NA to Tweak Electoral Amendment Bill, Resend to Buhari for Assent

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  • House to override president on 10 other bills
  • Court restrains legislature on electoral bill
  • President’s men meet lawmakers, use carrot and stick approach to thwart vote for bill

Damilola Oyedele, James Emejo and Alexander Enumah in Abuja

As high-wire politics takes centre stage over the decision by President Muhammadu Buhari to decline assent to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, the National Assembly has announced its intention to retransmit a tweaked version of bill to the president for his assent.

Two of the amendments, however, would be expunged from the bill, while the section, which changed the sequencing of general elections for the presidential elections to be conducted last, would be retained.

The Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media and Publicity, Abdulrasaq Namdas, made this known at a media briefing wednesday, during which he equally disclosed that the lower legislative chamber has commenced the process of overriding the president on 10 bills, which were recently passed and transmitted for assent but were vetoed.

The announcement from the National Assembly came on the heels of an order by Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court, Abuja, restraining the National Assembly from taking steps to override the president’s veto on the Electoral Amendment Bill.

Notwithstanding the order of the court and decision of the National Assembly to retransmit the Electoral Amendment Bill to Buhari, a serving minister who was once a governor and a governor from one of the North-central geopolitical zone, on Tuesday night met with lawmakers from both chambers in the residence of a senator to lobby them not to override the bill.

Providing clarity on the 10 other bills that the House intends to override, Namdas said the Electoral Amendment Bill was not one of them.

He, however, listed the Peace Corps Establishment Bill, which the president vetoed for lack of funds, as one of the 10 bills.

Namdas said the National Assembly agreed with the president on two reasons given for not assenting to the Electoral Amendment Bill, but rejected the third which bordered on the powers of parliament to legislate on the sequencing of the elections.

The lawmakers had changed the sequencing of elections in the county for the National Assembly elections to be held first, before elections into the state Houses of Assembly and governorship on a separate day, while the presidential election would be conducted last, to complete the general election cycle.

Section 25 of the Principal Act was specifically amended and substituted with a new Section 25(1) which provides that the elections shall be held in the following order: (a) National Assembly elections (b) State Houses of Assembly and Governorship elections (c) Presidential election.

The amendment is expected to whittle down the bandwagon effects of presidential elections on other elections.

In vetoing the bill, Buhari had also rejected the amendments to Section 138 of the Electoral Amendment Bill for limiting the rights of candidates in elections to a free and fair electoral review process, and Section 152(3)(5) on the grounds that it may raise constitutional issues over the competence of the National Assembly to legislate over local government elections.

Consequently, Namdas explained that the amendments to Sections 138 and 152(3)(5) would be expunged from the bill, and reintroduced afresh in both the House and Senate for debate and proper legislation, then passed and retransmitted for the president’s assent.

“I want to say that as a responsible parliament, we’ve agreed with two of the three reasons given by the president. However, we are in disagreement with the president over the first reason that was advanced, which states that the sequence of elections in Section 25 of the Principal Act may infringe on the constitutionally guaranteed discretion of INEC to organise, undertake and supervise all elections provided in Section 15(8) of the Third Schedule to the Constitution,” he said.

Continuing, Namdas added: “And our reasons for disagreeing on this matter is that if you look at Section 4 (of the Constitution), at least the one that deals with legislative powers in Item 22, it states that the National Assembly has powers over elections to the offices of the president and vice-president or governor and deputy governor and any other office to which a person may be elected under the Constitution, excluding election to a local government council or any office in such council.

“So, if Section 4 (legislative powers), Item 22, gives us these powers, it means that we have the power to work on the order of elections as stated. Again, if you go to Section 76 of the Constitution, it states that elections to each House of the National Assembly shall be held on a date to be appointed by the Independent National Electoral Commission.

“However, there’s a clause that goes further to state: ‘In accordance with the Electoral Act.’ This was added in the first alteration – that INEC has this power to fix dates but even at that, it has to act in accordance with the Electoral Act.

“Thirdly, the entire Electoral Act, from page one to the last, talks about organising elections. If we do not have powers to legislation on how it organises the elections, that means we do not even have the powers to pass the Electoral Act itself.

“Which means that the Act itself is illegal because it was passed by the National Assembly.”

