Year 2011 is just forty days away. The clouds keep gathering for a major political downpour. The horizon is besotted with expectations and declarations on who would run and who would not in the expected elections.
As the days draw nearer, the plans to make the activities of the year real keep dropping through one crack after another. As a hurdle is crossed, another one is already on the way waiting to trip the runners for the ultimate date. No wonder the National Democratic Institute (NDI) delegation on assessment mission to Nigeria to evaluate preparedness for next yearâ€™s general election pointed out that there are many hurdles on the way to actualising free and fair polls in the country.
According to reports, the Institute, in a statement in Abuja at the end of its week-long assessment visit, pointed at the uncertainty surrounding the electoral timetable, non commencement of voters registration, general security concerns and bickering among politicians and stakeholders as some of the hurdles ahead of the elections.
THE SUNDAY OBSERVER further gathered that the statement highlighted the findings of the NDIâ€™s pre-election assessment of mission that was led by Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana and the Right Honourable Joe Clark, former prime minister of Canada. It was composed of political and civic leaders and democracy and election experts from Africa, Asia and North America.
While observing that there were heightened interest and determination among Nigerians to overcome the nationâ€™s history of flawed elections, the pre-election assessment delegation was however worried that delayed agreement on the legal framework for the election, fears of poor security and policing throughout the electoral process, and the efficiency of Independent National Electoral Commission organs at the local government, constituency and ward levels could undermine the entire process.
But last week, another dimension to the doubtful reality of the coming elections took a different dimension. The entire contraption took a nosedive for another uncertainty. This time, it was not date actually, but the constitutional aberration which comes in the name of â€œElectoral Act Amendmentâ€. The proposed amendment to the Electoral Act (2010) in section 87 aims to make all committee chairmen and their deputies in the National Assembly members of the NECs of their political parties.
But this is just an addition to a long history of jinx in a very short while, too short indeed for the flurry of activities that have attended it. The erstwhile boss of INEC, Prof. Maurice Iwu was shown the way out in May making way for another. That new man at the head triumphantly took the driverâ€™s seat on June 9, 2010 as a result of his antecedents. So far, it look like the business at the INEC office is becoming a monster that has no regard for where one is coming from or the records he had built in the past. The unsteady dance of the INEC in recent past has been too regular to be comfortable.
In July, the argument was on whether or not money should be released to the INEC to prosecute its most vital initial step of registering the voters. Jega came up with a bill of N72b. Before the approval of the money, it took some leap and went up to N86b, and that was the final figure approved.
When the brouhaha of budget approval for votersâ€™ registration was laid to rest, we stepped into the next tranch of the hurdle â€“ Electoral Act reform and the constitution amendment. At last the Electoral Act amendment came real and clean stipulating dates in January for the elections to hold. But it is not the same story with the amended 1999 Constitution that remains marooned in the journey to becoming a valid law. The INEC had, based on the amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act, released a timetable for the general elections scheduled to start on January 15, 2011 with the National Assembly election and to be followed by presidential election on January 29
The problem of the amendment of the constitution arose from the National Assembly who agreed in unison that it has the final say on the process while the president has no business signing an endorsement of the new law. Not minding that this has not surfaced from the bad journey it was meant to embark on, it has provisions stipulating that elections should hold in January like the electoral law, a situation that does not baffle as the two are creations of the same law moulders.
Apparently not satisfied with this new arrangement which tend to give more powers to the law makers who appears to have arrogate more powers to themselves in the scheme of things, an Abuja High Court recently ruled that any amendment done to the Electoral Act by the National Assembly without the President assent is null and void. Consequently, the NASS who was not satisfied with the court decision declared that it was heading for the Appeal Court to challenge the ruling.
The position of INEC that: â€œThe Commission shall endeavour to engage all the relevant stakeholders with a view to exploring all legal avenues for extension of time to enable the Commission to deliver on the aspirations of Nigerians for a credible votersâ€™ register and free, fair and credible elections. Should this happen, May 29, 2011 inauguration date must remain sacrosanctâ€ INEC stressedâ€, did not assuage fears.
