On Wednesday, the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, while receiving the Electoral Act Amendment Bill from the committee chairman, complained about what he called “calculated blackmail against the leadership of the National Assembly by mischief makers”. He was speaking out against what turned out to be a successful campaign by civil society and political parties to expose the subterranean attempts to empty the law of its “democracy protection” content and make electoral fraud easier. No! Oga Senate President, there was no mischief, the National Assembly was caught out in its plot, exposed and forced to backtrack on some of its more sinister objectives. The struggle is still ongoing and all citizens of goodwill must remain vigilant to ensure that the Electoral Act is improved rather than distorted to aid anti-democratic forces.
We are concerned at this time because there is an ongoing aggressive move by the ruling APC to cajole, threaten and indeed stampede opposition legislators and governors to abandon their parties and join the ruling party. The current moves are illegal because elected persons who change parties are supposed to resign from their positions, but that is simply not happening. Nigerians know the script. The ongoing political nomadism is an attempt to transform a ruling party into a hegemonic one that can do whatever it wants against the people and there will be no one to checkmate them.
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It was for this reason that Nigerians were very concerned about the character and quality of presidential nominees for INEC national commissionership. Almost every Nigerian I have discussed the matter with considered the nomination of Lauretta Onochie as commissioner to be a disturbing sign that the APC wanted its partisans to run the show in INEC and do the bidding of the party. Had the president not made the mistake of nominating her from a state, Delta, which already has a serving national commissioner, something legislators from the other South South states would never accept, she might well have been confirmed. At the same time, we must not underestimate the force and unity of Nigerians in calling for her removal, which was so strong that it was difficult for the senate to ignore. Nonetheless, I doubt that the matter is settled. The habit of the president is to continue sending back the names of his rejected nominees until the senate finally caves in to his will. We will remain watchful.
The most disturbing aspect about the INEC Bill was the reported doctoring of the document to eliminate electronic transmission of results. It became a huge issue because we know the tradition of election rigging in Nigeria. Votes would be counted and declared openly in polling units in front of voters who would go home happy. Subsequently, the numbers would be changed during collation and the outcome would be decided by riggers not voters. That was why the idea of directly sending the results to INEC headquarters and to the public from the polling unit arose as a way to bypass the riggers. It would be recalled that during the last Edo State governorship election, INEC deployed a result’s viewing portal, which made it possible for the public to see the results as they were announced and close the gates to riggers thereby increasing the integrity of the electoral process and encouraging acceptability of outcomes. It would be recalled that President Buhari, to his credit, publicly congratulated the winner of the Edo election, Governor Obaseki, for winning in a free, fair and credible election.
There were widespread reports that the Senator Kabiru Gaya-led report might have been doctored on this issue. Specifically, Section 50 (2) of the Electoral Act was reported to have been rephrased as follows after the committee had concluded its work: “Voting at an election under the bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the commission, which may include electronic voting, provided that the commission shall not transmit results of elections by electronic means.” If the rumour is true, the only explanation for it would be the desire to rig.
Since 2011, a number of electoral reforms have been done that have led to a steady improvement of the quality of our elections. Nigerians know that and there is a high level of consciousness that we must not allow the tide to turn and return to the era of massive electoral fraud. In this spirit of moving forward, the last general election in 2019 ought to have been conducted with a brand-new electoral law but President Buhari declined assent to three successive bills. Not all of the bills were good and some of the president’s objections were valid. Nonetheless, the president refused to work with the 8th National Assembly to agree on a bill that would improve the quality of elections. The problem of the 9th Assembly is that their usual response to the president is always to – YES, YOUR EXCELLENCY.
Other areas of concern in the current bill are the significant increases on the limits on campaign expenses (S.88). Campaign expenses for presidential elections have been increased from N1bn to 15bn, governorship from N200m to N5bn. Senate from N40m to N1.5bn, House of Representatives from N30m to N500m and House of Assembly from N10m to N50m. The intentions are clear, only the super-rich, most of who have stolen public funds can contest in future elections. These anti-people provisions must be removed.
We should not forget that the last attempt to review the Electoral Act was rejected three times by the president. If, therefore, some of the changes we are seeking are accepted by the National Assembly, the president may reject them. It is interesting that the president has said repeatedly that the legacy he wants to leave for Nigeria is an electoral system with integrity that produces free, fair and credible elections. In that case, he should always ensure that he does not nominate persons of questionable character or party partisans to INEC. The wish of most Nigerians too is for credible elections. If it is to happen, self-interest of some legislators who are afraid that their “people” may not vote them back into office and therefore seek to introduce “rigging mechanisms” must be fought by all Nigerians. Heightened vigilance at this time is extremely important.