By Reuben Abati
President Muhammadu Buhari reportedly declared in China, last Sunday, that he believes in the idea of free and fair elections, and that he is committed to this pillar of the democratic process. I don’t expect him to say anything otherwise. On the whole idea of free and fair elections, electoral integrity as it were, rests the political stability of our country and the legitimacy of democratic governments. Besides, President Buhari is a beneficiary of the framework of electoral integrity instituted by his predecessor in office. On account of the misgivings reported about the conduct of the 2007 general elections, President Goodluck Jonathan, upon his assumption of office, had declared that he hoped to leave a legacy of free, fair and credible elections. He tried to do this in 2011, even if there was an outbreak of violence in parts of the North, owing more to ethnic emotions rather than any far-reaching failings by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Between 2011 and 2015, President Jonathan remained committed to his promise.
Whenever elections were held, gubernatorial elections or by-elections, and the ruling party lost, he was always the first to congratulate the winner of the election and to call for due respect for the people’s choice. I recall when the gubernatorial election in Edo State was held in 2012. The president characteristically congratulated the winner in that election – Adams Oshiomhole, now chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Some elements within the Edo State PDP had grumbled loudly that the president should not have congratulated Oshiomhole because they intended to reject the results and make trouble. I received one or two phone calls, as presidential spokesman, telling me I was stupid to have issued a statement so quickly congratulating Adams Oshiomhole. The president’s acceptance of the result of the election tied their hands. They didn’t make trouble, instead they went to the Tribunal and pursued their case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The apex court, in a lead judgement read by Bode Rhodes-Vivour (JSC), upheld Oshiomhole’s election. The rule of law prevailed. Again, in 2015, when the presidential election did not favour President Goodluck Jonathan, he conceded victory to then General Buhari (Retd.) and vacated office. He respected the Nigerian people’s right to choose. He chose to lead by example. If anyone is uncomfortable with this short narrative, let the person be further apprised of the fact that Professor Attahiru Jega, who served as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) under President Jonathan, (2010 – 2015), remains today perhaps the most successful electoral umpire in Nigeria since independence. With probably the exception of Hon. Justice Ephraim O. I. Akpata, every other electoral commission chairperson before him, left office with a trail of controversy. The two general and other elections conducted by Attahiru Jega were widely regarded as credible. It may be too early to offer a final assessment of his successor, but it is safe to say that today’s INEC does not seem to be as strong and as prepared as Jega’s INEC was.
This is the more reason why President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration with regard to free and fair elections is important. The preparedness and integrity of the electoral commission have far-reaching implications for the outcomes of the 2019 electoral process. In a recent research essay by Mathew T. Page and Sola Tayo, titled “Countdown to February 2019: A Look Ahead at Nigeria’s Elections” (July 2018) legitimate concerns have been raised about “Nigeria’s volatile pre-election season” and the strategic importance of the National Electoral Commission. If the gubernatorial elections conducted in Kogi, Ondo and Ekiti States can be used as signs of things to come, then, indeed, Nigerians have cause to worry and the government enough reason to reassure the people. In the face of all this, it is important that President Buhari matches his words with action. The series of double entendres coming from the Presidency in the past few weeks, increase anxiety, not confidence, about the promise of credible elections in 2019.
It should be a matter of interest to us, for example, that barely six months to the 2019 general election, the National Assembly and the Presidency remain locked in a disruptive battle over the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2018. In February 2018, the National Assembly forwarded an Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill to the president. This was vetoed. The president vetoed the Bill over disagreements on the issue of whether or not the National Assembly has the right to determine the sequence of elections. The lawmakers in re-ordering the 2019 elections had put the presidential election last, apparently to prevent the possibility of the elections being influenced by any bandwagon effect. The matter went to court and the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the National Assembly. On June 27, 2018, the National Assembly sent another version of the amended Bill to the president for his assent. This was again vetoed on the grounds that it contained constitutional breaches. On July 24, 2018, the very day the National Assembly embarked on a recess till September 25, the National Assembly again passed another version of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill which purportedly reached the president on August 3, 2018. Pressures from National Assembly members to the effect that the Bill should be signed was rebuffed by the Presidency, with the argument that the president still had enough time, since the Constitution provides for a 30-day window within which the president can assent to a bill or he would be deemed to have vetoed it. That 30-day window closed on September 2.
Meanwhile, the only explanation that was offered by the president’s senior special assistant on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, when I interviewed him on “The Morning Show” (Arise News, DSTV Ch. 416, GoTV, Ch. 44 and SKY Ch. 519), on September 3 is that “it is well with the Electoral Bill”. I couldn’t figure out what that means in plain English language. “It is well”? How? I tried to provoke Senator Enang to comment on the Electoral Bill and its amendment. He argued that we should wait till September 25 when the National Assembly resumes, for us to know what the president has done with the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill. I wondered: Why the secrecy? Why the mystery? I didn’t make much headway. Enang invoked his Miranda rights – a right that does not apply to him in the instance. But it is reassuring that before the close of work, on September 3, Enang had reconsidered his position and rightly taken the good step of providing clarifications. He reportedly disclosed that the president declined assent to the Electoral Bill on August 30 (which is the same as the president vetoing the Bill) on the ground that the Bill as proposed contains “some drafting issues.” Incidentally this is also one of the excuses that the Presidency gave to justify President Buhari’s rejection of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) as presented to him by the National Assembly.
