With barely 365 days to Nigeria’s sixth General Elections in the Fourth Republic, the countdown has already begun. The elections umpire- the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had a fortnight ago, set the ball rolling with the release of the Timetable and Schedule of activities for the 2019 General Election. And like students caught in the frenzy of exam fever, politicians are feeling the heat, while the electorate, like examiners, are basking in the euphoria.
At the release of the election timetable in Abuja, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu reeled out 14 activities ranging from when party primaries will be conducted, when candidates’ names should be filed and when campaigns will start and end. The date for the collection of nomination forms by political parties for national and state elections begins from August 11 to 24, 2018. Conduct of party primaries including the resolution of disputes arising from primaries, was fixed, for August 18, 2018 to October 7, 2018 for national and state elections. Commencement of campaign by political parties is billed for November 18 for Presidential and National Assembly Elections; December 1 for Governorship and State Assembly elections. The last day for the submission of nomination forms to INEC is December 3, 2018 for Presidential and National Assembly Elections and December 17 for Governorship and State Assembly. INEC equally fixed the last day for campaigns for February 14, 2019 for Presidential and National Assembly Elections as well as February 28, 2018 for Governorship and State Assembly elections.
Prior to this, INEC had on March 9, 2017, set dates for the Presidential and National Assembly elections indicating that the presidential election would hold on February 16, 2019, while the governorship and state assembly elections would be conducted on March 2, 2019. Prof. Mahmood then hinted that henceforth, Presidential and National Assembly elections will hold on the third Saturday of the month of February of each election year, while governorship and state assembly elections will hold two weeks later. He buttressed that the timetable was aimed at engendering certainty in Nigeria’s electoral calendar, adding that it would enable all stakeholders to prepare adequately for elections as obtains in developing democracies. Prof. Mahmood explained that INEC has chosen to depart from past practice when dates were announced close to elections.
However, a cursory look at the timetable shows that the INEC Chairman, chose not to alter the order of voting set up during the 2015 polling process where the presidential elections were conducted first. This, according to political stakeholders seems to imply that he has chosen to toe along with the schedule mapped out by his predecessor to enthrone some consistency in the timing of elections. “The 2015 General Election was a watershed in the history of our democracy. The Commission is determined to build on this legacy by ensuring that our elections keep getting better”, Yakubu pledged.
Looking back from 1999, the calendar of elections has not always been stable. Sometimes the legislative elections come before executive elections, then at another time it is reversed, and still some other time the legislative elections got lumped with the executive. When the process for Nigeria’s return to democracy kicked off, the military led government of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubarkar having set up INEC, with the late Justice Ephraim Akpata as chairman to organize the 1999 elections the timetable placed State/National Legislative elections before that of Gubernatorial/Presidential. Both elections were held on February 20-27 1999 respectively. Then the 2003 second General Elections midwifed by the then INEC chairman, Mr. Abel Guobadia kept the status quo on the order of election calendar, but moved the election month from February to April 12-19. In the 2007 Elections, the INEC chairman Prof. Maurice Iwu maintained the format with elections holding in April, but tweaked the sequence of the election. Iwu opted to conduct the State Legislative/Gubernatorial elections, before the National Legislative/Presidential elections. That order was once again altered with the appointment of Prof. Attahiru Jega as INEC chairman for the 2011 Elections. Prof. Jega allowed elections to hold in April, but changed the procedure of the elections. His timetable placed the conduct of the State/National Legislative election before Gubernatorial/Presidential.
Although the election was marred with bloodshed in some parts of the north, the then president, Goodluck Jonathan retained Prof. Jega as INEC chairman. And Jega, for the first time in Nigeria’s history, became the first national electoral commission Chairman to handle two successive general elections; a move many believed was a plus for experience. However, at the approach of the 2015 General Elections, Jega made sweeping changes in the election schedule he used in 2011. This time, elections were moved back up to February, though it was later postponed to March because of security challenges. The schedule stipulated that the National Legislative/Presidential polls were to be conducted first, and then followed by the State Legislative/ Gubernatorial elections. It was an election that raised lots of dust, and marks the first time an incumbent president lost re-election in Nigeria.
Political party leaders had after the release of the Timetable, expressed satisfaction and commended INEC for the stability and the timeliness. One of them, the National Chairman of National Conscience Party, Dr Yunusa Tanko, described the release of the timetable as a step in the right direction. “It will help political parties to start preparing in time. It will also help them to put all machineries in motion. You know it takes time to organise candidates and ensure their forms are ready for submission to INEC. Early release of the timetable should put them in check for re-election or handover,’’. Also the National Chairman of National Unity Party, Chief Perry Opara, agreed and hailed INEC. “It is very good; politicians and political parties can now plan; nobody will say that he was taken unawares. This is how it is done in civilised countries.’’ The Lagos State Secretary of Inter-Party Advisory Council, Mr Shola Omolola, said that the INEC action would impact positively on the general elections. “It will allow stakeholders to prepare well for the elections; it will ensure that politicians have an action plan for the election. It shows that our democracy is growing in line with international standards – with advanced democracies, where citizens are sure of the electoral calendar,’’ Omolola said.
