BY GODWIN OBI
President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to assent to the electoral act amendment bill drew reactions from several quarters on Tuesday.
While Governors such as Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti and Samuel Ortom of Ekiti lauded the President’s decision, civil society organisations and some federal lawmakers were clearly disappointed.
The National Assembly had transmitted the bill to the President in November but, in a letter dated December 13 and forwarded to the National Assembly, he informed of his decision to withhold his signature.
In his letter, President Buhari cited several issues with the bill’s clause on direct primaries.
The President, according to the letter, explained that direct primaries are expensive. This, he said, will put a financial burden on the country’s resources.
He further noted that conducting direct primary elections will be tasking, explaining that since such mode of election means a large turnout of voters, the move would stretch the security agencies.
The Nigerian leader equally fears that with direct primaries, citizens’ rights will be violated while smaller political parties may face marginalisation.
According to him, the move will also lead to more litigations by party members.
Senators deliberate next move
Senators on Tuesday held closed-door sessions to discuss next steps over the bill.
A Senator of the Peoples Democratic Party, George Sekibo, in an interview with Channels Television said some Senators were considering a veto of the bill.
By law, the National Assembly can bypass presidential assent of a bill into law through a two-third majority vote.
According to Sekibo, a total of 73 signatures have been compiled for the veto.
However, Senate President Lawan adjourned Tuesday’s session till tomorrow (Wednesday) where a decision over the matter is expected to be made.
Reps eye 2022
At the House of Representatives, deliberations over the bill’s setback was shifted to 2022.
Speaker Femi Gbjabiamila revealed this on Tuesday as the lawmakers went on recess for the Christmas and New Year break.
“As it is now, that bill has not received presidential assent, and it falls to parliament to decide the best way forward,” Gbjabiamila told his colleagues. “When we return in the new year, we will resume our efforts to reform the electoral system in our country; and we will do it together.
“That is what the Nigerian people expect of us, and we will do our duty for God and country. As long as this one breathes, it will survive. When we return, we will address it.”
Gbajabiamila explained that the time was short to address the sensitive issue at hand in haste because members were set to proceed on break, and they must pass other important bills such as the 2022 Appropriation Bill and the Finance Bill before doing so.
He stated that the new bill introduced several innovations, besides direct primaries, to help advance the country’s democracy.
The speaker, who commended the lawmakers for the efforts they made to ensure the passage of the bill, reminded them of the Legislative Agenda of the 9th House, which he said must be followed through to its conclusion.
“In the past, election years have witnessed a decline in governance activities as political pursuits cloud the calendar. That will not be the case this time around. As you are aware, we have a legislative agenda in this 9th House of Representatives, which we tagged ‘Our Contract with Nigerians,” he said.
“I expect that we will do everything within our power to keep the commitments we made in that document so that when we appear before our various constituencies, we can stand tall in the knowledge that despite challenges and difficulties, we did what we promised to do and given a chance again, will do even more.”
Civil societies kick
Meanwhile, civil society organisations expressed displeasure at the President’s decision not to assent to the bill.
In a statement signed by its Executive Director, Clement Nwankwo, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) said the situation was “worrying” and “poses a serious threat to the conduct of the forthcoming 2023 Nigerian General Elections.”
However, PLAC urged the National Assembly to review the President’s demands on party primaries “in order to save the other landmark reforms contained in the Electoral Bill 2021, over which the President has expressed no worries.”
“PLAC is also calling on the National Assembly to treat the issue of passing the new Electoral Bill as a matter of national emergency and convene a special session in the shortest possible time and irrespective of their end of year break, to consider a vote for the passage of the Electoral Bill 2021,” the statement added.
Human rights lawyer and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Femi Falana, described President’s Buhari decision as akin to throwing out the baby and the bathwater.
“The reason adduced for the rejection of the Electoral Amendment Bill is grossly misleading,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “Section 87 of the current Electoral Act provides for either direct or indirect primaries. In fact, the APC used direct primary for the emergence of its presidential candidate in 2019. In other words, President Buhari is a beneficiary of direct primary,” he said.
“By rejecting the Bill on the ground that it provided for direct primary the President decided to throw away the baby and the bathwater. Thus, the President rejected electronic voting which he had endorsed when he admitted that he is a beneficiary of electronic accreditation of voters by the use of card readers.
“With respect, direct primary is in consonance with section 223 of the Constitution which has imposed a duty on political parties to elect their officers through democratic elections. There is no provision in the Constitution for the imposition of candidates by money bags through indirect primaries.
“The INEC has submitted a bill of N305 billion for the entire 2023 general elections. So who conjured the figure of N500 billion for the primaries to give the impression that it is an expensive venture? In any case, since electronic voting had been adopted by the National Assembly it was going to be used for both primary and general elections. So the cost would have been significantly reduced. The fear of insecurity is a red herring in that political parties have continued to hold huge rallies even in defiance of Covid 19 restrictions imposed by the Federal Government.
“Having rejected to assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill in 2018 and 2021, President Buhari has confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt that his administration will not allow the Independent National Electoral Commission to conduct credible elections in 2023 and thereafter. That is going to be the tragic legacy of the President and the ruling party that were campaigning for electoral reforms before the 2015 general elections.
“The challenge before the National Assembly is to invoke the provision of section 58 (5) of the Constitution to pass the Bill into law by the resolution of two-thirds majority of the members. However, if the national assembly cannot muster the required two-thirds majority, section 87 of the Act which allows direct or indirect primaries should be left intact so that the other provisions of the Electoral Amendment Bill 2021 can be passed again by the legislators and assented to by the President.”
Praise for Buhari
After meeting with the President on Tuesday, Ekiti State Governor and Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Kayode Fayemi praised the decision to withhold assent on the electoral bill.
Speaking to State House correspondents after meeting with the President in his office, the Fayemi said it does not matter to the governors which mode is adopted for the conduct of primaries.
The governor, who is also the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, dismissed talks that the President was simply conceding to the wishes of the governors.
While noting that the President’s desire is to see that all options are provided for, there is an exaggerated expectation that direct primaries will resolve electoral challenges in the country.
“I think all of us should be happy with that we shouldn’t really dwell too much on there’s been this exaggerated expectation that direct primaries is going to provide all answers to whatever electoral challenges that we have faced,” he said.
The Governor noted that both direct and indirect primaries have unique challenges and called for options to be provided.
Benue State Governor Ortom also commended the President’s decision.
“I want to use this opportunity again on behalf of people that are represented here in Benue State to commend Mr. President for withholding assent on the process of primaries of various political parties,” he said at a briefing at the end of the meeting of the State Executive Council on Tuesday in Makurdi.
“I am appealing to the National Assembly to reconsider the clause that allows for only direct primaries, and all the reasons that Mr. President advanced concerning the support for him withholding his assent are deeply appreciated.
“I assure you that as a veteran politician who had the privilege to witness direct primaries, witness indirect primaries, and witness consensus primaries, and someone who has the privilege to be a member of various political parties, it was almost unanimous that the issue of primaries should be the responsibility of various political parties.”