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Concerns as hope dims for amended electoral bill

President Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday, departed Abuja for Istanbul, Turkey, to attend the third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit, further putting Nigerians in suspense over the yet to be assented amended electoral bill forwarded to him by the National Assembly on November 19.

With two days to the 30 days deadline on Sunday, within which he is constitutionally mandated to assent to the bill or return same to the legislature, hope appears dim, as the same fate that befell previous attempts to amend the electoral bill, awaits this latest version.


247NNU gathered that with the failure of the President to communicate his decision on the bill last weekend, presiding officers of the National Assembly had planned to meet with him on Wednesday night or at the end of the week’s plenary duties, yesterday, in a last minute effort to save the controversial Electoral Act Amendment Bill, but the President’s visit to Turkey aborted such plans.

In a statement made available by Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, the President is expected back from Turkey on Sunday, December 19, the same day the deadline will elapse.

He will be hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Republic of Turkey at the summit with the theme ‘Enhanced Partnership for Common Development and Prosperity’, with an agenda that includes reviewing the cooperation between African countries and Turkey since the last summit in 2014.

The third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit is coming on the heels of President Erdogan’s recent visit to Nigeria during which several agreements in the fields of energy, defense, industry, mining, and hydrocarbons were signed to expand existing bilateral ties.

President Buhari was accompanied on the trip by his wife, Aisha; the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama; Defence, Maj-Gen. Bashir Magashi (rtd); FCT, Mohammed Bello; Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire; Agriculture, Mohammed Abubakar; Industry, Trade and Investment, Adeniyi Adebayo; the National Security Adviser, Maj.-Gen. Babagana Monguno (rtd); and the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, Ambassador Ahmed Rufai Abubakar.

Despite appeals from different quarters to President Buhari, including the diplomatic community, to sign the amended electoral bill, the President has continued to play the waiting game.

While he has not hinted at any possibility since he received the electoral bill, it has, however, been mired in controversy between those urging Buhari to sign it to enhance participatory democracy as indicated through the approval of direct primaries; and those who have reservations about that model of electing candidates by political parties. These two positions have pitted the lawmakers against the governors.
  
National Assembly sources hinted that the controversy on the direct primary option is generating concerns among top leaders of the legislature, a development that may affect the relationship between lawmakers and the Presidency.

A lawmaker said, yesterday, that the National Assembly has become more worried because it will proceed on Christmas and New Year recess before the expiration of the deadline.
  
Body language in the Presidency, the governors’ forum, and political parties have shown that provision for direct primary in the bill has thrown spanners in the wheels of the bill.
  
Also, fears were heightened among governors and prominent leaders of the two main political parties that imposition of candidates and manipulations of primaries might be difficult if the direct primary election option is adopted, one of the key reasons the bill may not be signed.

Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, speaking in favor of the President’s delay in endorsing direct primary, had hinted that financial constraints could prevent the President from giving his assent to the bill. He said the President would consider the security and financial implications of direct primary before signing the bill into law.

Malami stated: “One thing I can tell you is that whatever decision the President will eventually make arising from the bill will be a decision that is based on justice, public interest, security interest, and economic interest of the nation. All these will be factored by the President in arriving at a decision on whether to assent to the bill or not and I do not see this electoral bill being different in terms of exercise of the discretion of the President.”

The Kebbi State governor and Chairman of the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF), Atiku Abubakar Bagudu, had also after several meetings resolved that indirect primary remained the best option, maintaining that political parties should be allowed to pick the best option suited to them.

He further argued that direct primary was too cumbersome, unwieldy, and would overstretch limited resources of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), statutorily mandated to oversee primaries conducted by political parties.

But Chairman, House Committee on Electoral and Political Matters, Aisha Dukku, had at a stakeholders’ meeting on Wednesday said the new electoral bill went back and forth, five times in the last Assembly because some people felt they were not carried along, assuring that all stakeholders were carried along from day one this time around.

According to Dukku, Nigerians may hear good news concerning the new bill before the week runs out. She said: “I hope that before the end of the week, Nigerians will hear good news.”

While many of the lawmakers had earlier in the week expressed Dukku’s optimism of good news regarding the bill, the fact that the National Assembly will proceed on recess from yesterday, Thursday, alongside the President’s trip, has dampened such hopes.
  
Despite the perceived benefits of direct primary, not even the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) could not speak in favor of the controversial bill.

While political watchers say it is in the character of the President to keep his decision close to his chest, some stakeholders who spoke to The Guardian said all indices point to the same direction, that the President is not going to sign the bill, one of which was why he dithered in granting audience to the principal officers this week before his Turkey trip.

“The President’s eventual decision and reasons for it will hopefully be communicated to Nigerians by the Presidency through a press release on Sunday or Monday after his return from Turkey,” a source said last night.

According to the source, “if there was going to be any communication rejecting the bill, the President would have triggered the process before lawmakers embark on their recess, from which they wouldn’t be back until later in January, and by which time, the process for the Ekiti and Osun states governorship elections would have begun. So holding the decision till the last day was a coup the President has achieved against the lawmakers.”

The National Assembly, meanwhile, has a provision to override a presidential veto by two-third vote in a case where the President fails to sign the bill into law within the specified 30 days.

On whether the National Assembly will go ahead to veto the President, the source continued: “The present leadership of Senate President Ahmed Lawan and Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila do not have the political will to dare Mr. President and veto the bill, even though the bill favors them and they have the numbers to push it through.

