By failing to assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill and communicate same to the National Assembly within the time stipulated by the constitution, President Muhammadu Buhari, might have resolved to sign the bill forwarded to him by the legislature on November 19, 2021.
Although some governors of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, as well as other party stakeholders were still against the electoral bill as passed by the National Assembly, failing to clearly reject the bill as demanded of him by the constitution and communicate the decision, has left the country with the hope that the president would sign the bill, ultimately.
This, nonetheless, the president has continued to received flaks from different quarters of the country, particularly, the civil society groups, which objected to his decision to keep the nation in suspense, knowing the importance of the bill to an average Nigerian.
The president has for the past couple of days put Nigerians and the diplomatic community on the edge, as the December 19 deadline, which marked the expiration of the constitutional 30 days required for him to communicate his position on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill to the National Assembly lapsed.
The bill passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, had been forwarded to the president since November 19 for the president’s assent.
Interestingly, the law only requires of the president to communicate to the legislature if he was not going to sign the bill, there’s no specified time within which he must sign the bill into law, once he has resolved to sign it. Indeed, the law does not compel him to give reason for declining assent if he chooses to.
Section 58(1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended provides that the power of the National Assembly to make laws shall be exercised by bills passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and, except as otherwise provided, be assented to by the President. This is in furtherance of the principle of separation of powers, which ensures that every organ of government in democratic dispensation, is checkmated by the other arms.
Therefore, where a bill has been passed by the House in which it originated, it shall be sent to the other House, and it shall be presented to the President for assent, when it has been passed by that other House and agreement has been reached between the two Houses on any amendment made on it.
Where, however, a bill is presented to the President for assent, the President shall within thirty (30) days thereof signify that he assents or that he withholds his assent. It is, however, the prerogative of the president to give reasons for his refusal to assent to a particular bill.
However, the refusal of assent to a bill by the President might not be the end of the process for the passage of such bill. Where the President withholds his assent to a bill, which has been duly passed by the National Assembly, and the National Assembly considers it expedient that such bill should be passed into law, the Constitution empowers the National Assembly to veto the refusal of assent by the President.
Section 58 (5) of the CFRN provides that where the President withholds his assent and the bill is again passed by each House by two/thirds majority, the bill shall become law and assent of the president shall not be required.
What this signifies is that upon the refusal of assent to a bill by the President, if the National Assembly considers that the bill is of such nature as to become law notwithstanding the refusal of assent by the President, each House of the National Assembly may pass the bill again by two/thirds majority and when that happens, the bill automatically becomes a law even without the assent or signature of the President.
The National Assembly once exercised this overriding power in the case of the Niger Delta Development Commission Bill. Both Chambers of the National Assembly had passed the bill into law upon the failure of the President to sign or give his assent within the time prescribed by the Constitution.
Poignantly, the overriding power is vested with the National Assembly to consider the expedience of each of the bills to which the President has refused assent and to determine if it would take the passage of the bills a step further.
Flowing from this, the interpretation is that President Buhari might have actually resolved to sign the bill, but still contending with the pressure from other equally weighty forces that were opposed to the bill hence his silence.
This is also because the president had hardly wasted time with any bill he was not going to sign into law, if recent past experience was anything to factor into account.
For example, some of the bill the president had declined assent included the Nigerian Film Commission Bill 2018, the Chartered Institute of Pension Practitioners of Nigeria Bill 2018, the Immigration Amendment Bill 2018, the Climate Change Bill 2018, the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill 2018, the Chartered Institute of Training and Development of Nigeria (Establishment) Bill 2018.
Others were the Nigerian Aeronautic Research Rescue Bill 2018, the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria Bill 2018, the National Housing Fund Bill 2018, the National Institute of Credit Administration Bill 2018, the National Bio-Technology Development Agency Bill 2018 as well as the Ajaokuta Iron and Steel Completion Fund Bill.
In withholding his assent, President Buhari gave such reasons infractions on extant laws, duplication of responsibilities of existing agencies, and financial constraints owing to prevailing economic circumstances.
Therefore, on this particular bill, apart from the expiration of the one month deadline, which was known to all, there have not been reports or indications that the presidency had triggered any process of communication with the National Assembly to decline assent to the bill.
Sources within the presidency insisted that Buhari was still disposed to signing the bill and would sign it eventually, which is just a matter of choosing a date for the ceremony and also why he was not bothered about the deadline.
But he was still neck deep in managing the other tendencies that have maintained an unyielding opposition to a section of the bill, which approved direct primaries for political parties to determine their candidates for election.
“It is a very simple process, the law only requires that he communicates to the National Assembly if he was not going to sign it and explain why. But if he has decided to sign it, there is no need for any communication or watch over any deadline; it is just a question of picking a date to sign and that is it. It is purely at his beck and call.
However, I am convinced he is signing it, because if you know the president very well, he does not like to disappoint the international community and having given his words on leaving a legacy of credible electoral system, I believe he would sign it. Besides, there are no indications of any communication to the legislature and the 30 days have expired, so, let’s take it that he would sign it,” the source explained.
Interestingly, had the president declined assent to the bill and communicated same to the legislature, it would have marked the second time in two years, that he has botched an attempt to reform the country’s electoral system.
