Nigeria 2023: Can Gbajabiamila, Lawan save electoral bill for Tinubu?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Friday, 17 December 2021 11:48

Former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu is contemplating his political future. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

With barely 24 hours to the deadline for President Muhammadu Buhari to sign the electoral bill, the fate of the legislation that could shape the course of Nigeria’s 2023 elections is now shifting to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, and Senate President Ahmad Lawan. If they cannot get it passed, it will scuttle the chances of Bola Tinubu having an easy route to the presidency.
Sources told The Africa Report that Attorney General Abubakar Malami advised Buhari not to sign, after intense lobbying by governors.

On November 9, 2021 the two chambers of the National Assembly – Nigeria’s apex legislative body – hurriedly included the provision for mandatory direct primaries in the electoral bill and passed it.

The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the governors felt outflanked and wondered why the National Assembly, which is led by the APC would decide to go against the party’s wishes.

The reason was not far-fetched.

Many of the lawmakers were fighting a political battle of their lives and felt the only way they could win re-election would be to defang the governors by imposing the direct mode of primaries on all political parties so that at least they could stand a chance of winning. Besides, Gbajabiamila, an acolyte of APC leader, Bola Tinubu, was on a covert mission to ensure that his godfather, an advocate of direct primaries, could have an easier ride to the Presidency.

The bill, which included a provision for the electronic transmission of electoral results, was sent to President Buhari for assent with a deadline that lapses on December 19. However, the President’s signature has become more elusive by the day. And with just two days to the deadline, the President has now travelled to Turkey for an economic summit to return on Sunday. By Nigerian law, if the President does not sign the bill by Sunday, then it would be considered rejected.

One rejection too many

Past experiences show that President Buhari has a penchant for rejecting electoral bills having declined it four times between 2017 and 2018. Also, lawmakers have been known to include controversial clauses in the electoral bill that would favour them.

In March 2018, the National Assembly led by renegade APC lawmakers Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara, passed a bill barely a year before the elections. They included a controversial clause that makes it compulsory for legislative and governorship elections to be held before the Presidential poll. The idea behind the clause was that once lawmakers have won re-election, the President would be at their mercy and would need their help to win re-election.

But President Buhari refused to sign the Electoral Amendment Bill 2018. In a letter dated March 3, 2018, he said he withheld his assent to the bill because the amendment to the sequence of the elections in Section 25 of the Principal Act might infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed discretion of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which had ultimate powers to determine the sequence and order of elections.

The lawmakers subsequently went back to the drawing board, to remove the controversial clause and transmitted it to the President for assent five months later. But in September, Buhari again rejected the bill, citing some contradictions in the bill. He subsequently asked the lawmakers to make corrections and send the bill back to him on time.

The bill was again sent to Buhari for assent. This time around a provision for electronic voting was included which would boost the credibility of the polls. This aspect was embraced by civil society organisations but the President rejected it once more in December, claiming that it was improper to amend electoral laws barely two months before the 2019 elections.

He said the lawmakers should indicate that the law would take effect after the 2019 elections. This time around, the lawmakers had had enough. They threatened to invoke their constitutional powers to veto the President but they didn’t have the numbers to pull it off. In the end, the bill died a natural death and the 8th Assembly was dissolved after the elections.

Lobbying the President

The 8th Assembly led by Saraki and Dogara had a frosty relationship with Buhari which led to the rejection of several bills, loan requests and confirmation of nominees. But with the birth of the 9th Assembly in June 2019 which led to the emergence of Femi Gbajabiamila as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Ahmad Lawan as Senate President, the APC finally took firm control of the National Assembly. Almost all the President’s requests including applications for foreign loans were passed with considerable ease.

The Senate President even stated in 2019 that “I want to assure you that any request that comes from Mr. President is a request that will make Nigeria a better place in terms of appointments or legislation and the Senate will act expeditiously to ensure that we play our part in the confirmation or passing of legislation appropriately.” Their penchant for approving the President’s requests without hassles, earned them the moniker ‘rubber stamp’.

