Direct primary and controversial Electoral Act

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It is curious that in their squabble over direct or other types of primaries, governors and National Assembly members have bickered only from the point of view of the advantages or disadvantages the preferred mode of primary confers. President Muhammadu Buhari has till December 19 to assent the new Electoral Act passed by the legislature and forwarded to him last month.

He is said to be still widely consulting in order to determine his course of action. Even the other significant aspect of the Act, to wit, electronic relay of voting results has not been as contentious. The mode of primary has been contentious since governors outwitted legislators during the last congresses, almost rendering them of no significance whatsoever. Scorned and stripped of power, they angrily produced a bill and came out with a hammer blow to the governors, knocking them off their proud perch, and reminding them that it takes two to tango. The governors were thus knocked insensate and left seeking means to regain their composure.

The president may be consulting widely, as his aides say warily, but in reality he is only trying to see whether he can safely defy the governors and put his signature to the amendment. Indeed, he may be juggling whose fury he can safely defy in the last months of his presidency, whether the governors who would soon become lame duck like him, or lawmakers who had lent their honour and integrity to sustain him through many shortsighted and indecent bills and expenditures. He will of course prefer to keep both combatants jumping contentedly before his throne, and running after the ball at his whistle; but because the fighters have dug their heels in, he may increasingly find it difficult to have his cake and eat it. Sooner or later, indeed in the days ahead, the president will have to decide, and one side will be offended.

There is animated talk about the legislature overriding the president’s veto and passing the amendment into law. Should the legislature opt for this peremptory action, they will not have offended the provisions of the constitution. But given their nature, and how long and steadily they had subordinated themselves to the presidency, it is unfathomable that they would feel somewhat reckless and adventurous. They are angry with what the governors did during the last congresses, and have sought for opportunity, no matter how small, to put those proud and imperious state executives in their place, but to override the president’s veto is a different ball game. It would be uncharacteristic, nay, it would be revolutionary. But this class of lawmakers hates revolutions. In fact they loathe treason. And to them revolution is indistinguishable from treason.

But it is possible theoretically that the president might withhold assent. It will not be because he thinks clearly about the futuristic implication of the amendment, but because of whether he likes or dislikes those who stand to gain from the amendment in the short or long run. The presidency’s calculations are characteristically bizarre and inscrutable. It’s no use trying to make sense of them. Should he withhold assent, the legislators are unlikely to angrily confront him and override his veto. They do not have that precedent. Instead they will dutifully visit him in his office, explain their discomforts with his action, excoriate the governors all over again, taking care to drape them in the devil’s cape, and remind him that the beauty and demands of democracy impel everyone to side with direct primary. The lawmakers must, however, hope that the governors, who have also tried to outdo the legislature in groveling before the president, do not visit Aso Villa hard on their heels. Should that happen, and given the dilatoriness of the presidency, the final decision will be a toss-up.

If the president feels sufficiently unnerved by the governors, and is also chary of inciting the lawmakers into unaccustomed disrespect of his office, he will try one of his trademark disingenuous compromises. The president is characteristically monarchical, but in recent months, he has ameliorated his peacock intransigence. He will, therefore, call for a truce, get the governors and the lawmakers to find common ground, find excuses to return the amendment to the legislature for some extra tweaking, and then, with a shout of eureka, get a version worthy of his assent but which neither pleases the hare nor placates the hounds. The controversy and lobbying are intense, but as far as the president is concerned, it is a storm in a tea cup. He really does not need both sides; they both need him. He retains sufficient predatory power to frighten them into reluctant acquiescence. If he growls at them, especially deploying the subtle threat of anti-corruption war, they will recoil into their shells or quake in their boots.

But as humiliating as it may seem, should the president defy the governors and go along with the legislators, he will very likely get his way with little or no repercussion. He is not seeking third term, and can in fact not seek it, and he has no signature and futuristic bill waiting for their support through constitutional amendment. If he lends them a listening ear, it is simply to massage their brittle ego and keep them happy. If he chooses not to lend them a listening ear, there is little they can do to punish him. He is too lofty in his perch for them to inflict their usual insouciance. They are sometimes frustrated by his detachment and perhaps acute lack of depth, but since they themselves lack vision, almost to a man, they will feel less inclined to importune him on the esoteric issues of a great country in a great continent in a competitive world. The lawmakers may even quibble with the president over the fine details of the amendment, but the governors will simply try to paint a horrifying picture of the lawmakers and the unconvincing consequences of direct primary.

Neither the presidency, nor the governors, nor yet the legislature is likely to look at the amendment within the grander context of who should determine what mode of primary to use in nominating candidates for party and state and national offices. Neither of the three is capable of the selflessness and grandeur the idea requires. Once they identify a problem today, especially a problem that rubs them up the wrong way, they angrily excise it. Having spent decades bureaucratising political parties in Nigeria, starting with the meddlesome two-party structure legislated during the Ibrahim Babangida military dictatorship, Nigerian governments have tended to see the parties as an extension of public service. Otherwise, why on earth would an APC-controlled National Assembly impose a primary mode on all parties in the country? What business do they have doing that? The issue of course is not what mode of primary is the best. That is nonsense: they all have their advantages and disadvantages. The main issue is what mode of primary a political party, or indeed a state chapter, wants. Once that is decided, then that is it. If a party does not show fidelity to its own rules, then that lack of discipline can be litigated. But to legislate and impose one mode of primary on everyone, regardless of its advantages, is irrational and meddlesome. Imposing a mode of primary, as the National Assembly has discourteously done to put proud governors’ noses out of joint, is a disrespectful way to fight one’s enemies.

