By Ehichioya Ezomon
Nigerians shouldn’t worry about the National Assembly (NASS) overriding President Muhammadu Buhari’s veto of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021. And the Presidency doesn’t need to blackmail or coerce the NASS to shelve the voyage of discovery.
This is because the NASS “does not have the liver” to contemplate, or attempt to override Buhari’s latest refusal to sign the piece of legislation that promises credible electoral processes.
Outspoken Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State had risked a bet that the NASS members, for lack of courage and strength of character, wouldn’t strike down Buhari’s veto of the Bill.
What were members to do in the circumstance? Override the president’s veto, or rework the Bill, as Buhari has requested, by removing the “offending” provision for direct primaries.
But when the chips were down, and urgent action needed to make the legislation become an Act implementable, especially for the February 2023 general election, the NASS members proved Wike right by hurriedly closing plenary for holiday till January 18, 2022.
Most troubling is that the initiative to embark on vacation began in the House of Representatives, which played a pivotal role in the late insertion of the provision for direct primaries in the Bill.
In particular, Nigerians would recall how House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila led the debates on direct primary election he says is germane to the processes of advancing democracy in Nigeria.
In Lagos on December 30, Gbajabiamila relived his push for direct primaries, saying: “If you follow the history of the amendment of the direct and indirect primary bill, I initiated that amendment bill for a good reason, and it is for people to participate in elections.
“These are the people you see around when you campaign every four years: come rain, come shine. For me, it does not make sense that these people do not have a voice in who represents them. It is part of being used and I didn’t like that.
“One of the ways to reform the system is to make it more accountable and to make the people have a voice in who represents them as opposed to a few people sitting in the four corners of a wall (room) and writing results. That’s what the amendment was about.”
As the Bill was in abeyance, Gbajabiamila visited the Aso Rock Villa, in Abuja, to acquaint Buhari with the importance of direct primaries to mass participation by mostly youths in the electoral process.
Yet, when prompt action was expected on the Bill, Gbajabiamila balked, and hit the gavel to suspend plenary for a full month, for members to embark on holiday while the polity reels in turmoil.
According to him, the time was short to address the Electoral Bill in haste, as members must pass other important bills, such as the 2022 Appropriation Bill and the Finance Bill before vacationing.
The Senate is also guilty of stalling the Bill, but Senate President Ahmad Lawan tried to steer the Upper Chamber into looking at the issue in two sittings before joining the House in the holiday binge.
The Senate was locked in several closed sessions. At a stage, members reportedly “gathered over 73 signatures” to override Buhari’s veto. But the speculations remained in those realms!
Left in the lurch, Senator Lawan declared that as a two-chamber assembly, the Senate couldn’t take a second look at the Electoral Bill without the House. So, he proclaimed a one-month holiday.
On the behind-the-scenes session by members, Lawan said: “The Senate… discussed how to respond to the letter from Mr. President on the electoral bill amendment. The Senate consequently resolved to consult with the House of Representatives in January when both the Senate and House will be in session.
“Presently, the House of Reps has gone on recess and like we all know, the constitutional provision is for the Senate and House of Representatives to jointly take the appropriate action.”
Again, Gbajabiamila has inelegantly intervened in the Bill impasse, giving inkling that the House might foreclose direct primaries, and go against public clamour for Buhari’s veto to be overridden.
Idiomatically-proverbial, he said: “When we come back, the House will look at those amendments. We will sit as the National Assembly, look at the reasons, and consider removing that clause and pass the bill so that we do not do away with the baby and the bath water.
“But then, it is not my decision to make. It is the decision of the National Assembly. If they determine that the reasons are not good enough, then, there is a process prescribed by the constitution.
“They need 2/3 of the members to override the president. There is a reason the constitution prescribes 2/3; veto is not something you easily override.
“If they muster enough and they believe it is in the best interest of Nigerians, then, that is what we will do; otherwise, we will take out the clause and pass the bill so that Nigerians can have a credible electoral act and due process. They must get it.”
Seizing on the obvious volte face by members of NASS, and the likelihood of not overriding Buhari’s veto, the Presidency has turned the tables on the legislators, accusing them of attempting to foist a dangerous Bill on the country.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, in a statement on December 28, stated that “… the President will do whatever he can to protect this country’s democracy, and that includes withholding assent from this Bill.”
“These amendments have been presented as a means to enhance and build upon our democratic processes. After careful review, the President’s Office has found that the opposite is true,” Shehu said.
“Rather, the proposed amendments entail significant legal, financial, economic and security consequences for all Nigerians, principal among which would be a severe spike in the cost of holding primary elections by parties – integral to democracies the world over.
“To those that would rather that limited public funds be spent on politicking during this time of global crisis, we say: cease these cynical games. Tell the Nigerian people openly what you want. Put your – or rather their – money where your mouth is.”
Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), who opposes direct primaries from the onset, took the debate further on the cost implications to government bankrolling political party primaries and the 2023 elections.
Estimating politicians to be 60 million of Nigeria’s population of over 200 million, Malami says it’s unfair to the 160 million non-politicians to spend N305 billion on INEC’s duties for 2023 polls, and N200 billion to conduct primaries by the 18 political parties.
The Minister, in a phone-in programme on Radio Kano, monitored in Abuja, asked rhetorically: “Are you fair to the 160 million Nigerians using their wealth just to conduct primary election to produce a party candidate, despite other demands by the public?
“My answer to this is that, to spend this N305 billion that will be given to the INEC and the about N200 billion to be given to the political parties is not fair to the remaining 160 million Nigerians who have no business about politics and political appointments.”
While the guessing and waiting game continues in the lead-up to the 2023 polls, the question maybe asked: What’s the guarantee that the president will assent the Bill if the NASS were to effect the changes that Buhari has required?
That triggers another poser by critics: That the object of the attacks on direct primaries is located elsewhere, particularly in the provision for electronic transmission of poll results by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)!
That the eleventh-hour insertion of direct primaries in the Bill was a ploy to get President Buhari to withhold his assent, so as to thwart the implementation of electronic transmission of election results!
So, as Buhari reportedly stated, the floating of direct primaries is a conspiracy by governors and NASS members to abort electronic transmission of poll results. But then, their quest appears in tandem with the expectation of the Presidency.
From the manner it’s hammering on the “dangers” posed by the Electoral Bill to the polity, the governors and NASS members may’ve unwittingly sanctioned the bidding of the administration.
What’s glaring is that with or without opposition to direct primaries, the government seems unenthusiastic about the Electoral Bill that Buhari has repeatedly turned down, and which the NASS members haven’t grown some balls to advance its processes.