The Oasis Reporters
December 12, 2018
Last week, Nigeria’s President rejected the electoral law amendment bill 2018 for the fourth time. His argument was that the bill, if assented to, would cause confusion in the conduct of the 2019 election which comes up in February, according to the timetable. His argument is the same being brandished by his ardent supporters.
But what is it in the bill that will cause chaos and confusion?
The requirement that card readers be deployed as the means of accreditation of voters (and the avoidance of Incident Forms) and that election results be wired also electronically! The president’s supporters hold that this requires a technology that Nigeria cannot achieve before 2019 and that there will not be network service in some remote areas.
Meanwhile, majority of Nigerians and opposition parties tend to support the amendment. It will help to avoid rigging, multiple voting, voting by non accredited voters etc., so they argue. They allege that Buhari withdrew assent to the bill because of his fear of losing in a free and fair election. I think that the arguments and counter-arguments are difficult but can be resolved.
There are three great powers in the political administration of any country: the power to veto, which belongs to the president; the power to override the veto, which belongs to the people; and the power to read the constitution, which belongs to the judiciary.
Rather than view the refusal of the president to assent to the ‘growth of democracy bill’ primarily as a malicious intention by the president, we should consider it within the larger understanding of the importance of checks and balances.
The president’s assent, in my view, is an opportunity for a bill, having passed through the furnace of intelligent consideration by noble men and women of the two chambers of the legislature, to be reviewed by the executive for practicality of implementation and usefulness, the executive being the one who seems to be in the best position to understand the direction of government. It is like a footballer and the coach. The coach gives instruction and advice, but the footballer in the field of play alone knows what the field is like.
Thus, lawmaking in a democracy is elaborate in a way to make the law be in agreement with the interest of the people.
However, the law is also aware that a president may not understand the content and aspirations of a bill due to his own level of personal education or intelligence; may have personal political, business or family interests that run contrary to a bill; or may not just figure out the best judgment on the matter.
Is it right in these instances for the law to allow the president to reject (veto) the will of the people?
The law is not an idiot. So it empowers the legislature to override the decision of the president where he withdraws assent, which means that lawmaking is the exclusive power of the legislature; the idea of presidential assent is just to carry the executive along.
Meanwhile, the law requires that the national assembly have a two-third majority of each house in order to override the president’s decision. This requirement underscores the exclusive power of the legislature to make good laws for the country. The requirement is a challenge to test the conviction of the legislators about the law being made. If the legislators are intellectually and morally committed to the content and aspirations of the bill, they will get, or retain the two-third majority with which they passed the bill in the first place. It would show they mean business, that they know what they are doing and are united in the cause of good governance. They will override the president. If not, they will see a two-third majority as a herculean task; they will begin to talk about political interests, party loyalty and election.
Inability to get the two-third majority is an indication that members have only passed the bill for whatever reason that might range from frivolous routine to indefensible interests. An unwillingness to embark on overriding a president’s decision is the least honorable. The power of the people to override their president through a two-third majority of each house, deepens democracy, reinforces majority rule and invigorates legislators’ commitment to their activities, which in turn gives vent to laws consciously made for the progress of the country.
Therefore, the most important stage in the lawmaking process is not the second or the third reading; it is the overriding stage. This is where the legislature actually exercises legislative power. No power within a state is higher than the legislature when the subject is law-making, except the constitution. An Assembly that cannot see a good law through to its enactment is not a legislature; it is a soccer viewing station.
In a nutshell, if the Nigerian legislators know their onions, they will override the president on the electoral law amendment bill.
P.S. The important issue in the debate seems to concern the right and safe time to implement the law, not the merit of the law, which is indisputably an effort to grow the electoral process. No time is safer than now. Nigeria cannot afford to erect another four years upon a wonky foundation of an inherently flawed electoral process.