By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
“We are collecting signatures and we already have 73, which is more than the number we need to override the President”. Someone sitting beside me laughed out loud and said “jesters”! This indeed is the best way to describe the charade presently going on at the National Assembly, in relation to the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill that was recently rejected by the President who had sworn to bequeath a legacy of electoral reforms but reneged at the last minute. This National Assembly cannot but toe the line of the executive, that is the plain truth, which is why the so-called signature collection amounted to nothing. The Senators would then hurriedly proceed to grant approval to the President for more loans and also pass the much inflated budget wherein constituency projects have been sufficiently padded to empower the legislators to slug it out with their governors for the 2023 campaigns. It has now been suggested that it was all a plot by the ruling party to hoodwink Nigerians and that the section on direct primary election was only a booby trap inserted deliberately to truncate the desire of Nigerians for electronic transmission of results. Well, whatever it is, history will not be kind to those who have the golden opportunity to advance our democratic credentials but choose to bungle it.
The 8th National Assembly under Senator Bukola Saraki had all the opportunity to restructure Nigeria and save us from this present experience of moving towards a failed State. Conferences were held in all the geo-political zones across Nigeria and the people spoke with one voice about the kind of reforms that they wanted the National Assembly to implement in the areas of resource control, state police, local government autonomy, affirmative action for women, devolution of powers through a drastic decongestion of the Exclusive Legislative List, youth participation in governance and electoral reforms. The hopes were very high indeed and all was set for the historic day when the harmonized Bills would be tabled on the floors of both Houses of the National Assembly. One after the other, Senator Saraki and Right Honourable Dogara manipulated the process to strike down the major reforms being proposed, thinking then that they were being smart. Not long thereafter, many of them could not return to the Chambers that they failed to utilize, with some of them ending up with comic Nollywood videos whilst others scampered to register for their law degrees, hoping to graduate someday to continue the gimmickry. Good enough, history is always the best teacher of mankind. We are all watching, and waiting.
Now, all the reasons advanced by the President in his letter to the National Assembly for withholding his assent to the Bill relate to national security, legal matters, economic capacity and fundamental right of choice. The problem with this fencing mechanism is that these reasons will also plague the general elections in 2023, if not frontally addressed now through the passage of the Bill on electoral reforms. Whatever security challenges there are that would not allow primary elections to be held would certainly be more devastating for the general elections. Indeed, this would have been the best time to test the potency of our soldiers and law enforcement agencies. Was the President really serious when he talked about direct primary elections being anti-democratic? Section 228 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) provides as follows:
“The National Assembly may by law provide –
(a) guidelines and rules to ensure internal democracy within political parties, including making laws for the conduct of party primaries, party congresses and party conventions;
(b) the conferment on the Independent National Electoral Commission of powers as may appear to the National Assembly to be necessary or desirable for the purpose of enabling the Commission more effectively to ensure that political parties observe the practices of internal democracy, including the fair and transparent conduct of party primaries party congresses and party conventions;
(d) for the conferment on the Commission of other powers as may appear to the National Assembly to be necessary or desirable for the purpose of enabling the Commission more effectively to ensure that political parties observe the provisions of this part of this chapter.”
From the point of view of the Constitution therefore, the National Assembly was within the due exercise of its legislative powers in making provisions for the conduct of direct party primaries to determine the choice of candidates of the political parties. Nothing can be more democratic than giving people a direct opportunity to choose their own leaders, as opposed to an indirect system of control, manipulation and dictation, which is the stock in trade of most political parties. So I then began to wonder what the President meant when he talked about the need to give room for democratic choices in the conduct of primary elections. What about security? The primary election is local to the grassroots, wherein at the ward level, the people themselves take control of the entire process. Thus, if the primary election cannot be held because of fear of insecurity, then we should as well say goodbye to the general election, which will be more volatile because a lot more will be at stake at that level. Talking about economic reasons, if by now, INEC is not sufficiently empowered and funded to undertake the supervision of a simple primary election, how then will it monitor the party congresses and conventions and thereafter prepare for the general elections? This must be some kind of joke from the President, to say that political parties cannot conduct direct primary elections because INEC has no funds to monitor them.
The question to ask really is what are we scared of? Why won’t our leaders allow the people to have a say in the choice of who governs them? This to me seems to be the real reason why we are underdeveloped in our clime. If the leader cannot emerge through the popular ballot, then he owes no allegiance to the people to deliver upon any promise at all. And if he has a second tenure to run, he will surely clinch it so long as he is in the good books of his godfather, whether or not he performs well in office. Having then lost several elections because of the fact that he had no godfather to adopt him, one wonders how the President has turned around to give the same forces that stopped him the leeway to hold on to the status quo.
Now back to the National Assembly. Given the manner in which events unfolded after the Presidential rejection of the Bill, it cannot be said that the legislators were caught unawares or that they didn’t have some inkling that the President was going to dare them in the manner that he did. Whilst the Senators were busy pretending to ‘collect signatures’, the House of Representatives went straight to business and adjourned its plenary straight away, without claiming to engage in any confrontation with the President, throwing into serious jeopardy, the governorship elections in Osun and Bayelsa States.
No doubt it is good to have a responsible legislature for the purpose of harmonization and development but when it gets to the level where the executive is always right, then such level of dubious cooperation should worry all lovers of true democracy. A legislature that cannot supervise and check the excesses of the executive is not worth its name at all. Truth is, such an assembly of persons cannot claim to represent anyone, when the chips are down. They represent only themselves, only their interests and their stomachs.
Nigerians should therefore not spare the present crop of legislators, if they fail in their statutory duties to override the President in the matter of the Electoral Law (Amendment) Bill. It is as simple as that. People should trace them to their respective constituencies and take them to task frontally. Whatever it takes to galvanize support for the passage of the said Bill upon resumption of the National Assembly in January 2022, we should do it. Let no one be in doubt whatsoever, as all of us will be affected, one way or the other, by the collusion of the legislators with the executive to frustrate this last opportunity for electoral reforms.
I have no doubt that most elections in Nigeria are not won according to the will and preference of the people and that politicians would do anything to keep things this way, but we as a people now have the golden opportunity to call the shots and get the people to elect their own leaders, for once. The combination of the President with the National Assembly should not overwhelm the people that elected them into office, but we should rather insist that they must do our will. The concern has been that political parties should be allowed multiple choices in picking their candidates for any election. Yes, that is good and desirable and that is why we gave them that opportunity since 1998 and they have not been able to use it to any democratic advantage, hence the need to try a new method. We cannot continue to indulge selfish leaders with the luxury of dictatorship in the running of the affairs of the political parties or else we may just well forget about civilian rule.
So, whether they like it or not, whether they have a covenant with the President or not, the legislators must convene to side with the people as soon as they resume in January. Those signatures that were gathered in pretense must now translate into concrete action to actualize the mandate of the masses of Nigerians for true electoral reforms. We must not go into the 2023 general elections with the same Electoral Act that imposes fraud on our system or continue to pander to the whims and caprices of riggers. Political alliances should not work to defeat the will of the people, if we claim to have their ultimate interests at heart.
It is clear that from the point of view of the President, he has achieved his major ambition to rule Nigeria and he is thus not concerned with any enduring legacy of electoral reforms. That is his own personal choice but our elected representatives must not tow the line of those who grabbed power and lost the opportunity to transform society. The President is a product of direct primary election, but if it suits him to jettison the same system that paved way for his ambition, then history will be the judge, but as for our legislators, the day of reckoning is very near.