Before the litigation on interpretation of the provision of the constitution on amendment of the same constitution where the federal government through the Federal Attorney General sued the National Assembly could clear, another imminent danger surfaced.
In Calabar, Cross Rivers state, after a series of meetings with stakeholders â€“ INEC and 63 political parties leaders, the body agreed that the elections holding in January is unrealistic, therefore the compelling need to take it forward to April. It is worrisome however that while NASS took its decision without due consultations with the political stakeholders on fixing a date for elections in January, the political parties and INEC did the same thing by canceling the NASS date shaped into law without consulting the NASS. What is observable here is a situation where our electoral process is planned like cult activities â€“ one party never deems it proper to seek the position of the other stakeholder before arriving at a decision.
It will be recalled that upon the passage of the amended version of the 1999 Constitution by the National Assembly, an air of relief swept through the polity, following the stipulation in Sections 132 and 178 in the new amendments, which mandate the electoral commission to conduct elections between 120 and 150 days to the expiration of the current tenure. Persons who hailed this new move expressed optimism that the move will provide enough time to tackle perennial cases at election petitions tribunal, bearing in mind that more than three years after the conclusion of the 2007 general election, election petitions still run at various tribunals across the country.
The new amendments which authorize INEC to conduct election about five months to a new tenure, stemmed from the recommendations of the Justice Muhammadu Uwaisâ€™ Electoral Reform Committee, which had recommended that election petitions should be exhausted before purported winners of elections are sworn in. This move, many believe, will also go a long way to stabilize the polity and simultaneously avert the distractions faced by incumbents as well as the protracted expenses incurred by petitioners.
But while this development brought an air of relief to the polity, another bombshell was released by the shift in date. The signs of the shift started when the 63 parties mooted this to INEC. Over 80 percent of the 63 parties asked the commission to shift the dates of the general elections to enable it prepare adequately for the polls. The Commission however, after its retreat held in Calabar announced a definite position indicating it has tilted its stand to the tune and request of the political parties. The communiquÃ© announcing the shift assured that INEC would exhaust all legal remedies and options to make sure the new position is endorsed.
Investigations by THE SUNDAY OBSERVER revealed that at the meeting attended by leaders of the 63 parties, including the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and Action Congress of Nigeria, (ACN), the parties agreed that the dates for the election be shifted from January to April next year.
The new position taken by the INEC and the parties raises another worry â€“ what if the NASS sticks to its guns and dare the decision for date shift. How could the INEC and the parties carry this agreement through? What if the NASS accepts this and some other parties decide to go to court as is common to contest the conflicts? For instance the NASS accepts the shift, how long would it take to create by way of amendment in the election date in the new Act already endorsed into law. What if the Act is signed and the constitution amendment and its ratification is not cleared, or is cleared but conflicts with the amended timetable in the Act, how could the Act function in conflict with the constitution?
The other major poser arising from the postponement is the date a new government arising from the election will take office. On this major confusion, Nigeriaâ€™s Foreign Minister, Odein Ajumogobia, a lawyer, said at an international square recently that the May 29 date remains sacrosanct.
Yes, there might be a handover on that date possibly, but the problem the new electoral law wanted to circumvent â€“ to make sure dissents arising from the elections are thrashed out before the winner takes office would still remain unsolved.
The summation from the entire spectre of theatrics is that our journey to the credible election we hope to have next year is fraught with uncertainties. There are confusions created everyday. There are fears raised daily on whether the election will actually hold and if it does, the credibility and reactions that would follow. It is a testy experiment for the nationâ€™s democracy once again.
Since the arm-twisting in the name of Electoral Act Amendment by the National Assembly that appears to be working for the selfish interests of it members, the boat again seems to have been rocked as the euphoria that greeted the advent of the former university don seems to have whittled down. Many have equally begun to develop cold feet as regards the possibility of the NASS salvaging the perceived deteriorating electoral system in the country.