There were strong indications on Saturday evening that the Senate would, this week, begin the process to override President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to withhold his assent to the 2018 Electoral Act amendment bill.
Senate spokesperson, Senator Ben Murray-Bruce, had told Saturday PUNCH that the red chamber had rejected Buhari’s reasons for declining assent to the legislation and would do everything possible to override his action.
A cross-section of the senators, who spoke with SUNDAY PUNCH on the issue on Saturday, vowed to make Buhari’s position a major issue on resumption of plenary on Tuesday.
They vowed to ensure that to ensure that all the amendments made to the new electoral act formed part of what the Independent National Electoral Commission would comply with in the conduct of the 2019 polls.
But there are other indications that as Senate President Bukola Saraki and the Speaker, House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, prepare to read the letter to members in plenary at their respective chambers on Tuesday, the lawmakers are set for a stormy debate on the matter.
SUNDAY PUNCH can authoritatively report that Buhari’s decision has polarised members of the National Assembly across political lines.
While members of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, have expressed their support for the President, those of the opposition PDP alleged an ulterior motive behind the withholding of the assent by the President.
Already, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan and Senator Biodun Olujimi, separately told SUNDAY PUNCH on Saturday that the matter would be discussed when the lawmakers reconvene, after which a decision would be taken on the bill.
Olujimi told SUNDAY PUNCH that the federal parliament approved the huge budget proposed by the INEC for the election because of the anticipated electronic voting being planned by the electoral umpire.
Olujimi said, “This is because 70 per cent of the INEC budget has to do with the funding of card readers and other equipment needed for the election.
“We are going back to the chamber on Tuesday to look at the reasons for the President’s rejection and we will do our best to override his assent because the Electoral Act (amendments) bill is the best thing that can happen to our election in Nigeria.
“It is not only the opposition senators who would override the President. We would work on our colleagues in the ruling APC, most of whom are disgruntled that their party denied them tickets to return to the Senate.”
Another senator from the North-West geopolitical zone, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also corroborated the position of Olujimi, describing Buhari’s reasons as untenable.
He said, “It is possible that we start the process to override the President’s assent when we resume on Tuesday. I can assure you that it will be on the front burner of our proceedings. It will be a major issue and I am very sure that it is going to generate a lot of debate.
“If you look at the equation these days, many of our colleagues don’t come to the National Assembly again because of campaigns. So, it is really not impossible to get two-thirds majority to override the President’s assent.
“If the decision to override the President did not take place on Tuesday, it will certainly be done on Wednesday when we would enjoy the privilege of the NTA live coverage of our proceedings.”
Also, a senator from the South-East geopolitical zone, who also spoke off record, alleged that Buhari withheld assent to the bill because he did not want the usage of card readers in the North where a lot of Permanent Voter Card had allegedly been procured for underage voters.
The senator stated, “If INEC should make use of the card reader in northern Nigeria, we would demystify their bogus claims that they have the majority of voters in that part of the country.
“They can write any figure and declare it if there is no electronic accreditation of voters. The moment the ‘already-biased’ INEC officials signed the fraudulent election result sheets, we would not be able to do anything on them.”
Plan to override Buhari’s assent will fail –Marafa, Ndume
But a prominent member of the ruling APC caucus in the Senate, Kabiru Marafa, said the moves by his colleagues in the opposition parties to override Buhari on the issue this week would fail.
Marafa argued that the opposition lawmakers did not have the required number to form the two-thirds majority needed to achieve their aim.
He added, “How will they get us to support their action when we already agree that the reasons given by President Muhammadu Buhari were genuine and reasonable?
“INEC, at the moment, has a lot of issues to contend with. Why should we overburden them with new amendments that would make its works more cumbersome? Why can’t we wait till after the 2019 elections before we introduce new electoral laws?”
Marafa also disagreed with his opposition colleagues who claimed that Buhari rejected the new law in order to give room for unqualified voters to vote.
He said, “Why are they unnecessary jittery now over the use of the card reader. I am beginning to think that those who are agitating now have some ulterior motive. The 2015 election was successful because of card reader.”
Marafa also faulted Olujimi’s claims that the INEC budget was approved based on the assumption that card readers and other electronic gadgets would be massively deployed in the elections by the electoral agency.
He said, “I disagree with Senator Olujimi completely on that issue. INEC budget was huge because of the insecurity in the country. Most of the funds would be expended on security personnel to ensure a hitch-free exercise.
“I challenge her to come up with her figures and prove me wrong. There could be some calculated attempts in some quarters to sabotage the entire process; otherwise, I don’t understand the attack on the President for postponing the implementation of the law till after the general elections.”
Another APC lawmaker, Senator Ali Ndume, dismissed the claim by Murray-Bruce that the Senate would veto the President.
Ndume added, “You quoted Ben Murray-Bruce as saying that the Senate was going to veto. Who gave him the right to speak on behalf of the Senate? Even if you are the Vice-Chairman of the Media and Public Affairs Committee, you don’t just go and talk on behalf of the Senate.
“Let it be on record that he did not speak on my behalf. The letter from Mr President has not even been read and it has not been deliberated upon. His responsibility is to speak on behalf of the Senate, but if he is speaking for himself, that is a different thing.
“He went on to say that they are going to veto it. Where are they going to get the numbers (two-thirds) to veto it?”
Stormy debate loom
When our correspondent asked the Senate Leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan, to speak on Buhari’s decision, he said, “When I return to Abuja. I spoke about this even before now. When I return to Abuja.”
Speaking with one of our correspondents again on Saturday, Murray-Bruce said, “First of all, we think it is a mistake not to sign the bill. We think Buhari should have signed it. We want the APC senators and all Nigerians to understand that that bill is the right thing to do at this period of our national life.
“We will do everything possible to work with progressive APC senators to get the right number of votes to override it. We will override it.”
Another PDP lawmaker, Senator Rafiu Ibrahim, dismissed Buhari’s reason for withholding his assent.
Ibrahim said, “We all know and we have already been saying that he was afraid of signing the bill majorly because it will make the election to be more transparent. This bill is all about processes; it is not going to disrupt anything. It is about card reader, agents having some rights, parties having the right to some information and determining certain things about electoral materials.”
But the Secretary of the Parliamentary Support Group, a body of the APC lawmakers in the National Assembly backing Buhari’s interests, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege, said while the President had the right to sign or withhold assent to a bill, the lawmakers also had options they could consider.
“But from what I have read, his reasons are very genuine. Like I have always maintained, Mr President has always supported this bill.
“It is the usual ‘town crying’ of the PDP particularly. Let me say that PDP is scared because they were used to rigging when they were in government. We are in government now and they think everybody will be the same. If you are not a rigger, why are you talking about rigging when the election has not been conducted?”