Senate President Bukola Saraki, President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and Speaker Yakubu Dogara, shortly before the president left for his medical check-up the second time

The decision of the National Assembly to change the order of elections for the presidential polls to be conducted last is heating up the polity and the development may finally pitch the legislature against the presidency, writes Damilola Oyedele

Last week was an interesting one at the National Assembly. As expected, the decision by the Senate conference committee on Electoral Act to concur with the amendment by the House of Representatives to Section 25 of the Electoral Act caused some rancour. The amendment provides that elections shall be held in the following order: (a) National Assembly elections (b) State Houses of Assembly and Governorship elections and (c) Presidential election, on separate days.

THISDAY already reported that anticipation of the adoption was causing discomfort in the presidency and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). On Wednesday, at least nine Senators walked out of Senate proceedings after the recommendation was adopted.

Contentious amendment
Although Section 25 of the principal act was not the only portion of the Electoral Act 2010, that was amended, it has garnered more attention and debate in the polity. The National Assembly however included a new Section 25 (1).

According to the amended version, the elections shall be held in the following order: (a) National Assembly elections (b) State Houses of Assembly and Governorship elections (c) Presidential election.
For INEC, the amendment throws a spanner in its already released timetable. Going by the schedule, the presidential and National Assembly elections were slated for February 16, 2019, to be conducted first, while the state assembly and governorship elections have been scheduled for March 2, 2019.

But at the presidency and state executive levels, the amendment is considered a ploy by the lawmakers, to influence the 2019 general election. The fear in the presidency is that the bandwagon effect of the first set of elections into the National Assembly could affect the other elections.

Under the current order, the reverse is the case as the outcome of the presidential elections, in particular, has a bandwagon effect on the governorship and state assembly elections.

With the re-ordering of the political parties’ primaries in Section 87 of the principal act, the National Assembly has also made sure that the state governors minimise their influence on the conduct of primaries for the state and national legislatures, so that candidates vying for seats in the assemblies can in turn back them (governors) at their own primaries.

According to several lawmakers, who spoke on the issue, the amendments would add more credibility to the electoral system, as candidates would vie for, and win seats based on their own popularity with the electorate, and not just riding on the back of another popular candidate vying for a higher office.

Other Amended Sections
Section 87 of the Electoral Act was amended by adding a new Subsection (11) on the order and timing for the conduct of primaries of political parties.
“The primaries of political parties shall follow the following sequence: (i) State Houses of Assembly (ii) National Assembly (iii) Governorship, and (iv) Presidential.
“The dates for the above stated primaries shall not be held earlier than 120 days and not later than 90 days before the date of elections to the offices.”

The National Assembly also amended Section 36 to allow the running mates of candidates, who die before the conclusion of elections to inherit the votes of the dead candidates and continue with the process.

Drama at the Adoption Session
While the harmonised version of the amendment was adopted without any dramatic incident in the House of Representatives, it scaled through under a drama-filled atmosphere in the Senate. Nine senators led by Senator Adamu Abdullahi (Nassarawa APC), considered an anti-Bukola Saraki lawmaker, walked out of the session to address newsmen. The dissenting lawmakers are Abdullahi Adamu (Nasarawa), Abu Ibrahim (Katsina), Abdullahi Gumel (Jigawa), Ali Wakili (Bauchi), Binta Masi Garba (Adamawa), Ovie Omo-Agege (Delta), Umar Kurfi (Katsina), Andrew Uchendu (Rivers), Benjamin Uwajumogu (Imo), and Abdullahi Yahaya (Kebbi).

They accused Saraki of not following the procedure, during the passage of the report and also claimed that the amendment was targeted at President Buhari.
Abdullahi said only INEC was constitutionally mandated to outline election sequence, and also queried the haste in passing the amendment, if it was without ulterior motive.

“Considering the strategic importance of the bill, it does not need to be rushed. So many members of the committee did not sign. We need to know why they did not sign. I believe that the content of the bill is not fair. We need to be fair. Why the rush? We will all pass out one day. Why do we want to pass a law? I will not be part of it,” he said.

Despite the protests by the group, which claimed to have 59 senators, an order of elections where the presidential poll is conducted last, is however not a new thing.

Defending the passage of the amendment, Senate spokesman, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, at a separate press briefing said there was nothing unusual about the election order in Nigeria’s history.
“This sequence of election in which the presidential election was held last had been adopted in past elections particularly in 1979, when election to the Senate was conducted on the 7th of July followed by House of Representatives election on 14th of August.

“Also, in 1992, the Senate and House of Representatives elections were held on the 4th of Jule, while the presidential election was held later on 12th of June, 1993. In 1999, elections to the Senate and House of Representatives were held on the 20th of February, while the presidential election was held on the 27th of February.

“In 2003, the National Assembly election was held on the 12th of April while the presidential election held on 19th of April. Similarly, in 2011, National Assembly elections held on the 9th of April while the Presidential election held on the 16th of April,” Abdullahi explained.

The Cat and Mouse Race Continues
From the beginning of the Buhari-led administration, there has been no love lost between the Executive and the Legislature. Even at times when both arms of government act like they were working in harmony towards a cause, events always occur to burst the bubble and lay the real status of their relationship bare to the world.

With the latest development, there are already talks on the readiness of the lawmakers to override the president, if he vetoes the bill. Sources told THISDAY that several factors, including Buhari’s fast declining popularity among the political class, and the masses have emboldened the lawmakers.
It is however necessary to state that indeed not all lawmakers are comfortable with the amendment, as many of them rode on Buhari’s APC bandwagon effect to emerge in their constituencies. For the amendment to pass means they would therefore have to test their own popularity. It therefore remains to be seen, if the National Assembly can get the numbers (two thirds) required in each of the two chambers for the needed override.

A Beneficial Amendment
Hon. Kingsley Chinda (Rivers PDP), in a telephone interview, said the amendment changing the order of elections has numerous benefits for the system, which should be the ultimate goal for any patriotic politician. For starters, it allows the candidates to stand on their own and be voted on their individual capacity and merit, without the bandwagon effect.
“Some legislators won election especially in the North, because of the Buhari factor,” he said, adding that the amendment would reduce voters’ apathy after the presidential election as people, whose party failed to produce the president feel discouraged and either decide not to participate further in the elections while some change position.

“The campaign after presidential election for the party that produced the President usually changes as campaigns target to be in the mainstream, and not the opposition. It also reduces the clumsiness of voting for party, instead of candidate, when the voters get presented with two ballots, which do not specify the name of the candidates,” he added.

The amendment, Chinda further explained, curbs undue advantage by any party as all elections will be more keenly contested and the new order will promote better democracy and independent choice.
“Those who are afraid of the new order are people who are not sure of their ability without being aligned to others,” he said.

Other benefits in the other amendments include instant transmission of results thus reducing human interference, online publication of voters register 30 days before election to stop manipulation and full biometric accreditation.

It also restricts arbitrary qualification imposition by political parties, provides quick conflict resolution mechanisms, and sets out maximum expenses that can be incurred by every politician, who is seeking election, as well as designates the fees that aspirants will pay to political parties to purchase forms.