With the passage of the electoral bill, the lawmakers felt it was time for the President to reciprocate the goodwill. When the bill was sent to the President, Gbajabiamila paid him a visit with the aim of convincing him to do so and to ignore pressure from the APC leadership to do otherwise.

Addressing journalists at the Presidential Villa after the visit, Gbajabiamila said the President was an advocate of direct primaries and he was convinced Buhari would sign it. Later, Senate President Lawan visited the President but was more diplomatic than Gbajabiamila. He said he was open to more engagements with the governors in order to convince them to support the bill.

The APC governors, however, remained adamant and continued to lobby the President. APC caretaker chairman, Mai Mala Buni; and the Chairman of APC Governors Forum, Atiku Bagudu; also visited the President but refused to comment on the electoral bill. Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State and Hope Uzodinma of Imo State also objected to the bill.

The governors found a willing ally in the Attorney-General, Abubakar Malami, who advises the President on the legality of all bills.

Several sources told The Africa Report that Malami advised the President not to sign the bill because imposing direct primaries on parties would be a recipe for disaster. He argued that it would mean that parties would have to amend their constitutions. Eager to get more views on the matter, the President asked for INEC’s opinion. The commission, it was learnt, supported the bill because of the provision of electronic transmission of election results which would boost the transparency of the election. INEC, however, remained indifferent to the controversial direct primary issue.

Civil society groups also pressured the President to sign the bill. Some of them also argued that direct primaries would provide a level playing field for all and would promote the participation of youths and women who are both marginalised groups. However, virtually all political parties rejected it, insisting that direct primaries would be expensive to execute.

The diplomatic corps also joined in pressuring the President. The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, said at a youth town hall meeting last week that the world would be looking at Nigeria to conduct credible polls, and “the Electoral Act, hopefully, will be passed soon by the President for the electronic transmission of votes.”

5th time’s a charm?

With such pressure from both sides, will the 5th time be the charm or would Buhari go ahead to sign it? Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, said last week that he was convinced that the President would not sign it because of the immense pressure from the APC.

So how can the bill be saved? Nigerian law says that once a bill has been sent to the President, he has 30 days to respond. If the President doesn’t respond, it would be assumed that the bill has been rejected. Once this happens, the National Assembly can override a Presidential veto by two-thirds vote. Meaning at least 312 out of the 469 federal lawmakers must vote in favour of the bill. This is very rare in Nigerian politics. In the last 21 years, only two bills have scaled through in such a manner. They are the Niger Delta Development Commission Establishment Act and the National Order of Precedence Act both passed 20 years ago during the time of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Will the current National Assembly override the Presidential veto? Both chambers of the National Assembly have refused to say specifically what they will do if the President doesn’t sign the bill. The Senate Spokesman, Ajibola Basiru, simply said the Senate would not go to war with the President over the bill but would “take a decision we think is in the best interest of the country, irrespective of the attitude of the President.” The House of Representatives simply said they would “cross the bridge” when it comes to it.

But a former Senator, Adeseye Ogunlewe, told The Africa Report that the National Assembly was not brave enough to override the President’s veto especially since most of the lawmakers rely on the executive for financing.

He said, “They can never do it (override the President). The present day Nigeria and National Assembly don’t have any glory to achieve or any strength to override the President. They depend on him. So, how can they confront the executive like that?”

The Executive Director, Adopt a Goal for Development Initiative, Ariyo-Dare Atoye, who is one of the biggest advocates for direct primaries, told The Africa Report that it was unfortunate that Buhari travelled to Turkey with less than two days left to sign the bill.

He said should the President refuse to sign the bill, he and other advocacy groups would put pressure on the National Assembly to override the President’s veto.

“If by the end of Sunday we don’t get anything from Mr President, our attention will shift to the National Assembly to override the President’s veto. We believe the National Assembly will be able to use its constitutional powers. We appeal to the President not to let it get to this,” Atoye said.

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