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Needless fuss about election sequence

Ever since controversy over election sequence took the centre stage in the polity, I have had to take some time out to look at the Electoral Act 2010 Amendment Bill. My intention was to, in the main, find out what the National Assembly and President Muhammadu Buhari intend to achieve with their fixation on positions already taken. My findings, I must say, were saddening. History is repeating itself in the country, with different actors.

Eleven years after a well-thought-out Constitution amendment, which would have, in one way or another, straightened the Constitution and, by extension, democracy, was aborted because of a single provision (Third Term or tenure elongation), the same thing is about to happen. Now, both the executive and the legislature are flexing muscles and, therefore, on the verge of throwing away the baby and the bath water. Mind you, I am not saying that Third Term, as desired by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, was good. Certainly not! Obasanjo’s Third Term or tenure elongation plot was wrong. It was an attempted coup aimed at self-perpetuation. However, the provision on Third Term could have been isolated from the Constitution amendment of 2007, so that the other provisions being amended could be concluded. The National Assembly, at that time, took the easy way out, which, incidentally, was the lazy man’s approach, and buried the entire exercise. With that, the opportunity of making the Constitution better was lost.

As it was in 2007, when Third Term dwarfed other provisions in the constitution amendment, the controversy over which election should come first and which should come last has subsumed the salient points in the Electoral Act 2010 Amendment Bill. Now, the majority of Nigerians think that the Electoral Act amendment is just about the order of elections, whereas it is about many things put together. As usual, politics has taken the better part of the actors. And the consequence is simple: Nigeria, as a nation, and Nigerians, as a people, are going to pay the price. Yes, if the Electoral Act amendment is dropped, following President Buhari’s refusal to assent to the Bill, the following would equally be lost: The provision on Instant Electronic Transmission of results, aimed at forestalling rigging; provision authorising the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to load the voters’ register online as well as posting the hard copies at designated centres one month before the election; the provision for full biometric accreditation of voters with smart card readers and/or other technological devices, which is the legalisation of card readers’ use; provision on fees aspirants could be charged by political parties to purchase nomination forms, as against the arbitrary practice of parties charging whatever they like; provision on substitution, resignation and replacement of candidates for elections; and provision on death of a candidate while the election results are being expected, as it happened in Kogi State in 2016, among others.

To be sure, by refusing to assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, President Buhari puts these provisions in jeopardy, simply because he thinks the provision on sequence of elections infringes on the Constitution. However, the pertinent question is: Does this provision really infringe on the Constitution? For the avoidance of doubt, the Constitution says that the INEC should fix the date of elections, while the provision in the Electoral Act only stated that National Assembly election will be held first, without fixing any date. These are two different things.  The INEC has fixed dates, in February 2019, for the elections, but the National Assembly, through the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, said legislative elections should hold first, before the presidential election. These are not the same. It is clear and unambiguous.

However, come to think of it, what does it matter which election comes first? Anybody seeking elective office should be ready for elections any day by fulfilling his or her responsibility and, by so doing, winning the people’s trust and confidence. It is when the candidates or aspirants are not sure of the reaction of the electorate that they worry about sequence of election. And for INEC, it is really absurd that the electoral commission is also involved in the controversy. The INEC should rather worry about conducting credible elections than the sequence of polls. The commission cannot insist on its order of elections against the law. If the National Assembly overrides President Buhari and the Electoral Act Amendment Bill becomes law, INEC has no choice but to obey. Doing otherwise would be unlawful.

Looking at the other provisions of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, I am persuaded that the National Assembly should be commended. The lawmakers have taken measures to solve some “constitution” crisis. However, I think, going forward, the National Assembly should do one of these two things: Override the President’s veto or revisit the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, with the view to expunging the provision on election sequence. Supporting the overriding of Buhari’s veto is borne out of the strong belief that the interest of the country is far more important than one man’s interest. I have a feeling that the Presidency is afraid that if the presidential election holds last or behind the National Assembly poll, it would dim Buhari’s chances. If this is the case, what has this got to do with the nation? We should think more about transparent and less controversial elections, which some of the provisions of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill tend to address, rather than being swayed by the wishes of one individual, who will leave office one day, while the country continues to exist.

The National Assembly should, therefore, exercise its powers and override the President. What the lawmakers should know is that, as representatives of the people, they are, more or less, the conscience of the nation. They have to, therefore, rise above political and ethnic affiliations or sentiment and do their job. That was what the parliament of South Africa did a few weeks ago when federal lawmakers decided that they were going to pass a vote of no confidence in former President Jacob Zuma. Zuma saw the writing on the wall and heeded the advice to resign. He threw in the towel. And nationalsim won. Since the National Assembly mustered the votes to pass the amendment, they should collectively also garner the votes to override the President. By so doing, they would be sending a message to the effect that the legislature cannot be an appendage of the executive, that the National Assembly is ready to play its role as a check on the executive and that the principle of separation of power is well understood in Nigeria.

On the other hand, the National Assembly members could play the role of statesmen by not falling for the trap aimed at killing all the provisions of the amendment just because of election sequence provision. As the lawmakers have decided to look at the Electoral Act Amendment Bill again, they should consider expunging the controversial part relating to election sequence. They could do this in order not to cut the nose to spite the face. If election sequence is expunged and the President still refuses to assent to the Bill, it will then become obvious that the government is not only selfish but also uninterested in deepening democracy. If the National Assembly takes this option, it would have shown maturity, not cowardice. It is more important to ensure the transparency and credibility of elections than the order of polls. It is more important that a repeat of the Kogi constitution crisis, when the late Abubakar Audu, who was on the verge of winning a governorship election, died before the result was announced, is forestalled in future than quarrelling about election sequence. It is more beneficial to Nigerians that card readers are legalised, so that there will be no situation whereby its usage is, more or less, by discretion, giving room for manipulation of elections. It is important to secure election results than to split hairs about the order of elections.

These are things that would be achieved if the Electoral Act Amendment Bill becomes law. It will be a win-win situation.

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Online Editor: Aderonke Bello
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