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Electoral bill matter: Has the N/Assembly the final say?

It is no more news that President Muhamadu Buhari had since declined assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021, passed and transmitted to him…

It is no more news that President Muhamadu Buhari had since declined assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021, passed and transmitted to him by the National Assembly. The President had cited as the central plank for declining assent, the bill’s provision of mandatory direct primaries by political parties in selecting candidates for elective offices. He therefore favours a reversal to the provision of liberty for political parties to choose between direct and indirect primaries, depending on which one serves their purpose and as provided for in the current Electoral Act. With this development the dynamics of the issue have simply transmitted to the terrain of conjecture, if the circumstances of Nigeria’s political terrain are anything to go by.  

In this regard is also one of two possible outcomes under consideration. First is the question of whether the N/Assembly will deploy its constitutional powers to override the President and allow the legislation see the light of day as passed by  it. That option seems to have been overtaken by current developments. The other is whether the legislature will eat the humble pie and concede to the President the amendments to the bill as he desires. In the circumstance, the second option seems likely to hold whenever the institution resumes from its end-of-year break. This second option may entail the National Assembly expunging the ‘offensive’ clause a resending the bill to the President for assent. This is now advisable given the peculiar history of failed efforts in the past to amend the Electoral Act. In effect Nigerians should expect a yet newer Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021.   

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of the Nigerian political terrain, this amendment desired by the President offers more than meets the eye, hence there are already several swirling dramatic plots around it, and which may not abate in a hurry. Left to some Nigerians, this unending drama of amending the Electoral Act may end up as a merry-go-round affair that will start and end just as a non-starter.  Nobody should be surprised if at the end of the day Nigeria goes into 2023 polls with the extant Electoral Act, for whatever reason. 

Interestingly the starting point of this re-reworking phase remains the role of the National Assembly in the wake of the President’s decline of assent, since it has the final say on the matter constitutionally, but not in practice.  This is where many Nigerians are already wary of the response from the National Assembly, especially the current Ninth Assembly which has on more than one occasion, demonstrated undue deference and subservience to the Executive arm on matters that ordinarily demand its independence in discretion. Even on this matter the institution has leaked enough signals to discourage whoever expects any affirmative action from it with respect to challenging President Muhamadu Buhari.  

It did not surprise many observers that as soon as the President made his position clear, conflicting signals emanated from the National Assembly, over how to respond to the Presidency. For instance, the Senate went into a closed session to discuss in ‘tongues’, only to come out without any definite message for the country, other than that the matter be resolved by individual Senators with their constituents during the vacation. The House of Representatives did not fare better in keeping its response also blowing in the wind.  As if ‘mother luck’ would offer them a reprieve, the President’s decline of assent came up just as the two chambers were due for their annual vacation, with the situation granting them an alibi to treat the matter as one of personal volition.  

Meanwhile, even as the federal legislators may be enjoying their vacation the country still needs them to move forward on the matter as the constitution confers on them the sole prerogative of doing the needful.  And this is where and why the country expects the National Assembly to stand and be counted on the side of the country’s future greatness. This expectation remain at best nebulous as far as the National Assembly is concerned. 

In arguing the case for removing the direct primaries clause, the President and his co travelers have told the nation that the country is better off by allowing for the handpicking of candidates for elective offices, than providing for a wider screening of same persons as shall be, through the direct primaries. By this argument, the critical process of selecting candidates for elective offices has been reduced to the simple calculus of matching the sacred obligation of featuring the most acceptable candidates for elective offices, with   considerations of mere costs and resource deployment. In the context of national development, nothing can be more denigrating of the national interest than such a base contemplation. 

The foregoing notwithstanding the Electoral Act Amendment Bill offers other provisions that should not be compromised just because of the ‘lost’ wisdom of   mandatory direct primaries.  As the African proverb goes ‘instead of an animal caught in a trap to escape, it is better to cut and hold its tail’. Let the Bill be reworked and sent to the President for assent while the battle for further amendment of the electoral process can continue. 

As is clear the battle to reform Nigerian politics is not to be achieved through a single skirmish. The issues involved run very deep, as legends will say. It will take some effort and time. Hence let this phase come and go provided the Electoral Act Amendment Bill shall see the light of day. 

If the National Assembly failed to veto the President on this bill inspite of its elaborate antecedents as  comprising inputs from the political parties including the ruling APC of the President, civil society groups and the international community – especially the country’s partners in the democracy project, then expecting the body to resist the President remains an exercise in futility.  

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