Electoral Act: NASS’ unfulfilled promise

TAIWO AMODU revisits the issue of amending the Electoral Act by the current National Assembly vis-a-vis public expectations, as the nation gradually moves towards another election year.

At the inception of the Ninth National Assembly, its principal officers committed the Parliament to a legislative agenda. Among the focus of both chambers of the National Assembly unveiled by Senator Ahmad Lawan and Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives, respectively were the reform of the electoral process and speedy passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).

While they acknowledged the importance of the PIB towards instilling sanity in the upstream oil sector, the mainstay of Nigeria’s mono-cultural economy, both Lawan and Gbajabiamila also maintained at separate fora that the Electoral Act needed an urgent reform to inspire confidence of stakeholders in the electoral process in the country.

Checks revealed that an amendment  to the Electoral Act before the last general election,  which was pushed by the eight NASS under the leadership of Senator Bukola Saraki, was frustrated by the Presidency owing to mutual distrust between the Executive and the Legislative arms. One of the landmarks proposal in the Electoral Amendment Act 2018 passed by the NASS under Dr Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara, former President of the Senate and former Speaker of the House, was electronic voting. The amendment provided for the electronic transmission of results from the polling units (to compare with the manual record); the serialisation of ballot papers for each polling unit and the announcement of results in the presence of all party agents. to the surprise of many observers, President Muhammadu  Buhari,  withdrew his assent and refused to give legal backing to electronic transmission of results. The president had declined assent to the bill four times, citing “drafting issues.”

President Buhari while justifying his refusal to give presidential approval to the Electoral Amendment Act 2018, said it was too close to the 2019 general election. He said: “I am declining assent to the bill principally because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general election, which commenced under the 2015 Electoral Act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process. Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process.”

 

Ninth NASS early moves

Conscious of the reason given by Buhari  for withholding his assent to the amendment, lawmakers in the ninth assembly hit the ground running. A Bill titled:  The Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2019, sponsored by the deputy President of the Senate President, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, has since passed through Second Reading in the Red Chamber. The bill made provision for electronic voting as section 52(2) seeks to introduce a new subsection. It reads: “The commission may adopt electronic voting or any other method of voting in any election it conducts as it may deem fit.”

Leading the debate on the bill last November,  Senator Omo-Agege said though the process under the eighth Senate was fraught with mutual suspicions and bitterness, electoral reform, for the ninth National Assembly, remains a priority in its legislative agenda. He added that the bill sought to enact a new Section 87 on the nomination of candidates by parties for elections by prescribing maximum fees payable by aspirants and restricting nomination criteria strictly to relevant provisions. The bill, according to him, also “seeks to make clarification under Section 38(1) (a) of the principal Act, which states that “a person shall be deemed to be qualified for an elective office and his election shall not be questioned on grounds of qualification if, with respect to the particular election in question, he meets the applicable requirements of Sections 65, 107, 137 or 182 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.”

The bill also compelled INEC to operate an electronic database into which all results in an election should be transmitted. It also stipulated that data of accredited voters must be transmitted to the central data base upon the conclusion of the accreditation of voters, which would be done through the use of the card reader. “At the end of accreditation of voters,” the bill recommends that  the “presiding officer shall transmit the voter accreditation data by secure mobile electronic communication to the central database of the commission kept at the national headquarters of the commission. Any presiding officer, who contravenes this provision, shall be liable, on conviction, to a minimum of imprisonment of at least five years without an option of fine.”

Co-sponsored by Senator Abba Kyari, the bill moved to refrain INEC from shutting down the central data base until all petitions arising from the elections are determined by a tribunal or court. Further investigations revealed that the President of the Senate referred the bill to the Senate Committee on  the INEC, led  by Senator Kabiru Gaya, for further legislative work.

Apart from the bill sponsored by Senator Omo-Agege, Senator representing Osun Central, Ajibola Basiru, equally initiated a bill recently. His bill titled: The  Electoral Act (amendment) bill, 2021 (SB. 680)  with aim  to amend the 1999 Constitution with a view to making the use of card readers compulsory for elections in Nigeria, passed first reading last  Wednesday. According to Senator Ajibola, who incidentally is Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, the “bill seeks to amend the Electoral Act by altering the period for accreditation and voting. It provided for the compulsory use of card readers for accreditation. The bill also makes provision for separate periods for accreditation and voting, with further provision that accreditation should commence by 8:00 am and close by 1:00 pm.”

 

House initiative

Prior to the legislative proposals initiated by Senators Omo Agege and Ajibola, a bill for an Act to repeal the Electoral Act and enact the INEC Bill, 2020, had passed  Second Reading in the House. Sponsored by Aishatu Dukku, it sought to give legal backing to the use of card readers and other technological devices during general election and party primaries. Leading the debate, she said when passed into law, the bill would  provide a timeline for the submission of lists of candidates and criteria for substitution of candidates. According to her, it will address limit of campaign expenses and address the omission of names of candidates or logo of political parties. “This amendment has become necessary because of the flaws observed in our electoral system. It’s no longer news that our electoral experiences since 1999 show a strong correlation between an efficient and effective electoral legal framework and the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. In fact, amendments of our electoral laws were long identified as priority legislation by the National Assembly because of the need to consolidate on the gains of our democratic achievements and to also address the lacuna identified in the electoral legal framework.

‘A typical example is the case of the Kogi governorship election in 2016, where a leading candidate died after the commencement of polls but before the declaration of results.

“In addition to this are concerns that the legal framework on certain issues should be well settled ahead of the 2023 elections such as the use of technological devices like the card reader and electronic voting system.

