Curiously, the National Assembly, late in the day added a controversial aspect to its proposed 2018 amendment of the Electoral Act. The vexed aspect seeks to reverse the order of elections, bringing forward that of the Legislature and taking back that of the President.
In normal times, you would expect the party in government, which has greater numbers in the legislature to be concerned, first of all, with how to return to power in 2019. But here we have a NASS that has other concerns.
Another curiosity is that this aspect of proposed amendment came after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), had rolled out its fixtures with dates and sequence for the 2019 general elections. That lateness to me has rendered the proposal suspect, as if it were an afterthought. Be that as it may, the legislature has shown uncommon courage to go where even angels fear to roam.
The executive, led by President Buhari last week withheld assent to the Electoral Act amendment Bill 2018. The NASS on February 14, 2018 passed the amendment to reorder the sequence of the election.
In doing so, they propose to make the National Assembly election to come first, while that of the president is to now come last. But Buhari, in explaining his rejection of the bill claimed the planned amendment contravened the constitutional provision that accorded INEC full autonomy in matters of election organization, and supervision as provided for in Section 15 (a) of the Third Schedule to the Constitution
The Section 25 of the Electoral Act, which has to do with Procedure At election gives the INEC powers to determine days of election and to determine postponements if the need arises. That is very clear.
The legislators have however argued that they have not tampered with INEC’s powers to determine days for election, but are only concerned with the sequence of elections, which does not injure the spirit of Section 25.
The Section 15 (A) of the Third Schedule enumerates the powers of the Commission to; organize, undertake and supervise elections; register parties; monitor parties’ finances and mode of operations; carry out annual audits of parties and make them public; register voters and a few more tasks.
The last of such tasks, but not the least, is the sub-section nine (9) that orders the INEC to carry out such other functions as may be conferred upon it by an Act of the National Assembly.
I cannot say for sure, if the drafters of the letter that conveyed the rejection of the proposed amendment for Mr. President took time to study the entire Section 15 of the Third Schedule of the Constitution.
If they did not, they may need to go back and have a second look. That Section has nine (9) sub-sections under it, and it would appear dubious to just select one and run to town with it. That might leave some room for further disputations.
As matters unfold, unless President Buhari and his party are able to manage this face-off very well, it might just add to the list of troubles the party has visited on the polity since it came on board.
This particular one has the capacity to rubbish not only the party and their government, but could put the coming election into jeopardy.
The politico-legal fireworks have started, as the Legislature has announced its intention to override the President’s veto. But before we get to that bridge, some interloper, in the name of Accord Party (AP) has obtained an order at the Federal High Court, Abuja, restraining the NASS from taking advantage of Section 58, sub-section 5 of the Constitution to veto the President by two-thirds majority of the two houses.
The plaintiff also secured a restraint on the President, demanding that status quo be maintained, pending March 20-adjournment date. So, come Tuesday, more of the legal fireworks will unfold.
The NASS has indicated very strongly to argue from the premise that the principle of Separation of Powers has put a lid on how far the judiciary can intervene in certain matters. And if there is need to offer interpretations concerning the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature, the Supreme Court has sole ownership of that task.
Away from legalese, I have hinted that there seems to be some mischief in the timing of the proposed amendment. I say so purely for technical reasons and not on the intendment of the proposed law. I am of the opinion that the lawmakers ought to have brought the proposal earlier than they did because the window they have to make an amendment is thinning.
Since the matter is not adequately ventilated to allow for more debate, the public may not have opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of the law.
The NASS has argued that the importance of the Presidential election is over-exaggerated to the extent that it overshadows other elections.
It distracts from the volume of participation the other elections are entitled to, because once the Presidential election is done with, interest in other elections wane significantly. I tend to agree with that.
Other stakeholders express worry over the tension associated with the Presidential election, which is fought like a civil war, thus jeopardizing public peace and endangering the economy. They argue that reversing the sequence of elections and bringing that of President to the last might ease tension and sustain interest in the general elections. I also agree.
Others think the proposal is targeted at the President, but they have not explained how. They claim it is self-serving, as it brings forward the election into the National Assembly, which entitles them to some advantage.
Maybe, but they have also not explained how that could happen. I think what the NASS is saying is, ‘to your tent oh Israel’. Let everyman fight for himself; no more bandwagon effect. And what’s wrong with that?
The All Progressives Congress promised to rejig our electoral system, to reduce the stress and criminality that is associated with elections. They promised to research into why electoral violence is pervasive and work on laws to punish offenders.
So far, APC has not brought any bill to improve the electoral system it inherited. It is curious therefore, to see the Executive opposing a bill that seeks to radically affect the way we perceive elections, and scale down the violent tempers it engenders.
It seems to me that this 8th Legislature is a gift to Nigeria, in the sense that it is the most bipartisan since 1999.
The collaboration that frustrated the APC from dominating this NASS on June 9, 2015 could only have been divinely inspired to mitigate the tyranny that has enveloped the country.
Were this NASS to be unreasonably pliant, this APC government would have become intolerably arrogant, despite its monumental failures.
Despite their own failings, I still see this NASS as a rescue assembly. I see the proposed bill as a most audacious venture that might in the end consume legislators because I do not see any benefit in it for them individually.
As a matter of fact, many of them stand to benefit more from an electoral teamwork with the executive, than from the game of chance they have endorsed. But I see in it far more benefits for the country.
For Buhari in particular, he has again shown weakness and crass opportunism. He was far more courageous in his solo efforts during his days in the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), where he posted remarkable figures without the paraphernalia of a ruling party and powers of incumbency.
Why is he now afraid to further test his popularity with this new amendment? When will he bring his own bill to reform the electoral system? When is APC going to radically change the face of our elections?
I pray that this NASS is able to pull this through. If we do not want violent disruptions in this democracy, then the legislature must continue to insist on the doctrine of separation of powers. They have to be fearless, selfless and accountable, fiscally and spiritually!