Key amendments designed to ground the conduct of future Nigerian elections in transparency and accountability seem doomed for the garbage bin as early as next Thursday when the National Assembly sits to review and pass the Electoral Bill that caucus leaders of Senate are currently fine-tuning in Abuja.
The caucus leaders now packed at the executive floor of the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja started their deliberations last Thursday to codify what will be the final laws that will regulate electoral conduct.
Insider caucus sources told PREMIUM TIMES that some robust proposals and key priority amendments canvassed by citizens to strengthen the integrity quotient of the electoral bill on electoral voting, financial independence of INEC, and new timelines for submission of list of candidates, have now been rejected by the leadership of the NASS.
Some of these recommendations include the use of electronic transmission of results of an election and expenses for presidential candidates.
As a token gesture, however, innovations like the independent candidate have now been inserted into the bill.
If the National Assembly has its way and passes the legislation, the bill will then be sent to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent to become law.
And unless a last minute change is done, a new Electoral Amendment bill will be passed but hopes of key electoral reforms in subsequent elections will be lost.
About half a dozen lawmakers who sought anonymity for this report spoke of what one of them called “a shamefaced retreat from democratic accountability, a full-throated endorsement of corruption in elections and a surrender to electoral management fraud that I am personally ashamed to back.”
The bill seeks to repeal and re-enact the 2010 Electoral Act.
It also seeks to resolve issues concerning INEC’s introduction of modern technologies into the electoral process, particularly accreditation of voters, electronic voting and electronic transmission of results from polling units.
Efforts to get an earlier bill, passed by the Saraki-led 8th National Assembly, signed into law were futile with President Muhammadu Buhari rejecting it three times.
It was first rejected in March 2018 when Mr Buhari said the proposed law would usurp the constitutional powers of INEC to decide on election matters, including fixing dates and election order.
A few months after that, he rejected it again citing “some drafting issues,” despite revision by the lawmakers. And in December 2018, Mr Buhari rejected another amended version, saying passing a new bill with elections close by could “create some uncertainty about the legislation to govern the process.”
The legislation was, however, reintroduced in the 9th Assembly and a joint committee on INEC (of the Senate and House of Representatives) was set up to work on the legislation.
NASS blatantly ignoring demands of Nigerians
The journey to this tinkering process commenced when party leaders in the National Assembly decided on what they called “additional review” of the outcome and work of the committee report on the amendment of the bill, ostensibly with a view to insert and reject some amendments. The insertions and deletions run contrary to the resolutions and proposals made by the committees.
Although many individuals and groups who submitted memoranda and presented during the public hearing had similar demands, top among the proposals were introduction and improvement of modern technologies in elections as well as a reduction in the cost of elections.
The commission in charge of conducting elections, INEC, had proposed 34 amendments to the legislation – part of which includes punishment for electoral violators.
One of the major and glaring setbacks for democratic accountability is the limits to the already pervasive money game in the country’s elections, and what a senator called, “a depressingly dirty outing for campaign financing in our elections.”
The new version of spending limit proposed in Section 88 of the bill now allows candidates seeking presidential office to increase their cash haul from the current N1 billion to N15 billion while governorship candidates can rake in N5 million from the hitherto N2 million.
For candidates eyeing a Senate seat, they can now look to legally raise N1.5 billion from the previous N40 million, while candidates to the House of Representative can now accept N500 million from the current N30 million. And for State Assembly, candidates are now free to call up N50 million from the previous N10 million.
“I agree that the integrity of the 2023 elections will be undermined should the bill be passed in its current form” a parliamentarian in the House of Representatives said in Abuja on Sunday, arguing that “you may call this an irony but current budget to elect a senator in this country has never been less than 4 billion and if you consider the current value of the Naira it just looks like we are in an endless circularity.”
A still insignificant group of refuseniks who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in Abuja on Sunday say they will try build a critical mass against Section 65 of the bill which they claim is “perhaps the most alarming move by the National Assembly leaders which is an apparent rejection of the proposal empowering INEC to review results declared under duress or where a declaration is made in contravention of INEC guidelines.”
This section proposes that the decision of the Returning Officer shall be final on any question arising from or relating to unmarked ballot paper, rejected ballot paper and declaration of scores of a candidate – a part of the bill that many Nigerians have kicked against.
This provision strips INEC of powers to decline issuing a certificate of return to a candidate where the Returning Officer was forced to declare him or her the winner or where the Returning Officer made an announcement under duress.
Another concern in the tinkered bill is the status of electronic voting which the party elders at their Transcorp retreat have gutted to make room for the contentious manual transmission that most commentators have pointed at as the basis of most electoral frauds in the country.
The committee had resolved that voting in an election and transmission of results under the Act shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
But the provision on procedure at election under Section 50(2) of the bill, was changed by the lawmakers in the approved version to read: “Voting in an election under this bill shall be in accordance with the procedure determined by the Commission (INEC) which may include electronic voting, provided that the Commission shall not transmit results of elections by electronic means.”
Effectively, said a parliamentarian, “Section 50(2) of the bill to prohibit electronic transmission of results fundamentally seeks to undermine INEC’s effort to improve the election results management regime with the successful introduction of the election results viewing portal in recent elections.”
The move by lawmakers of the National Assembly has already generated outrage among Nigerians and civic groups. Many have also said the president and leadership of the National Assembly have failed to fulfil their promise of free, fair and credible elections in the future as key electoral reforms are yet to be addressed.
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