Thursday, May 21, 2009

Yar'Adua's electoral reform bills

THE set of bills which President Umaru Yar'Adua forwarded to the National Assembly recently represent the clearest indication yet of his resolve to reform the country's chaotic and unreliable electoral system. In many respects, the bills have been distilled from the wide-ranging recommendations of the Uwais Committee on Electoral Reform, although there are divergences.

One bill spells out the conditions to be fulfilled by independent candidates, including the spread of nominations. Another bill responds pointedly to the embarrassing spectacle which the country has witnessed since 1999 whereby elected officials ditch the parties on whose platforms they were elected for other political parties. Under the present constitutional arrangement, only state and federal legislators are forbidden from carpet-crossing, provided that they will not lose their seats where they carpet-cross as a result of a fissure in the political party platform on which they were primarily elected.

The country has also witnessed state governors abandoning their original political parties. The most recent examples are Governor Isa Yuguda of Bauchi State, who has jettisoned the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) for the People's Democratic Party (PDP). The same holds true for the Governor of Zamfara State who has left the ANPP for the PDP. Under the proposed amendment, such governors or President or Vice President who carpet-cross will relinquish their office. It is doubtful if anyone who is desirous of strengthening and maintaining the integrity of political parties will be opposed to the proposed amendment which will help ease considerably the prevalent prostitution in the political arena.

Another bill seeks to establish the Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission. If approved, the commission will take over some of the current functions of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). These include the registration of political parties, the monitoring of the organisation and operation of parties, including their finances and arranging for the examination and audit of the funds and accounts of political parties. The commission will also handle the accreditation of local and foreign observers as well as of the media during elections. Additionally, the commission will set guidelines for political parties' fund-raisers, and ensure that party conventions and congresses are compliant with extant laws and regulations.

The commission is an unnecessary bureaucracy that will not only bring additional cost to the treasury but hardly be significant in electoral reform. Obviously, while the logic behind the proposed commission is to divest INEC of the attendant administrative task, so it can concentrate on the core function of managing elections proper, it does not appear convincing that a commission with a full complement of board, management and staff is what the treasury can fund either now or in the foreseeable future. We believe that a properly rejuvenated INEC can create a directorate to handle these tasks more efficiently and effectively than is the case at present. Creating another commission will raise issues of coordination as well, as politicians and stakeholders will find themselves running from one commission to another just to tidy-up their affairs and avert sanction that might result from non-compliance.

In any event, one of the notorious reasons for the ineptitude of INEC in recent years has been the fact that the electoral umpire perceives itself as beholden to its appointor - the President of the Federal Republic and his political party. This is why there have been calls for a drastic change in the mode of appointment of the INEC Chairman and the Commissioners who are at present appointed by the President. There is nothing in the bills now before the National Assembly to show that the prevailing order is about to change.

Indeed, there is every reason for concern, because just as INEC commissioners are the President's appointee, so will be members of the proposed Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission. It is not envisaged to be an independent commission, as the President may remove any of its members at the President's discretion. Above all, the President may issue directives of a general nature to the commission. Considering the widespread concern about executive interference with elections and electioneering, we do not think that these powers are necessary - nor is the proposed commission desirable.

However, there is great merit in the proposal to amend the grounds on which a person may be disqualified from seeking election as Governor or President. Under the present constitutional provision, one such ground for disqualification is where the individual has been indicted for embezzlement or fraud by a Judicial Commission of Inquiry or an Administrative Panel of Inquiry. The proposed amendment seeks to delete the words "Administrative Panel of Inquiry". Of course, Nigerians would recall how erstwhile President Olusegun Obasanjo in his bitter battle with his estranged Vice President Atiku Abubakar sought to frustrate the latter from running for the presidency in the 2007 elections. Obasanjo set up a kangaroo administrative panel of inquiry which proceeded to try and convict Atiku, and thereby disqualify him from the elections. Atiku was saved by the courts. It is desirable, therefore, that such potentially devious device be excised from the supreme law of the land.

Precisely when the bills that are favoured will become law is open to conjecture. Significantly, at about the time President Yar'Adua sent the electoral reform bills, he decried the slow pace of legislative activities in the National Assembly. Some of the bills have implications for amendments to the 1999 Constitution on which the Senate and House of Representatives have not made progress since last year when they were split over co-chairmanship of their Joint Committee. It follows, therefore, that a good chunk of the reform bills will depend on how soon and well the National Assembly can kick-start the process of constitutional amendment.

Nevertheless, it should be embarrassing even to President Yar'Adua that the party of which he is leader runs the executive and has overwhelming majority in both chambers of the federal legislature. Yet, in bemoaning the lackadaisical attitude of the Federal lawmakers, President Yar'Adua sounded helpless like ordinary Nigerians. It should not be so. Having presented the bills to the National Assembly, we do not expect the President to sit back, and wring his hands in frustration as the lawmakers waste time on frivolities. The true test of President Yar'Adua's sincerity to lasting electoral reforms will include how well he collaborates, urges and exhorts the National Assembly to bring about a new legal order that will be put to ultimate test on the field.