Withholding assent to the bill might set in motion problems that could mar the 2019 elections
The alarm by the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) that it has in its custody a mountain load of uncollected permanent voter cards (PVCs) aside the increasing incidence of double registration, calls for concern. But coming at a time the nation is inundated with overwhelming evidence of the existence of underage voters on the register, INEC needs to do more than raise alarm. Once the register is dubious, a credible election becomes impossible.
Thankfully, with the transmission, last week, of the Electoral Act No 6, 2010 (Amendment) Bill 2017 to President Muhammadu Buhari by the National Assembly, INEC has more opportunities to consolidate its preparations for the general elections. The amendment bill contains far reaching reforms that are intended to make the electoral system deliver cleaner elections in the country.
Introducing about 18 fresh features, the bill de-emphasises reliance on human discretion that had been subject of abuse over the years by legalising the use of technology in the electoral process. Subsequently, INEC is now mandated to use full biometrics for accreditation and voting, while results are not only to be recorded on prescribed forms but must be transmitted electronically to the collation centres immediately after the close of polling. And besides manual register of voters, INEC is required to maintain an electronic register on its website for public scrutiny, at least, 30 days before an election.
The bill also addressed some grey areas of the electoral processes that manifested in past elections, including the provision for replacement of a candidate that dies before the declaration of results. The affected party now has a 14-day window to organise primaries for the nomination of a replacement for a fresh election to be conducted by INEC within 21 days.
The amendment bill harkens to complaints about overbearing conduct of political parties’ executives during primaries and enforces internal democracy by prescribing that all members are entitled to vote in the nomination process for delegate or direct primaries elections. Other arbitrary practices, including excessive nomination fees and disqualification of aspirants based on criteria other than those stipulated in the 1999 Constitution as amended, have been curtailed. The bill stipulates nomination fees payable, ranging from N150, 000 for councillorship to N10 million for presidential candidates.
Meanwhile, the controversial aspect of the bill is the provision which mandates INEC to appoint dates for the elections to be held in the following order: National Assembly; State Houses of Assembly and Governorship; and Presidential. This amendment reverses the prevailing order announced by INEC last month, which fixed National Assembly and Presidential elections for February 16, 2019, while the state Houses of Assembly and governorship elections would come up two weeks later on March 2, 2019.
There are arguments for and against the reordering of the sequence of elections by the legislature. For us, the most compelling is the additional cost of a three-stage election to the nation’s purse. This newspaper had argued in the past for a one-day process by which elections into all positions would be held same day and we maintain that remains the best way to go. It would have therefore been advisable, in the circumstances, to retain a two-stage process in which all the legislative elections would hold on one day, while the executive elections would on the other day.
However, in the absence of any meaningful attempt by the executive to engage the legislature before passing the bill, the matter has become quite complicated. Besides, we do not see how the current provision injures the basic objective by INEC to conduct free and fair polls. To therefore withhold assent at this stage, as being suggested by some presidential advisers, could set in motion wide-ranging controversy and generate unnecessary tension that we do not have the luxury of time to deal with.