Penultimate Wednesday, the National Chairman of All Progressives Party(APC) went to the National Assembly to lobby senators over the order of election, which has pitched the lawmakers against President Muhammadu Buhari. In this report, SAMSON BENJAMIN, TAIYE ODEWALE, BODE OLAGOKE and ELEJO IDACHABA examine the issues that led to the impasse
The threats, battle of wits and the promised show of strength started in February, when the National Assembly altered the sequence of election as presented by the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC). Last December, the commission had presented the 2019 election time table, suggesting that National Assembly and presidential elections will hold on February 16, 2019, while gubernatorial and state assembly elections will hold on March 2. However, in their wisdom, the federal legislators have revised the time table, putting the National Assembly election first, followed by governorship and state Houses of Assembly elections, ending with the presidential poll. Afterwards, the lawmakers transmitted the Electoral Act Amendment Bill to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent. Significantly, the president has raised some concerns and refused to sign the bill, thus putting the National Assembly in combat mode.
The lawmakers, according to reports, have been divided over the president’s action. Consequently, both camps have been engaging in phantom claims, bandying their numerical strengths and vowing to defeat their opponents should the upturning of Buhari’s veto is tabled. However, on March 14, the Federal High Court added more confusion to mix, by restraining the National Assembly from taking steps to upturn the presidential veto. The legislators condemned the order. Legal opinions are divided on the matter and a showdown loomed in the horizon.
Penultimate Wednesday, National Chairman of All Progressives Congress(APC), Chief John Odigie Oyegun, went on a trouble shooting mission to the National Assembly, where he met with all APC senators over plans to override Buhari’s veto. The meeting, according to reports, had lasted for about two hours and all members of APC’s National Working Committee were in attendance. As yet, the dividends of the parley have not manifested but the disagreement has become more civil in tone and words. However, about 67 senators are still sticking to their guns, insisting on overriding the president’s veto, according to reports. Similarly, 34 others are still siding with Buhari on the matter.
Reps set the ball rolling
Significantly, the present controversy over sequence of election started on January 24, when the House of Representatives voted to amend several sections of the Electoral Act 2010 , ahead of the 2019 general elections. Significantly, the House had amended 156 clauses of the Act based upon recommendations by the House Committee on Electoral Matters, which is chaired by Hon Aisha Dukku . However, the amendment that generated the most interest was Section 25(1). Specifically, the section states that “elections into the office of the President and Vice-President, the Governor and Deputy Governor of a state and to the membership of the Senate, the House of Representatives and Houses of Assembly of each state of the federation shall be in the following order: National Assembly elections; state Houses of Assembly and governorship elections; and presidential election. The dates for these elections shall be as appointed by the Independent National Electoral Commission.”
Similarly, the senate adopted the amended sequence of election and on February 6, the National Assembly Conference Committee adopted it and transmitted the bill to the president.
Mixed reactions trail amendment
Significantly, various interpretations were given for the action of the National Assembly, leading to commendations and condemnations. In particular, some people accused the legislators of reversing the sequence of elections in order to save their seats in the coming general election. By holding the National Assembly elections first, according to analysts, the federal legislators will be saving themselves from likely bandwagon effect, where voters will generally be swayed to the winning party, after the first poll. In addition, governors and even the president will be less likely to influence the legislators’ elections, since they will be preoccupied with their own. Presently, the relationship between most governors and the federal law makers in their states is less than cordial.
Similarly, some critics argued that the reviewed sequence of elections goes against logic and commonsense. According to them, gubernatorial and state Assembly elections should hold first because it makes a lot of sense for voters to settle their local issues and choices first, before they go to the federal ones . Similarly, some people also argued that presidential election should be the culmination, not the beginning, of elections because it renders the others an anti-climax.
We acted within the constitution—Committee members
Significantly, they are some lawyers who had argued that INEC’s constitutional power to fix election dates, includes the mandate to fix the order of elections. However, Senator Suleman Nazif, the Chairman of Senate Committee on INEC, said that the inclusion of section 25(1) has not in any way violated any provisions of Section 76 of the 1999 constitution which empowers the electoral body to fix dates and conduct elections. Similarly, Senator Nazif’s House of Representatives counterpart, Rep Edward Pwajok, said that ‘’the sequence of election provision in the bill is not targeted at anybody but aimed at giving credibility to the electoral process.’’
Similarly, Senator Dino Melaye (APC-Kogi), a member of the committee, argued that while date for election was the prerogative of INEC, extant laws state that schedules for such elections are the sole responsibility of the National Assembly. “So, contrary to reports and comments by some Nigerians on the reordered sequence of election, National Assembly has not overlapped its boundaries,” the senator had said. In addition, another member of the committee, Senator Shehu Sani, said the reordered sequence of elections, if signed into law by President Buhari, will give electorates at the entire 109 senatorial districts across the country and 360 federal constituencies , free atmosphere of electing federal lawmakers of their choice with less bandwagon effect .
