BusinessDay
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Is there deliberate ploy by NASS to sidestep Electoral Amendment Bill passage?

A major hurdle lies ahead for Nigeria which could undermine scheduled off-season elections and the 2023 general election. The entire electoral process could be jeopardised if the Electoral Amendment Bill, is not passed by the National Assembly and signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari.

Recall that the President had refused assent to the Bill in 2018, in a letter to the then Senate President. The President had claimed he withheld his assent because it was passed too close to the 2019 election, fearing it could throw confusion into the electoral process.

“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.

“This leads me to believe that it is in the best interest of the country and our democracy for the National Assembly to specifically state in the Bill that the Electoral Act will come into effect and be applicable to elections commencing after the 2019 general election,” Buhari had said.

The proposed amendment among other things is expected to firmly entrench the use of technology in the electoral process and hopefully give Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) the discretion to deploy relevant and new generation technology in the electoral process.

Recall that the use of technology in transmitting the result and servers turned out to be the major bases for controversy that threatened to undermine the credibility of the 2019 presidential election. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Atiku Abubakar had challenged the result of the election released by INEC.

Atiku had claimed that the results obtained from the INEC server indicated that he won the poll with over a million votes. But the commission denied having a server where the results of the February 23, 2019 presidential election were uploaded.

Through their lawyers, the PDP and Atiku had asked the tribunal to compel INEC to grant them access to the server and smart card readers used in the conduct of the election.

In 2020, INEC promised Nigerians that this year’s gubernatorial election in Anambra State would be conducted through the use of electronic voting.

Perhaps, the commission had expected that before then the National Assembly would have passed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill for the President to sign it into law.

However, a few months to the scheduled November Anambra State gubernatorial election and with the 2023 general election also drawing near the federal lawmakers are yet to live up to their promise.

There is the general apprehension among stakeholders and political leaders that the continued delay in passing the amended Electoral Act poses danger to Nigeria’s democracy and INEC’s quest to deepen democracy and conduct free and fair elections.

Shortly after the current 9th legislature began legislative duties in June 2019, Nigerians were assured that it would amend Nigeria’s electoral legal framework way before the 2023 general election. Specifically, it noted that it would not repeat the mistakes of the 8th National Assembly where the legal framework for the last general election was amended on the eve of the election.

On several occasions, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, has assured that the National Assembly would pass the Electoral Act Amendment Bill by the first quarter of 2021, a promise which has not materialised.

Last year, the chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC had said that the National Assembly planned to submit the Amended Electoral Bill to President Muhammadu Buhari before February this year for his assent.

Gaya had said that the National Assembly Joint Committee on INEC and Electoral Matters was working towards ensuring early passage of the bill.

According to him, “We are doing the Electoral Act; we have virtually completed. What we are supposed to do at this level is to bring it to the floor of the Senate for consideration and the floor of the House of Representatives also for consideration. We are doing a joint hearing between the Senate and the House so that we can fast track it and also reduce the issue of having so many differences in the bill.

“If we are working together with the house, it means the bill will be one. The House bill and the Senate bill will be one. There will be no need to go for concurrence. I believe Nigerians will be happy with the Electoral Act 2021, which hopefully before the end of this month, it will leave the chamber to the President for his assent.

“As we promised that within the first quarter of 2021 the bill will be signed, we hope and pray that the bill will be signed and it will enhance the democratic progress in this country.”

Meanwhile, with the expiration of the first quarter promised Nigerians by the National Assembly without the passage of the Bill; agitations have grown in recent weeks among stakeholders, knowing that the House often fails to keep its promises.

Last week, a coalition of civil society groups in Nigeria protested at the National Assembly, insisting on the speedy passage of the Electoral Amendment Bill, while there must be inclusion of electronic voting, provision of financial autonomy for INEC, protection of people with disabilities, and the inclusion of secret voting among others.

The group said there was an urgent need for reforming the electoral legal framework to be founded on the broad-based consensus by Nigerian citizens and electoral stakeholders for a more credible and improved electoral process.

In the last few months, the continued delay in passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill has fuelled suspicion among politicians and Nigerians, there is the belief in some quarters that the Buhari administration and the All Progressives Congress (APC) are not keen on some sections in the Bill and the changes intended.

Some politicians have equally warned that the continued delay may be a sign of what to expect; they doubt the sincerity of the President Buhari administration to give Nigerians a document that would solve the hiccups in the nation’s electoral system.

Speaking recently, Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers State, had alleged that the delay in the passage of the Electoral Amendment Bill was a ploy by the APC to manipulate the 2023 election. Wike said the delay in the passage of the bill was a strategy of the ruling party to influence future elections.

“This government does not want to give Nigeria credible elections in 2023. Why will they want to give Nigeria a credible election in 2023? They know very clearly that with the way things stand today, Nigerians have lost confidence in this government.

“No reasonable Nigerian will say I want this APC government to come back in 2023. And therefore, what we do to make sure there is no credible election is to make sure we do not allow this amendment of the electoral act that ought to give us a credible, free and fair election,” Wike had said.

Experts have also warned that the passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill has become sacrosanct if Nigeria is serious about deepening democracy and checking the myriad of controversies that have trailed recent elections in the country.

“The continued delay is totally uncalled for and unnecessary. The amended Electoral Act will help in addressing the ubiquitous challenges facing the country’s electoral process and system.

“However, delay in passing the bill could affect the effectiveness of INEC in conducting free and fair elections in 2023. Let us talk about the section of the amendment that deals with electoral offences commission, this commission will no doubt help in reducing electoral violence by responsively prosecute electoral offenders

“We all know that electoral violence and fraud are major setbacks for our electoral system and so if such commission is established under the amendment and there is delay in passing such amendment, it shows that the ruling elite is culpable in aiding and abetting electoral crimes,” Kunle Okunade, a political analyst, said.

Okunade further warned that Nigerians should continue to expect the norm which often characterised elections in the country in 2023 if the document is not passed and signed into law.

“The implication is that we would continue to witness incessant electoral fraud and crimes that have damaged our electoral process and political system,” Okunade added.

Speaking in an interview with BusinessDaySUNDAY, Festus Okoye, INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, said the proposed amendment had become necessary to guarantee credible election, adding however, that the Commission would continue to utilise the existing legal framework for the conduct of elections.

“The proposed amendments to the Act will answer some of the challenges of the electoral process. The amendments will firmly and robustly domicile and entrench the use of technology in the electoral process and hopefully give the Commission the discretion to deploy relevant and new generation technology in the electoral process. The amendments will also strengthen the regime of party nomination processes and sanction in a fundamental way, political parties that fail or neglect to employ due process in their nomination of candidates,” Okoye said.

According to him, “Early planning, robust training and certainty in the constitutional and legal framework of elections are fundamental to the success of any election. Chairman of the Commission, Professor Mahmood Yakubu has appealed for speedy passage of the Electoral Amendment Bill and we are confident that the National Assembly will do the needful.

“Our promise is that we will continue to deepen the use of technology in the electoral process within the allowable challenge of a global pandemic that has slowed down production even in advanced countries. We will continue to utilise the existing legal framework for the conduct of elections pending the coming into force of a new legal regime”.

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