Reassuringly, two facts came out of the judicial panel report to probe, among other things, the protest and shootings at the Lekki Tollgate during last year’s EndSARS protests. One, the leaked report of the panel’s investigations and conclusions was, minus a few typographical errors, the same as the one officially submitted to the Lagos State government. When this column commented on the leaked report some two weeks ago, it was obvious the reports were the same, but it was still safe to cast doubt on its authenticity in order to give the panel the benefit of the doubt. Two, given the massive propaganda that accompanied the leaked report and the insidious purpose to which it was aimed, there were doubts that Lagos could find the courage to treat the official report with the boldness and dispassion it merited. Thankfully, Lagos was unsparing.

On the Lekki Tollgate angle of the report, the White Paper treated the panel’s findings on their merit. Lagos did not need to go outside the report to substantiate its White Paper. It is pointless going over the contradictions, speculations and assumptions in the judicial panel report. These were treated in this place two weeks ago, and much more disturbing details regarding the insufficiency of the report are already before the public. What is clear is that the report itself is its own worst enemy. No one needs to go outside it to hang it. A few activists and lawyers, some of whom had not even read the full report before taking issue with it, insist on believing their own version of the truth. But more and more, after reading and digesting the report, many critics and commentators have beaten a tactical retreat, remorsefully convinced that there is nothing in the report to redeem it.

The White Paper examined all the panel’s recommendations, accepted 11 fully, accepted six with modifications, rejected one, and regarded some 14 other recommendations as falling outside its purview. Lagos did not obfuscate in determining the reliability of the report. As far as it was concerned the panel’s fact-finding methods were riddled with contradictions and speculations, and its conclusions largely tangential to its findings. Did those who leaked the report realise the report’s failings and wished to remedy it by propaganda and threats? It is not clear. What is, however, indisputable is that there is nothing anyone can say or prove from the panel’s report that will convince the pro-massacre crowd that crimes against humanity did not occur last year at the Lekki Tollgate. Most of them have not read the report, but they are unshakeable in their faith as to what transpired at the scene. Even the few who have read the report distrust government so passionately that they regard the failings of the panel’s report and the contradictions contained in it as both a minor inconvenience and a product of the state and federal government’s shenanigans. Head or tail, the government could not win, the weakness of the findings notwithstanding.

It was, therefore, surprising that Lagos offered an olive branch to a few activists who swore opposition to the White Paper before it was issued. They had made up their minds so conclusively that even if they were to be confronted with Pythagoras theorem that states that “In a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse side is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides“, they would not be convinced. Indeed, they would regard it as state trickery and treason to the human cause. It is time Lagos moved beyond some of these opinion moulders, many of whom live by social media influencing, and whose self-importance is anchored on conjured stories designed to massage their own egos regardless of the pain to the general community. In the Lekki Tollgate affair, there is nothing to indicate that these activists, who have stuck stubbornly to lies and conjurations, are more important than the majority who are convinced from the panel’s report that nine people did not die at the Tollgate, and that in any case, their death, even if proven, is not more important or hideous than the other 90 who died elsewhere during the protests.

The agitations over the panel report and the White Paper will taper off into nothingness as the months go by. A group of parents – it is not clear how many they are – are reported to have sought legal representation to continue the fight against the federal and state governments over the tollgate shootings. Did they present themselves before the panel during its one-year sitting, and were they able to prove anything, as evidenced by the panel’s report itself? Somehow, they believe they can upturn the panel report and convince everyone that their children and relations were shot dead at the Lekki Tollgate last year. They must hope that they can withstand fierce cross-examination in the courts. However, they must be encouraged to litigate the matter, present all the evidence they can get, and do their best to support their case. The public can’t wait; for then propaganda would be differentiated from reality, and fact from fiction.

As many activists have shown in the Lekki Tollgate matter, social media is a devastating instrument to propagate lies, falsify facts, incite insurrection, and colour reality. It was deployed to dramatic and paralysing effect last year, to the point of convincing the unwary. Till today, many leading opinion moulders in the country still believe there was a massacre at the Lekki Tollgate, regardless of absolute lack of evidence, and many young social media influencers have secured foreign trips, visas, asylums and recognition on the ashes of misrepresenting and calumniating Nigeria. There is no dissuading them. There will always be ‘deplorables’ who use the social media for dangerous causes, and there will always be anti-establishment ‘gullibles’ who believe everything they read on social media. Instead of according hysterical activists respect and deferring to their assertiveness, it is the responsibility of offended parties, in this case, the government, to match the activists post for post, and noise for noise. They cannot incite with untruths and get away with murder; they must always be held accountable.

The judicial panel report was deeply controversial because of its suppositions and indefensible conclusions. The White Paper is not. But the EndSARS aftermath will not be easily dispelled. Lagos will implement 11 recommendations; it remains to be seen whether the federal government, whose agencies triggered the crisis in the first instance, will take care of its own side of the equation. The country is badly structured, and the security agencies have become antiquated, inefficient, and even incompetent and brutal. There is nothing to suggest that the federal government is truly remorseful over what has happened nor has it learnt anything from the crisis. Everything suggests that they saw EndSARS as an affront, and whatever they condescend to do eventually might end up being cosmetic. The system is too stupefying to allow them the flexibility and humility to tinker with the country’s structure. With many youths disaffected at a time of poor governance and declining economy, alienation might very well increase until there is another fire. That next fire may not be easily put out.