Senator Hope Uzodinma said the new sequence is similar to the one earlier attempted in the 2002 Electoral act during the Obasanjo presidency before it was later changed.
“ To me, what our colleagues in the House of Representatives have done and adopted by the senate by adding sequence of elections in the electoral act in the order of National Assembly election first, followed by State Assembly and governorships election before presidential election is right and within the legislative powers of the National Assembly going by judicial pronouncement on such issues in the past , which says that though the National Assembly has no constitutional right to fix date of elections but has the power through the electoral Act to give sequence for such elections after which INEC will now fix dates for them,’’ he recalled . According to Uzodinma, ‘’going by historical records, all general elections that had been midwife by the military have always put that of the presidency last being the highest political office in the land to avoid bandwagon effects which however have been the problems with elections organised by democratic governments in the country since 2003.
NASS’s decision selfish–Partners for Electoral Reform
Significantly, the National Assembly got some knocks over the amendment, especially from civil society organisations. In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the Executive Director, Partners for Electoral Reform, Ezenwa Nwagu, said that “the National Assembly has no power to dictate for INEC how it should be run. Both institutions are a creation of the law. Remember that INEC is an independent organisation whose existence has the backing of the law and by which it is empowered to decide matters that bother on its core operation. As far as I am concerned, what the law makers want to do is self-service. Nobody is saying that the law makers don’t have powers to make laws for the country but as far as this matter is concerned, their decision is borne out of selfish aggrandisement. They are merely playing politics with a major aspect of our national life. Asking INEC to kow-tow their resolution on this matter is akin to a university senate giving orders to, for example, English Department of that university, to write exams. In as much as the National Assembly has the power to make laws for the entire country, they should also know that INEC is created by law to organise elections in line with its time table.”
INEC should reject the amendment—Situation Room
Similarly, a coalition of civil society organisations under the umbrella of Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, had equally asked INEC to reject the revised the election time table. According to its convener, Mr Clement Nwankwo, ‘’the National Assembly needs to back-track from passing self-service legislation that contradicts the constitutional guarantee of the independence of INEC. The move is unwarranted and undue interference in the constitutional powers of the electoral umpire towards the conduct of elections.”
Nwankwo, who is also the Executive Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC) said INEC has the window of challenging this unconstitutionality up to the supreme court.
Buhari shouldn’t sign the bill—Lawyer
The Executive Chairman of Human Rights Monitor and former Chairman of of Transition Monitoring Group, Barrister Festus Okoye, told Blueprint that the lawmakers over stepped their bound by re-ordering the sequence of election. Speaking to our correspondent, Okoye said that ‘’INEC has been given the powers to organize, undertake and supervise all elections to the offices of the president and vice president, governor and deputy governor, membership of the National Assembly and state Houses of Assembly.’’ According to him, to organize elections involves arranging, classifying, regulating, structuring and categorizing elections. Okoye who has been monitoring elections in the last 16 years, argued that the arranging the sequence of election falls within the compass of organizing elections. ‘’Therefore, for the National Assembly to re-order the sequence of elections, they must first of all amend the constitution in order to remove item 15 of the third schedule of the constitution,’’ he further argued. Continuing, the constitutional lawyer said that ‘’constitutionally, as at today, its within the rights and powers of INEC to order the sequence of election.
Significantly, what National Assembly is trying to do, according to him, ‘’will violate the spirit and intent of the constitution.’’ Okoye advised that the only way to go about re-ordering the sequence of election, is to amend the constitution and that entails getting the consent of two-thirds of the state assemblies. Conversely, if the legislators want to amend the Electoral Act 2010, the president has to assent to it to become effective. Okoye advised President Buhari not to sign the amendment because ‘’it will amount to a breach of the oath of his office to assent to a legislation that breaches the provisions of the constitution.’’
President withholds assent
On March 3, President Buhari rejected the proposed amendments to the Electoral Act. In a letter addressed to the duo of Senate President Bukola Saraki and House Speaker Yakubu Dogara, the president stated that the amendments infringes on the rights of INEC. According to him, ‘’the amendment to the sequence of elections in Section 25 of the principal act, may infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed discretion of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to organise, undertake and supervise elections provided in Section 15(A) of the third statue to the Constitution.’’ He also pointed out that ‘’the amendment to Section 138 of the principal act to delete two crucial grounds upon which an election may be challenged by candidates, unduly limits the rights of candidates in elections to a free and fair electoral review process.’’ In addition, the president warned that ‘’the amendment to Section 152 Subsection 325 of the Principal Act may raise Constitutional issues over the competence of the National Assembly to legislate over local government elections.
