As the countdown to the 2019 general election continues, the capability and capacity of Nigeria to conduct credible, free and fair poll is becoming an issue as heated arguments about political schemes and attempts to manipulate the process continue to rage. The recent verbal exchange between the two dominant political parties, All Progressives Congress (APC), which controls the Executive arm and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which controls the Legislature also at the federal level, bears out as symptoms of the unease in the polity.
But President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision last week to decline assent to the last Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2018, especially at a time political campaigns and other electioneering activities had commenced, has further compounded the growing apprehension. For PDP and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, who had already started moving round the country and launching serious political offensive against the APC, it was an opportunity to consistently raise doubts and suspicion about the commitment of President Buhari’s administration to free and fair polls next year.
On his part, Buhari has also consistently assured Nigerians of his desire and plans to conduct elections that would qualify as one of the nation’s best. The unease and controversy over the nature of the country’s electoral system pushed the National Assembly to convene an emergency public hearing on how to improve the electoral process last Monday. At the occasion, stakeholders pointed out some of the nagging issues militating against a credible electoral process.
While Senate President, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, blamed security agents for allegedly becoming major clogs in the electoral process, House of Representatives Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, expressed fears that the country was surrendering to the criminality of vote-buying, adding that more worrisome dimension to vote-buying is the alleged use of officials of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and officer security agencies to induce, or intimidate and coerce voters to vote for particular candidates.
While condemning the use of incidence form to bypass the lawful process of accreditation, Saraki said: “It is all too clear that security agents are beginning to emerge as major clogs in the election process. Reports of collusion with political actors to disenfranchise voters are very worrisome indeed. We cannot, under any circumstances, militarise elections because that defeats the purpose of free, fair and credible polls. In an election, access to the polling units for the purpose of casting one’s vote is the barest minimum. Once a voter is denied the opportunity to vote through bullying, intimidation and other forms of harassment, then vote rigging and electoral malpractice have free reign.”
In outlining the purpose of the public hearing, Saraki said: “Our major concern should be entrenching global best practices in our electoral process, and ensuring that these are backed by legislations to make them sustainable and permanent. For example, the use of Incident Form to bypass the lawful process of accreditation and voting is not good for the country. We must do away with it.”
Saraki maintained that Nigeria could not at this time fail, especially as the world is looking forward to what happens in the forthcoming elections, “considering that President Muhammadu Buhari is the Chairman of ECOWAS and the Chairman of INEC, Prof. Yakubu Mahmoud, is the head of Electoral Commissions in West Africa.”
But Dogara was more categorical when he noted “the recent phenomenon of direct pricing and buying of votes as if in a market square is very disturbing,” adding that it is one of the highest forms of corruption, adding, “The high prevalence of vote-buying in the electoral system of the country is, without any doubt, of great concern to all Nigerians and members of the global community, who truly love democracy. It is disheartening that this absurd phenomenon has assumed alarming proportions in recent times. As citizens, we must not surrender to this criminality as we cannot do so and still expect honour. When political office holders defy the law and corruptly assume office, they will always operate as if they are above the law.”
Dogara lamented that vote-buying and other sundry criminal manipulation of the electoral process are unmitigated disasters, saying that as a result, “we have been married off to a mob that rules us by the example of their power not by the dictates of law. Mob that rules by fear as its inalienable tool, rather than by courage. Mob that accepts the status quo rather than challenge it. Mobs don’t grow others, they only destroy others in order to grow themselves.”
Dancing around a contentious bill
In defending his refusal to sign the Electoral Act amendment bill into law, President Buhari explained that it is “because I am concerned that passing a new Electoral Act 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”
Despite his refusal to sign the bill, Buhari suggested that the National Assembly should allow the amendment to be applicable for future elections and not the 2019 election.
With the president’s action, the next option is for the National Assembly to gather two-thirds majority in both chambers and override the President’s Veto or simply drop the amendment. Section 58(4) and (5) of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides that: “Where a bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall within thirty days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent.
“Where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the President shall not be required.”