Nonetheless, the fate of the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill remains dangerously shrouded in mystery. Why is it so difficult for the executive and the legislature to agree on a legal framework for the 2019 elections? Sometime in August, both Enang and Garba Shehu, the president’s other spokesman, told us that there was still enough time for the president to sign the amended bill. We now know that he chose not to sign it. In response to allegations by the rival opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that the president continues to veto the bill because it contains provisions that would block under-age voting, identity theft, the influx of alien voters, and the manipulation of results between the polling station and the collation centre, Shehu responded that the president believes in the card reader system and the use of Permanent Voters Cards.
I consider the to-ing and fro-ing on this matter utterly contemptuous of the Nigerian people. If the matter is treated as important enough, the National Assembly should cut short its recess, and return immediately to take another look at the Bill, and the earlier the better. For if the Bill continues to travel like a yo-yo between the National Assembly and the Presidency, it may be practically impossible to apply the recommended amendments to the 2019 electoral process. My suspicion however is that the Presidency probably does not want anything to tamper with the status quo, that is the Electoral Act 2010.
It all gets curiouser because members of the National Assembly have protested that the supplementary budget of N143 billion for INEC that has been endorsed by the joint committee of the National Assembly on electoral matters, clearly off-season, I mean during recess time, cannot be accessed if the president refuses to sign the amended electoral bill. Their argument is that the Bill covers approvals for INEC to procure necessary equipment and logistics for the 2019 elections. Long before now, INEC itself had complained that any further delay over the enabling legislation for the 2019 elections could hamper its ability to conduct a hitch-free election. So I ask: With all of these plain-sight facts, is there something that Nigerians should know that is not yet in the public domain? Could there be a covert attempt to derail the 2019 elections? Do we face the possibility at some point, of INEC throwing its hands up in the air in despair saying it is not ready, and that the election should be postponed in the national interest, followed by the trading of blames? Please place emphasis on “national interest”.
What President Buhari does or does not do, in the next six months has serious implications for his own politics and political fortune and for the Nigerian polity. It is not for nothing that the international community seems for now to have shifted attention away from Nigeria’s Presidential politics and seem to be more concerned about trade, migration and security.
It is also clear, so far, that there is no love lost between the National Assembly and the Presidency. Both arms of government, even when the ruling party had a sure-footed majority in parliament, have not been able to work together harmoniously due to reasons not far from ego-conflicts, the conflict of sycophants on both sides, and the absence of a guiding, all-inclusive, shared vision and mission. Nigerians are also suffering the effect of the inability of the ruling party, a network of strange bedfellows, to transform into a political party. Those who sold the APC as the best thing since toothpaste have since departed the party, returning majorly to the Peoples Democratic Party that ruled Nigeria for 16 years, which today, by the way, is also still struggling to get its groove back. On the question of the Electoral Bill, President Buhari should see the need to provide the necessary leadership to ensure that a consensus that works for all parties concerned is established. He needs to realise that his own integrity is at stake. The amount of energy that the Presidency has devoted to the argument over the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill raises high suspicion and may be used against President Buhari, in the future, whichever way the 2019 presidential election goes.
The situation is not helped by the fact that the president most recently ran into murky waters with inappropriate and uninformed comments about the rule of law and national security, but perhaps he needs to worry more about these two issues within the context, not of power and might, but how best to ensure free, fair and credible elections in 2019. Respect for the rule of law will help to achieve that objective: And this would include: Respect for the right of the Nigerian voter to make a free choice without threat or intimidation and for that choice to be respected and protected. No attempt should also be made to hijack the Independent National Electoral Commission, and no one should see the 2019 election as a do-or die-election. Respecting the rule of law would mean putting Nigeria first, before, during and after the election. National security: This does not necessarily need to be at conflict with the rule of law, instead it must be operationalised within the context of the rule of law. This is the simple point that sycophants and intellectual marabouts do not seem to get.
In the recent gubernatorial election in Ekiti State, there were reports that the Nigeria Police deployed about 30,000 policemen, other security agencies were also on ground with lorry-loads of men. Nigerians should not be made to vote under the rule of the gun and a climate of fear. It is a sign of our underdevelopment and the failure of institutions that in Ekiti, vote-buying was done in the open, by agents of the two major political parties involved, with security agents looking the other way. To have free and fair elections, President Buhari cannot also afford to tolerate the impunity of security chiefs who have turned themselves and their agencies into his campaign billboards. The politicisation of public institutions in Nigeria on the grounds of religion, ethnicity and geography remains a serious threat to national progress, the professional political elite is collectively guilty; it only just got worse under President Buhari’s watch.
What President Buhari does or does not do, in the next six months has serious implications for his own politics and political fortune and for the Nigerian polity. It is not for nothing that the international community seems for now to have shifted attention away from Nigeria’s Presidential politics and seem to be more concerned about trade, migration and security. But they are watching and waiting and listening. Nigeria is certainly under international searchlight. President Buhari should beware of those who tell him “all is well”. This is precisely the same kind of illusion that swept the PDP out of power in 2015.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.