With barely 60 days to next year’s general elections, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) may be heading for a showdown over the 2018 Electoal Act Amendment Bill.
Their disagreement stemmed from interpretations of President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to sign the bill into law.
Buhari recently returned the 2018 Electoral Act Amendment Bill to the National Assembly after withholding his assent for the fourth time, a development that generated mixed reactions from Nigerians, including the major political parties.
The president said he withheld his assent to avoid “uncertainty about the applicable legislation to govern the process.”
According to him, “Any real or apparent change to the rules this close to election may provide an opportunity for disruption and confusion in respect to which law governs the electoral process.”
While the PDP is crying foul over the President’s decline to assent to the bill with a vow to resist what it considers as an attempt to rig the 2019 elections, the ruling party APC is accusing the PDP of planning to impose anarchy in the country.
Daily Trust on Sunday reliably gathered that the PDP’s position to resist what they termed ‘Buhari’s attempt to rig the 2019 election’ was arrived at during a ‘crucial meeting’ held in one of the South-West states last week.
At the meeting which had senior party executives and presidential campaign officials present, the opposition party was said to have accused the ruling APC of “insincerity and preparing grounds to rig the 2019 elections.”
A source close to the party leadership told Daily Trust on Sunday that chieftains of the PDP present at the meeting resolved to do everything possible to vehemently resist any attempt by the ruling APC to rig the 2019 general elections in order to return President Muhammadu Buhari to power.
Threatening a showdown, the source disclosed, the PDP leaders vowed to confront APC should the party and President Buhari rig the polls to their own advantage.
They said the president deliberately acted that way in order to deny legal support to the use of card reader and transmission of results electronically, as part of the plot to make the process too weak to withstand Buhari and his party’s plan to rig it, a move they said they would go to any length to truncate.
This position appears to be in sync with the reaction of the National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Kola Ologbondiyan, who told Daily Trust on Sunday that the President’s decision not to assent to the amended Electoral Act bill was part of “plot to rig” the 2019 poll.
According to Ologbondiyan who doubles as the Director, Media and Publicity of the PDP Presidential Campaign Council, Buhari’s decision has far-reaching implications, adding it is capable of “destabilizing” the nation’s democracy.
“President Buhari’s repeated refusal to sign amendments passed to check rigging in the election, raises issues of his sincerity of purpose and has the capacity to trigger political unrest and violence, which can, in turn, truncate our hard-earned democracy.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. President, in his desperation to hold on to power, has resorted to taking steps that are capable of destabilizing our nation, just because the people are resolute in voting him out of office democratically.
“It is also instructive to note that President Buhari is mortally afraid of the amendments because they essentially checked the APC rigging plans, including the use of underage and alien voters, vote-buying, alteration of results and manipulation of voter register; for which the APC and the Buhari Presidency have been boasting of winning the 2019 elections.
“The PDP charges all political parties, other critical stakeholders and Nigerians in general, to rise in the interest of our nation and demand the entrenching of rules and processes that will guarantee the conduct of free, fair and credible elections, as nothing short of that would be accepted.
“The President’s decision is a calculated attempt to hold the nation to ransom, inject crisis into the electoral process and ultimately scuttle the conduct of the 2019 general elections, seeing that there is no way he can win in a free and fair contest.
“The PDP cautions the Buhari Presidency and INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, not to set our country on fire by engaging in provocative actions in desperation to rig the 2019 presidential election for President Buhari,” Ologbondiyan said.
Countering the PDP’s allegations, the ruling APC fired back, saying the opposition PDP has ulterior motives over the 2018 Electoral Act Amendment Bill with the discovery that the necessity to count votes at polling units has been expunged.
National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Malam Lanre Issa-Onilu, told Daily Trust Sunday that if not for the meticulousness of President Muhammadu Buhari, the PDP –led National Assembly’s decision to deliberately remove the word ‘counting’ of votes at polling units would not have been discovered.
He said President Buhari did not foreclose the possibility of signing the bill but rather advised them to postpone the date for its implementation till after 2019 general elections apart from other corrections he wanted to be made by the federal lawmakers in the document.
“The intention of PDP-led National Assembly is clear. They have ulterior motives and they are actually looking for a state of anarchy by creating such power to truncate the process towards the election,” he said.
On concerns that the president’s decision to withhold assent to the bill might affect 2019 elections, Issa-Onilu said: “We are fully with the president on his decision not to assent to that bill. It’s a document that we believe has no negative impact on the coming elections. In any case, the INEC has prepared for next year’s elections based on the existing Electoral Act which was actually a PDP document that was drafted in 2010 and amended in 2015. And they have been doing that.
“Even when you look at this new Electoral Act Amendment Bill which the president didn’t assent to, you will discover that there is no specific clause that is introducing any new technology or making it compulsory for INEC. Whatever technology that is in existence, INEC has already started using it. Card reader has been used for all elections conducted so far since 2015. The Supreme Court ruling on the issue of the card reader has also strengthened the hands of INEC to be able to deploy technology without necessarily waiting for any Electoral Act. And they have been doing that. They used it in Osun and Ekiti. Now, they have even said they are not going to use the incidence forms. So, they are already using this.
