By Femi Falana, SAN
Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has conducted the general elections on a two-tier or three-tier basis. Even though the national assembly had attempted in the past to use the Electoral Act to alter the sequence of elections fixed by the INEC it did not succeed. In spite of the ongoing controversy surrounding the sequence of elections our recent experience as a nation has shown that there is nothing sacrosanct about it. In 1999 and 2007 the presidential election came up last while it came up first in 2015. In influencing the order of elections in 2015 the ruling party had thought that holding the presidential election first would have bandwagon effect on the outcome of the other elections. But the result was a disaster for the ruling party.
It has equally been confirmed that when elections into the legislative houses were held before other election in the past majority of sitting legislators lost their seats. So, there is no indication that President Muhammadu Buhari stands to benefit electorally from the decision of the INEC to retain the 2015 sequence of elections. But notwithstanding the reactions of the presidency and the national assembly to the sequence of elections announced by the INEC it is pertinent to review the relevant provisions of the Constitution, the Electoral Act and judicial authorities on the vexed issue.
In preparations for the 2019 general elections the INEC recently released a timetable for party primaries and the elections into the various offices in exercise of its powers under Sections 76, 116, 132 and 178 as well as paragraph 15 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule made pursuant to section 153 (1) of the Constitution. Under the arrangement the presidential and national assembly elections will be held on February 16, 2019 while the governorship and house of assembly elections will take place on March 2, 2019. But in the Electoral Bill 2018 recently passed by the national assembly the sequence of the general elections has been altered. The sequence proposed by the new amendment is A. National Assembly Election, B. Governorship and State Assembly Elections and C. Presidential Election.
No doubt, the matter has generated a needless controversy to the extent that little or no attention is paid to the other provisions of the Electoral Bill which have the capacity to promote internal democracy and enhance the credibility of the electoral process. Perhaps not aware of the state of the law the INEC has announced its intention to approach the Supreme Court to test the constitutional validity of the Electoral Bill 2018 if it is eventually signed into law by the President. Since there are indications that the President may withhold his assent in the circumstance, the national assembly has threatened to override his veto.
Having watched the trend of the debate it is regrettable to note that the parties involved in the dispute have not studied the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of National Assembly v. President (2003) 9 NWLR (PT 824) 104 at 143-144. In that case, President Obasanjo had refused to assent to the Electoral Bill 2002 which had been passed by both Chambers of the National Assembly and transmitted to him June 24, 2002. Subsequently, by a motion of veto-override the national assembly passed the bill into law. In an originating summons filed at the Federal High Court the INEC challenged the validity of the passage of the Bill into law and the constitutionality of Section 15 of the Act which had provided that general elections shall be held in one day.
The trial court held that the Bill was properly passed into law but that Section 15 thereof was inconsistent with Sections 76, 116, 132 and 178 of the Constitution. Dissatisfied with the annulment of Section 15 of the Electoral Act, the national assembly filed an appeal at the Court of Appeal. On his own part, the Attorney-General of the Federation filed a cross appeal to challenge the passage of the Bill into law. In its judgment the Court of Appeal held that the manner of passing the bill into was unconstitutional but declined to set it aside on ground of public policy as the 2003 general elections were being conducted under the law. However, the Court of Appeal affirmed the decision of the Federal High Court on the illegality of Section 15 of the Electoral Act.
In his contribution to the judgment of the Court, Oduyemi J.C.A (as he then was) stated that “in so far as Section 15 of the Electoral Act, 2002 seeks to fetter that discretion and limit the 3rd Defendant to only one day in the year for all elections to the offices concerned, that provision of the Act is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution above referred to and is to that extent a nullity. Section 1(3) of the Constitution… All in all, I agree with the reasoning in the judgment of the lower court and with the conclusion in the judgment that Section 15 of the Electoral Act, 2002 is inconsistent with the specific provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 in Section 132(1), 76(1), 178(1), 116(1), 78, 118 and Item 15(a) of the 3rd Schedule: that it infringes upon the absolute discretion vested by the Constitution on the 3rd Respondent with regard to the fixing of dates for election into the various offices concerned.”
