The 2023 general elections, the hope that President Muhammadu Buhari will assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill appears uncertain as 23 civil society groups, on Friday, expressed fear that the same fate that befell previous attempts to amend Nigeria’s election law awaits this latest version, barely few days to the deadline, before which the Independent National Electoral Commission is expected by law to release the Notice of Election for 2023 general elections.
Recalled that since 2018, President Buhari had refused to sign the proposed amendments to the nation’s electoral laws on five occasions; and till now, has not hinted at any possibility of giving his assent to the electoral bill since he received the newest form of the document transmitted to him by the National Assembly on the 31st of January, 2022.
However, the CSOs accuse the President of playing the waiting game yet again, in spite of appeals from different quarters, including the diplomatic community, for him to sign the reworked piece of legislation.
At a briefing in Abuja on the imperative of a timely assent to the Electoral Bill 2022, the civil society groups warned that any further delay on the part of the President to give assent to the bill would certainly occasion logistical, financial, and programmatic difficulties that could threaten the integrity of the off-cycle elections in Ekiti, Osun, and the 2023 general election.
The CSOs include Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Yiaga Africa, Partners for Electoral Reform, International Press Centre, Institute for Media and Society, Nigerian Women Trust Fund, The Albino Foundation, Centre for Citizens with Disability, Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism, Transition Monitoring Group, CLEEN Foundation, and Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre.
Others are the Labour Civil Society Coalition, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Nigeria Network of Non-Governmental Organizations, Inclusive Friends Association, Enough is Enough, The Electoral Hub, Centre for Liberty, Take Back Nigeria Movement, International Peace, and Civic Responsibility Centre, 100 Women Lobby Group, and Women in Politics Forum.
Speaking behalf of the coalition, the Convener, Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, Ene Obi, said: “Our concerns are further heightened with the President’s delay in fulfilling a promise he made to Nigerians during an interview on national television indicating he will assent to the Electoral Bill if the National Assembly reworks the bill and expands the procedure for nomination of candidates.
“We note the provision of Section 58(4) of the 1999 Constitution, which gives the President a timeline of 30 days to assent or withhold assent to a Bill. However, a combination of the newly introduced timelines for electoral activities in the bill and imperative for INEC and other stakeholders to commence early preparations for the upcoming elections provides a compelling justification for immediate assent of the bill. For instance, Clause 28 (1) of the Electoral Bill 2022, requires INEC to issue a Notice of Election not later than 360 days before the day appointed for an election.
“As indicated by INEC, the scheduled date for the 2023 Presidential and National Assembly election is 18th February 2023. Therefore, the Notice of Election for the 2023 general election should be issued on 22nd February 2022 because the total number of days from 22nd February 2022, to 17th February 2023, is 360 days. If the President gives assent to the bill on or before February 22nd, 2022.
“INEC will be legally bound to issue Notice of Election, and the dates for the 2023 elections will be maintained. However, if the President acts on the bill after 22nd February 2022, the dates for the 2023 election and other subsequent electoral activities will be affected..
“We equally note that President Muhammadu Buhari has declined assent to amendments to the Electoral Act on five occasions in the last five years.
“In March 2018, he rejected the Bill due to some provision that would usurp INECS powers on electoral matters. In July 2018, he outrightly vetoed the Bill by refraining from making comments on the Bill until the expiration of the 30 days’ timeline. In September 2018, he rejected the Bill on the basis of drafting errors and cross-referencing gaps. In December 2018, he rejected the Bill because it was too close to the 2019 General Election. Lastly, he rejected the current Bill in December 2021 based on the adoption of direct primaries as the only legally approved procedure for the nomination of candidates. If the current Electoral Bill suffers the same fate, it will amount to a subversion of popular will and national interest.
“As the nation prepares for the off-cycle governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun and the 2023 general elections, a new legal framework is required to safeguard the integrity of these elections. The current Electoral Bill 2022 contains provisions that address electoral manipulation and the intractable problem of poor election logistics.
“Furthermore, the bill strengthens INEC’s financial independence, and the commission is empowered to reject falsified election results. The newly introduced timelines for key electoral activities such as early primaries and submission of a list of candidates will facilitate early electoral preparations and promote issue-based political engagement.
“We also note that any further delay in concluding the process of enacting the Electoral Bill 2022 will directly impact preparations for upcoming elections, especially the 2023 General Election, which is just 366 days away. As indicated in previous statements issued by CSO groups, delaying assent to the Bill creates a climate of legal uncertainties for upcoming elections.”.
Above all, Ene stated that Nigeria will lose the opportunity to test the efficacy of innovations introduced in the Electoral Bill before deployment in the 2023 general election.
In their recommendations, the CSOs said: “We call on President Buhari to, upon return from Brussels, sign the Electoral bill into law on or before 22nd February 2022 to enable INEC to issue Notice of Election and release the timetable and schedule of activities for the 2023 general election.
“Further amendments to the Electoral Bill 2022 can be proposed after assent has been granted. It is within the President’s prerogative to propose amendments after signing the bill as he did in the case of the Petroleum Industry Bill and 2022 Appropriation bill, an act that attracted commendation.
“The National Assembly should ensure gazetted copies of the Electoral Act 2022 are available to citizens as soon as the bill is signed into law.”
Speaking also, Ezenwa Nwagwu (Partners for Electoral Reform) charged President Buhari to sign the bill, saying that one of the best legacies the President could leave behind is a stronger inclusive democratic institution.
“This is one bill that can be described as the ‘People Bill’ because it is inclusive of women, youth, and the older persons in the society. So, the President delaying the bill is also a delay in the promise that he made that he is going to be the People’s President,” he said.
On his part, Jack Epelle (Albino Foundation), condemned the President’s perceived reluctance to sign the passed legislation for electoral reforms and vowed that the civil society would take drastic action if the legal window period for it elapses without the presidential nod.
He said, “We have pleaded enough with the President. What more do they want us to do? I don’t want to present yet what the civil society would do. We are tired and frustrated. Enough is enough. We are calling on all civil society to mobilize because it is long overdue for us to keep quiet.”
In his remarks, Samson Itodo (Yiaga Africa) argued that an amended electoral law will ensure freer, fairer, and more transparent elections in the country, stressing that it will initiate a clear, well-defined, and uncomplicated electoral process.