Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Electoral Amendment Bill: The alternative foregone?, by Julius Ogar

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President Muhammadu Buhari has left even the staunchest of his supporters and detractors alike, confounded. Why did he fight shy of signing the Electoral Amendment Bill (2021)? Days passed into weeks and all interested parties hung on their anticipations – counting down to the last minute of the last hour on deadline-day – until it does seem – the President quietly disappointed them.

On the face of it, this must have been one of the few bills that defied gravity – the leaden weight of Nigerian partisanship – and floated out of the mud sludge of the National Assembly. It must have been one legislative act that could have got a few people to review their position on the National Assembly as an executive rubber stamp. Like a piece of art, it received plaudits and rave reviews and got many civil society enthusiasts hanging on dope.

But the President punctured the balloon of expectations. And the raft has drifted back to the National Assembly where chances are more likely that it will be burnt rather than patched or recalibrated.

Even though the reasons given by the President for declining assent to the Electoral Amendment Bill read like some of those obfuscations emanating from the office of the Attorney General of the Federation, they call for a deep breath and really deep reflection. Are we, in quest of the ideal, trying to paper over our present realities as a people, as a country?

Open primaries are a great foundation for party politics and the democratic process. But are the present political and social circumstances conducive for it? It would take the genetic engineering and mutation of Nigeria’s political class to think that open primaries would lead to the selection of popular aspirants voted for by ordinary people to become the candidates running for election.

The last time the APC tried open primaries in Niger State, nearly every aspirant to every political position emerged with their own certificates of return. How did it happen? Why was every contestant winning their own nominations so easily? The answer, is simply the political abracadabra of the elite and their respective overlords. Add this to the flood of litigations that followed and multiply it by a judicial process that is garnished with ‘draw-soup’ on the national and notorious scale and you would see some sense in the President’s foreboding.

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Reading the letter he forwarded to the National Assembly, I pulled back from the crowd of disappointed Nigerians already heckling the President. We need to think through the amended bill, our political peculiarities, the situation on the ground, and caution ourselves to be careful.

The instance of direct primaries cited above is just one wahala all by itself. There are many others:

The logistics required of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to deploy to 8,809 wards across the country each time one of the registered political parties is conducting primaries no be small sontin! With 18 registered political parties and just 16,000 staff, how many ad hoc staff can the commission summon, train and deploy for primaries? And who will bear the cost of all that?

Like a friend of mine elaborated, and as noted in the President’s letter, the logistics of conducting party primaries alone will equate to what is required for conducting general elections. Multiply this across 18 – even if only for the two major political parties – and the cost might well be another Chinese loan.

Given the state of security in the country, how many policemen are available for election duties, whether primary or secondary? The entire armed forces and other security agencies would have their men and resources stretched too thin when the politicians unleash armed militias and thugs in addition to the flood of criminals hovering over us with assault weapons.

It’s naïve and simplistic to assume that direct primary is the magic wand that will cut out the godfathers and money-bags of politics. No, it only expands the coast and scope of resources they would have to deploy. It would simply be the same thing by another name with different manipulation dynamics. Nigerians have shown an incredible capacity to resist casting aside wrong tendencies.

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The present temperament of an average Nigerian politician has little if anything to do with morality, not to mention honesty. The permanent creed in their head is power – by any means. After every election cycle, we have witnessed how far ambitious politicians go to even circumvent and ridicule the judicial system for personal advantage.

I heard someone say declining assent to the bill amounts to sabotaging electoral reforms. But reforms are not reformatory in an atmosphere of anything-goes. They only have cosmetic value. Politicians are not ready to play by the rules in any political game in Nigeria. They set and break even their own rules and there is no indication that character reforms which is the only elixir to guarantee political reforms, have occurred in the average party man.

Much as one desires to have a sane and reliable grassroots democratic process, prevailing circumstances demand utmost caution and circumspection. And these are just what the President is mindful off. The critical mass now ranged against his decision to decline assent will be the same critical mass up in arms when politicians exploit weak institutions to inflict grievous injury to the electoral process and by extension, the country at large.

The President has taken yet another difficult decision. But tough and difficult decisions are not necessarily bad decisions. Likewise, popular decisions are not necessarily good decisions. We can play to the gallery of emotions and sentiments, but the aftermath often goes well beyond collateral damage.

The Electoral Act gave a blank cheque on primaries that is even a better option in the circumstance. Parties are at liberty to adopt any mode of primaries suitable to them or even to adopt consensus candidates. For the National Assembly to legislate direct primaries on all parties is to saddle INEC and the country with a financial burden with absolutely no dividends. It also means to saddle the courts with endless litigations and to preoccupy the political space with more desperate and perhaps, dangerous demagogues.

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At the onset, one thought it was the state governors wanting to retain a stranglehold on party delegates and their presumed right to determine who gets what, that were against the recommendation for direct primaries. But it is clear now that even though governors are not a good example of altruism or patriotism in Nigeria, their concerns hold some grains of truth.

One of the vital points stated in the President’s letter to the National Assembly explaining why he declined assent is the exposure that the bragging rights of the political parties – of being the largest or tallest in Africa, is sham! They don’t have  membership registers and none of them can give a credible figure of documented membership. Party membership is subject to ad hoc recruitment and therefore, the primaries are already compromised even before they are conducted. The implication is that many voters at primary elections belong to as many parties as to the number of contestants willing to pay to be voted for.

The only thing President Buhari has done wrong by this action is that he has just provided a pile of stones with which malevolent opponents will pelt him and his supporters who are fast becoming a minority. He has vicariously accepted the blame for every electoral misdemeanour, going forward – like those who told Pilate: “Let His blood be on our heads and the heads of our children’s children”.

The president is well aware that the conduct of party primaries is one of the pillars of internal party democracy. And if it is too costly an enterprise for INEC and the country not just in money but in social and political stability then it requires a different approach. But in the present circumstance, the alternative is worth sacrificing.

As we strengthen our political culture and refine our national politics, perhaps, someday, the direct mode of primaries will be the option of choice as a matter of course. For the moment, we still await a generation of political players who know something about ideology and strive after some ideal beyond power-grabbing.

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