THE House of Representatives has altered what has become more or less the traditional sequence of elections in Nigeria. The legislators want the conduct of elections to graduate and build up as they progress. This has created an alteration in the timetable for the 2019 elections already released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The alteration was effected by amending the Electoral Act (2010). With the amendment, the National Assembly elections will be the first to be held, followed by the gubernatorial and state assembly polls, while the presidential election is to hold last. Customarily, the presidential and National Assembly elections are usually held together and on the same day, while those of the governorship and state House of Assembly follow afterwards. But by proposed reordering, there might be three instead of the usual two days of elections in 2019 because the National Assembly elections will not only be the first to be held, they will stand alone.
The impending reordering of the sequence of elections has serious cost implications, both in terms of the direct cost of conducting elections as well as the cost of individual, corporate and government businesses shutdown owing to the compulsory restriction of human and vehicular movements on election days in the country. Again, the motivation for the proposed change of the electoral law may be less than altruistic. The public perception following the antecedents of the authors of the change is poor, as they are believed to have demonstrated self-interest and selfishness in legislating on issues of national interest in the past. But this is a quintessential case where the focus should be on the message rather than the messenger. The change in the sequence of elections has the potential to eliminate the bandwagon effect. In the past, once the president had been elected, the voting pattern for subsequent elections tended to follow the one that got him elected. In other words, rationality and the making of well-informed choices among the candidates of different political parties tended to yield ground to the illusory need to join the ‘winning team’.
With the new arrangement, the electorate will be better able to evaluate each candidate and vote for him/her based on what they consider to be merit while unnecessary pressures and influences are reined in. The National Assembly’s proposal also promises to encourage competitiveness for elective offices; all the contestants will leverage on the quality of their value propositions and/or track records to canvass for votes rather than riding on the crest of a popular president or governor to win elections. Hopefully too, the electorate’s enthusiasm that has the tendency to wane after the presidential election will continue to wax strong until the last election is held.
Interestingly, the House of Representatives has also in the proposed bill amended the law to tinker with the order and timing of the conduct of primaries by political parties. Parties will be required to conduct their internal elections for the emergence of their standard-bearers in the following sequence: (i) state house of Assembly (ii) National Assembly (iii) governorship and (iv) presidential. This sequence of primary elections will likely whittle down the influence of the state governors in the conduct of primaries for the state and national assemblies as they will later need the support of the candidates vying for seats in the assemblies at their own primaries. Consequently, whether for the primaries or the substantive elections, the amendments by the legislators will somehow reverse and redirect the bandwagon effect, undue pressure and influence in such a way that beneficiaries of the extant arrangement will be at the receiving end.
The proposed bill still requires the concurrence of the Senate to be passed but this is unlikely to pose challenges. Indeed, the expectation is that the Senate Committee which was empaneled a few days ago to harmonise and reconcile the differences in the two chambers’ versions of the bill will, in all likelihood, adopt the House of Representatives’ version. However, there are indications that INEC may go to court to challenge the constitutionality of the proposed amendments to the electoral law. It claims that the amendments impinge on its constitutional right to fix election timetables. The plank of INEC’s argument will be the seeming inconsistency of the Electoral Act with the constitution if the proposed amendments are passed. But should INEC go the way of litigation or judicial interpretation in a matter in which it is not supposed to be an interested party? Will the electoral umpire not risk being clothed with the raiment of a body with vested interests?
INEC should be more concerned about its preparations to conduct free and fair polls under whatever law that subsists at the time of the elections rather than worrying over the supposed usurpation of its powers by the National Assembly. In sum, to the extent that the proposed changes to the Electoral Act are likely to lead to the emergence of more credible persons in elective offices based on their individual merits, the National Assembly’s ongoing legislative intervention is in the national interest and therefore in order.