Rejection of Electoral Act amendment, odious politics — The PUNCH Editorial

Posted by News Express | 24 December 2021 | 835 times

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•President Buhari


NIGERIA’S democracy is at a crossroads. This is writ large in the refusal of the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 that the National Assembly transmitted to him in November. Citing a litany of reasons, especially the odious direct primaries clause, Buhari turned down the bill a full 30 days after he received it from the parliament. The rejection has generated unnecessary distraction for the electoral umpire and political tensions across the land.

The only way the self-serving NASS can repair its damaged reputation is to swiftly rework the bill for presidential assent as soon as it resumes in 2022. It should separate the internal working of political parties from the all-important task of enacting a law that entrenches essential reforms, especially the use of technology; and in good time before the next election cycle in 2023.

The PUNCH insists that the mode of selection of candidates by political parties is a private, internal affair of the parties that should never be coupled with a national electoral law aimed at cleaning up Nigeria’s putrid and violent elections. Legislating the conduct of primaries and uniformity among all parties, and tying this to the fate of the electoral law, is mischievous and diversionary. The charade must end.

One thing is clear: the political class is playing games with democracy again. Since 2015, efforts to upgrade the electoral law by deploying technology have failed primarily because of manoeuvrings by the NASS and the political class. On three separate occasions, Buhari turned down the electoral amendment bill between 2018 and 2019.

More than two years after, it seems no lesson has been learnt as the fresh attempt to amend the Electoral Act to provide for electronic transmission of results is now mired in a divisive storm. In the past few days, the media has been awash with Buhari’s rejection of the amended bill over the inclusion of the direct primaries clause. This is a huge setback for elections in Nigeria, primarily because the most remarkable clause in the bill – the e-transmission of results from the polling units to the Independent National Electoral Commission server – has also been thrown away with it.

In fairness to Buhari, some of his reasons are certainly genuine. His take that direct primaries are unconstitutional, expensive, marginalise the small parties and place a huge cost burden on INEC resonates. In an era of violent Islamism, banditry, and Fulani herdsmen rapine, it will exacerbate the insecurity when people gather in the 8,809 wards across the country for the primaries.

Buhari said, “The amendment as proposed is a violation of the underlying spirit of democracy, which is characterised by freedom of choices. Political party membership is a voluntary exercise of the constitutional right to freedom of association.” This is well-argued.

Undeniably, it is illogical for an electoral law to legislate how parties choose their candidates. You cannot also prescribe same method of selecting candidates for every party. Each party should have the freedom to choose its own path. The best global practice is to allow a political party to define the method it will use in choosing its candidates, and lodge its constitutions and regulations with the electoral authorities.

So, where did NASS get its own idea, which has now engendered tension? The lawmakers, under Ahmed Lawan, the Senate President, and Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of Representatives, should not allow those bent on truncating the e-transmission of results in the Electoral Act to succeed. Initially, the NASS refused to include e-voting in the amendment, despite its inclusion being canvassed at a public hearing by most stakeholders. In July, the Senate rejected it when Lawan argued puerilely that Nigeria was not ripe for e-transmission of results.

Later, the Senate controversially granted the Nigerian Communications Commission the power over INEC to determine when e-voting would occur; “while the National Assembly must approve before INEC can transmit election results.” In today’s digital age, where technology is providing solutions for all human endeavours, this is retrogressive. It makes Nigeria’s elections perpetually open to the criminal manipulations of politicians.

But after a national outcry, the parliament made a U-turn. Both chambers agreed on e-voting. This was hailed as a new dawn. But the relief was short-lived. At that critical juncture, the parliament cavalierly inserted the direct primaries clause out of nowhere. This torpedoed all the good work it had done earlier and rendered all the amendments a waste of time and money. Many stakeholders have alleged a hidden agenda, as even before the bill was transmitted to Buhari, they had foretold a ploy to deny Nigeria the e-transmission of election results by provoking a presidential veto of the entire bill.

Both the NASS and Buhari share the blame for the current impasse. For Buhari, it was about self-preservation when he had a golden opportunity to instil decorum into the electoral law in 2018. He flunked it. He based his rejection then mainly on the reordering of the election sequence, grammatical flaws, and that it was too close to the 2019 general election. Nigeria thereby lost a massive opportunity to clean up its corrupt electoral system. It is now the turn of the NASS, by injecting a time bomb in the form of the direct primaries.

This is not what happens in other climes. In the United States, no law imposes a uniform primary election system on political parties. Party primary elections vary widely from state to state. By their independent state laws, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Florida, Nevada, Oregon, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania use the ‘closed primaries.’ Connecticut, Idaho, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah run with the ‘partially closed primaries.’ The ‘partially open’ primaries states are Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Iowa, and Wyoming. Alabama, Michigan, Montana, Vermont, Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Hawaii, Missouri, and Texas are the ‘open primaries’ states. This is true democracy in action.

Sadly, the NASS similarly threw away some salient provisions during the constitution amendment in 2006 because of the ‘third term’ clause. This was repeated in 2014 with the attempts to amend the constitution along the lines of true federalism. Among other clauses, the 2014 amendments prescribed independent candidacy, outlawed government’s sponsorship of religious pilgrimages and approved special courts. To cut costs, the President is to choose the Vice-President from the legislature. Most importantly, the amendment discarded local governments as the third tier of government. This is true federalism, as practised in the US, Germany, Australia, and Canada. But Jonathan, who convened the conference and Buhari, his successor, gave tenuous excuses not to implement those aspects of the report that did not require constitution amendment.

Commendably, INEC has been making incremental improvements to the electoral system since 2015 when it introduced the Permanent Voter Card and Smart Card Reader for elections. It has also upgraded the system to use the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, a better technology that was deployed during the off-season November 6 governorship election in Anambra State. But it is better when these items are part of a written electoral law, knowing that in Nigeria, the courts often use technicalities to knock out these noble initiatives.

Nigeria is crumbling at the seams. It has been significantly weakened by its poor electoral system that allows thieves, mediocrities, and incompetent politicians to attain high office. In many instances, instead of the will of the people prevailing, it is the increasingly tainted courts that determine the fate of Nigerians. Therefore, all stakeholders, particularly civil society and the citizens, should stand up for democracy, pointing the way forward to the lawmakers. The NASS should be made to realise its brinksmanship in inserting the direct primaries clause in the amendment bill, pressured to delete it and return it to Buhari for assent early in 2022. Everything should be done to get the law ready in good time and well ahead of the 2023 elections.

This will save the ninth NASS from the opprobrium it has visited on itself, and grant INEC enough time to integrate electronic transmission and other technologies into the electoral system.

Source: News Express

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