Buhari’s Electoral Bill is withheld assent. The way forward

The long-awaited Electoral Act Amendment Bill was rejected by President Muhammadu Buhari. He sent a letter to Ahmed Lawan, the President of Senate, and Femi Gbajabiamila, the House of Representatives. Buhari, exuberantly according to the memo, was largely in agreement with the Act amendments, except for those that required mandatory Direct primaries for all parties.

Muhammadu Buhari

Indiscreetly, the president acknowledged the energies in the rebuff, but urged the legislators to review the objected provisions and requested that it be transmitted back for his approval after review. Unexpectedly, Buhari’s main critic, Samuel Ortom (Benue state governor), openly supported the president’s decision to decline assent over Direct primaries.

The president’s actions continue to cause controversy in the polity. Many public commentators are enraged by the threat of fire and brimstone made by civil society organizations (CSOs). There are three main types of thoughts. While one supports the president against mandatory Direct Primaries (MDP), the second, mostly from opposition parties, supported it.

The third category, which includes Nyesom Wike as a governor, admitted that there were flaws, but argued that assent should be given despite the deficiencies for a later review, just as Buhari did with the PIB Act. Although this idea is good, the question is: what happens if the assent is withdrawn? The Electoral Act can, if it is flawed, set the polity ablaze. This is in contrast to the PIB Act which was influenced by many interests.

The experience in the legislative zone is similar. Some accepted the developments in good faith, and were progressively ready for a critical review. However, the opposing side seemed to insist on a supremacy fight to override President’s veto.

The leadership of both chambers managed to stop the situation and decided to hold wider consultations. However, Section 59(4) of 1999 Constitution, The Federal Republic of Nigeria as Amended, allows the National Assembly to bypass the president and withhold assent to any bill presented after 30 days.

Buhari’s discordance is the clause for compulsory direct primaries for parties citing financial implications on the Independent National Electoral Commission to monitor primary elections across all wards. The federation has 8,809 wards.

Buhari also stated that political parties should be allowed to decide how they will elect their flagbearers. He also suggested that security factors must be considered. This is because security agencies may be stretched too thin to ensure that primaries are free from any hitches that could heat the polity.

Many people frowned upon Buhari’s objection to the Bill being vetoed earlier in 2018, ahead of the general elections, primarily because of its timing. A lawmaker, reacting to the President’s objection on Channels Television, claimed that the bill was rejected by Buhari despite being passed in overwhelming numbers by both chambers. This was after he had participated in two legislative processes.

Logically, his concern was an objectivity thing and an ego thing. That’s also the rule of democracy. The oversight of the legislators is also glaring, as the compelling reasons the president cites against mandatory Direct primary adoption are compelling.

It is possible that the legislators didn’t see it in a broad way. If it is signed into law, it will mean that INEC must seek a larger budget for logistics and allowances to monitor primaries across the 8,809 districts in order to allow each political party to vote.

Let’s suppose that twenty political parties intend to field presidential candidates. It will take INEC workers to visit all the wards of each registered political party to elect a valid candidate. This has a significant financial impact. INEC requires a staggering N305 billion to conduct 2023 general elections.

It is sensible that INEC would need to monitor primaries across all political parties in all wards of the country for the task to be completed. This could increase the commission’s budget by many trillions of Nigerian naira. If there are security concerns that prevent public gatherings, then people must not hesitate to embrace direct primaries, even if it means they risk their lives and end up in an inconclusive primaries.

This means that a party may not be able to field a valid candidate in an election if it fails to hold Direct primaries in all wards. These arguments suggest that mandatory Direct primaries may be a way for smaller parties to go out of business. They could also cause logistical and security problems and financial hardships.

A strong concern is the possibility of political parties bending the timeline for primaries. It is well-known that primary elections follow INEC’s timeline. This means it is very rare for any party to produce its candidate without internal squabbles. Most times, this has left members with no choice but to resort to indirect, direct or consensus methods to get a candidate in time.

Practically, if the law only endorses mandatory Direct primaries, it will result in inconclusive primaries for virtually all political parties. The Executive’s observation is to be celebrated. The strength of government is teamwork, and this is why laws must be passed through both the executive and legislative arms.

Many political parties are frustrated by the inefficiency of the bureaucracy used by INEC to mobilize workers, including ad-hoc staff and managerially assign tasks. The judiciary will be forced to handle frivolous lawsuits at the Ward level if Direct primary was not possible due to circumstances beyond their control.

Primary elections should, therefore, be logically flexible and open to all political parties. The Bill’s financial consequences on the Treasury, overstretching security agents, operability to parties, and overstraining judiciary are all compelling reasons to reconsider it in the public interest.

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