Since Muhammadu Buhari ascended to the Nigerian presidency in May 2015, he has gone back and forth repeatedly with parliament on the amendment of the all-important electoral bill.
That dance finally ended last week when he approved this improvement to Nigeria’s 2010 Electoral Act, enacting into law safeguards for a more transparent voting and collation process.
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Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is gearing up for what are set to be tense general elections next February and some of its popular politicians are already flinging themselves into what could turn out to be a charged campaign season.
And while that would be enough excitement, the West African country has now toughened its electoral laws, adding to the tension and signalling that it could, for the first time in years, have elections that could widely be considered credible.
It is a major development in a country that ranks low on civil liberties and where elections are often marred by widespread vote-rigging and voter intimidation.
Notably, the new law gives the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) more decision-making powers and sets aside early funding for it to avoid embarrassing technical and logistic lags that saw the last elections in 2019 rescheduled and left some voters unable to exercise their rights in the end.
Perhaps most importantly, the law also gives legal backing to the use of electronic card readers for voting and electronic methods for transferring results for collation, a sticking point for some politicians who had argued that the state of the country’s telecommunications system could hinder voting in some areas.
On the flip side, civil society members see the card readers, used for the first time in general elections in 2015, as aiding transparency and reducing incidences of rigging. But because the machines previously lacked legal backing, the admissibility of electronic data in courts has generated hot debates.
The new act goes into effect immediately, meaning that INEC can test-run the rules as soon as July this year when neighbouring states Osun and Ekiti, in the country’s southwest region, will hold elections for new governors.
Rejections and restrictions
In a televised address to Nigerians on Thursday night after approving the bill, President Buhari said it “could positively revolutionise elections in Nigeria”, adding that the technological innovations provided “would guarantee the constitutional rights of citizens to vote and to do so effectively”.
But he, who campaigned as an incorruptible politician during his successful presidential run in 2015, had seemed very reluctant to pass the bill into law in the past.
Since 2015, the presidency has rejected some provisions of the bill and returned it to parliament a total of five times, making it one of the longest-debated laws in Nigeria’s history.
The rejections were often accompanied by requests for amendments. In one rejection, Buhari cited grammatical errors.
Another time, he delayed until a few months to the 2019 general elections and then complained that it was too close to D-day to deliberate on the bill. That election, widely acknowledged as marred by vote-buying and voter intimidation, saw Buhari win a second and final term in office.
Last December, he asked parliament to remove restrictions mandating that political parties hold direct primary elections instead of handpicking the favourites of more powerful party leaders.
The lawmakers acquiesced, bending to the president’s will even as they introduced more manipulation-proof measures to the bill. When they gave the president a way out of direct primaries, for example, they added clauses that made it impossible for political appointees to run for office without giving up their current posts.
Piling on the pressure
Still, the presidency’s tactics, coming at a time when Nigeria faces calls for a break up from multiple quarters due to heightened insecurity, soaring inflation and ethnic polarity, prompted nationwide agitation. Many questioned the intentions of Buhari, a one-time military head of state who had himself criticised the electoral process in courts in his three earlier, unsuccessful bids at the top position.
“You’d think that this is a man that would be very concerned with electoral reform, but he hasn’t been,” says Ayisa Osori, director of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and a one-time aspiring parliamentarian.
Osori says the president was likely protecting allies in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party whose members are angling to secure major positions next year. “He declined to sign because the provisions would have made it difficult for those who normally rig elections to do so.”
But many had had enough. With barely a year to the general elections that will usher in a fresh administration, civil society organisations, opposition party members and others piled on the pressure. National newspapers called out the delay in scathing editorials and activists staged protests in Abuja.
It was clear that further holdups could bring widespread protests again, the type that rocked the country in 2020 when young people protested against police brutality and were mowed down by security forces. The incident, described as Nigeria’s Tiananmen Square moment, has left one of many bad stains on Buhari’s eight-year term.
That pressure, and a willingness to avoid another breakdown of order, likely forced the president to oblige on Thursday, Osori says.
But Buhari had one last request, even after he signed the bill into law. He asked parliament to remove the new clauses that stop political appointees from running simultaneously for another post. This request, experts say, is likely to favour Nigeria’s Attorney General Abubakar Malami – a close confidant of the president’s – who has eyes on the governorship position in his northern Kebbi state.
It remains unclear if parliament will consent to Buhari’s final request to further remove clauses, although it is not likely that there would be any consequences to refusing it and activists say the clauses should be kept.
But while there is excitement for more credible elections in civil society camps, some are calling for caution. Nigeria has a long history of botched elections and there are fears that 2023 will still see politicians come up with new ways to game the system.
Yemi Ademolekun, director of EnoughisEnough, an organisation advocating for better governance, says laws on paper cannot guarantee credible elections and that INEC could face logistical challenges that could be taken advantage of.
“Technology is a tool that must be deployed by humans, [but] humans are imperfect so there will be some issues,” she says. “The goal is to keep them at the barest minimum.”
Electoral participation concerns remain high in a country with turnout regularly hovering around 30 to 35 percent – according to INEC – a low continental average. The fact that the same known politicians are contesting again in 2023 could make turnout even worse, analysts point out.
In the oil-rich Niger Delta region where trust in the government is historically low because of poor resource management, people are unaffected by the drama around the electoral law and are “disenchanted by almost everything,” says Nubari Saatah, president of the Niger Delta Congress political movement.
Still, Osori of OSIWA said while laws are only one part of ensuring fair elections in Nigeria, it is still commendable that a strong one is finally in place.
The next steps, she said, are for voters to be vigilant. “We cannot rest,” she told Al Jazeera. “This is just part one of the battle for decent elections. Now it’s just to keep at it and provide INEC with what they need including our voice if they need it.”