Concerns have been mounting in recent times with an array of stakeholders expressing fear that the country may yet go into the next elections without the right legal framework to ensure a credible, free and fair election.
But, attempts to get the Presidency’s reaction on the issue continue to be rebuffed as presidential aides shunned prodding for insight on the matter. Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, did not respond to a mail seeking clarification, while Garba Shehu, a Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, directed The Guardian to seek audience with the President’s Liaison Aides on Legislative Matters.
Yet, Senator Babajide Omoworare, President Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on National Assembly matters (Senate), did not pick calls made to him nor did he respond to a text message on the matter.
Recall that in 2016, the 8th Assembly, based on recommendations from stakeholders, including several civil society organisations (CSOs), pressure and observer groups, set to work on the 2015 Electoral Act to push for far-reaching reforms and scale down on post-election controversies.
Rationalising the reforms, the then Senate President, Bukola Saraki had said, “What we have done with the bill is to raise the level of transparency, credibility and acceptability of our electoral process. We made sure that if the law is assented to and honestly applied by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and all those concerned, it would give us an election that will be better than what we had in 2015.”
The Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2018, passed by the National Assembly, sought deeper reforms, key among which is electronic voting and transmission of results – meaning that the entire registration, accreditation, vote counting, collation and announcement chain would be achieved electronically. Parts of the reforms include, the introduction of electronic voting and use of technology in elections; factoring in youth and persons with disabilities in political party structures and elections; regulating election expenses, and increasing penalties for electoral offenders and consequential constitutional amendments. Others are Diaspora voting, increasing the participation of women, enshrining the smart card reader in the legal framework and creating an electoral offences commission and tribunal.
But, President Buhari, however, declined assent to the bill, citing a number of reasons. He expressed concern that passing a new electoral bill at a time the nation had gone far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create uncertainties about the applicable legislation to govern the process.
The 2023 elections are now months away with the desired amendments to the Act still in abeyance. Last Thursday, the Senate said the amendment of the Electoral Act would be concluded before the end of the current legislative session in June 2021, but warned that rushing the amendment Act could push the country into a repeat of similar experience that compelled President Buhari to withhold assent in 2018.
Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, announced that passage of the Act is one of the issues that would be concluded as soon as the Senate returns from the Sallah break on May 18, 2021, to enable Mr. President have the time to study it before assent.
Reacting to enquiries about the delay in concluding work on the new Act, the Senate Committee on INEC, told The Guardian that the National Assembly is being careful not to rush the passage of the Bill in such a manner that could attract so much lapses capable of compelling the President to withhold his assent.
Chairman of the Committee, Senator Kabiru Gaya said: “We are trying to make sure that we don’t have a repeat of the 2019 case, where the Electoral Act Bill passed by the National Assembly was not signed.”
The lawmaker, whose committee is currently processing the Electoral Act amendment bill, added: “The Senate is making sure that we carry the government along, because in all our deliberations, we have a representative of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation. Sometimes, he comes by himself; when he cannot come, he sends judicial officers to attend our meetings even during retreats. We met with the attorney general’s office, even during technical committee meetings.
“The Attorney General is the ear of the President when you are making laws. He advises the President on laws. That is the reason we refer our laws to the Attorney General’s office for comments. So, if they are part of us and we had all these collaboration with them and come to conclusion on how it is supposed to be, I am sure that the President will concur to the bill. These are the ways through which we are trying to prevent the issue of the President rejecting the bill and I hope and believe that it will only be sent back to Senate after the President has signed the document,” he stressed.
Gaya noted that another method adopted to ensure a quick passage of the Electoral Act amendment bill was through the joint efforts of the two chambers of the National Assembly.
He stated: “Both the House and the Senate are working on one paper and document. We don’t have to do our public hearing in one day and the House on another day. We have all agreed on that.
“It involves the leaderships of both chambers. They are cooperating with us and working as a team working on one bill. Even during the public hearing, the members and the chair were all at the meeting. So, the process is being followed duly; we are not dragging or delaying it.”
NATIONAL chairman of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Prince Uche Secondus, reacting to the delay in passing the Electoral Act amendment bill, declared that Nigerians expected the National Assembly to push through the reform in such a way that the final outcome would ensure a transparent, free and fair election in 2023.
Secondus explained that the electoral reform is not only key to transparent elections but will restore confidence to the ordinary voter. He said: “If the National Assembly will act quickly as possible, table that reform of the Electoral laws and pass it for the President to sign into law, even the international community and our international partners will have more confidence in our electoral system, and that can check all malpractices and everything evil associated with our elections, especially transmission of results.
According to Secondus, transmission of election results should be done electronically, so that we can cut off the gathering of people from the ward levels, LGAs, the state and to the centre in Abuja.
“We believe in one man, one vote. All votes should count and as a party, we are ready to conduct ourselves by the rules,” he added. Dr John Nwobodo, a lawyer and former Enugu State Chairman of the Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC), however averred that the National Assembly should be blamed for the failed amendments, as it ought to have been more thorough in its work. “The reasons adduced by the President for withholding assent were strong and valid. If not so, the National Assembly will have exercised the option to override the President’s veto. However, the National Assembly can minimise the high turnout of unassented bills by seeking the comment of the President’s office after the second reading of any bill. The President will at that stage express any reservations he might have concerning the bill or any provisions therein. The National Assembly will then have the opportunity to reflect on the comments and where they consider the comment reasonable, make relevant adjustments. This way, the President will at the transmission of the bill for his assent not hesitate to assent to it,” Nwobodo explained.
DIRECTOR of Programme, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, observed that a lot of INEC’s innovation that would lead to improvement in the electoral process are not supported by the current electoral act.
According to her, the electronic voting, a fundamental deployment, requires legal backing to ensure that the process is not challenged in court and the outcome of elections not overturned on that ground.
Citing instance of the Smart Card Reader deployed by INEC to accredit voters in elections, Mbamalu said the courts have consistently ruled that the data from the Card readers cannot substitute the figures in voter’s register and cannot be relied on to challenge the quality of elections because it was not captured in the current electoral framework.
While stressing the urgent need for the passage of the bill, Mbamalu added: “The ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance in Section II Article 2(1) prohibits substantial modification to the Electoral Laws in the last six (6) months before the elections.
This is a demand on member states and part of the process of ensuring that there is no arbitrary change in the laws towards an election and that the Election Management body and stakeholders are familiar with the electoral law.
However, the protocol provides an exception to this prohibition if the consent of a majority of political actors is sought and received in support of the modification to the Electoral Law six months before the elections.”
But, for the Chief Press Secretary to INEC Chairman, Rotimi Oyekanmi, the body sees nothing that would stop the passage of the Electoral Amendment Bill or any deliberate attempt by politicians to scuttle the process. This is because, according to him, there are assurances from both chambers that the Bill will be passed in a matter of months.
“We understand that the Committees responsible for the Bill in both Chambers have been working at an increased pace. The current pressure coming from stakeholders is sure to encourage the legislators to move even faster,” he disclosed.