not passing the bill,” he said. “There should be a review. Where will the parties or individuals get money to conduct that sort of primary election? It’s not realistic.”

Indeed, INEC chairman, Prof. Mahood Yakubu, last week, said it was purely the responsibility of political parties to conduct primary elections, whether direct or indirect.

Yakubu who gave the explanation while fielding questions from journalists shortly after he met with the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, after being asked if the commission had submitted the cost of monitoring direct primaries of political parties.

“INEC did not come up with any cost for the conduct of primaries for political parties by the direct method. We have had very good discussions with the committee on Appropriation of the National Assembly pursuant to the resolution of the House and what we discussed you will not hear from me. Maybe, the chairman of the committee will tell you,” he said.

Also chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Hon. Mukhtar Batera, said the role of INEC in the primary elections of political parties is minimal, as according to him, individual political parties have the responsibility of conducting primaries.

“In our discussions with the INEC chairman, we wanted to know his requirements for the 2023 elections as well as the cost of direct or indirect primaries. On the primaries, when we discussed with him, he specifically told us the role of INEC in direct or indirect primaries, which he said is just minimal. He said the responsibility lies with all the political parties. He said conducting party primaries is the role of political parties and not INEC,” he said.

“For direct primaries, what the INEC chairman told us is that only the political parties have the responsibility on primaries and the funding of the primaries.”

Meanwhile, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), including the United Kingdom High Commission in Nigeria, have called on Buhari to sign the bill.

The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, at the opening ceremony of YIAGA Convergence 3.0 on Thursday, noted that the country was hopeful that the bill would be signed.

Also, the executive director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, while calling on the lawmakers to adhere to the yearnings of Nigerians, said they should override the president if he refuses to assent to the bill.

“Yes, if they believe in what they legislated and also want to work to improve the electoral process by making it transparent, inclusive and democratic in favour of public support and popular demand for Nigerians,” Rafsanjani said, while backing the calls for the members of the National Assembly to override Buhari on the electoral act amendment bill if he does not sign it.

Other CSOs, including Yiaga Africa, the International Press Centre (IPC), Centre for Citizens with Disability (CCD), Albino Foundation, CLEEN Foundation, Institute for Media and Society (IMS), Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF) and Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), have also asked the president to sign the bill on time.

Speaking on the imperative of timely assent to the Electoral Bill 2021, the executive director, Yiaga Africa, Samson Itodo, said for a successful conduct of any election, the legal framework, amongst other factors, must be considered. He urged President Buhari to sign the bill without delay.

Similarly, the Electoral Hub, a Civil Society Organisation (CSO), called on Buhari to sign the bill without delay.
Ms Princess Hamman-Obels, Director, the Electoral Hub, an organ of the Initiative for Research, Innovation and Advocacy in Development (IRIAD) made the call in a statement on Wednesday in Abuja.

She said that signing the bill by the president would show his commitment towards the successful conduct of the election in 2023.

“As the 2023 general elections draw near and the atmosphere across the nation already warming up to the elections.

“A lot of Nigerians have applauded the bold move by the National Assembly to pass the Electoral Act Bill 2021 and out rightly transmitted it to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent,” he said.

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