2023: NASS and politics of new electoral law

From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja

When the National Assembly resumes plenary on January 18,  one of the key issues that will dominate discourse is the electoral act amendment bill. President Muhammadu Buhari, last December, declined assent to the Electoral Act Amendment bill.

President Buhari in his letter had expressed misgiving over the inclusion of direct primary as the only mode of nominating political party candidates for election, in the electoral bill.

The President argued that the clause on direct primaries is an infringement on the right of political parties to decide the mode of choosing their primaries.

He said: “The amendment as proposed is the violation of the underlying spirit of democracy, which is characterised by freedom of choices of which political party membership is a voluntary exercise of the constitutional right of freedom of association.

“The proposed amendment might also give rise to a plethora of litigations based on diverse grounds and issues of law, including but not limited to the fact that the proposed amendment could not work in retrospect, given that the existing constitution of the parties already registered with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) permits direct, indirect and consensus primaries.”

The Presidency had  also noted that direct primaries will have serious financial and security implications for the country.

The clause making direct primaries mandatory for all political parties has been trailed by controversy since both chambers of the National Assembly passed the proposed electoral bill, last July.  While the governors kicked against it, the leadership of the parliament said it is in the interest of the country’s democracy.

Originally, compulsory direct primary was not part of the report submitted to the House by its committee on electoral matters. The committee had recommended that the use of direct primary for nomination of candidates be  optional.  Section 87 of the bill “ titled “Nomination of Candidates by Parties” had originally stipulated thus: “(1) A political Party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this bill shall hold direct or indirect primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which may be monitored by the commission.

“(2) The procedure for the nomination of candidates by political parties for the various elective positions shall be by direct or indirect primaries.”

Regardless, during the consideration of the report of the House Committee on Electoral Matters, the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila had proposed the removal of “or indirect” in  sub-clause (1).

According to him, “I  will seek an amendment to Section 87. Section 87 provides for either indirect or direct primary. In the true ethos of democracy, I would like to amend Section 87 to delete indirect and make direct primary mandatory.”

The  amendment, which was subjected to vote was approved by the House, while the Senate later concurred with the House position.

Although the speaker had continued to insist that direct primaries will open up the political space, critics argue  that it is motivated by self consideration.

Apart from direct primary, another key provisions of the electoral bill are the electronic transmission of results. This clause had equally generated furore in the parliament, leading to  a 24 hour stand-off between the House leadership and opposition lawmakers, before it was resolved.

In recent times, the amendment of the Electoral Amendment Bill has been stalled by unnecessary politics. And like in the present circumstance, the controversies have always emanated from the House.

For instance, in the Eight Assembly, efforts to amend the electoral law was scuttled owing to the reordering of the sequence of election.

The proposal for new sequence of election, which was proposed by the opposition during consideration of the report on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill in the Green Chamber,  had put the presidential election last.

Immediately the proposal scaled through, members of the All Progressives Congress (APC) present left the chamber in unison, dismissing the proposal as “PDP amendment,” which would not stand.

Eventually, President Buhari rejected the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. Exasperated by the President’s action, the then House leadership threatened to override his veto. Regardless, APC caucus, with Gbajabiamila as House leader, stood against the move to override the President’s veto. Expectedly, the move to override the President lost steam.

Analysts say with the rejection of the bill, efforts by the parliament to give the country a new electoral framework ahead of the 2023 polls, might be in jeopardy.

Nevertheless, Gbajabiamila said the House on resumption tomorrow will revisit the electoral bill. According to the speaker, the baby must not be thrown away with the bath water.

“We included in that bill, provisions we hoped will significantly enhance the conduct of our national elections and improve public confidence in our electoral outcomes. As it is now, that bill has not received presidential assent, and it falls to parliament to decide the best way forward.

“Whichever way it pans out, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water and must deliver a credible and enduring electoral system to Nigerians. Every law is a living document and as long as it has breath, it must survive”, he stated.

On the other hand, Senate spokesman, Ajibola Basiru,  in his immediate reaction to the President veto, dismissed some of the reasons adduced by the Presidency for rejecting the bill as ‘presumptuous and totally fallacious.’