Buhari had previously declined assent to an earlier version of the same bill passed by the Eighth National Assembly led by then Senate President Bukola Saraki of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), citing closeness to elections.
But the president did not adduce any reason for his latest refusal to approve reform of the country’s electoral system, despite passage by the bicameral legislature under the leadership of his fellow All Progressives Congress (APC) member, Senate President Ahmed Lawan.
Again, by repeatedly voicing an intention to leave behind a legacy of credible electoral system, Buhari would have handed victory against the electoral reform to governors, particularly, those elected on the platform of APC; the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, and some prominent members of the ruling party, who never hid their disdain for a progressive electoral culture, if he had declined assent.
The National Assembly had, while forwarding the amended Electoral Act Bill to the president, urged him to sign it in the collective interest of the country, especially, in view of his promise to leave a legacy of free, fair and credible electoral system for the country.
Among the major amendments to the electoral act bill was the approval by the legislature of direct primaries by political parties in the election of candidates for elections. But this proposition did not sit well with some elements within the political class, especially, from the ruling party. They had since launched an offensive against direct primaries, urging the president not to sign the amended electoral act bill.
In the forefront here was Malami, who advised the president in writing to shelve the intention, if there was any, of signing the bill, because he found some contentious clauses. Two days to the expiration of the 30 days within which the president must communicate rejection of the bill, Malami, reportedly, wrote another letter, reaffirming why the president should not sign the bill. He claimed mandatory direct primaries would cause chaos.
But since Malami’s first official advice to the president, many of the governors of the ruling party had equally mounted pressure on Buhari not to sign the bill, citing cost and the fact that the choice of the mode of primary should be a decision for the political parties and their leaderships to take.
While the anti-direct primaries elements were mounting pressure on the president, those inclined to the idea, including President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, and Speaker, House of representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, had also met with the president repeatedly and came out with the assurances that Buhari would do the needful.
Civil society groups, members of the diplomatic community, and ordinary Nigerians had also appealed to the president to sign the bill because it would strengthen participatory democracy and also hand power back to the people in the choice of their representatives at all levels of the electoral process.
Buhari has yet to assent to the bill or give reasons why he has not, even though he recently said at a virtual summit on democracy put together by United States President Joe Biden that he would leave behind a credible electoral culture by 2023, when he is billed to leave office after two terms of eight years.
It appears the president intentionally chose to keep Nigerians in suspense. But some sources said he was concerned about the governors, who were against the amendment, and has been trying to strike a balance since the governors fund the party.
An inside source, who did not trust the president, told THISDAY that, “Can’t you see that the governors stopped talking about it for a while? They had reached an understanding with the president and they won. They boasted they would prevail and they just did. Whoever says the governors are not powerful is a joker. They are not only powerful, they always deploy their power to effective uses, especially, when a lot is at stake for them.”
Interestingly, what seemed to corroborate this happened two weeks ago, following reports that the president might have resolved to decline assent to the bill. But both Gbajabiamila and a presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, denied it and said they were not privy to such information.
So far, there has not been any official communication on the bill generally considered crucial to the success or otherwise of the next general election.
Meanwhile, the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), yesterday, expressed shock and disappointment at the failure of the president to assent to the electoral act amendment, describing him as the biggest threat to Nigeria’s democracy.
The CSOs called on the National Assembly to override the president’s veto. They spoke in a joint statement signed by Executive Director, Adopt A Goal Initiative, Ariyo-Dare Atoye, and endorsed by Convener, Raising New Voices Initiative, Jude Feranmi; Programme Officer, Centre for Liberty, Maryam Ahmed; Convener, Speak Out Africa Initiative, Kenneth Eze; Executive Director, The Nigerian Alliance, Simi Olusola; and Executive Director, Youth and Students Advocates for Development Initiative (YSAD), Obinna Eze Nwagbara.
The CSOs accused Buhari of trying to destroy the country’s democracy.
The statement said, “It has come to the point where we must tell President Buhari in unmistaken terms that his failure to sign the bill within the 30 days window has exposed him as the biggest threat to the Fourth democratic republic, having failed to perform a similar responsibility four times in his first term.
“President Buhari benefitted significantly from some of the electoral reforms initiated by Yar’Adua and signed by Jonathan; if he fails to sign the amended electoral act, history will record him as a major impediment to electoral credibility and governance. This is a low hanging lifetime opportunity for the president to salvage his terrible electoral credential.”
The civil society groups vowed to storm the National Assembly today in protest, to press for the overriding of the president in the interest of Nigerians.
The statement also said, “There is a constitutional window opened to the National Assembly to recall the bill and give it the effect of law with a two-thirds number. From Monday morning, we will turn to the National Assembly to act in the national interest and pass the bill expeditiously before they embark on the Christmas recess.
“Consequently, the next step is for us as CSOs to take our advocacy to the National Assembly to step in, exhibit courage, recall the bill, and ensure they override the president with an accelerated passage before Christmas.
“The Ninth National Assembly has deferred too much to President Buhari almost to the point of ridicule, so, if the president does not respect and reciprocate this gesture, history will be kind to them if they override the president and salvage their own political future.
“This will not be the first time in the last 20 years that the National Assembly will override the president; the Fourth legislative session did so and got the NDDC Act passed and operational. The Ninth National Assembly has the opportunity of not sharing with the executive, the glory that will accompany the new act.”