The House spokesman also observed that INEC introduced the card reader through internal regulations, leading to the nullification by the Supreme Court of several election petitions because the decision to deploy the technology was not backed by law.

“Hence, this is the reason the electronic transmission of results and electronic voting has been included in the current amendment to the Electoral Act.

“So, we just have to give this clarification to say that it is not true that we don’t have the powers to legislate on the Electoral Act,” Namdas added.

Namdas further hinted that the legislature had begun the process of overriding Buhari’s veto on 10 bills.

These include the Peace Corps of Nigeria Establishment Bill, Chartered Institute of Treasury Management Establishment Bill, Nigerian Council for Social Work Establishment Bill, Currency Conversion Bill, Prison Orders Bill, Police Procurement Fund Establishment Bill, Environmental Officers Registration Bill, Chartered Institute of Loan and Risk Management Establishment Bill, Chartered Institute of Public Management of Nigeria Establishment Bill, Chartered Institute of Export and Commodity Brokers of Nigeria Establishment Bill, and Federal University, Wukari Establishment Bill.

Attempts to reach the spokesman of the Senate, Senator Sabi Abdullahi to speak on the decision to retransmit the Electoral Act Amendment Bill failed, as he did not pick calls to his mobile phone, nor did he respond to a text message sent to him on the matter.

Not Leaving Anything to Chance

However, as the National Assembly announced its intention to retransmit the Electoral Amendment Bill to Buhari, in the hope that he would change his mind, high-wire politics, including arm-twisting members of the legislature, was already being deployed by the executive to ensure that the two-thirds vote required in the legislature to override the veto does not scale through.

In the days following the adoption of the amendment to Section 25 by the House and harmonisation with the Senate, the presidency had put in motion a plan to defeat any anticipated vote to override the veto.

Buhari was expected to decline assent to the amendment in the first instance, and even with the tweaked amendment bill, it is expected that he would still veto it over concerns that the amendment to Section 25 of the legislation is targeted at weakening him in the 2019 polls.

Accordingly, not wanting to leave anything to chance, some governors and ministers considered very loyal to the president have initiated measures to defeat any attempt to override the bill.

The same set of loyalists were said to have initiated the alleged plot to remove Senate President Bukola Saraki from his position in January, with the support of some senators.

A highly placed source told THISDAY that the loyalists met in the home of an anti-Saraki ranking senator late Tuesday night, the same day the president’s letter declining assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill was read in both chambers of the legislature.

The meeting had in attendance a governor from the North-central geopolitical zone, a serving minister who was a former governor, some senators and members of the House.

At the meeting, the governor was said to have informed the lawmakers of the options before them if they work with the executive to defeat any anticipated vote to override the president’s veto.

“The options are simple, they would be guaranteed tickets to return to the Senate and the House in 2019, and of course good money would be given to them as a reward,” a source disclosed.

The source further revealed that they were also arm-twisted by president’s men who dangled the prospects of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) coming after them.

A source in the House also disclosed that the ethnic card was being bandied in the lower legislative chamber to ensure that members from the North do not vote in favour of overriding the veto.

“The Northerners are being reminded that if they override the veto, it would mean that the National Assembly can mobilise to impeach the president.

“If this happens, it means a Yoruba man would become president, this is the warning to them,” the House source said.

He added that lawmakers were also being threatened, adding: “In Northern parts of the country where Buhari enjoys a cult-like following, it would be easy to incite their people against them.”

Court Restrains Legislature

Despite all the machinations in the legislative and executive arms of government, Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court Abuja wednesday gave an order restraining the legislature from taking further steps to pass into law the Electoral Amendment Bill.

In granting the preservative order, Justice Mohammed specifically ordered the defendants to maintain status quo ante bellum (meaning the state existing before amendment), pending the next adjourned date fixed for Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

Justice Mohammed gave the order while delivering a ruling on an oral application for a preservative order brought by the plaintiff, Accord Party, seeking the court’s intervention in the matter.

The judge ruled that there was need to preserve the res of the matter.

“In view of the provisions of Section 58, Sub-section 5 of the 1999 Constitution which empowers the National Assembly to veto the president withholding his assent by a two-thirds majority vote, the court is simply to preserve the res in order to safeguard the integrity of the court and the sanctity of the judiciary under Section 6(6) of the 1999 Constitution.