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Nevertheless, Basiru, who spoke in a television interview, noted: “We would consider those rational (reasons) adduced, counter-arguments that may be canvassed against whatever reasons the President has given. For instance, the argument on the cost that has been raised by Mr President with respect is presumptuous and totally fallacious.”

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He added: “There is nothing that says the primary election must be conducted on a ward basis, it could be conducted either on a quarterly basis or local government basis.

“As regards the argument on smaller political parties, they may decide to organise their own at the state level. On the issue of security an extension of that argument would be that because we have security challenges then we should not even hold the 2023 election.”

Pundits say,  two course of action are open to the parliament, on the electoral bill, as it resumes plenary tomorrow.

These are to  either  expunge  direct primaries  from the bill or to override the President veto. However, it is unlikely that the parliament judging by its antecedent would override the President.  This, analysts say, is because the lawmakers will not have the courage to lock horns with the President.

After President Buhari rejected the electoral bill, senators across party lines had threatened to override the President’s veto. However, the Red chamber did a volte face, 24 hours after.

President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, who shortly before the National Assembly adjourned for Christmas holiday said the Red Chamber will work with the House to arrive at the next course of action.

Regardless, Sergius Ogun, member of the House of Representatives, representing Esan North East/ Esan South East Federal Constituency, says it is unlikely that the parliament would override the President’s veto.

Ogun argues that the only condition on which the National Assembly can override President Buhari, is if there is an agreement to that effect. He noted that the current leadership of the federal legislature lacks the courage to oppose the President on any issue.

He said: “ I do not see this Ninth Assembly, as (presently) constituted, doing anything, contrary to the wishes of the President; unless the President has declined assent, and he has told them to go ahead and do whatever they want to do.

“I am sure when that happens, the parliament, the leadership of the parliament as constituted in this ninth assembly will mobilize members to override  the President, and we will support.  But if he hasn’t done that; the president has not approached them in this manner, I do not see them doing otherwise.”

However, the opposition is pessimistic that the President would not sign the bill, even if the clause on direct primary is expunged. They argue that for  a key legislation like the electoral bill, the decision of the Presidency to wait until the 30 days window,  within which he is to assent or decline assent to a bill, elapses before communicating the parliament speaks volume.

The Peoples Democratic Party ( PDP) caucus in the House alleges that the main reason President Buhari rejected the electoral bill was because of the electronic transmission of results in the proposed law.

The leader of the PDP caucus, Kingsley Chinda, in a statement, last December, had noted that “as was postulated in several quarters; he has declined assent to same, using the cost of direct primaries as a decoy. The untold reason of declining, is to avoid the electronic transmission of results which will improve the credibility of the electoral system.”

Chinda added that “a ruling party that cannot conduct its national convention lacks the capacity to implement some of the innovative and people-empowering provisions of the bill, like the Direct Party Primaries and electronic transmission of results from the units.

“As an opposition caucus, we will ensure that our members exercise their power under Section 58(5) of the Constitution to veto the President whenever the National Assembly deems it fit to table the issue for discussion.” 

So far, the All Progressives Congress(APC) caucus,  which is the majority party in the National Assembly,   has  been silent on the issue.

The pessimism  of the opposition is understandable. Prior to the 2019 general elections,   President Buhari had  declined assent to  the Electoral Act Amendment Bill four consecutive times, citing different reasons on each occasion.

However, President Buhari has assured that he will assent to the bill, once the lawmakers give political parties options on how to nominate candidates for election.

“I will sign. All I would like is that there should be options. You can’t dictate to people and say you are doing democracy. Allow them other options so that they can make a choice.

“I don’t support direct primaries because I want people to be given a choice. There should be options. We must not insist that it should be direct. There should be consensus and indirect,” the President had stated in a recent television interview.

However, analysts say the  imbroglio puts question mark on the ability of the parliament to make laws, without interferences from the executive.

As the National Assembly resumes, all eyes will be on the parliament, to see how it will respond to the president’s veto. It is obvious that whatever decision the National Assembly takes will determine whether or not the country will have a new legal framework for the 2023 general elections.

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