PARTICIPANTS at a town hall meeting on the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, including the Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC) and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), have raised concerns over a suspected conspiracy against electoral reforms in the country.
The Citizens Town Hall on the Electoral Bill 2021, organised by YIAGA Africa in Abuja on January 16, deliberated on the bill which Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari refused to sign into law, citing the inclusion of a provision that mandated political parties to adopt direct primaries for selection of candidates for elections.
Speaking at the event, National Chairman of IPAC – the umbrella body of the 18 registered political parties in Nigeria – Yabagi Yusuf suggested that the introduction of direct primaries in the electoral bill was part of a conspiracy to ensure that the electoral bill was not signed into law.
Yusuf, who is equally chairman of the African Democratic Party (ADP), noted that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which controls both the executive and legislative arms of government, was not comfortable with electronic transmission of election results.
The IPAC chairman suggested that the alleged conspiracy against the bill was aimed at frustrating electoral reforms in the country by aborting the introduction of electronic transmission in the electoral act.
Yusuf pointed out that the controversy over direct primaries, which ultimately resulted in the rejection of the bill by the president, was not necessary as the issue (direct primaries) was never part of the electoral reform agenda before the National Assembly.
“I believe it (direct primaries) is just a dummy they sold to Nigerians for their own selfish interests, if truth must be told. Otherwise this is not the first time that we have tried direct primaries. My party, as we speak today, we are still in court because in 2019 we tried to introduce direct primaries in one of the states.
“Members of the National Assembly are very familiar with these issues and this is coming from a party that controls both the legislature and the executive arms of the government, so why should we have this conversation?
“That is why some people are suspecting that probably it is a red herring, or that the National Assembly is up to something they have not told us or the executive is up to something they have not told us. Because even the issue of electronic transmission of results was something Nigerians had to beg for.
“So the question is this: Why did they bring in something (direct primaries) that had no relevance to the whole discussion? Why put us in this unnecessary discussion that has no bearing to what we are talking about?”
Insisting that the electoral bill should be concerned with how to improve the process of electioneering in the country, Yabagi said, “Nigerians are saying they want the electoral bill passed into law minus the dummy that they put in it.”
The IPAC chairman faulted the National Assembly for failing to consult the political parties when drafting the electoral bill.
“At the end of the day, we (political parties) are the ones to implement the law,” he said.
President of the NBA Olumide Akpata, who showed disappointment at developments surrounding the electoral bill, also expressed concerns that the controversy that derailed the proposed legislation was just a ‘smokescreen.’
“I think we can be forgiven if we come to the conclusion that all of this is a smokescreen,” he said.
The NBA president added that the rejection of the bill suggested that the Nigerian government was anti-people.
“Most of the provisions in the bill are pro-people. If anybody comes to the conclusion that the government is anti-people, nobody will blame them for coming to that conclusion.”
Akpata observed that the provisions in the bill responded to issues that needed to be addressed in the electoral system.
Convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room Ene Obi observed that the manner the bill was treated showed that Nigerians were being taken for granted.
“We are being taken for granted. In 2018, more than three times, the president turned down this bill. For more than 30 days the president did not say anything. Now after the 30 days he is saying, ‘if you do this I will sign it.’ Why didn’t he say anything within the 30 days? There are a lot of issues that are going on. Why do we have to go through pains for this to happen?”
Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) Auwal Rafsanjani expressed doubts over Buhari’s willingness to implement electoral reforms.
“I am not in any way surprised that we are in this quagmire because in seven years the president who said he was a victim of electoral fraud has not initiated any bill to improve the electoral system,” Rafsanjani said.
Many of the participants in the town hall meeting were of the view that the National Assembly should immediately, upon resumption from recess, remove the clause on direct primaries and resend the bill to the president for assent.
A former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Attahiru Jega urged the National Assembly to jettison direct primaries for the moment to ensure that the bill was signed into law before future elections.
Jega, who noted that the political parties might not have the capacity to effectively implement direct primaries, said, “To me the priority now is to give INEC the law to prepare for the 2023 election and the only way to do that is to drop the provision for direct primaries and give it to the president to sign.”
A member of the audience, who spoke at the event, suggested that the Buhari’s refusal to sign the bill into law was a deliberate outcome of an alleged conspiracy between the presidency, the National Assembly and the governors, who he said “are in the same vehicle.”
“Nigerians are saying, ‘expunge this (direct primaries) and send it to the president to sign.’ Let us see if Mr. President will sign or not.”
But spokesman of the Nigerian Senate Ajibola Basiru, a member of the APC, did not give a definite answer when asked whether the National Assembly would heed calls to remove direct primaries and resend the bill to the president.
“When we go back, we will look at the options,” he said, while also denying accusations that the National Assembly did a shoddy job on the bill following reports that several cross-referencing errors were contained in the copy transmitted to the president.
Nasarawa State Governor Abdullahi Sule defended his colleagues, who had been accused of opposing direct primaries because it would not allow them to manipulate intra-party elections the same way they did with indirect primaries.
Sule, in his remarks at the event, said the governors were only asking that the bill should provide options, including direct primaries, indirect primaries and consensus.