President Muhammadu Buhari has not signed the 2021 Electoral Act Amendment Bill sent to him on November 19 by the National Assembly for his assent. Instead, the president has written to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and some other institutions for their observations on the bill.
Mr Buhari has until December 19 to sign the bill or withhold his assent and communicate his objections to the National Assembly.
“The President has requested the commission and other critical national institutions to revert with detailed and considered views indicating whether or not the President should assent to the bill,” INEC National Commissioner and chairman of its Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, said in a statement.
The bill has 21 clauses that contain amendments of the Electoral Act, but the stipulation of direct primary for nomination of candidates by political parties is one of the most contentious of the lot.
Until the final passage by the National Assembly, state governors across party lines made frantic moves against the clause for direct primaries.
Not originally part of the amendment, a motion for direct primaries was moved by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, during the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill after the public hearing in July.
Mr Gbajabiamila, a member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), urged lawmakers to make direct primaries mandatory for the selection of election candidates by the parties, as part of the amendment to the Electoral Act.
This, he said, would enrich the country’s democracy by encouraging wider participation of party members in the nomination of candidates for elections.
The motion, however, did not sit well with some governors and lawmakers.
Having been transmitted to the president for assent, what does the bill portend for Nigeria’s democratic outlook? Or is it just another clever move on Nigeria’s political chessboard ahead of the 2023 general election?
Direct and indirect primaries
Section 87 (1-2) of the Electoral Act (2010) states that, “A political party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this Act shall hold primaries for aspirants to all elective positions. The procedure for the nomination of candidates by political party for the various elective positions shall be by direct or indirect primaries.”
Direct primaries involve the participation of all registered members of a party in the selection of the party’s candidates. Indirect primaries on the other hand rely on the use of delegates who are often party leaders or political appointees at different levels to decide who flies its flag.
Since its foundation about seven years ago, the APC has used both direct and indirect primaries to nominate its candidates, but the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and some other opposition political parties nominate their candidates largely through indirect primaries.
Ahead of the 2019 general elections, 18 of the 27 APC state chapters in their governorship primaries in September 2018 opted for indirect primaries, while the remaining nine used the direct method.
The nine states that settled for direct primaries include Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Bauchi, Cross-River, Kano, Niger, Ogun, Taraba and Zamfara.
If the legislation gets Mr Buhari’s nod, the popularity of aspirants, within a political party, may begin to be factored into the selection process.
Kicks and concerns
APC was quick to endorse the proposed law but PDP vehemently kicked against it, accusing the ruling party o]f trying to subvert democracy and freedom of choice.
In response to the PDP criticism of the clause in the bill, the APC, in two separate statements on October 13, downplayed the relevance of the main opposition’s stance.
In one of the statements, the ruling party said the “patronic disposition” of the 9th NASS should be commended as the bill represents the interest of all Nigerians.
“Just yesterday, the Senate okayed the Direct mode of primaries for nomination of candidates and also electronic transmission of results, subject to harmonization by the joint Committee of the National Assembly.
“Our party members can now appreciate the wisdom of the leader of our party – President Buhari when he pushed that the party be taken back to the grassroots,” the interim National Secretary of the APC, John Akpanudoedehe, said during the inauguration of the state congresses committees.
While the APC as a party endorsed the direct primaries method, state governors, including those of the APC, opposed it. The governors in media engagements took exception to the ruling party’s stance on the clause.
Some governors described it as an attempt to usurp the function of political parties. In response, some lawmakers accused the governors of crying out because it weakens their stranglehold on political parties.
The Chairman of the Senate Committee on INEC, Kabir Gaya (APC, Kano), was frank on the reason why lawmakers endorse the amendment. He said it will protect lawmakers from governors who have been exploiting the weaknesses of indirect primaries over the years to handpick candidates for their parties.
“Sometimes, governors have delegates and they decide who will be the next House of Representatives member, the next senator.
“The best legislators are those who come back often, because of experience. But these days, because of what is happening, because of interference in indirect primaries, you find out that only 30 per cent will come back to the National Assembly. Of course, you are losing 70 per cent. You are losing experienced people.
“In the National Assembly, the more you come, the more experienced you become. This is a means of empowering the legislators,” he said.
Those who oppose direct primaries, however, say it is expensive in terms of planning, organisation, finance and manpower.
Kebbi State Governor, Abubakar Bagudu, and his colleagues from Kogi and Benue states, Yahaya Bello and Samuel Ortom respectively, have urged Mr Buhari to decline assent to the bill.
Mr Bagudu, who is the Chairman of the APC Governors’ Forum, argued that direct primaries will overstretch INEC which monitors the nomination of candidates for elections.
“Direct primaries involve supervisory roles by INEC. So, if multiple political parties are doing their primaries, INEC resources will be overstretched, and I think the chairman of INEC has even commented on that,” he said in an interview with journalists.
Mr Bello on his part dismissed the lawmaker’s argument of ‘returning power back to Nigerians’ through direct primaries and accused them of plotting to pit the people against their leaders.
“The argument of returning the party to the people does not arise, because who took the party away from the people in the first place? I think the party remains with the people. The first thing is that the National Assembly is expected to do its job and we, as governors, respect that a lot,” he said.
“But I have to warn that the few senators, including Senator Adamu Aliero, who are having issues with their governors, will not be right to push down direct primaries on Nigerians.”
While the governors’ efforts to dissuade lawmakers on the amendment may have failed, they apparently see a trump card in their access to the president and talking him into declining to the bill.
However, INEC has declared its readiness to monitor direct primaries of political parties if Mr Buhari signs the amended Electoral Bill into law.
“Since it emerged that the direct primary clause was included in the Electoral Act amendment Bill, many of you have been asking the Commission for its position. The issue is not about our position but the process. In the exercise of its constitutional power, the National Assembly has passed the Bill into law awaiting presidential assent. Once the process is concluded, the Bill becomes law and every person and authority in Nigeria, including the Commission, must obey,” the chairman of the commission, Mahmood Yakubu, said.
Jide Ojo, a political analyst and socio commentator, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, described the amendment of Section 87 by lawmakers as a needless effort aimed at flexing their “egoistic agenda” rather than pursue the country’s democratic interest.
He said both types of primaries are susceptible to manipulation and should therefore be corrected through proper legislation around the entire process of nominating candidates.
“Whether you do direct or indirect primary, there are problems. If the rule of law will not be followed, if there would be no internal party democracy, if due process would not be allowed and you know we are talking about the primary, there is a leg to conducting the primary and that is screening of candidates,” he said.
Mr Ojo referenced the just concluded Anambra governorship election, where Andy Uba of the APC came a distant third in the poll, to buttress his point on how every system is susceptible to manipulation.
Mr Uba, who garnered over 300,000 votes in the APC direct primaries, had only 43,000 votes in the main election.
“Go back and check, the screening of candidates has been very problematic because you screen out somebody you do not want,” Mr Ojo said. “That is where it starts. That is where the manipulation starts. You set up a screening committee after somebody has paid millions of naira to obtain an expression of interest and a nomination form.
“For governorship now it is about N22 million or 20 something million. Somebody paid that and you now said okay, on so date all the aspirants would be screened and the person that will screen will stand a very good chance, will just find a simple excuse to screen him out,” Mr Ojo said.
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