Why Nigeria’s battle over the order of the 2019 elections matters
Lawmakers say they’re advancing democracy by trying to reorder the election sequence. Others say they’re undermining it.
As politicians start announcing their candidacies and parties begin devising their platforms ahead of Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, a few crucial details remain in the air. Due to a political tug of war in Abuja, it is still unclear when exactly voters will go to the ballot and in what order they will be held.
In January, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released its election timetable. It announced that the presidential and National Assembly polls would be held on 16 February, with the governorship and state assembly elections to take place on 2 March. But in February, Nigeria’s National Assembly – comprised of the Senate and House of Representatives – passed a bill reordering the order of the votes.
Lawmakers decided that the 2019 elections should be spread across three days and follow a different sequence. They called for the process to start with polls for the National Assembly, be followed by those for the governorship and state assemblies, and end with the presidency.
A bill was passed by the House of Representatives and Senate, both of which are controlled by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). But when it reached the desk of President Muhummadu Buhari in March, he refused to sign it into law. He warned that the act “may infringe upon the constitutionally guaranteed discretion of INEC, to organise, undertake and supervise all elections”.
The episode has sparked plenty of legal arguments on both sides. Some say that the National Assembly’s attempts to influence the running of elections are unconstitutional. Others insist they are not overstepping the letter of the law.
Either way, this saga is not over. The National Assembly can overturn the president’s veto with a two-thirds majority and lawmakers have reportedly already begun this process. A date for the fateful vote is yet to be scheduled, but many are confident of its impending success.
“We will get it. We have the two-thirds majority already,” Senator Ben Murray-Bruce told African Arguments.
Despite allegations of bribes being paid to lawmakers to defeat it, political analyst Olukayode Salako is similarly convinced. “It is what all of they want. They do not need to bribe anybody. They will get it,” he says.
Yesterday’s news that Senator Ovie Omo-Agege has been suspended for 90 legislative days for claiming the electoral amendment was targeted at President Buhari is a further indication of the National Assembly’s determination to pass the bill.
Reordering in whose interest?
The politicians behind the attempt to reorder the elections say the move will advance Nigeria’s democratic system. They argue that when the presidential poll is held first, subsequent elections are treated as far less important. They claim a “bandwagon” effect occurs in which the electorate simply backs the party of the presidential victor rather than scrutinising the specific candidates on offer.
By reversing the order and building up to the presidential election, proponents suggest that people will exercise more judgment in picking their lower-level representatives. This, they say, could lead to more qualified officials and a more politically-diverse government.
“If the presidential election is held last, we are likely to see most politicians that have the requisite credentials,” says analyst Bala Zaka. “Nigeria can have a president where the same party does not command the majority.”
According to Oke Umurhohwo, an activist with the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), “reordering is best for us all. It has the capacity to deepen and strengthen our democracy.”
Others, however, are more sceptical about the motivations behind the bill.
Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, chair of the civil society organisation Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), for example, points out that lawmakers did not consult the electorate when trying to amend the electoral process. “This makes this move very suspicious and looks like it’s self-serving,” she says.
Joe Igbokwe, the APC’s Lagos Publicity Secretary, similarly argues that the bill was not conceived of in order to enhance democracy. “The lawmakers are seeking self-survival,” he says. “They want to fight the president.”
Some believe that Buhari will face a tough contest for re-election and suggest that his APC colleagues want to avoid being dragged down with him. “The senators are also worried that they will become unexpected casualties of Buhari’s calamity,” says PDP’s Umurhohwo.
Who is in charge in Nigeria?
Aside from possible reordering of elections itself, this affair has highlighted ongoing tensions between Nigeria’s executive and legislative branches. Buhari’s first term has been dogged by disagreements with the National Assembly, but some believe this recent battle marks a new level of antagonism.
If the House and Senate overrule the president’s veto, Zaka foresees further unravelling. “There will be a kind of open confrontation and the display of political hate,” he says.
Others suggest that if the National Assembly is successful, it could flex its muscles even more, leading to confusion over who is running the country. “When the executive does something, they will say they have the power to override it,” says Salako. “When INEC does something they will say they will override it.”
Whether or not they agree with the ordering of the election, many Nigerians are concerned at how these decisions are being made and, possibly, forced through. Rather than strengthening democracy, some worry that the fight over this bill is undermining political processes and weakening citizens’ faith in the system. Instead of empowering Nigerian citizens a year ahead of the elections, Akiyode-Afolabi warns that this ongoing and unfinished contest “is creating uncertainty in the polity and shaking the confidence of voters”.