Electoral Act Bill: As opposition mounts against another legislative ambush

KEHINDE AKINTOLA looks at the condemnation that trailed the reported manipulation of Electoral Act (amendment) Bill by the National Assembly, particularly the purported removal of Section 52 subsection 2 which provides for electronic transmission of election results from the polling units.

Recently, the leadership of the National Assembly was pilloried for failing to adhere to its promise to pass a new Electoral Act by June, this year. The lawmakers had set the deadline following pressure from members of the civil society organisations who have championed the need to bring about reforms that would help sanitise the electoral process.

The leadership of the legislative, not comfortable with the speculations that were rife at the expiry of the deadline that they had a game up their sleeves, promised to pass the all-important Act in July before they embark on their long vacation. They debunked the insinuation that they were protecting certain interests in delaying the passage of the bill.

But just as Nigerians were looking forward to the fulfillment of that avowal, the news that they got from that direction was contrary to their expectations. A joint committee of the Senate and the House of Representatives saddled with cleaning up the bill before presentation to the legislative institution was accused of manipulating certain sections of the bill, specifically the one that has to do with the electronic transmission of votes from the polling units to the collation centres and other provisions.

Since the news broke, concerned Nigerians and other interest groups have continued to vent frustrations over the recommendations of the joint committee of Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Electoral Matters and Political Parties which foreclose the use of electronic transmission of results and desired reforms in the country’s electoral system. Although the lawmakers have since denied the news, the insinuations have refused to go away.

A coalition of civil society organisations, Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC) which is an umbrella body for the 18 registered political parties, former presidential aspirants in the 2015 and 2019 general election as well as Nigerians in Diaspora who criticised the extant electoral law have clamoured for far-reaching reforms that would engender conduct of free, fair and credible elections by ensuring transparency in the process specifically through electronic transmission of votes.

The Southern Governors Forum, which also smelt a rat at the activities of the lawmakers on Electoral Act, lent a voice of opposition to the removal of electronic transmission of election results from the Electoral Act as well as the confirmation of exclusive jurisdiction in pre-election matters on the Federal High Court, as provided in the controversial bill which is to be considered by both chambers anytime soon.

In a statement, the civil society groups that have been at the vanguard of the campaign for electronic transmission of results and other reforms, including YIAGA Africa, Adopt A Goal for Development Initiative and 40 others, have condemned the surreptitious manner the lawmakers yanked off critical parts of the bill and called on Nigerians to resist such.

“Some proposals canvassed by the citizens were adopted in the Bill, example electronic voting, and financial independence for INEC and new timelines for submission of the list of candidates. However, there are discrepancies between the approved version of the Bill and the alleged final copy where some key provisions have been manipulated.

“In the alleged final copy, some key priority amendments were rejected by the leadership of the National Assembly, e.g electronic transmission of results has been prohibited (Section 52 subsection 2) and the limits of campaign expenses have been increased (Section 88). We are also concerned that the National Assembly has rejected the proposal empowering INEC to review the declaration of scores and return of candidates made under duress or contrary to the provisions of the law (Section 65).

“Following the events of the 2019 general elections, we are convinced that INEC needs to have this power in order to prevent politicians from going through the backdoor to win election and steal electoral mandate at gun point,” the statement said.

At plenary in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, a lawmaker, Ugonna Ozurigbo, raised a point of order, telling his colleagues that his constituents enquired from him about the secret removal of Section 50 subsection 2 (electronic transmission of results). He urged the house to address the matter.

The Speaker, in response, said such stories did not require a response because they were baseless. He, however, said for the sensitivity of the issue, the report of the committee had not been presented to the House for consideration, adding “the committee that was given assignment will submit its report and the House will deliberate and consider it.”

“I don’t believe such thing exists. There is not alteration and it is only the authentic report that will be submitted. I asked the chairman of the committee about it because I also heard it and he said nothing of such,” Gbajabiamila said.

In an interview with Sunday Tribune, immediate past Deputy Chairman, House Committee on Petroleum Resources (Upstream), Honourable Mark Gbillah, who frowned on the delay in passing the Electoral Act, argued that “It is the electronic voting that this government seems to be afraid of because they know once that aspect is passed into the law, the rigging will be virtually removed if not completely and specifically that aspect of transmitting results from the poling unit straight to the database and make public immediately from the polling unit.”

“You know that rigging happens after voting has finished and votes have been counted at the polling units and are being convened through the archaic system. That is what it appears this government still wants to perpetrate. Then we know that the problem of this country is leadership, political leadership specifically. So, these are areas we  have failed in our functions and of course being able to enforce our statutory responsibility of oversight on this executive, particularly the issue of security and the welfare of our people. These are things we have the responsibility to do but which unfortunately we have not been able to do till date.”

On his part, the co-convener of Centre for Liberty, Ariyo-Dare Atoye, who expressed grave disappointment over the recommendations of the joint committee, urged Nigerians to mobilize against the passage of the legislation. “We are worried about the grave implications these underhanded manipulations and illegal actions will have on our electoral process.