In the event that the National Assembly fails to override the veto and drops the amendments, it means Nigerians would have to cope with the observed lapses in the 2015 election, particularly in the areas of the accreditation by card readers as well as the irregularities associated with collation of results.
There is no apparent sign that the Senate is ready to override the President’s Veto, but Saraki has continued to explain that “what the National Assembly has done with that bill is to raise the level of transparency, credibility and acceptability of the electoral process. We made sure that the law, if assented to and honestly applied by INEC and all those concerned, would give us an election that will be better than what we had in 2015.”
The Senate President said the president should have known that the survival of democracy, its development and the future of Nigeria, are far more important than the ambition of any individual or party.
But in its immediate response to the rejection of the electoral amendment bill, PDP accused Buhari of dragging the country to the brink, just as it urged the National Assembly to override the veto. The party contended that overriding the President’s Veto has become imperative, saying that Buhari’s “decision is a calculated attempt to hold the nation to ransom, inject crisis into the electoral process and ultimately scuttle the conduct of the 2019 general elections, seeing that there is no way he can win in a free and fair contest.”
It noted that President Buhari’s repeated refusal to sign amendments passed to check rigging in the election, raised issues of his sincerity of purpose, stressing that “it has the capacity to trigger political unrest and violence, which can, in turn, truncate our hard-earned democracy.”
PDP reminded citizens that “this is the fourth time President Buhari is withholding assent on the amendment without any cogent reason following his rejection by Nigerians. President Buhari is mortally afraid of the amendments because they essentially checked the All Progressives Congress’s (APC) rigging plans, including the use of underage and alien voters, vote-buying, alteration of results and manipulation of voter register for which the APC and the Buhari Presidency have been boasting of winning the 2019 elections.”
Campaigning with clout
While the verbal exchanges on the nature of election to come next year rages, the main opposition party, PDP, waltzed through some geopolitical zones, kicking off its presidential campaign in great momentum, just as the ruling APC prepares to heal it’s self-inflicted injuries before settling down to plan its own campaigns. In Sokoto, the party mustered a crowd it had never gathered in that part of the country in the past, during which a number of former and current governors of northern states addressed the crowd, asking them to vote out the Buhari administration.
The stalwarts included former governors Ahmed Makarfi, Sule Lamido, Babangida Aliyu, Rabiu Kwankwanso and governors Aminu Tambuwal, Darius Ishaku. Former President Goodluck Jonathan, his former Vice President, Namadi Sambo, national chairman of the party, Uche Secondus, as well as Senate President Bukola Saraki and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, were among those who attended the rally. They expressed the belief that Nigeria is not safer today than it was in 2015, while the economy has since deteriorated and urged the electorate to kick out the Buhari administration.
At the rally, Jonathan said only the PDP and Atiku could make Nigerians feed three times daily, and asking the people to vote for the party.
At a similar rally held by the party in Ibadan, Oyo State capital last Thursday, Atiku expressed optimism that Nigeria would be a better country if he wins at next year’s general elections.
The former vice president told the mammoth crowd that the current administration could achieve nothing because of its fake promises and limited understanding of the economy, even as he lambasted APC for reneging on its promise to restructure the country.
Atiku said: “In the next two months, you will be required to choose your next president. Please, make your decision carefully. The best democracy we enjoyed in Nigeria was under the PDP. In 2015, APC promised 12 million jobs, but today we have not seen the jobs. Nigeria is now the headquarters of poverty in the world. We shall return Nigeria to prosperity in 2019.
“I headed the best economic team in Nigeria. When we get to government in 2019, we will continue to give you the best education. One of the best policies for Nigeria is restructuring and we will do it when we get to government. Don’t believe APC’s lies again. Within six months, we will reposition Nigeria. Don’t sell your vote and don’t sell your PVC. Buhari must go!”
Chairman of the party, Prince Secondus, maintained that President Buhari is not fit to rule the country beyond 2019, noting, “With what we have seen here today, it is sure that our people in the Southwest want a change in government and Atiku is the only candidate who can rescue Nigeria at this time.”