On November 19, 2021, the National Assembly led by Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila transmitted the 2010 Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. It was a watershed moment, not because of the action itself but rather the content of the bill. Before passing the bill, the two chambers of the National Assembly had held two wildly divergent views on several clauses.
The first bone of contention was that the Senate version hinged the ability of the Independent Electoral Commission to transmit election results electronically on consent from the Nigerian Communication Commission that there is adequacy and security of national network coverage, effectively giving it veto power.
The second issue centred around the inclusion of a clause in the House of Representatives’ version making it mandatory for political parties to hold direct primaries for picking their flagbearers for elective positions without the option for indirect primaries. The back-and-forth between the two chambers dragged on for months, until middle October when suddenly the Senate had a change of heart and backed down on both demands. This greatly raised the hopes of Nigerians who, for two decades, have been denied full participation in the electoral process, when it comes to how political parties pick their flagbearers. It has been a process riddled with corruption and tightly controlled by state governors and moneybags who handpick not only the delegates but also the eventual winners of the primaries, with all the intended and unintended consequences for public governance.
While there is no known opinion poll on how Nigerians feel about the use of direct primaries, without fear of contradiction, this newspaper believes it is immensely popular among the country’s voting population and the general public. But 36 state governors are openly against it. And as soon as the bill was transmitted to the presidency, the governors, the National Assembly, media, and civil society organisations started to lobby President Buhari to either assent or decline assent to the electoral bill, to the extent that the president was apparently at a loss on what to do.
He sought the opinion of INEC and also the attorney-general of the federation, Abubakar Malami. While INEC is the electoral umpire, in the considered opinion of this paper, the attorney-general, who is also the minister of justice, is not a neutral party as he is politically aligned with state governors.
Strictly speaking, direct primaries is the norm globally. There is no reason why Nigeria should be any different. It really should not have been a difficult decision for the president to either side with 200 million Nigerians or 36 state governors.
The president had 30 days, that is until December 19, 2021, to either assent to or reject the bill, and transmit his stance to the National Assembly. It fell on a Sunday when the president was just returning from a trip to Turkey. And by the end of the day, it is not clear if he has done either. We shall know for certain when the lawmakers resume sitting tomorrow.
Whether he chooses to later sign the bill or reject it, we are of the firm belief that his actions on the Electoral Bill will shape his legacy. The last few presidents before him are either haunted by their last years in office, how they managed elections and the transition process or they are living in bliss for making difficult decisions at very trying times.
Despite all his efforts, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo will forever be remembered for the third-term agenda and the calamitous 2003 and 2007 general elections. No one remembers the numerous impeachments he instigated. And Goodluck Jonathan had to contend with widespread bombings by Boko Haram and MEND, and the Chibok schoolgirls’ kidnapping incident. But these have faded away in our collective memory. Facing immense pressure from those urging him to fight and hold to power, and those pleading with him to concede in the 2015 presidential election, he chose to make a call of concession. And for that singular reason Jonathan enjoys so much goodwill locally and internationally.
Facing a losing battle against corruption, insecurity and economic revival of the nation, this bill could very well be President Buhari’s phone-call moment, his moment of reckoning as a democrat, or another one of the old guards. His actions on the electoral bill could, in the end, be his true legacy.
Over the two election cycles, and because of efforts of the electoral commission, there has been growing confidence in the electoral process. It has shown in how the commission conducted off-cycle elections, the last being the Anambra governorship polls. The natural next in improving elections and increasing participatory democracy is not restricted to the transmission of results electorally. Shamefully in Nigeria, it is something more basic:allowing Nigerians to have a say in how candidates for elective offices emerge.
There are other salient provisions in the bill which will help put the electoral system on solid footing – like capping the cost of nomination forms, raising the penalty for vote buying and providing legal backing for using biometrics for the purposes of elections.
This newspaper is under no illusion that the leadership of the Senate can muster the courage to override a presidential veto. What is certain is that the level of participation in the 2023 general election, whether there will be voter apathy or increased turnout, is what is being decided now. But the Buhari legacy is also at stake.