Much ado about Electoral Bill 2021 and the 2023 elections

General Muhammadu Buhari, at the tail end of 2021, refused to sign the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 into law to save Nigeria’s democracy. The president’s Senior Special Assistant on Media, Garba Shehu, made this known in a statement titled, ‘In amending the electoral act, the nation first, always for Mr. President’.

Garba said, “Rather, the proposed amendments entail significant legal, financial, economic and security consequences for all Nigerians, principal among which would be a severe spike in the cost of holding primary elections by parties – integral to democracies the world over.

And who would shoulder these costs? The Nigerian taxpayer of course. And who would benefit? Only the richest of political parties. At a time when the nation is seeking to extricate itself from the economic mire of the worst global health crisis in living memory, whatever other merits the new bill may have, now is not the time for such frivolous spending of public money.”

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A letter written by President Buhari to the National Assembly explained that the inclusion of a provision for compulsory adoption of the direct primary model was the reason he did not sign Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 into law.

The conduct of direct primaries across the 8,809 wards across the length and breadth of the country will lead to a significant spike in the cost of conducting primary elections by parties as well as an increase in the cost of monitoring such elections by INEC who has to deploy monitors across these wards each time a party is to conduct direct primaries for the presidential, gubernatorial and legislative posts,” he wrote.

The president added, “In addition to increased costs identified above, conducting and monitoring primary elections across 8,809 wards will pose huge security challenges as the security agencies will also be overstretched, direct primaries will be open to participation from all and sundry and such large turn-out without effective security coordination will also engender intimidation and disruptions, thereby raising credibility issues for the outcomes of such elections.”

Disagreeing with civil society organisations (CSOs), who argue that direct primaries would whittle down the role of money in the country’s political system, Buhari said the provision would further aggravate the issue of ‘money politics’ in the country.

The letter did not give any indication that President Buhari would give his assent to the electoral bill if the National Assembly removes the contentious provision for compulsory adoption of the direct primary model.

INEC has declared its readiness to monitor direct primaries of political parties if President Buhari signs the amended Electoral Bill into law. “Since it emerged that the direct primary clause was included in the Electoral Act amendment Bill, many of you have been asking the Commission for its position. The issue is not about our position but the process. In the exercise of its constitutional power, the National Assembly has passed the Bill into law awaiting presidential assent. Once the process is concluded, the Bill becomes law and every person and authority in Nigeria, including the Commission, must obey,” the chairman of INEC, Mahmood Yakubu, said.

In response to President Buhari’s letter, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, observed that what Nigerians deserve is a credible electoral law and process, which they must get. He said, “The amendment regarding direct or indirect primary was moved by me and I initiated it for good reason simply for the people to participate during elections. People come around every four years and campaign for parties. For me, it doesn’t make sense that the same people are not able to have a voice in who represents them.

So, I thought one way to reform the system and make it more accountable is for them to have a voice in determining who represents them as opposed to two or three people taking that decision.”

However, expected amendments to the rejected electoral bill will be swift just as the document will be reintroduced to the House of Representatives on Wednesday for a possible rework, the Speaker said.

In his welcome address after the Christmas and New year break, the President of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan said, “the Senate postponed discussions on the consideration of the response of Mr President on the Electoral Act 2010 Amendment Bill to enable us consult with our counter parts in the House of Representatives and also consult with our Constituents. Like we all know, the Senate and indeed the National Assembly worked so hard on the Bill. Having consulted, the Senate will expeditiously look into the issue.”

If this means reviewing the bill to remove parts that deal with direct primaries, then the Assembly’s argument for total inclusion is defeated. But, until the final passage by the National Assembly, state governors across party lines made agitated moves against the clause for direct primaries.

Direct primaries involve the participation of all registered members of a party in the selection of the party’s candidates. Though Section 87 (1-2) of the Electoral Act (2010) states that, “A political party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this Act shall hold primaries for aspirants to all elective positions. The procedure for the nomination of candidates by political party for the various elective positions shall be by direct or indirect primaries.” This is one of the parts the Assembly has moved to amend.

But, Jide Ojo, a political analyst, and socio commentator has a different opinion. In an interview, with Premium Times, Jide argues that both direct and indirect primaries are susceptible to manipulation. “Whether you do direct or indirect primary, there are problems. If the rule of law will not be followed, if there would be no internal party democracy, if due process would not be allowed and you know we are talking about the primary, there is a leg to conducting the primary and that is screening of candidates,” he said.

Bonnie Ayodele, a professor of Political Science, argues that the National Assembly may be overstepping. “My disagreement is about the legislature deciding how the political parties should arrive at their primaries. For me, that is an over-do. You cannot legislate that or constitutionalise it. Parties should be free enough to know how they arrive at their primaries,” he said.

A former Chairman of INEC, Prof. Attahiru Jega said, “The challenge is what the National Assembly introduced in the Electoral Bill which is without serious contemplation. It is very important that we have a lot of legal framework. I think clearly that the electoral process would have better integrity if we do direct primaries appropriately. Any governor that manipulates direct primaries can also manipulate the primaries indirectly.”

Meanwhile, INEC has said that continued delay in the assent to the Electoral Act (2010) amendment bill may affect the adoption of the new amendments for the 2023 general elections. The commission said though it operates based on the existing legal regime, it was important to have the law that would guide the elections in place at least 12 to 18 months before the exercise.

The commission has said it will not release the 2023 general election timetable until the Electoral Act Amendment Bill is signed into law. Mahmood said, “the Commission is encouraged by the Senate President’s assurance to give priority attention to the Bill when the National Assembly reconvenes from its recess today, and the commitment by the President to assent to the Bill as soon as the issue of mode of primaries by political parties is resolved. We look forward to a speedy passage of the Bill, which is crucial to our preparations for future elections.

The Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 seeks to amend some provisions of the extant Electoral Act 2010, and we look forward to President Buhari signing these amendments before it becomes too late.

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