Electoral Act Amendment Bill conundrum
With barely two months to the 2019 general elections and global attention fixed on Nigeria, political watchers are beginning to worry that the delay in the passage of the 2019 Electoral Amendment Bill into law may cast some doubts on the integrity of the entire process.
President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly withheld assent to the bill, giving several reasons, with the latest being its closeness to the 2019 general elections.
The president fears that assenting to the bill at the twilight of the 2019 elections could cause uncertainty or even throw the country into crisis.
Both chambers of the National Assembly had four times between February and October this year passed and transmitted the electoral amendment bills to the president for assent without success due
March refused assent to the bill due to reordering of election sequence provisions contained in it.
He argued that the proposed law would usurp the constitutional powers of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to decide on election matters, including fixing dates and election sequences.
The second was not considered in any way by the president. However after another communication from the National Assembly, the president again in September declined assent majorly due to alleged “cross referencing error, fears of increased cost of conducting elections”, among other discrepancies.
The leadership of the National Assembly had at every occasion said they noted all observations raised by the president in all the rejected versions of the bills, and taken care of the grey areas.
It was therefore surprising that the president again on December 6, 2018, wrote to the National Assembly stating reasons why the bill could not be assented to.
The letter read, ” Pursuant to Section 58(4) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999 as amended), I hereby convey to the Senate my decision on 6th December, 2018 to decline assent to the Electoral( Amendment) Bill, 2018 recently passed by the National Assembly.
“I am declining assent to the bill principally because I am concerned that passing a new electoral bill this far into the electoral process for the 2019 general elections which commenced under the 2015 electoral act, could create some uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process. Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to the election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect of which law governs the electoral process. “
The president said he will only give his consent to the proposed law after the 2019 elections, as this is in the best interest of the country and democracy.
Critics of the president believe he is withholding assent mostly due to his fear of legalising the use of card readers in the 2019 election which is likely to be a stiff battle between him and Abubakar of the PDP.
Although INEC has been using card readers in elections since it was first introduced at the 2015 general election, the technology is not recognised by electoral laws.
The machine has therefore been set aside in cases where it failed to recognise finger prints of voters.
Already the electoral umpire is insisting on the use of card readers in the 2019 general elections. The commission is foreclosing the use of incident forms in elections, insisting the measure is aimed at correcting abuses in previous elections.
An online medium had reported that in 2015, of the 31,746,490 accredited voters in the election, 13,536,311, representing 42.6percent of voters voted without biometric accreditation. Out of this number, 10,184,720 votes were from states won by Buhari while 3,351,591 votes came from states won by Jonathan.
These figures may be responsible for the opposition PDP’s persistence on the use of card readers in the 2019 election.
Some believe giving the technology legal backing will check electoral fraud and reduce cases of underage voting.
Though the use of electronic card readers for accreditation of voters is provided for in the Approved Guideline and Regulations for the conduct of the 2015 general elections, the Supreme Court had in 2016 ruled that the device was never “intended to supplant, displace or supersede” the voters’ register.
With the place of the voters’ register guaranteed under the law, it is worrisome that INEC will categorically discard the incident form.
This move by INEC could lead to an avalanche of legal crises post elections as politicians and their parties will take advantage of the legality of the voters register to claim damages in polling units where the card reader fails.
While we appreciate his reasons for denying assent to the bill, the president should know that the bill will help addressed the controversies that trailed the 2015 elections, especially the place of technology which the amendment seek to address.