By Ben Agande
THE passage by the Senate of the second alteration to the 1999 Constitution penultimate Wednesday marked the climax of the avowal of the Senate that it would do everything within its powers to ensure that the Independent National Electoral Commission is sufficiently empowered both financially and legislatively to conduct a credible, fair and fair election.
Although this is just one of the steps in a multiple step expected to be taken by relevant stakeholders to complete the processes expected before the election, it is nonetheless a very important step.
After the commission had officially requested for additional time for it to be able to conduct a credible election, the waiting period during which due legislative process must be followed to attain the desired result engendered some level of anxiety in the leadership of the INEC prompting the chairman of the commission, Professor Attahiru Jega to raise the alarm that the delay by the National Assembly was capable of jeopardizing the whole electoral process.
Though his alarm prompted some brick backs from members of the Senate who accused him of blackmailing the National Assembly to cover for his deficiency, a timely retraction and denial by professor Jega that his stamen was taken out of context went a long way in calming frayed nerves.
The passage of the second alteration of the 1999 constitution by the senate would not have generated so much attention if not for some events that immediately preceded its passage.
When it became obvious that the Independent National Electoral Commission was hamstrung by time constraints in the conduct of the election, the president sent two requests for the amendment of both the constitution and the Electoral Act 2010 to accommodate the requests by the INEC.
For the Electoral Act, the president requested three amendments to sections 25, 87 and 134. Section 25 (1) of the principal act was to be amended b y replacing it with a new section which provides for elections at both the federal and state levels to be held on dates and in a sequence to be determined by the Independent National Electoral Commission while a new sub-section 25 (3) was introduced to provide for the elections in the case of 2011 to be held not later than April 30, 2011.
Though the senate was disposed to amending the Electoral act to accommodate the concerns of INEC, the introduction of a what is now famously referred to as the ‘toxic’ clause where by aides of the president and the governors would become automatic delegates at the primaries and conventions of political parties put the whole exercise in jeopardy as the whole amendment to the Electoral Act was jettisoned by the Senate.
The action of the Senate which was interpreted in certain quarters as throwing the baby with the bath water sent shivers down the spine of many observers who believe that the whole electoral process had been put on a knife edge with the action of the Senate.
So when the upper chamber began the process of the amendment of the constitution again, many observers followed the procedure with keen interests as it was seen as the last hope of ensuring that the electoral process is put back on a positive course once again.
At a well attended public hearing organized by the Ad Hoc committee of the Senate on the constitution amendment, Nigerian including organizations like the Nigeria Bar Association; leaders of registered political parties and civil society organizations stormed the national assembly to make their voice count in the nation’s quest for a credible electoral process.
It was the aggregate opinion gathered during the public hearing that the senate ad Hoc committee on the 1999 constitution headed by the Deputy senate president, Ike Ekweremadu presented before the senate which was eventually passed on Wednesday.
Of critical importance is the provision that has to do with the time line allowed for the conduct of the election. Under the provision on the 1999 constitution before penultimate amendment, elections were expected to be conducted ‘not earlier than 90 days and not later than 60 days’ to the end of the tenure of elected officials at both the state and the federal level.
But by the new amendment, elections into the office of the president and vice president, governors and deputy governors, the two houses of the national assembly as well as the state house of assembly are to be conducted not earlier than 150 days and not latter than 30 days before the end of tenure of office.
Similarly, by the new provision, cases arising from the governorship elections would commence at the election tribunal and run through the full course of the court process to the Supreme Court. By the existing provision of the constitution, cases emanating from governorship election tribunal terminate at the Court of Appeal.
The alteration also allows for the quorum of an election tribunal established under the constitution to comprise of the chairman and one other member. It also states that, “an election petition shall be filed within 21 days after the date of the declaration of result of the elections and an election tribunal shall deliver its judgment in writing within 180 days from the date of the filling of petition.
“An appeal from a decision of an election tribunal or court of Appeal in an election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of judgment of the tribunal or court”.
In all, a total of 80 Senators out of a total number of 109 Senators participated in the voting process that followed the alteration. While an average of 77 senators voted in favour of all the amendments at all times, three senators abstained while two voted no to some of the alterations.
Although wth the alteration of the constitution to accommodate the timeline requested by the Independent National Electoral Commission has effectively taken care of the fears generated by the rejection of the amendment to the Electoral Act, the conduct of a credible free and fair election can only be guaranteed when politicians accept that election is a contest which must produce winners and losers.
It is only when they imbibe this concept that the amendments made to the constitution to guarantee the conduct of credible election would make sense.