By Levinus Nwabughiogu, ABUJA
A mirage! That’s the presumptuous word for democracy. Though expertly defined as the government of the people, by the people and for the people, it’s hardly the case. It’s rather contextual, apparently subsumed in the thoughts and imaginations of the affluent, the powerful and the political mavericks who twist it to suite their own whims and caprices.
Oh, yea! That’s presently the situation with Nigeria in the making of a new electoral law.
Granted that the country functions on the principle of separation of powers with each of the three arms of government running independently, however, the real political power still resides in and with the Executive arm, inter alia, the presidency.
Of course, the legislature can churn out a plethora of legislations as it deems fit but it can always pooh-poohs when the push comes to shove.
This played out on Tuesday, January 25, 2022 when the House of Representatives made a volte face on its earlier decision last week to pitch tent with the direct and indirect primary clauses in the much touted and mouthed electoral bill.
First, the direct primary clause was the courted and favoured. It was passed with a hoopla of self adulation and glorification but at the twilight of last year, President Muhammadu Buhari whose assent was needed to validate the bill to a law vetoed it out and sent it back for a possible rework.
In their dissatisfaction, most members roared but couldn’t bite. Upon resumption this January, the House demurred on the courage to stay put on their last year’s decision through override.
In the ensuing plenary, the House returned to the status quo of the act, restoring the indirect primary clause as the second option for political parties’ mode of electing their candidates in general elections and passed the law.
The passage came with a tone of finality in the working of the bill. It appeared the legislative voyage had ended. At least, the mood of the House depicted so. For them, the job was done Eureka! They had done the wish of the Nigerian people and the President must accept it, perhaps, willy-nilly. And so, the hype increased.
But that was not to be as the Senate on the other end adopted three options: Direct, Indirect and Consensus provisions as the mode for party primaries. Of course, going by the bicameral conventions, a conference committee between the both Houses to harmonize and agree on a position was anticipated.
Just when that was to happen, the House buckled and backtracked.
On Tuesday, this week, it rescinded its resolution on the bill and accommodated the Consensus option.
Gbajabiamila on the U-turn
The speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila presided over the change. He expressed his feelings.
Read him: “Hon. Colleagues, before we go into any any other matter on the order paper, I think, we need to speedily address our electoral law and pass it today and send it to the executive for assent.
“You will recall that this House last week looked into the complaints and added the provision of indirect primaries to our law.
“Unfortunately, on the other side, the Senate added both Indirect and consensus which necessitated the possible need for a conference committee of both houses.
The leadership of the House and the Senate met yesterday (Monday) and in the interest of speedy passage and also to deepen our democracy, the House and the Senate have decided to add, I believe the consensus provision but with certain provisos and those provisos hopefully we will agree and consider them today to protect all aspirants for all positions so that we will all have an even playing field.
“To move speedily, we will suspend everything else from the order paper for now and go straight into the Electoral law. We will ask the Chairman, Rules and Business, Hon. Abubarkar Fulata to move for the rescission of our decision last week and to quickly consider and do what what we need to do for the Nigerians people.”
At the end of the exercise in the Committee of the Whole, Gbajabiamila added ”That puts an end to hopefully what would be a brand new forward thinking progressive electoral law.”
The content of the controversial Clause 84
The amended bill provides in clause 84 (2) that, “The procedure for the nomination of candidates by political parties for the various elective positions shall be by direct, indirect primaries or Consensus.”
It added in 84(3) that “a political party shall not impose nomination qualification or disqualification criteria, measures, or conditions on any aspirant or candidate for any election in its constitution, guidelines, or rules for nomination of candidates for elections, except as prescribed under sections 65, 66, 106, 107, 131, 137, 177 and 187 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).”
On Direct Primaries in 84 (4), the amended version provides that, “A political party that adopts the direct primaries procedure shall ensure that all aspirants are given equal opportunity of being voted for by members of the party and shall adopt the procedure outlined below:
”(a) In the case of Presidential Primaries, all registered members of the party shall vote for aspirants of their choice at a designated centre at each ward of the Federation.
”(b) The procedure in paragraph (a) above of this subsection shall be adopted for direct primaries in respect of Gubernatorial, Senatorial, Federal and State Constituencies.
”(c) Special Conventions or Congresses shall be held to ratify the candidate with the highest number of votes at designated centres at the National, State, Senatorial, Federal and State Constituencies, as the case may be.”
On Indirect Primaries, the bill provides under 84(5) that, “A political party that adopts the system of indirect primaries for the choice of its candidate shall adopt the procedure outlined below:
”(a) In the case of nominations to the position of Presidential candidate, the political party shall – (i) hold a Special Presidential Convention at a designated centre in the Federal Capital Territory or any other place within the Federation that is agreed to by the National Executive Committee of the party where delegates shall vote for aspirants of their choice.
”(ii) the aspirant with the highest number of votes cast at the end of voting shall be declared the winner of the Presidential primaries of the political party and that aspirant’s name shall be forwarded to the Commission as the candidate of the party.”
