The discerning knew it would come to these: that the electoral act bill sent to President Buhari for his assent on which he sat for 30 days, would once more come to grief; that the president who marketed himself to the electorate as the only Nigerian with the capacity to clean up the mess in all areas of our national life, would be persuaded again by his minions to refuse to rise to the critical challenges of democratic leadership and statesmanship and thus blow the chance to be the authentic change agent he promised in his many forays into our national politics.
The bill raised hopes in all of us because it represented a fair attempt to pull up our nation from the marsh where we march on the same spot. We cannot in truth to get our democracy right so long as we fail to get our electoral system right. Sadly, the hopes now lie shattered on the rocks of a half-hearted commitment by our political leaders to a government genuinely instituted by the electorate. Democracy rests on the strong peg of a transparent electoral system guided by laws made for the good governance of the polity and not on the whims and caprices of political leaders. A good law is not one that pleases the president; it is the law that makes for a better country tby enhancing good governance; it is the law that strengthens the institutions of democracy; it is the law that treats as sacred the wishes of the people to be governed by the laws made by their representatives in parliament.
Buhari did not disappoint the nation. He rejected the bill, citing the very hackneyed reasons he had advanced before to kill the earlier bills. And the bill must now lie buried in the cemetery where we routinely bury our national aspirations for a great nation. Despite the hollow sound of chest beating by some of our national legislators that if the president withheld his assent, the senate would over-ride his veto, we knew it would not happen. The president’s men know it smacks of ingratitude for the dog to bite the fingers that feed it. Therein lies our tragedy as a nation and as a people desirous of catching up with positive developments in other parts of the world. Ours remains the government of men, not of laws. As the president dithered over the bill, I published the piece below, titled, Give us the promised change, Mr President, in the Daily Trust of December 19, urging him not to allow himself to be persuaded by his minions and go against the wishes of the people. I reproduce it here to show that in vetoing the bill Buhari did as much injury to our expectations as he did to his place in our national history:
“As presidential candidate of his political party, ANPP, General, and now, President Buhari promised us change. Right on. Change is fundamental to all human societies. Without it, no nation or community can make real progress. Change is either a minor or major shock to the system to effect a radical departure from what is to what should be in keeping with the march of human progress and development.
“The amendments to the electoral act before him present the president with a golden opportunity to effect fundamental changes in our national politics and leave a legacy he can justly be proud of. He must resist the lobbyists who fear that their political interests will not be served by the amendments to the act. The protection of self-interest is not illegal. The same lobbyists killed the report of the electoral reform committee appointed by the late President Umaru Yar’Adua. Had he been allowed to implement the reforms recommended by the committee, he would have placed our electoral system and the elections on a higher pedestal and our country would have been much better for it. The reform of electoral system has been crying to heaven since Adam ate the forbidden fruit.
“Buhari is not new to the problems that shackle the conduct of our elections either. Free and fair elections are the keys to genuine democracy. In his manifesto, The Buhari Programme 2007, Buhari made that point. He noted that “genuine democracy cannot exist without a system in place that ensures free and fair elections. Democracy cannot survive if its operators refuse to play by the rules and those in authority continually conspire to subvert the system.”
“This is the nth amended bill submitted to the president for his assent to replace what should be with what is. He rejected the earlier ones, most probably under pressure and because he feared that giving assent to the bills would affect his political interests. He must not dither this time around. Time is not on his side for a man who came into the highest political office in the land by selling his candidature to the electorate as the true agent of change.
“If we have not seen much of that in a positive sense in other sectors of our national economy in the past since years under his watch, we must see it in the radical departure from the way we conduct our elections with the bill before him. The first point to note, of course, is that a flawed electoral system cannot produce free and fair elections. A flawed electoral system is at the root of election rigging that subverts the will of the electorate. Such a system helps to rig elections well in advance of their conduct.
“The current amendments in the bill before him are consistent with what obtains in other lands. This country cannot tether itself to the millstone of the past and expect to make the great leap with other nations. It is time for change, genuine change, in how we put men and women into high elective offices. Our nation cannot expect to make real progress when the system makes it possible for men with two left hands to occupy elective offices in the executive and the legislative branches of government.
“The amendments before the president seek to cure the system of its major flaws and set the country on the path of fair and free elections consistent with the ethos of democracy. It has been a long struggle by INEC. Because of the flawed system, the end of every election sees court dockets filled with litigations. And puts a huge question mark on the integrity of the election itself.
“The politicians are genuinely afraid of two important amendments in the bill. One deals with direct primaries and the other deals with the electronic transmission of election results. Both serve vested and powerful political interests. There is no knowing the political fate of those who used these crutches to limp into elective offices. They will howl like wounded hyenas, but their personal political interests must be subordinated to those of the nation itself.
“The party primaries are intended to a) end the right of the party moguls to choose and impose their candidates on the parties and b) give men and women with ideas but whose pockets are full of holes, a chance to present themselves to the people for elective offices. You do not need me to tell you this system that was intended to cure a fatal flaw in our electoral system is itself badly flawed now. Part of the problem is that the electoral act gives the political parties the option to conduct indirect or direct party primaries.
“For obvious reasons, the politicians favour indirect primaries so that the power to choose candidates for elective offices remains with, and is fully exercised by, the party moguls. It was wrong to give the political parties the option to choose between direct and indirect primaries. Such options are strange to laws.
“In his manifesto referred to earlier, Buhari promised the following, among others:
a. Reform of the electoral system to ensure process of free and fair elections and to minimize the cost of elections
b. Creation of a truly independent electoral commission to guarantee impartial administration of elections
c. Review and continuous fine-tuning of the enabling electoral law to create level playing field in electioneering and restore public confidence in election process and petition adjudication.
“Promises are made to be kept, presidential promises even more so. The amendments are part of the periodic review of the enabling law consistent with modern political developments. It was a promise he made; it is a promise he must keep. As a two-star general, Buhari knows that forward movement is impossible when you vigorously march on one spot.
“The president has a choice, of course. He can choose either to let things be as they are or bring change to bear on our national politics, the electoral process, and the elections to enhance the integrity of our elections. We have waited long enough for Godot.”
Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]