Like a recurring decimal, the mind games between the various contending interest groups within the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) over the Electoral Act 2022 continued last Friday, after President Muhammadu Buhari signed the amendment bill into law.
However, it was obvious that the President was merely yielding to public opinion and concerted agitation by civil society groups by appending his signature to the highly sensitive piece of legislation.
Evidence of the President’s reluctance became apparent during his address at the brief ceremony attended by some of his cabinets, especially the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami SAN, Chairman of Governors’ Forum, Dr Kayode Fayemi and leadership of the upper and lower chambers of the National Assembly, Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila at the Presidential Villa.
While noting his administration’s determination to leave behind a legacy of a transparent and credible election, the President noted with relief that “the current Bill comes with a great deal of improvement from the previous Electoral Bill 2021.”
Alluding to the earlier amendment bill, which he withheld assent, President Buhari explained that there were “salient and praiseworthy provisions that could positively revolutionize elections in Nigeria through the introduction of new technological innovations.”
“These innovations,” he stated, “would guarantee the constitutional rights of citizens to vote and to do so effectively… These commendable efforts are in line with our policy to bequeath posterity a landmark legal framework that paves the way for a credible and sound electoral process that we would all be proud of.”
However, after expressing positive sentiments about the bill and the work of the lawmakers, the President went ahead to raise fresh red flags that might have warranted his foot-dragging in giving his assent.
Before disclosing his reservations about some sections of the bill, the President declared; “Distinguished Senators and Honourable Members of the National Assembly, ..it is my perspective that the substance of the Bill is both reformative and progressive.
“I am making this bold declaration because I foresee the great potentials of the Bill. Worthy of note include, the democratic efficacy of the Bill with particular reference to sections 3, 9(2), 34, 41, 47, 84(9), (10) and (11) among others.”
However, despite those unique observations, the President descended on certain sections of the legislation that directly affect some members of his cabinet, especially those that could play crucial roles during the APC national convention.
It would be recalled that ever since the Comrade Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee (NWC) of APC was sacked on July 25, 2020, some members of the legacy parties that formed APC, especially those from the Action Congress of Nigeria (AC.N) flank, blamed their Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) counterpart for the dismantling of the party’s leadership structure.
The Attorney General of the Federation, Malami SAN, was indirectly accused of doing the bidding of his CPC colleagues to scuttle the political clout of the ACN camp, especially against the backdrop of the speculated Presidential ambition of a former Lagos State governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.
Yet, the establishment of a Caretaker/Extraordinary Convention Planning Committee (CPC) headed by Governor Mai Mala Buni of Yobe State, threw up new concerns as the state governors rallied around the CECPC to undermine the political interest of members of the National Assembly, especially those with eyes on the governorship seats of their states.
Consequently, in an ambitious bid to fight for their political survival and future interest in the party, the federal lawmakers decided, shortly after the APC nationwide ward, local government and state congresses, to insert the direct primary methodology of candidate nomination in the Electoral Act amendment bill.
Although various stakeholders kicked against the mandatory direct primary on all political parties as the basis of nominating candidates for the election, the National Assembly passed the bill, including the offensive clause.
As the state governors mounted pressure on the President, the lawmakers’ argument that the approach would return political parties to the members was doused by the claim by the PGF that operational cost and the draconian nature of the provision made it impracticable.
At the end of the day, President Buhari sided with the governors and, citing the same direct method of primary, withheld assent on the bill, even as he returned it to the National Assembly before the end of the mandatory 30 days period contained in the constitution.
However, last Friday when the President consented to sign the revised bill, he (Buhari) raised red flags against Section 84(12), contending that it runs counter to the constitution.
His words: “Section 84 (12) constitutes a disenfranchisement of serving political office holders from voting or being voted for at Conventions or Congresses of any political party, for the purpose of the nomination of candidates for any election in cases where it holds earlier than 30 days to the National Election.
“The section provides as follows, ‘No political appointee at any level shall be a voting delegate or be voted for at the Convention or Congress of any political party for the purpose of the nomination of candidates for any election”.
“This provision has introduced qualification and disqualification criteria that ultra vires the Constitution by way of importing blanket restriction and disqualification to serving political office holders of which they are constitutionally accorded protection.”
The President noted that it would amount to “stretching things beyond the constitutional limit to import extraneous restriction into the constitution on account of the practical application of section 84(12) of the bill, where political parties’ conventions and congresses were to hold earlier than 30 days to the election.”
“Arising from the foregoing, with particular regards to the benefits of the Bill, industry, time, resources and energy committed in its passage, I hereby assent to the Bill and request the Nationally Assembly to consider immediate amendments that will bring the Bill in tune with constitutionality by way of deleting section 84(12) accordingly,” he added.
It was obvious that the President was affected by the power tussle between the state governors elected on the platform of APC, otherwise called the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF), on the one hand, the National Assembly caucus of the party, on another, as well as the interest of party chieftains in his cabinet, including the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Malami.
The general perception was that the President refused to sign the first Electoral Act amendment bill presented to him last November in deference to the governors, who were said to be the target of the direct primary methodology stipulated as a method of nominating candidates in the bill.
Perhaps, peeved by the President’s audacious refusal to endorse an Electoral bill with such far-reaching stipulations, Nigerians, particularly civil society groups and rights activists mobilised social forces to ambush the process through a mass protest agitating that the President should sign the reviewed Electoral Act amendment bill.
The civil society groups seemed to have been frightened that President Buhari may yet again reject the amended bill, when the AGF, Malami, dropped a hint to such a possibility during his appearance at Channels television programme, Politics Today.
Malami had stated that the President may withhold assent from the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill if it is considered to have proposals based on personal interests. Those ‘personal interests were in allusion to the attempt by lawmakers loyal to Tinubu to cut their pound of flesh from Malami, who is believed to be nursing a governorship ambition for his home state, Kebbi.
Although he affirmed his interest in “the advancement of democracy and the democratic system,” the AGF he was willing to assist Buhari to leave behind as a legacy of good elections for Nigeria.
He however said he could not assess whether the bill factored the national and public interest, as against selfish interest, among others; whether it is a bill that can stand the test of constitutionality and legality.”
As a new bone of contention has been isolated by President Buhari, it would be seen in the days to come whether the National Assembly would hurriedly amend the new Electoral Act before the March 26 national convention of the party or allow time to play on the matter so that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) organise elections using the Act as passed.