For a 79-year-old president who almost certainly has no more elections to win or lose, President Buhari’s attitude to electoral reform since 2018 is baffling, to put it mildly. His withdrawal of assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 passed by both chambers of the National Assembly last month will go down as one of the most egregious presidential attacks on electoral reform in our democracy; his reasons even more so. And it was not the first time.
Simply put, the past three years have seen the president emerge as the main clog in the wheel of incremental but progressive changes in Nigeria’s electoral system that have improved the quality of our elections and propelled the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from the most distrusted to perhaps the most trusted public institution in Nigeria today. President Buhari, we recall, is the biggest beneficiary of those progressive changes yet.
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But in 2018, four times the National Assembly repealed various provisions of the extant Electoral Act 2010, and four times the president withheld assent, for reasons that were a mixed bag of justifiable and incredulous. On the first occasion in March 2018, the president withheld assent because he observed, correctly, that the National Assembly usurped the powers of the INEC by changing the sequence of elections against what INEC had earlier proposed.
On the fourth and final occasion, the president refused assent, then in December 2018, he said he was concerned that assenting to the bill at that time would cause “uncertainty and confusion,” which was already well underway. But many critics thought all the back and forth between him and the National Assembly were designed to achieve that end of not signing the bill.
The amendments proposed in that bill provided for, among other things, the immediate transmission of election results from polling units to collation centres, which had been a sticky issue in our previous elections, as well as legal backing for the full use of electronic devices by the INEC, another thorny issue, then and now. In the end, the 2019 elections held on the basis of the extant Electoral Act, 2010.
We fear that things might go the same way again this time as we approach the 2023 elections. We find it worrisome that Nigeria has required a new act or amendment to electoral law for every election. This always entails needless expenses to the public treasury and unnecessary heat in the polity. The Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 could reduce all this in the foreseeable future because several of the changes proposed in it are very fundamental to the overall process.
The amendment bill provides for electronic transmission of voting results directly and immediately from polling units to INEC’s central database, which will help make the entire election process faster, cheaper and more reliable. Its provisions for improved voting procedures for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) will make the election process more inclusive, in a country where PWDs number in the millions.
The president disagrees with Clause 87 of the bill, which recommends direct primaries for all elective offices in all political parties, to be monitored by the INEC. This provision is popular among various sections of Nigerians, including politicians, media, civil society organisations and citizens, as it is believed it would hand elections back to the people against the current system in which governors and party bosses handpick candidates and impose on parties and the general populace, as our experience of the past two decades have shown, again and again.
The president disagrees with this thinking on the grounds that it would make our elections more expensive for all, including the INEC, that it would amount to undue interference by the state in the affairs of political parties, that it would further monetise and entrench corruption in the election system, and that direct primaries would not necessarily be a more reliable mechanism for electing candidates for elective offices. And rather than look for a way out, the president threw the whole bill out of the window.
Just about a month ago, we urged the president to “sign the amended electoral bill and move the country closer to a truly consolidated democracy in which electoral outcomes reflect the true wishes of the people,” and not “yield to vested interests on this.” We still stand by this position and are saddened that the president appears to have yielded to those vested interests, even when, as a retiring president, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain in the way of enduring legacy by assenting to this bill, which an overwhelming majority of Nigerians favour.
However, the critical question now is: Where do we go from here? We believe Clause 52 of the bill, which provides for electronic transmission of results and others, can still be rescued. The president can sign the bill without the provision for direct primaries. Since the president’s only reason for withholding assent is the provision for direct primaries, the National Assembly could resend the bill without this section. The National Assembly can do this as early as next month to allow time for assent to avoid a recurrence of 2018.
We urge the president and the National Assembly to work together to achieve that in the interest of Nigerian democracy.