Muhammadu Buhari

Monday comment1

President Buhari declined assent to the new electoral bill in his enlightened self-interest, writes Shuaib I. Shuaib 

It should not have come as a surprise to anyone that the push to determine the law governing the 2019 general elections has itself turned into a mini-political contest. All the signs were there. The National Assembly is in the hands of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party while the ruling All Progressives Congress is struggling to play catch up in setting a legislative agenda even for members of its own party.

In the end though, President Muhammadu Buhari has withheld assent to the 2018 Electoral Amendment Bill in what can only be described as a political move to protect his party in the upcoming electoral contest.

Four years ago, the tables were turned. It was the PDP that was in fear of introducing a new technology into the electoral process and the then opposition APC was putting all its weight behind it. The use of card readers wasn’t backed by law but it had a significant impact on the outcome of the elections. 

Practically speaking, the late passage of the bill should be an issue of concern for the APC. Early passage offers the opportunity to assess the political and legal implications to every amended aspect of the bill. In the same way, it is in the interest of the opposition to create as much uncertainty and chaos in the lead up to the elections.

That is why it matters for the bill to have been passed a year or two before the election. Today it may be much easier to assess its impact on the fortunes of any one political party and the political atmosphere is already tense or competitive.

In that regard, Senate President Bukola Saraki and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, who are both in the PDP played their cards right. They played politics with the amendment bill, pushed APC to the wall by waiting till the last minute, to a point where the President appeared to have no choice but assent to their version of the electoral bill.

Saraki has never been one to hide ambitions or his willingness to use the legislative chambers to further these aspirations.

It was always going to be a challenge to start the electoral process with one law and half way in, introduce another law. The most the APC government has said is that it creates too much uncertainty in the entire electoral process. Added to that is how the courts of law would interpret the new law and also which act to focus on, the 2010 Act under which party primaries were held or the 2018 amendment bill which was guide the voting process, announcement of results and most importantly legal tussles over the different stages of the elections.

A similar scenario played out in the 2015 general elections. Nobody thought the Rivers State governor would survive an election tribunal, only for him to be saved by the absence of a law allowing the use of card readers.

And how the Supreme Court ruled in election outcomes that took everyone by surprise, is today a reminder of that uncertainty that comes with changes in the electoral law. You will never know the full import of even a clause in every law until it passes through the Supreme Court.

Ahead of the February elections, both the PDP and APC have their different sets of fears. For the PDP, it is that the use of incident forms where the card readers fail give room for the APC rig the elections by allowing individuals not on the voters register to vote. But INEC has been preparing for every eventuality and believes 2010 Electoral Act works for them just fine.

With or without a new law, INEC has made it clear there will be no “incident forms” used if a card reader fails. Instead, the prospective voter who has been acknowledged to own the card by the electoral officer in charge of the voting unit will be recaptured right there on the spot.

That in a way addresses the concerns of the PDP and sticking with the 2015 Act. From all indications, the APC’s concerns have both political and security implications for the sanctity of the voting process and how results are transmitted. And in the aftermath of the elections, legal consequences also kick in. 

The National Assembly had initially attempted to use the electoral amendment bill to politically weaken the President by holding other elections first. This would have given governors, who are closer to the grassroots, no obligation to fight for or work for the president’s victory. It was in part settled in court.

The move by the National Assembly, spearheaded by the House of Representatives, set the tone of mistrust between the Presidency and lawmakers. Since then, the Presidency has had to scrutinize every single one of the bills related to elections presented to him by an opposition-led National Assembly looking for a reason or two not to sign.

Within the government, there are diehards who are convinced the 2018 amendment bill was drafted to aid the PDP. 

This circle of government officials is suspicious, maybe even certain that a prominent politician in the National Assembly has engaged Russian hackers to compromise the electronic transmission of results and is now hiding the plan behind the amendment bill. Where they are getting their information from is hard to say.

It is ironic however that it is former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, along with the PDP that are demanding for one today. The PDP presidential candidate even recently boasted about single-handedly determining who was ejected and who was allowed to retain his governorship seat in the southwest during the 2003 elections.

The introduction of card readers into the electoral process was in fact a response to persistent allegations of rigging by the then ruling party. And back in 2015, the PDP was just as suspicious of the use of card readers and made sure no bill was passed allowing for electronic voting. Virtually all political parties remain reluctant to embrace electronic voting.

In the last election, the PDP government even went as far as arresting and interrogating the contractor who supplied the card reading machines to INEC in the hopes of exposing what it believed was a clandestine plot to manipulate the machines in favour of the APC. Their fears turned out to have been unfounded.

Though it wasn’t enough to save them, but the elections were conducted under a law the PDP was most comfortable with. How they will today impose a bill they have carefully crafted to meet their political aspirations is hard to envision in view of the 2/3 majority needed to override the president’s refusal to assent to the bill.

And whether or not it was right for the President to join in playing politics with the bill, what he has effectively done is protect himself, the APC governors and party ticket holders for the election from the uncertainty of a law whose impact is yet to be assessed. 

Shuaibu, a former editor of LEADERSHIP, wrote from Abuja