President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal to assent to the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 has sparked a big row between him and the National Assembly.
Aggrieved senators have begun collection of signatures to override the President’s veto of the bill, it was learnt yesterday.
Political differences momentarily collapsed as a good number of senators from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) teamed up to protest the President’s decision.
The senators said they were elected by Nigerians to make law, not the governors, whose wishes the President seems to be pandering to.
There was resentment as Senate President Ahmad Lawan read President Buhari’s letter informing them about the withholding of assent.
Lawan unveiled the contents of the letter from the President, shortly after the Upper Chamber rose from its Executive Session at 11.40am.
However, House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila said the Lower Chamber will respond to the President’s explanation in January, next year.
Buhari, in the letter titled: “Withholding of assent to Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2021”, said apart from legal, financial, economic and security implications of direct primary, the mode, which could stifle smaller parties, is susceptible to corruption and monetisation.
He said direct primaries are not free from manipulations.
The President also said direct primary as the sole method of choosing flag bearer is democratic.
Buhari added: “I am constrained to withhold assent to the Electoral Act (amendment) in view of the reasons already adduced”.
Also, he said his decision was in line with Section 58(1 and 4) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
The President warned the lawmakers to refrain from meddling in the internal affairs of political parties.
Many senators have appended their signatures to a special register to pass the bill into law without presidential assent.
Two issues were slated on the Order Paper for consideration, including the proposed override and the passage of 2022 Budget.
Sources said the Senate leadership tried to manage the situation at the Executive Session, but the senators said the battle line was drawn between them and the forces behind the presidential veto, especially governors.
Some of the senators, who were visibly angry, said it was obvious the President reneged on what he discussed with National Assembly leaders.
It was learnt that after the session, a list was being passed around for senators to indicate their interest in overriding the President.
Both APC and PDP senators allegedly embraced the idea by signing the register to override the veto.
However, Senate President Lawan and some principal officers tried to curtail the situation.
One of the options before the Senate leadership was to douse tension by shifting the debate on the President’s veto till January 2022.
But, tension pervaded the National Assembly throughout plenary.
The issue in contention last night was whether or not to invoke Section 58 (1-5) of the 1999 Constitution to override the President’s decision.
A senator from the Northeast said: “At the Executive Session, we agreed that there was nothing concrete in the reasons given by the President for rejecting the bill. Instead of toeing the path of participatory democracy, the President has adopted the same selective democracy approach, which we have been practicing for 22 years.
“We have initiated the move to override the President’s veto because the bill is in the public interest. It will empower the people to choose their leader instead of the present imposition by most governors and power brokers.
“If you look at the National Assembly, less than 30 per cent of the lawmakers used to return to the two chambers. The low return rate was not due to poor performance, but because some power brokers did not want them.
“With introduction of direct primaries, the lawmakers will be more accountable to the people and their re-election mandate will be people-driven.”
A senator from Northwest, who confided in one of our correspondents, said: “We are all involved and we have secured the full backing of opposition senators. We have drawn the dagger long time ago. This was why there was an impasse when we met with the Executive at the Presidential Villa.
“We are set to override the President’s veto. It is a bill and we are trying to muster two-thirds to pass it into law. It is time to check the increasing level of intransigence of some people, especially governors who determine those to be fielded as candidates for elective posts.
“The luck we have is that we do not need any fresh procedure to override the president’s veto. It will be read three times and at the third attempt, it will become a law with two-third majority.”
A senator from the Southeast said: “To show that we mean business, we have asked all our colleagues who have travelled to their districts in various states to return to be part of our session tomorrow.”
A senator from the Southsouth said: “We are aware of the pressure on the President of the Senate to manage the situation. But, we know he will feel the pulse of his colleagues and stay from trouble. He was struggling at the Executive Session to control the situation, which was tensed.
“Even though Lawan is an institution person, he has managed the affairs of the Senate well by not hurting the feelings of his colleagues. We hope he will avoid this banana peel and allow the Legislature to do what is right.
“We have got intelligence that our override efforts should be thwarted. If we are frustrated, the entire chamber also has a better option. Wisdom requires that he should not go against the will of his colleagues.”
A senator from Northcentral said: “I think there is a way out. Democracy is give and take. Buhari cannot reject this bill without offering anything in return.
“The President should go back to our session with the Executive at the Presidential Villa where Senators suggested the introduction of the Right of First Refusal at all levels of elective posts to reduce crises associated with primaries, whether direct or indirect.”
Section 58 (5) of the Constitution reads: “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 the assent of the President shall not be required.”
Senator Abba Moro said reasons given by the President in withholding assent were not satisfactory while confirming moves to override Buhari’s veto.
Moro said: “To my view and the views of majority of senators, the President’s reasons are not enough because all stakeholders have acknowledged the fact that the amended electoral act as it is today contains fantastic provisions that could deepen democracy.
“If we reject the amended electoral bill because of direct primary, then, it will be very unfortunate.
“If it is because of direct primary the President rejected the will of the people, I can assure you that myself and my colleagues are prepared this time around to override the President.”
Minority Leader of the House, Rep. Ndudi Elumelu, appealed to his colleagues to take a critical look at the position of the President before going on Christmas break.
He added that deferring it to when the House will resume plenary next year may be too late as the law may be coming too close to party primaries.
Elumelu said Nigerians were anxiously waiting for the lawmakers to take a position on the Bill and inform them.
Speaking on Channels Television ‘Politics Today’, the Senate spokesperson, Ajibola Basiru, said there are four options opened for the members of the National Assembly. These include: to discard the bill in its entirety; to remove anything that has to do with primaries from the bill; to veto the President, and to rework the bill and represent it to the President for his assent.
Basiru said the argument that direct primary would be too costly for the country to bear is fallacious and unsubstantiated.
He chided those alluding to inaccurate political party members’ register, saying that would be a serious indictment on the APC, which spent humongous sum to conduct the exercise recently.
Faulting some of the reasons for rejecting the bill, Basiru said: “The argument of cost is totally fallacious. Argument that smaller political parties will be marginalised cannot stand.”
He added: “As far as I’m concerned, adoption of direct primary is the best option for the nation because there is a need to return the party to the people. We have good reasons and justifications for suggesting what we did and we still stand by that.”
Basiru also debunked insinuations about the conspiracy that lawmakers wanted to use the direct primary to hijack the political parties from the governors.
A constitutional lawyer, Emmanuel Ayangbulem, who said the legislators have expressed the wishes of the people through the bill, submitted that, direct primary is the way to deepen the nation’s democracy.
He said: “The NASS is constitutionally made to make law. Apart from the exclusive list, the constitution empowers the National Assembly to make laws in certain cases.
“The main issue at the moment has to do with direct primary. But, the sovereignty of the people has been expressed through the National Assembly, which the legislators represent.
“The constitution provides that two-third majority of the NASS can override the president.
However, Kawu Sumailu, former aide to the President on National Assembly matter, who validated the President’s decision, said he had been a victim of direct primary.