By Tonnie O. Iredia
The dominant story in today’s Nigeria is the fate of the nation’s latest electoral bill. The decision of President Muhammadu Buhari to return the bill to the National Assembly un-assented to, on account of the provision on compulsory direct mode of party primaries, has continued to elicit diverse reactions.
While a few people are rationalizing the President’s reasoning, very many are quite upset by the high degree of political uncertainty which the subject has created for the country.
At about the same time, there has been a spark in the level of vicious killings in different parts of the country particularly the Northern Region.
Considering the primacy of the right to life among all freedoms, one would have thought that Nigerians would not bother much about the electoral act.
But that has not been the case because our politicians have over the years successfully made politics the main agenda of the nation; nothing else appears to matter.
As a result, the electoral bill diverted attention from the more profound latest killings of 47 people in Kaduna, North-West, Nigeria among others.
The intriguing thing is that many Nigerians are bothered about elections even though they know that there is hardly any politician in the country that is sincerely interested in elections let alone those that are free and fair. They just want to get into office. Under the circumstance, what is the real value of our electoral law?
Many of those in support of or against the President’s failure to assent to the electoral bill are merely motivated by self-interest.
As events have shown, the initial belief that state governors were against direct primaries can no longer be sustained in view of the posture of governors such as Kayode Fayemi (APC, Ekiti) and Samuel Ortom (PDP, Benue).
Yet, many governors are vehemently opposed to direct primaries. As for law makers, the situation is the same. Although the bill emanated from the legislature, not all members are truly in support of direct primaries.
Those who saw it as an opportunity to reduce the power and influence of their governors and thereby led the support group have fizzled away within the twinkle of an eye.
Indeed, the threat to collect signatures to override the President’s veto which on the first day of the threat reportedly rose above 70 was merely theoretical.
In truth, the problem with the electoral bill is not the mode of primary elections, the real fear as some people have observed has since 2015 remained the electronic transmission of election results.
With it, rigging is made more difficult to achieve, hence whatever can be done to keep it away would be strongly canvassed or surreptitiously inserted in a law.
The argument that direct primaries would expand participation and give ownership of the voting process to the people is misconceived because the mode like its indirect counterpart, can be subjected to manipulation and used to achieve ignoble goals.
As we saw in the recent Anambra governorship election, the mode was ‘used’ by the ruling All Progressive Congress APC, to select flag bearers for the contest which at the end produced contentious results that the judiciary has now invalidated.
It can therefore be argued that the last minute smuggling of a compulsory mode of direct primaries into the electoral bill was done with the understanding that its controversial nature will make it impossible for the bill to see the light of day. The schemers appeared to have done some deep forecasting.
One of the arguments that direct primaries would be expensive to handle was expected to be countered by the explanation that no matter the cost, it is well if it is successfully rigged. It was however forgotten that it is the parties that would bear the cost.
They and not INEC are the ones to select and secure venues, print ballot papers and other logistics while INEC is only to monitor the primaries. But why will legislators who are themselves politicians deliberately weaken their parties by dictating how they should be subverted?
Does that not run counter to the wishes of the same politicians that parties should be allowed to manage their internal affairs?
This contradiction suggests that many politicians are not really interested in any form of control or indeed, any electoral law. They only want to rig elections which explains why they always scheme to destabilize INEC.
Politicians have continued to give the impression that there is no law which empowers INEC to transmit results electronically; whereas, on March 26, 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law an amendment to the Electoral Act which stated that “Voting at an election under this Act shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Independent National Electoral Commission.”
What is the difference between this amendment by Jonathan and all the pretensions by legislators since 2015 of working on a bill that can empower INEC to transmit results in any particular manner?
This is why we have argued that Nigerian legislators have always taken the Nigerian people for a ride without consequences. They do not even want an independent electoral commission that would handle an election as a game that is played by its rules.
Our premise therefore is that, if the main contention in Nigeria today is transparency of the conduct of elections in which the votes of the electorate are allowed to count, we do not need any amendment to the 2015 provision stated above.
Besides, why should Nigerians continue to tolerate politicians who scheme to control the nation’s electoral body notwithstanding its constitutionally guaranteed independence?
At first, the struggle was to foist on INEC, an election time table determined by the legislature. It failed. The next scheme which also failed was the attempt to subordinate INEC to some communication entity.
Now that the people have overwhelmingly demanded the electronic transmission of results, the schemers are trying to kill the Electoral Act as a whole so that what they detest the most, does not survive.
There are at least two therapies here. First, there is nothing in the Nigerian Constitution which empowers anybody to supervise INEC.
Consequently, any attempt to make a law purportedly for the good governance of the country but which in any way seeks to direct INEC is illegal.
Second, the current INEC led by Professor Mahmood Yakubu has courageously declared, close to a dozen times this year, that nothing can stop her from electronic transmission of election results.
Instead, Yakubu insists that INEC will “continue to deepen the use of technology in the conduct of elections, especially the electronic transmission of polls results and the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS).”
The cost of handling the process INEC has designed for elections is quite high. Only a few days ago, the commission put her needs at N305 billion. Many people are already unhappy with expending such huge sums on elections.
As observed by the South-West Zone D of the National Association of Nigerian Students NANS, “the country might not be able to manage the implications of such expenditure during a precarious economic climate.” Should we in all honesty push INEC to spend more to monitor primaries?
If an election is a game such as football, is it the duty of the referee to guide a team to select its players?
Why are we looking forward to mature political parties that can effectively and efficiently handle their internal matters while at the same time insisting on directing them on how to select their flag bearers?
Could it be that we are unable to depart from the military’s transition to civil rule political programme of old where the electoral body was made to draw up party manifestos and constitutions?
If not, what is this game of allowing candidates whose elections were conducted by INEC into the legislature to later produce bogus instruments in the name of electoral law that obstructs free and fair elections?
It is certainly time to talk less of electoral law in Nigeria.