“Then, the issue of not including the counting of votes, it is just barely saying votes should be announced. How can you announce without counting? And they deliberately removed the word counting of the votes at polling centres from the one they sent to the president. If we didn’t have a president that is meticulous, then that would have escaped all of us,” he said.
On the allegation that the INEC and APC were planning to rig elections, the ruling party’s spokesman said, “They are not ashamed to issue fallacy every day. They are not responding well to the reality that they are going to lose the 2019 election badly. They are not reacting very well. They are showing that even before the election comes, they are already jittery. And they are looking for just anything to blame. And in the last one week, we know how many times they have come up with such fallacies.
“INEC itself has gone ahead to start implementing some of these things that they think they are introducing into the Electoral Act. So how can you link INEC with APC? Is it the same INEC that has not accepted our list from Zamfara but accepted PDP list from Kano when they didn’t do any primary in Kano? It’s just because they are bad losers. And it’s apparent to them that 2019 election is a no contest. And then they are responding badly to it. They are not showing courage at all,” he said.
Lawyers, others react
A former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) said President Muhammadu Buhari’s withholding of assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill will not hurt the conduct of the elections except to remove the doubts and harmonize the existing Electoral Act especially on the place of technology in the election.
Agbakoba told Daily Trust on Sunday that INEC has the powers to go ahead with the general elections particularly in the use of card reader for accreditation of voters.
“The 2015 Electoral Amendment Act, which was signed by President Jonathan very late, is what INEC has been using. It enabled INEC to use card readers. That one is enough and that is why INEC is saying without the new Act, they have the powers to go ahead. Either way, it is okay,” he said.
However, Barrister Mohammed Awwal Yunusa, regretted that the proposed amendments could have helped address issues in pre-election matters and at election petitions tribunals.
He added that the amended law would make it easier for data from card readers to be used as evidence in court, which remains a challenge at the moment.
“Let INEC insist that they will use the card reader to accredit voters on the day of the election. I think that is fair, and then the amendment can be taken care of later,” he added.
A former Special Adviser to the former Head of State, General Sani Abacha on legal matters, Professor Auwal Hamisu Yadudu said President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to assent the proposed electoral act will never affect the 2019 general elections.
Professor Yadudu told Daily Trust on Sunday that president Buhari’s refusal to assent the act would not any away stop the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) from using card reader during the elections..
“People are thinking that president Buhari’s refusal to assent the act will affect the forthcoming elections, but I don’t think so. I think commentators seem to worry that one of the key elements of the law which puts the use of card reader on firmer legal ground will not be available. Quite obviously the new law seeks to make the use of the card reader and transmission of electronic results and other means a bit clearer but I think one has to be very careful about the reasons the president gave for not assenting. And the reason was that the bill came to him at a time when the processes for the 2019 elections have gone far and some actions have taken place and if the law comes into operation now it may apply retroactively to them and that may present some legal issues, contentions and even constitutional problems. So, the president wants to avoid all these.”
“I don’t think you can fault President Buhari for pointing out this legal loophole because he stated his readiness to assent the law if it would have an operative date which is later than the 2019 elections and there is no harm in that. I think as laudable as it is to pass the law, you cannot also ignore the legal challenges that maybe posed if it come into being after some actions have taken in the old legal order,” he said.
The Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative and Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani told Daily Trust on Sunday that he believed Buhari’s rejection of the Electoral Act amendment bill was a setback for Nigeria’s democracy, coming at a time citizens were yearning for improvement in the country’s electoral system.
Rafsanjani, however, said he believed that despite the president’s decision, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) could still go ahead to conduct free and fair elections using the existing legal framework.
He said more disturbing was the apparent attitude of members of the National Assembly who do not seem ready to override the president on the matter.
“One of the implications of the action is the very commitment that Mr President has made to the nation, which was to improve the electoral system. His inability to send a bill to that regard three years after he assumed power calls for a serious concern.
“In my opinion, the decision of Mr President not to sign the bill cannot and will not undermine the elections as long as INEC is determined to use its powers given to it by the law to carry out elections that will eliminate all sorts of fraud and malpractice”, he said.
Lawmakers skeptical over veto
It is not clear if members of the National Assembly could summon courage to override the president on the Electoral Act amendment bill. In the Senate, a total of 73 senators, while 240 reps, representing two-thirds in both chambers, are required to override the president.
Some senators of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had last weekend indicated that they would raise the issue of overriding the president during the week.
However, Daily Trust on Sunday reports that throughout the week, nothing of such came up on the floor of the Senate even after Saraki read Buhari’s letter on the rejection of the bill on Tuesday.
But at the House of Representatives, the matter came up, albeit lightly on Wednesday as the lawmakers said they would debate it on Thursday. But surprisingly, the issue did not come up on the floor of the House.
The lawmakers have only between two and three days to sit at plenary before proceeding on their Christmas and New Year break on Wednesday or Thursday.
A PDP lawmaker told Daily Trust on Sunday that he was sceptical if the opposition would get the numbers to override the president.