“While it is in their best interest to whittle down the powers of governors by pushing through with the direct primaries inserted into the bill, the ninth Assembly is not ready to challenge its toga of being a rubber stamp with this bill.”

This was reinforced on Wednesday by the spokesman of the Senate, Ajibola Basiru when he said the National Assembly will not go on the path of war with the President over the electoral bill. He, however, added that the legislature will ensure what is best for Nigeria as regards the electoral bill, irrespective of the executive’s position.

Speaking on Channels Sunrise Daily program, Basiru said: “When the President takes the decision, whatever the generality of the National Assembly thinks, we all will know. I think it is too early to seek to put us on a warpath with the President.”

Reacting to the description of the National Assembly as a rubber stamp of the executive, the Senate spokesperson said if making laws that are tailored towards the development of the country is seen as being a rubber stamp, then the legislative body agrees to be called such.

“If the idea of seeing the National Assembly as an opposition parliament is what some people are expecting, we are happy to disappoint such people. Our job is clearly cut out for us by Section 4 of the Constitution.

“The National Assembly today is a bipartisan legislative assembly, whereby we have members from the ruling All Progressives Party (APC) and the PDP. Our decisions are taken not based on partisan consideration but based on the general consideration of the people.

“For those that see the National Assembly as a fighting organization, I think we are happy to disappoint them, we are a conglomerate of Nigerians elected to represent the Nigerian people for the purpose of lawmaking.”

A Senator yesterday told The Guardian that the bill has been returned to the Senate and the House of Representatives, in a letter addressed to the two principal officers. The source said the President cited high cost of conducting direct primaries by INEC, which according to him, hovers around N500 billion.

He also said the President met with INEC chairman, Prof. Yakubu Mahmoud, who briefed him on the dangers the law will pose to the conduct of elections in the coming months.

President of the Senate, Lawan, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Gbajabiamila, are expected to read the content of the President’s letter when next the two chambers reconvene.

MEANWHILE, INEC has told Nigerians that the hope of getting a new electoral framework ahead of the 2023 general elections resides with the National Assembly and Presidency. INEC Commissioner, Festus Okoye, who stated this in Abuja at the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room national stakeholders’ forum on elections, said the new electoral bill was a good sign for the country as it received contributions from Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), office of the Attorney General of the Federation and the nation’s electoral body.

According to Okoye, for the Commission, the country is operating on the existing electoral legal framework, as the amended act was still incumbent, adding that the issue of smart card readers and other electronic devices must be properly imputed into the electoral framework to reduce human interference with the electoral process.

His words: “As far as the Commission is concerned, it is our business to implement the law, it is the business of the National Assembly, the business of the Nigerian people and the business of the Presidency to decide on the state of the law, our business is to make sure that we develop the necessary capacity to implement the improvement of the law.

“The new electoral act is a good sign but as far as INEC is concerned, we are still operating on the existing electoral legal framework and this is because the new one that we want to introduce is still in the works, so, whatever projection we are going to make will still remain tentative till the President signs the new electoral bill into law or the National Assembly uses its legislative power to bring it into law.”

President, Women in Politics Forum, Ebere Ifendu, who said the direct primary was what Nigerian women have been clamoring for, noted that the mode will encourage more women into politics as every member of a political party will now be given equal opportunity to vote for their preferred candidates.
“President Buhari must sign the electoral bill into law because he has made promises, he told us that we are going to have a more credible electoral process and I want to believe that the President is a man of honor,” she said.

Situation room convener, Ene Obi, urged the President to assent to the new electoral bill in good time to allow for preparation for the 2023 general elections.

Noting that the bill contains new provisions that allow for the use of technology in voting, collation of votes, and transmission of results, Obi urged INEC to initiate clear, well-defined, and uncomplicated process implementation of the new electoral law.
 
Former Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, has also charged President Buhari to sign the bill to ensure freer, fairer, and more transparent elections in the country.
 
Saraki said one of the best legacies the President could leave behind is stronger democratic institution noting that the 8th Senate he led passed amendments to the Electoral act four times between 2015 and 2019.

He said: “Nigeria, as a leader on the African continent, must always ensure that the voice of all Nigerians — especially our young people — will be truly heard in government. This can only happen when our electoral laws are seen to have integrity.
 
“We all want to build a nation with strong democratic values that instill confidence in investors. This begins with having a sound electoral act. The amended act on the President’s desk has about 25 amendments. Out of this, it is only four sub-sections on direct primary that are contentious,” Saraki said.
 
According to him, “Nigeria’s democracy stands to gain so much more from the other amendments, than what it will lose from the contentious subsections.”

The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) has equally joined its voice to the call on President Buhari to sign into law, the electoral bill, saying such will represent the most significant legacy of his presidency.

CDD, a pro-democracy, policy, and research think tank, said the proposals in the bill would truly improve the country’s electoral system and the political party’s candidate selection process.

With the successful integration of technology into the electoral process, legal backing for electronic voting and transmission of election results will further President Buhari’s commitment to improving Nigeria’s election.

In a statement signed by its Director, Idayat Hassan, the Centre believes that the next critical step that must be taken is for the assenting into law, the Electoral Bill 2021, particularly as there are two off-cycle elections in Ekiti and Osun States in 2022 and the 2023 general election.



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