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Electoral Act: Creating a divided Nation (Editorial)

President Buhari
President Buhari

The raging controversy over the withholding of assent on the 2018 Electoral Bill as amended by President Buhari has again amplified the political divisions in the country and exposed its widening fault-lines. No law has created such anxiety and agitation among Nigerians as this bill, which was supposed to guide the conduct of the 2019 general elections.

President Buhari has his reasons for not signing the amended bill for the fourth time with less than two months to the elections. But the question immediately arises; has his not signing the bill done the country more good or bad? It is in answering this poser that the issue can be properly situated, because public policy and laws are designed and motivated for the good of the people and nation.
From the outrage that has trailed the return of the bill to the legislature it could the assumed that a generality of the people would have preferred it otherwise; could the president be right and most other Nigerians wrong? It is evident that returning the bill for whatever reasons has cast a dark shadow on the nation and the forthcoming polls.
President Buhari had written to the National Assembly that he could not sign the Electoral Bill into law at this time that the country was preparing for the 2019 Presidential and general elections because it would end up causing uncertainty and crisis. He will only sign if it is not used for the 2019 polls. The letter was dated 6th December, 2018 and addressed to the leadership of the NASS.
His letter read, ” Pursuant to Section 58(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria ( 1999 as amended), I hereby convey to the Senate my decision on 6th December, 2018 to decline assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2018 recently passed by the National Assembly.
“I am declining assent to the bill principally because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections which commenced under the 2015 electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.
“This leads me to believe that it is in the best interest of the country and our democracy for the national assembly to specifically state in the bill that the electoral act will come into effect and be applicable to elections commencing after the 2019 elections.”
He also pointed to the fact that as a signatory to the Ecowas Protocol, which forbids members from changing the electoral law less than six months to election except majority of the parties agree to it Nigeria could not violate its provisions.
On the balance of proof, the president’s reasons for not signing the bill do not discharge him from the allegations of premeditation and bad faith being insinuated. We concede that having started the electoral process before the bill was passed by NASS there could be a potential legal issue in signing it which may become a judicial land mine in the elections.
However, unilaterally denying assent to the bill raises the suspicion that there was never an intention to do otherwise. Although the process has begun in principle, the critical areas where the Act will be needed are still ahead; so the issue of uncertainty and confusion over the governing legislation seems contrived.
Recourse to the Ecowas protocol is superfluous since he did not explore the mitigation provided there-in by consulting with other political parties before returning the bill. Whilst it is his constitutional right to veto any bill passed by the NASS, the exercise of such powers should be with discretion and in public interest.
Apart from aggravating the political cleavages in the country, his rejection of the bill has unnecessary put the 2019 elections in jeopardy as any outcome unfavourable to the opposition will be of questionable legitimacy. This is unnecessary and could have been avoided by more transparency and goodwill.
The danger in what has happened is that the president is setting bad precedent for future governance of the country as everything he has done – good or bad – will become a benchmark for other presidents to followed. His present action is also sending wrong signals to the international community of his commitment to free, fair and credible elections.
This newspaper believes, unfortunately that President Buhari has not displayed sufficient capacity to bequeath an improved Nigeria to the next generation. Granted that he is doing his best in some areas, such as fighting corruption and insurgency, his conduct in other critical parts of governance has left much to be desired and is taking Nigeria behind 1999.
This is not a good testament for his leadership; for whatever it is worth, the bill could have be signed in consultations with relevant interest groups without overly risking his electoral chances.