It further provides under 84(7) that, “Where there is only one aspirant or a consensus candidate in a political party for any of the elective positions mentioned in subsection (5)(a), (b), (c) and (d), the party shall convene a special convention or congress at a designated Centre on a specified date for the confirmation of such aspirant and the name of the aspirant shall be forwarded to the Independent National Electoral Commission as the candidate of the party.”
The Electoral Bill provides in 84(8) that, “A political party that adopts the system of indirect primaries for the choice of its candidate shall clearly outline in its constitution and rule the procedure for the democratic election of delegates to vote at the convention, congress meeting.”
On Consensus Candidate the bill in 84(9)(a) provides, “A political party that adopts a consensus candidate shall secure the written consent of all cleared aspirants for the position, indicating their voluntary withdrawal from the race and their endorsement of the consensus candidate.”
It goes further in paragraph (b) that, “Where a political party is unable to secure the written consent of all cleared aspirants for the purpose of a consensus candidate, it shall revert to the choice of direct or indirect primaries for the nomination of candidates for the aforesaid elective positions.”
The bill states in paragraph (c) that, “A Special Convention or nomination Congress shall be held to ratify the choice of consensus candidates at designated centres at the National, State, Senatorial, Federal and State Constituencies, as the case may be.”
We acted in Nigeria’s best interest — Kalu, Reps’ spokesman
After the day’s sitting came the turn of the House Spokesman, Hon. Benjamin Kalu who refuted doing the bidding of the anyone.
He said: “With regards to clause 84 that everyone has been asking about, the issue of withdrawal of assent by the President especially as it concerned indirect primaries, what happened was that when it was transmitted to the chambers, we noticed that the Senate added consensus.
“Going to conference might take a while. We do not have that time. What we did today was to suspend the House rule to handle only what was sent by the President.
“To advance our democracy, the political parties said that full options should be made available to them.
“Nigerians should be satisfied that the process has democratic elements in all of them. This is not an ego trip for us.
“We are not doing anybody’s bidding. We are partners in nation building.
It needs partnership, synergy. If there’s a good idea coming from the legislative arm, and it’s impressed by the Executive arm, it helps to build our nation.
“What we have done, between the last hour we spoke to you, we have been consulting with Nigerians. These options are not blanket options.
“No smuggling of the clause in the bill. It’s out core mandate to make laws for the federation. The earlier we do this, the better for our democracy.
“We are no longer doing conference Committee. The bill will be transmitted to the President within the specific days allowed by the Constitution. I think it’s 7 days.”
Reps’ ego deflated?
To many Nigerians, the House unabashedly fell from its Olympian height of self applause to do the bidding of the powers-that-be. From direct to indirect and then, consensus, their ego got completely deflated. A House of no balls, one would say. Well, that’s democracy complexly defined.
But to be fair to the House, they acted in the interest of the nation. Whatever happened, the spirit of nation-building must prevail.
Even when the interest of one or two powerful individuals is serviced and protected, it’s still the nation’s interest. That is the meaning of the prefix “Their Excellencies” They are the high and mighty and therefore, must dictate what happens within and without the political circles.
The intrigues that forced the change/Buhari Speaks
No office on earth is as powerful and influential as the office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The President is next after the Trinity. Ignore his words at your own peril. His body language speaks volumes.
And so, when President Buhari spoke exclusively to Channels TV recently, not many fathomed that his suggestion of consensus as an option was going to be a law eventually. So, Buhari’s TV interview influenced things.
It couldn’t have been ignored in the Executive session of the leadership of both chambers of National Assembly. And so, they swallowed hard, convinced their lawmaker colleagues and incorporated the consensus option.
Read Buhari speak: “Personally, I do not support direct primary because I want people to be given a choice. You can’t give them one option and think that you are being democratic. Let them have three options – there is the consensus.
‘I didn’t tell the Legislators what I didn’t like. All I said is that there should be options and once that is done, I will sign.
“All I said (is that) there should be options. We must not insist that it has to be direct; it should be consensus and indirect.”
Implication of Consensus
Though there had been vestiges of consensus in the direct and indirect options, ‘consensus’ per se had never been given express accommodation in the statute books before now. Yes, the lawmakers created some provisos one of which is to obtain the written consent from any aspirant withdrawing from the race, it still remains to be seen if Nigerian politicians will not bastardize it.
There had been stories of different cliques with means and resources within the political system, hijacking the electoral process, submitting names of their preferred choices to the electoral umpire. It is usually a Herculean task for the truly elected persons to reclaim that mandate.
This is usually the situation and with this piece of legislation in operation, a litany of litigations is envisaged as the politicians are likely to outwit, outflank and outmaneuver each other at the level of party primaries.
But that is the lot of most Nigerian politicians, the Machiavellian style. The end justifies the means. “Declare me the winner and let my opponent go to court”, the typical Nigerian politician will tend to say.
Politics played. Lessons learnt. Bill ratified and passed into law by the House. All the encumbrances removed and interest served. Now, hopes are high that President Buhari will not delay but give assent to the bill to become a legal document.
Should this happen, Nigerians are expected to operate on an elevated electoral pedestal better than the previous situation on future elections, starting with 2023 polls.
Remember, the adoption of electronic transmission of results in the new bill? It’s a novel idea. It’s good for the 21st century Nigeria. That’s the last line.