Close Watch By Bolaji Adebiyi

President Muhammadu Buhari has another opportunity to take the worthy path, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

Not a few people expressed their disappointment with President Muhammadu Buhari’s veto of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 last December. The president had returned the bill passed by the National Assembly at the end of the mandatory 30-day window for assent, complaining about clause 84 which prescribed direct primary as the sole mode of selection of candidates by the nation’s political parties. Saying, among other things, that the clause would be expensive to implement, crowd out smaller parties and abuse individuals’ right of choice, the president had urged the federal legislators to reconsider his area of concerns and return the bill for his assent.

Angry reactions had greeted the presidential refusal to approve the document that many social and policy analysts had argued would have purified the nation’s electoral system. The anger was exacerbated by the National Assembly’s failure to act on the president’s action immediately, preferring to go on their Xmas holiday. Many of the agitators thought it should have tarried a bit to either override the presidential veto or accept it and return it to the president for assent. Despite the assurances by Ahmad Lawan, president of the Senate, and Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the House of Representatives, that the matter would be dealt with expeditiously once the federal legislators return from their recess, tempers remained high.

Well, last Tuesday the National Assembly came back from the Xmas and New Year merriments and began to cool the people’s temper by setting in motion the process of recommitting the contentious clause 84 for review. And by Wednesday both chambers had acceded to the president’s request to provide options for political parties. With the inclusion of indirect primary and consensus options, the stage is now set for presidential assent.

The federal legislators deserve a rare commendation for the timely reconsideration of the presidential veto as promised. It indicates some level of remorse and a willingness to be sensitive to public opinion on national policies even though the doubting Thomas among Nigerians fear this path may not endure.

The president, however, needs to emulate the legislators and sustain the cooling of national heat by assenting to the bill once the clean copy is sent to him. Doing this would put at bay perennial agitators who had contended that clause 84 was only a convenient excuse for him and his All Progressives Congress to frustrate the many positive electoral reforms in the document. So, he should at this stage direct the attorney-general of the federation’s office through the National Assembly presidential liaison office to work with the Office of the Clerk of the National Assembly to ensure that similar clerical errors which made the bill unacceptable in 2018 are cleaned up.

The other substantive issue that the president needs to address is the list of his nominees as national electoral commissioners pending before the Senate for approval. Civil society groups have been critical of it, complaining that it contained names of partisans contrary to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution as altered. Besides, they contend, that rather than belabour the Independent National Electoral Commission with fresh entrants, exiting national commissioners and existing state resident electoral commissioners that have served meritoriously should be retained and upgraded respectively to ensure the stability of the commission. This, they argue, would preserve its credibility and strengthen its institutional capacity.

Without a doubt, the CSOs’ propositions have merits. Central to them is the principled quest for electoral transparency which is known to be germane to the development of a credible democratic culture. Having suspected partisans in a commission that organises elections into public office will constantly raise the red flag at every poll circle and also compromise the credibility of the process as well as its outcomes. It will make nonsense of the ongoing rigorous efforts to emplace a legal framework that will enhance electoral fidelity. And it is well-known that the commission is the relevant tool for the enforcement of the emerging credibility-bound legal framework.

The president, therefore, should resist the temptation of falling into a partisan consideration of the CSOs’ complaints and proposed remedies. No doubt, it is his constitutional prerogative to make the nominations but he is also enjoined by the constitution to exercise it in the public interest. Indeed, he has a personal responsibility to improve on the prevailing system having committed to a legacy of a clean electoral process at the President Joe Biden Summit on Democracy late last year.

Consequently, the president does not need to wait for any acrimonious consideration of the nominees on the floor of the Senate. This would arouse the temper that had been cooled by the recommittal of the vetoed electoral amendment bill and reawaken political tension in the land that is about to be engulfed by electioneering. The way forward, therefore, is for the president to recall the list and deepen the President Goodluck Jonathan experiment of using non-partisan and proven CSOs personnel as electoral referees. It will not only compliment the ongoing efforts at electoral fidelity but will also deepen the reform strides made so far.

If, however, the president remains unpersuaded to withdraw the suspect list, the Senate should do the needful, return it to him for necessary adjustment. That way, the Upper Chamber will disabuse the mind of the people in many quarters who believe that it is a spineless rubber that stamps everything that comes from the table of the president.

But that would not be necessary if the president seizes the opportunity to tread the new worthy path of doing that which is socially just and equitable rather than pandering to the interest of the partisan few in an endeavour to be politically correct.

Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from