“The parties are therefore ordered to maintain status quo ante bellum between now and the next adjourned date. Hearing notice is to be served on the second defendant who is absent in court,” he ruled.

In the motion filed pursuant to Order 26, Rules 1, 2 and 3 and Order 18, Rule 1 of the Federal High Court, the plaintiff prayed for an interlocutory injunction restraining the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria from assenting to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018, as passed by the first defendant, pending the final determination of the substantive originating summons.

Secondly, the plaintiff had sought a further order of interlocutory injunction restraining the first defendant (National Assembly) from taking any further action or actions on the bill titled, ‘Electoral Act Amendment Bill, 2018,’ particularly to convene to pass the said bill by a two-thirds majority of each of its two chambers, pending the final determination of the substantive originating summons.

In the originating summons marked FHC/ABJ/CS/232/2018, the plaintiff listed eight issues for determination by the court, including: “Having regards to the combined provisions of Sections 79, 116, 118, 132, 153, 160(1) and 178 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, the Constitution read together with Paragraph 15(a) of the Third Schedule to the same Constitution, whether the third defendant (Independent National Electoral Commission) is not the only institution or body constitutionally vested with the powers and vires to organise, undertake and supervise elections to the offices of the president, the vice-president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the governor and deputy governor of a state, the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each state of the federation, including fixing the sequence and dates of the elections to the said offices?”

The plaintiff further asked for a declaration that the third defendant is the only body and or institution constitutionally vested with the powers, vires and duties to organise, undertake and supervise elections to the offices of the president and vice-president, the governor and deputy governor of a state, the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and the House of Assembly of each state of the federation, including fixing or assigning dates for the said elections and the sequence of same.

The plaintiff is, therefore, asking the court for an order setting aside Clause 25 of the Electoral Amendment Bill.

When the case was mentioned, counsel to the plaintiff, Wole Olanipekun (SAN) told the court that the defendants were served with the originating summons on March 12, 2018, and as such were prepared to go ahead with their argument.

However, counsel to the first defendant, Ms. Chinelu Ogbazor, argued that the motion was not ripe for hearing, going by the rules of the court that require a time frame of 48 hours after service before it can be heard.

The counsel, in addition, said the first defendant was entitled to seven days within which it can respond to any motion, and with the permission of the court would be asking for a short adjournment to prepare their reply to the motion.

Taminu Inuwa, counsel to the third defendant, did not oppose to the hearing of the motion.

But in his response to the request for adjournment, Olanipekun said that the plaintiff would not have opposed the request if the counsel to the first defendant gave an undertaking that his client (National Assembly) would not take any action that would affect the res of litigation until the determination of the matter.

But Ogbazor declined to give the undertaking, stressing that the time given by law to respond to the motion had not elapsed, adding that the National Assembly was served with the court process less than 48 hours ago.

Her refusal prompted the plaintiff to move an oral application for a preservative order.

He contended that following the refusal of the president to assent to the bill, the National Assembly with the powers vested in it could go ahead and override the president’s veto and thereby pass the bill into law while the matter was pending.

Olanipekun urged the court to order that the status quo at the time the application was filed and at the time arguments were made.

Opposing the application, Ogbazo, submitted that the Federal High Court was not a court of summary jurisdiction but a superior court of records.

She described as weighty the application of the plaintiff, which should not have come by way of oral application.

She submitted that granting the preservative order would be tantamount to granting the motion on notice and it would, therefore, deny the first defendant the right to fair hearing.

Ogbazor, in urging the court to dismiss the application, said the plaintiff failed to comply with the proper way of bringing such application.

But in his ruling, Justice Mohammed held that ordinarily, the plaintiff’s motion would not have been taken, considering the time of service.

However, he said due to the fact that the Constitution does not provide a time frame within which the legislature can veto the president withholding his assent and the fears of the plaintiff, there was the need to preserve the res of the matter.

“It is while uncertainty still prevails that the court can act to preserve the res of the matter. The court is not granting the reliefs, it is only preserving the res,” Justice Mohammed said.

He thereafter adjourned till March 20 for the hearing of the substantive suit.