President Muhammadu Buhari

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

I AM surprised that some Nigerians are still surprised at President Muhammadu Buhari’s capacity to take the country for a ride, given what he has done in office in the last six and half years.

The latest is his failure to sign the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021, which was passed by both chambers of the National Assembly and transmitted to him for assent on November 18.

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It was obvious that he was not going to sign the bill. Perspicacious Nigerians said so publicly and the silence from the presidency was eerie.

Constitutionally, Buhari has 30 days to sign a bill into law. Section 58(4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) stipulates that where a bill is presented to the president for assent, he shall within 30 days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds assent. 

But Section 58(5) states that where the president withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each Chamber of the National Assembly by a two-thirds majority, the bill shall become law and the assent of the president shall not be required.

Will the lawmakers do the needful? Your guess is as good as mine. They don’t have the liver to veto Buhari.

So, where does that leave Nigerians in their quest for fair and free elections in 2023? In the limbo! All protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the president has no appetite for credible polls. There was none in 2019. Nothing indicates there will be any in 2023 without a credible electoral law.

On Tuesday, December 21, Senate President Ahmad Lawan read the letter from Buhari declining assent. The letter was disingenuously dated December 13. Backdating the letter was an act of bad faith. Buhari has always dealt with the National Assembly contemptuously.

The president said he declined assent based on the advice he purportedly received from relevant ministries, departments and agencies of his government. 

Up in arms against the amendment of Section 87 of the Electoral Act, 2010 which provided exclusively for direct primaries in the nomination of party candidates, Buhari said signing the bill into law would have serious adverse legal, financial, economic and security consequences on the country, as well as impact negatively on the rights of citizens to participate in government.

“In the premise of the above, I hereby signify to the National Assembly that I am constrained to withhold assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021 in line with the provisions of Section 58(1) & (4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended),” he wrote.

On the face value, the reason sounds plausible but the president’s antecedents cannot give anyone the confidence that he is acting in national interest.

Granted, some political parties, including the main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and even some members of the All Progressives Congress, APC, had kicked against direct primaries, which is basically a war of survival between the governors and the lawmakers who contend, with very good reasons, that the indirect primary skews the balance of power in favour of the governors. 

The argument of those clamouring for direct primaries is that the question of some leaders sitting somewhere to impose candidates will not arise again. 

But in withholding assent, Buhari is throwing away the baby with the bathwater because even the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, is of the opinion that the bill contains substantial provisions that would lay a solid foundation for important improvements in the electoral process. He is simply playing his own politics.

In response to Buhari’s request for its take on the bill, INEC had highlighted landmark proposals in the bill that would radically improve the quality of elections, which include electronic transmission of results, early submission of list of nominated candidates, and the power of the Commission to review election results declared under duress or in contravention of electoral laws and guidelines.

INEC also told the president that “an accelerated assent to the bill will facilitate the preparations for major elections such as the FCT municipal area council election, Ekiti and Osun states governorship elections, and the 2023 general election, and urged him not to hesitate in signing the bill. 

Even for those who are minded to giving the president the benefit of the doubt, his 2018 antics on the same issue suggest that he is not persuaded by altruistic reasons.

By withholding assent, the president is playing negative politics even as he pretends to be standing on high nationalistic and patriotic grounds. As it was the case in 2018, the real issue this time seems to be the electronic transmission of election results, which many Nigerians believe is the only way to stop electoral malfeasance in the country. Nigerian politicians, including Buhari, don’t want that to happen.

On September 4, 2018, Buhari finally scuttled the amendment bill when he claimed that it was too close to the general election. But prior to that time, he had rejected the same bill because of some “drafting issues that remain unaddressed following the prior revisions to the bill.” 

Claiming that he has no powers to edit, correct, amend or in any manner alter the provisions of any bill forwarded to him for assent to reflect appropriate intent, Buhari threw back the bill to the National Assembly, urging them to quickly rectify the necessary sections and return to him for assent. When that was done, he then remembered that time was too short to keep to his promise.

On March 3, 2018, Buhari refused to sign the electoral amendment bill arguing that it usurped the constitutional powers of INEC to decide on election matters, including fixing the dates and the order they would be held. 

He was just playing politics. The National Assembly had reordered the order of elections as contained in Section 25 of the Electoral Act. The amendment envisaged that the sequence of the elections will commence with the National Assembly, to be followed by governorship and state Houses of Assembly, while the Presidential poll will come last. Buhari was alarmed.

Hitherto, the Presidential and National Assembly elections held the same day before the Governorship and Houses of Assembly polls. Buhari was afraid that if the new order prevailed, forces beyond his control would coalesce to determine his fate. 

Following his refusal to sign the bill, the National Assembly removed the section fixing dates of elections and resent the bill to him on August 3. On September 4, he remembered that time was too short.

As it was the case in 2018, the president is at it again, even when he is not going to be a candidate in 2023. The issue here is free, fair and credible elections, which Buhari promised, out of his own volition, to bequeath on the nation. 

But as it was the case in 2018, the reasons advanced by Buhari for withholding his assent this time are lame. Just as the clerical and drafting arguments he put forward then could not in any way outweigh the importance of amendments meant to engender free, fair, credible and transparent elections in 2019, the issue of direct primaries is not enough to overlook the fundamental provisions contained in the amendment bill.

By withholding assent to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill, Buhari is doing what he knows how best to do: playing Nigerians for a fool. And he can only do this again and again because Nigerians, seeming bewitched, have allowed him to get away with unbridled political hocus-pocus.

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