“Also, criteria for substitution of candidates, disclosure of source of funds contributed to political parties, replacement of lost or destroyed permanent voters card, penalty for the possession of fake voters’ card, dates for conducting primary elections shall not be earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days before the date of election, etc. The bill, therefore,  seeks to address many loopholes in our electoral system by way of amending over 300 clauses (including new provisions) of the Electoral Act 2010.”

 

Promises die first?

Investigations revealed that there have been a lull in the activities of relevant committees in both chambers of the parliament on the bills that have passed Second Reading, fueling speculations that the Electoral Act might suffer a similar fate that befell it on the eve of 2019 general election, when President Buhari denied assent on the ground of closeness to the elections.  Opposition parties have started accusing the NASS of conniving with the Executive arm to frustrate amendment of the Electoral Act. For example, the national publicity secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Kola Ologbodiyan, expressed concern over the fate of the Electoral Act, specifically on the electronic transmission of results. A senator, who craved not to be named, however dismissed such plot , arguing that the relevant committees on INEC are working to consolidate the several bills and work with the Senate ad hoc Committee on Constitution Review since some of the legislative proposals are hinged on the 1999 Constitution. He said: “Don’t forget that a sensitive bill demands the inputs of stakeholders. If you recall, a public hearing on the Amendment to the Electoral Act 2010 was conducted last December.”

Speaking at the joint public hearing of Committees on INEC and Electoral Matters, the Chairman, House Committee on Electoral Matters, Aishat Dukku, summed up the feelings of Nigerians: “One issue all Nigerians agree on is that of improving and strengthening our electoral legal framework. We have enough experience to show a strong correlation between an efficient and effective electoral legal framework and the conduct of a free, fair and credible election. We also have concerns that the electoral legal framework of certain issues should be well settled ahead of the 2023 elections such as the use of technological devices like the card reader and electronic voting system, criteria for substitution of candidates, disclosure of source of funds, contributed to political parties, replacement of lost or destroyed Permanent Voters Card (PVC), penalty for the possession of fake PVC, dates for conducting primary elections shall not be earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days before the date of election, and so on.”

 

Is INEC handicapped?

Findings showed that the chairman of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, has been pushing for electoral reforms ahead of the next elections. Among the recommendations of the commission in a report of its retreat and stakeholders’ engagements on the review of the 2019 general election held last November were: “continued piloting and ultimate use of electronic collation/ transmission of results for future elections,” and the creation of Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal with powers to arrest, investigate and prosecute electoral offenders.

Before the Senate ad-hoc Committee on Constitution Review, INEC is also proposing an amendment of the Nigerian Constitution to provide for stronger legislation against defection by federal and state lawmakers, who jump from one political party to another. On the issue of elected National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly lawmakers who abandon platforms under which they win elections, the commission recommends that “such defectors should automatically lose their seats, except in the case of merger of two or more parties.”

The report under subheading, “Political Parties and Election Observation, also recommends that “The funding of political parties from budgetary allocation should be restored.” It specifically states, however, that such financial assistance “should not be tied to election campaigns, but for the purpose of maintaining infrastructural facilities and membership registration.”

Addressing newsmen last December, shortly after his confirmation for a fresh term of five years by the Senate, Professor Yakubu had pleaded with the National Assembly to give priority to passage of the amended Electoral Act. “Our work continues; the quick passage of the Electoral Act amendment is a top priority and you will recall that I appealed to the Senate Committee on INEC during my screening two weeks ago to conclude work for the passage of the Electoral Act amendment by the first quarter of next year. I am glad that in his response, the Senate President assured the nation only at the public hearing on the Electoral Act amendment that the National Assembly is committed to that target and is not only achievable but they will ensure that it is actualised.”

The president of the Senate, who doubles as the chairman of the National Assembly, had declared at the public hearing that the amended electoral Act would be passed for Presidential assent in the first quarter of 2021. “The integrity of the elections makes even the loser to accept loss without any grudge and then those in office will enjoy legitimacy and even respect from opposition. We will work to make sure the political environment remains neutral, and not a monetised or militarised environment. A free fair and credible election in 2023 is doable, we just have to remain focused.”

The assurance given by Ahmad Lawan has since been observed in the breach. Six months after his pledge that the Amendment to the Electoral Act 2010 would be passed into law, in the first quarter of 2021, the electorate, political parties and INEC are still confused on the way forward for 2023 general election. A group, Atiku Support Organisation had since accused the APC-led Senate of trying to frustrate amendment to the Electoral Act. Speaking with newsmen recently in Abuja, Abubakar Kabir Babawo and Dr. El Mo Victor, director-general and  national publicity secretary, respectively accused the leadership of the National Assembly of trying to frustrate and sabotage INEC’s plans to promote   the integrity of the electoral process.

“It is on record that the Senate under the leadership of Dr Ahmad Lawan had on December 10, 2020 and on various occasions and times promised Nigerians that the amended electoral act, which will promote transparency and restore the integrity of the battered Nigeria electoral system, will be passed before the end of the first quarter of 2021.

“Against this backdrop, the Independent National Electoral Commission,  under the leadership of Professor Mahmood Yakubu, promised to deploy technology, Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) for the November 6th, 2021 Anambra state gubernatorial polls to ensure transparency and credibility of the process. But, it appears, the APC-led Senate is making every effort to frustrate and sabotage INEC plans and thus give room to political bandits to compromise the integrity of the electoral process as it was done in the 2019 general elections.”

 

There is no lull —Senate spokesman

However, the spokesman for the Senate, Senator Ajibola allayed fears of a lull in the activities of the relevant committees and the National Assembly over the amendment to the Electoral Act. He explained that the Senate Committee is still working on the draft after which it would present its report before the Red Chamber. He said: “There is no lull after the public hearing. The committee is still working on the final draft of the bill taking into consideration the reports of the technical committee, feedback from the public hearings and inputs from stakeholders. The report of the committee will be presented once a final draft is finalised.”

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