Federal High Court restrains lawmakers
Significantly, the withholding of presidential assent had split the lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly. Legislators were divided over whether or not to upturn the veto or accommodate the president’s concerns. Simultaneously, both pro-Buhari and anti-Buhari elements were bent on testing their strengths on the floors of the legislative chambers. However, on March 14, the Federal High Court Abuja gave an order restraining the National Assembly from taking steps to pass into law the Electoral Amendment Bill, 2018.
Justice Ahmed Mohammed gave the order while delivering a ruling on an oral application for preservative order brought by the plaintiff (Accord Party) seeking the court’s intervention on the matter. The judge ruled that ‘’in view of the provisions of section 58, subsection 5 of the 1999 constitution which empowers the National Assembly to veto the president withholding of his assent by a two-thirds majority votes, the court is simply to preserve the res in other to safeguard the integrity of the court and the sanctity of the judiciary under section 6 (6) of the 1999 constitution.’’
In the motion filed pursuant to order 26, rules 1,2$3 and order 18, rule 1 of the Federal High Court, the plaintiff prayed for an interlocutory injunction restraining the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria from assenting to the Electoral Act amendment bill, 2018 as passed by the first defendant, pending the final determination of the substantive originating summons. Secondly, the plaintiff had sought a further order of interlocutory injunction restraining the 1st defendant (National Assembly) from taking any further action or actions on the bill titled, ‘Electoral Act amendment bill, 2018, particularly, to convene to pass the said bill by two-third majority of each of its two Chambers, pending the final determination of the substantive originating summons.
Significantly, the court order raised the political temperature in the country as legislators accused the judiciary of violating the spirit of separation of powers. In particular, the senate criticized the order and also resolved to write a protest letter to the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, to express displeasure about the action of the court. Specifically, the resolution followed the adoption of a Point of Order raised by the Senate Minority Leader, Godswill Akpabio (PDP, Akwa Ibom), who cited Order 45 of the Senate Standing Orders 2015 (as amended). Akpabio asked the Senate to write the CJN to officially notify him of the development and remind him of the need for the judicial officers to recognize, respect and abide by the principle of separation of powers. According to the Minority Leader, “if this is allowed, it therefore means that in future, the court can stop the National Assembly from appropriating and the country will have no budget for that year. He reminded his colleagues that “separation of powers is a core tenet of democracy; so there is need for the Chief Justice to caution legal officers on issuing such orders geared towards interfering with other arms of government.”
Oyegun to the rescue
On Marh 22, APC National Chairman National Chairman Odigie- Oyegun, went to lobby the party’s senators, including the leadership, to hold their fire on the alleged plot to override President Buhari on amendment to the Electoral Act. Addressing newsmen at the end of the meeting, Senate Leader Ahmad Lawan said the party would soon constitute a team, comprising the executive, legislators, governors and other members of the party, to broker peace. According to Lawan, the meeting as frank and worthwhile and the issue of election sequence would be addressed by the committee when constituted.
Senate may still override Buhari’s veto
However, in spite of Oyegun’s fence-mending efforts, some senators are still spoiling for a fight, insisting that the matter be settled with a vote. According to reports, 67 senators are bent on overriding President Buhari’s veto on the Electoral Act Amendment bill 2018. On the other hand, 34 are in his support. In spite of Oyegun’s promise, legislators across both chambers of the National Assembly, do not see concrete evidence of the party putting in place a genuine peace option after the visit.
In fact, the lawmakers’ new found confidence, Blueprint Weekend learnt, is anchored on National Assembly’s legal department’s interpretation. In particular, the department faulted all three points raised by the Presidency in rejecting the bill and on this account, the lawmakers have started collating signatures on the possible showdown. The register, which is being kept by a northern APC senator, has swollen from the initial 63 to 67 anti-Buhari lawmakers. As at last Sunday, the group requires five additional senators to get the constitutional 72 votes out of 108, to pass the bill into law without presidential assent. According to reports, the inner caucus of the group met in Lagos after the wedding party of Aliko Dangote’s daughter.
Blueprint Weekend learnt that at least three Senior Advocates of Nigeria were at the said meeting where the plot was finalised. However, our correspondent learnt that the Pro-Buhari camp, led by Senator Abdullahi Adamu , is not rest on its oars as they are shopping for just three senators to make up the required 37 to thwart the planned overriding of Buhari’s veto. By so doing, the anti-Buhari group will not get the required 2/3 majority. Oyegun has an uphill task on his hand.