“We call on Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, to speak up clearly that they are not aware of these amendments and are not part of any attempt to subvert the voices of Nigerians. We also urge Nigerians to stand up to resist this latest attempt by the National Assembly to manipulate the Electoral Act forself-perpetuation and self-interest. We must ensure this [manipulated] bill is not passed.”

Some of the provisions of the amendment bill state as follow: Sections 49 of the controversial bill provides that: “The presiding officer shall separate the queue between men and women if in that area of the country the culture is such that it does not permit the mingling of men and women in the same queue. Section 50(1) voting at an election under this Bill shall be by open secret ballot. A voter on receiving a ballot paper shall mark it in the manner prescribed by the commission. (4) All ballots at an election under this Bill at any polling station shall be deposited in the ballot box in the open view of the public.

Where a voter makes any writing or mark on ballot paper by which he or she may be identified, such ballot paper shall be rejected provided that any print resulting from the staining of the thumb ofthe voter in the voting compartment shall not be or be deemed to be amark of identification under this section. The commission shall use indelible ink for any thumb mark by voters on ballot papers.

A voter who by accident deals with his or her ballot paper in such a manner that it may not be conveniently used for voting, may deliver it to the presiding officer and if the Presiding Officer is satisfied that the ballot paper is spoilt he or she shall issue another ballot paper to the voter in place of the ballot paper delivered up, and the spoilt ballot paper shall be immediately marked cancelled by the Presiding Officer.

The coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) led by a former presidential aspirant of Young Progressives Party (YPP) in the 2019 election, Professor Kingsley Moghalu, had during a peaceful protest held at the National Assembly entrance gate, penultimate week warned the National Assembly to jettison any plan to pass the purported “watered-down” the electoral (amendment) bill.

Speaking during the protest, the Founder of ‘To Build the Nation Civil Society,’ Moghalu, who argued that “time is far running out,” called for expedited action on the passage of the Electoral Act (amendment) bill before the National Assembly. He argued that “even angels will have problem operating a defective system.” Moghalu said: “do what is necessary so that history will record that our legislators answered the people at a time of need. The legislators are representing the Nigerian people; the Nigerian people are choking from the absence of real democracy, which has led to bad governance in our country.

“Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. If the people cannot exercise their franchise in a transparent way and our votes don’t count and are not counting, then democracy in Nigeria is simply democracy by name only. It is time to make our democracy real and choose their leaders transparently as we go into the 21st century. Many people, especially young people in this country, simply do not want to vote because they have no trust in the electoral process.

“How can we have a country that calls itself democratic in which most of its citizens, the young population represent most of the Nigerian population, simply have become disillusioned? They don’t want to participate in our election. There are people who are agitating for succession because there is no trust in the system,” he said.

On his part, Ariyo-Dare blamed the ninth National Assembly for the irregularities that trailed the just concluded party primaries ahead of the Anambra governorship election. “What happened in Anambra during the conduct of the party primaries, what we saw in Anambra would have been cured and addressed if this bill had been passed and INEC did make that clear this morning. So what happened in Anambra State where the party couldn’t conduct free, fair primaries, we blame the National Assembly for it.”

“Therefore, the National Assembly must understand that the passage of this bill is a service to the people. It’s service to humanity and will translate to good governance. We have been here every day, every night asking the National Assembly to pass the bill. This is about the third time this National Assembly has failed based on its own promises to pass this bill; but let it not fail again. Therefore, we are asking that this National Assembly should pass this bill before embarking on the long recess in July.

While calling on Lawan and Gbajabimaila to demonstrate courage by ensuring the passage of the bill, he vowed that the coalition will not hesitate to mobilise Nigerians for the #OccupyNASS2 with aview to compelling the lawmakers to pass the bill.

Reeling out the coalition’s position, Ms Maruam Ahmed, expressed concern over the refusal to pass the Bill, despite various appeals, rallies and protests from the Nigerian people in support of the legislation.

“The National Assembly must agree that elections remain the most critical aspect of democracy the world over. It has become inevitable that we must address the deficits in the electoral system to entrench enduring electoral reforms and strengthen the capacity of INEC to conduct free, fair, credible and transparent elections and guarantee electoral integrity.

“While INEC succeeded in increasing the number of registered voters to 84 million in 2019, only about 29 million voted – signifying a mere 35 per cent of the registered voters voted in the past election. Thus, these statistics should be a source of concern to representatives of the people and direct beneficiaries of the electoral system.

“More importantly, at this time, the unity of the Nigeria is seriously challenged by separatist and secessionist drive due to injustice, poor governance, and made worse by bad leadership. Nigeria cannot afford another flawed general election. That is why the countdown to 2023 and other off-cycle polls has required a greater certainty about the electoral legal framework for achieving a more credible and improved electoral process. The passage of the Electoral Act (Amendment) 2021 Bill will help quell the civil unrest caused by these secessionist groups that feel marginalised and are working tooth and nail to ensure that the country splits,” Ms Ahmed noted.

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