Amid all the applause and acclaim, and belief that we now have a steady Election Timetable, the House of Representatives took a critical look at the election schedule and decided to re-jig it. And last Tuesday, barely one month after the release of the Timetable, the lawmakers reshuffled the order of election, voting that the National Assembly election would come first, and then followed by the governorship and state assembly elections, while the Presidential election would come last.
During the sitting presided by the Deputy Speaker, Yussuff Lasun, the lawmakers amended the Act while considering the report of the House Committee on Electoral Matters which proposed amendment of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended). The House amended section 25 of the Principal Act and substituted it with a new section 25 (1). According to the section, the elections shall be held in the following order: (a) National Assembly election (b) State Houses of Assembly and Governorship elections (c) Presidential election.
The House also amended parts of the electoral law that deals with the sequence of primaries of political parties, deaths of contestants before the conclusion of elections, and also made increments in the limitation of election expenses to be incurred by candidates for presidential, governorship, national and state legislative and even the local government chairmanship and councillorship elections.
However, the altering of the election timetable by the House has been greeted with mixed reactions from politicians, and civil rights activists. While some express suspicion, others describe it as a welcome development. For Mr. Joe Nkamuke, the Deputy-Director of the Justice and Peace Development Commission (JDPC), the change in the order of the polls is purely political, and smacks of suspicion. “On the face value, the National Assembly has the right to make laws. But our present crop of lawmakers are very controversial and most of them have a lot of baggage. And I tell you that the decision of the Lower House has taken, is purely political. The question we should ask is ‘why now?’ why have they chosen to amend the electoral law, just when INEC issued the Timetable for election. There is no way they can justify that. Their aim for putting the National Assembly election first on the timetable is to purely secure their positions and then position themselves to control the other elections. And this amended timetable by the House would create a bandwagon effect on our polling process”, Mr. Nkamuke said in a chat with Sunday Sun.
Also, a political science lecturer, Dr. Kayode Oni decried Nigeria’s inability to have a consistent Timetable whenever there is an election. “Consistency in our election timetable is very vital. But talks and the fear of band-wagon effects and multiple agendas have continued to see us shuffling and reshuffling the timetable. Prof. Mahmood’s timetable was good enough and was embraced by most political parties. And I’m yet to hear the lawmakers give us reasons for the amendments in the Electoral Act just few weeks after INEC released the Timetable. My fear is that, I hope the change in the Timetable was not with ulterior motives like selfishness to protect the political interests of the lawmakers.”
On the flipside, politician and rights activist, Comrade Uche Amechi faulted the INEC timetable, describing it as a template that would spur a bandwagon effect. He also applauded the National Assembly for making the necessary changes to the timetable. “The order in 2011 was National Assembly first, presidential, governorship and State House of Assembly elections. I think the presidential election should come last. That has been the correct thing; you deal from the bottom; you don’t start from the air. I believe what the House altered the timetable to avoid bandwagon effect which noticeably played out during the last elections in 2015. So they should be commended.”
Barrister Aham Njoku, political strategist, lawyer and former coordinator, Amnesty International in Nigeria agrees. “INEC cannot be more in touch with people than the politicians themselves. They are a regulatory agency, while the House is closer and feel the pulse of the electorate more. Since we have 68 political parties; it would be rowdy to have three polls in one day, as INEC has on the timetable. It may drag elections into the night and even the next day. So it is good that the elections have been staggered in three weeks. What the House did is very commendable. They spread out the elections to three weeks instead of two. People shouldn’t react negatively to this because that was how it used to be in 1999.
“The changes were done to prevent bandwagon effect, and would go on to lessen the work on INEC during the Election Day. We have 68 political parties now, so it won’t be like before when we had fewer political parties. Back then, INEC could afford to conduct the polls in two weeks. But now, the electorates have to be careful in searching the parties they would vote for. So there is nothing wrong with what the lawmakers have done. It is a wonderful move. Now, those vying for positions would have to settle and face their election. Those vying for the legislative position would face their election; those for the state would focus on their own, while presidential aspirants would focus on theirs. I think the new bill is very much welcome. I pray and believe the Senate would go on and back the Lower house move. But what I don’t know is if the President would like to sign amendments into law.”
The nation now waits to see if the senate will give concurrence to the move by the House.