Alteration of the Constitution
However, the national assembly took advantage of the 2010 Alteration of the Constitution to attempt to overrule the judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of the National Assembly v. The President (supra). Thus, in the first alteration made to the Constitution, the national assembly amended sections 132(1), 76(1), 178(1), 116(1), 118 and 178 of the Constitution by adding the phrase “in accordance with the Electoral Act”. Although the power of the INEC to “organize, undertake and supervise” the general elections conferred on it by paragraph 15 of part 1 of the third schedule made pursuant to section 153 of the Constitution was left intact, the national assembly members erroneously believed that they had conferred on themselves the power to fix the dates for general elections in Nigeria. Hence, in the 2018 Electoral Bill, the national assembly is alleged to have tampered with the discretion of the INEC to fix the dates for the 2019 general elections.
Apart from the illegality of subjecting the provisions of the Constitution to the Electoral Act, the Alteration of the Constitution did not confer on the national assembly the power of fix dates for holding the general election in Nigeria. To that extent, the national assembly cannot use the Electoral Act to usurp the powers exclusively conferred on the INEC to appoint dates for holding the general elections in the country. Indeed, the Supreme Court has had cause, after the first 2010 Alteration of the Constitution, to confirm the discretionary power of the INEC to fix the dates for holding the general elections.
In PDP V. SYLVA (2012) 13 NWLR (PT 1316) 85 the respondent challenged the decision of the INEC to cancel and reschedule the 2012 governorship election in Bayelsa State. In dismissing the contention the Supreme Court (per Rhodes Vivour JSC) held that ‘’INEC has the sole responsibility to fix dates for election and to my mind if INEC fixes a date for elections and for whatever reason, be it logistic, I do not think anyone has a cause of action against INEC for canceling an election (not held) and rescheduling elections for another day’’.
Similarly, in NDP V INEC (2013) 20 WRN 1 at 45 the Supreme Court (per Ariwoola J.S.C.) held that “It is not in doubt that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that is, the respondent, has the sole responsibility to decide when elections are to hold. See Peoples Democratic Party v Timipre Sylva & Ors (2012) 13 NWLR (Pt 1316) 85 at 122. The respondent also reserves the prerogative to decide what Timetable of Activities to publish for a General Election.” Furthermore, in Hon. James Abiodun Faleke v INEC (2016) 50 WRN 1 the Supreme Court reiterated the view that by virtue of paragraph 15 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule made pursuant to section 153 (1) (f) and (i) of the Constitution, the Independent National Electoral Commission has power to organize, undertake and supervise all elections to the offices of the President, Vice President, the Governor and Deputy Governor of a State and the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each state of the Federation.
No doubt, the national assembly would have achieved its objective if it had incorporated the sequence of the general elections in the Constitution. But by providing that the INEC shall fix election dates “in accordance with the Electoral Act” the interference in the exercise of the discretionary power of INEC’s constitutional power to fix the dates for the elections cannot be justified in law. As far as the Constitution is concerned, the power of the INEC to organize, undertake and supervise the elections which has been interpreted to include the power to fix the dates for the general elections or determine the sequence of the elections has not been altered in any material particular.
It is the height of legislative absurdity to say that the power donated to the INEC by the Constitution shall be exercised in accordance with the provision of an interior legislation. In Attorney-General, Abia State v. Attorney-General of the Federation (2002) 1 WRN 1 at 45 Kutigi CJN (as he then was) held that “where the provision in the Act is within the legislative powers of the National Assembly but the Constitution is found to have already made the same or similar provision, then the new provision will be regarded as invalid for duplication and/or inconsistency and therefore inoperative. The same fate will befall any provision of the Act which seeks to enlarge, curtail or alter any existing provision of the Constitution. The provision or provisions will be treated as unconstitutional and therefore null and void.”
From the foregoing, it is submitted that the interference in the exercise of the powers of the INEC to appoint dates for holding the general election in Nigeria is illegal as the provision of the Electoral Bill, 2018 is inconsistent with Sections 76,116,132 and 178 of the Constitution. To the extent of such inconsistency, the provision of the Electoral Bill is illegal, null and void as stipulated by section 1 (3) of the Constitution. In other words, since the INEC has been empowered to organize, undertake and supervise all elections the National Assembly cannot rely on the provision of the Electoral Act to usurp the powers of the INEC to fix the dates for the elections. In view of the settled position of the law the INEC should not waste public funds by rushing to the Supreme Court to contest its own constitutional duty to organize, undertake and supervise the 2019 general elections.