Chief Assam Assam is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. He was the commissioner for justice and attorney-general under the government of Godswill Akpabio, in Akwa Ibom State. He spoke to TNN on the recent efforts by the National Assembly to amend the Electoral Act. He also spoke on the processes that would be undertaken by a group he formed, the Integrity Group, that will lead to the emergence of the next governor of Akwa Ibom. EDITH CHUKU transcribed the interview.
Let’s talk about what happened at the National Assembly, the processes for the amendment of the Electoral Act in respect of electronic voting. How did you feel when you watched the drama in the National Assembly?
First of all, there is no circumstance under which a bill should go for signature of the president, by way of a final draft without the committee of both houses agreeing on its terms.
The joint committee of the National Assembly on the Electoral Act amendment should have sat together to agree on the content of the amendment, the terms of the amendment, whatever it was. It was not left for the House of Representatives to come out with its own version and since the presiding officer of the National Assembly is the president of the Senate and the secretary of the National Assembly is the clerk of the Senate, there is a possibility that the president of the senate would now forward the version of the senate to the president.
That means there was no consensus, that means the law as forwarded to the president is not a law for any intent and purpose, and it is subject to further controversy, that the National Assembly is not agreeable to an amendment in the nature of the amendment proposed by the National Assembly. So, this happened, it is to be expected in this country that things like that could happen. In the same vein, during the proceedings which led to the passage of the bill in the House of Representatives, there were two provisions which were clearly opposed to or supported. The presiding officer put the gavel on the opposite call and they ought to have called for a division of the house for the purpose of voting but he refused to do so. Everybody said so clearly.
There was one he said the “ayes” have it, and yet he was the nays, and there was one he said the nays have it, but it was a ayes, and people cannot continue to do that in this country, it is unfortunate, because it is fraudulent, and you do that in the full glare of the television and even your children would tell you, ‘Daddy that thing you did was wrong’ and they still did it. So, I think people are totally dishonest; they just want to run this country down.
Let’s even look at the spirit and letters of that amendment, the provisions of the amendment, for example, National Assembly or Senate saying, yes INEC you can conduct electronic voting but that is after NCC and National Assembly has said go ahead. What does that mean to you?
But let me take it from a holistic point of view. I’ve always said that the most amended law in this country is the Electoral Act. every session of the National Assembly, the first committee they appoint as soon as they are convoked, is a committee to amend the Electoral Act, every now and then. Members of the National Assembly, if it were possible, they would want to go to parliament without contesting election because every legislative process is to ease the process by which they get back to parliament. Section 153 of the constitution is very clear- the National Population Commission and all that and all that are a creation of the same section of the law. The same law, Section 153, and yet the INEC Act is subjected to all the vagaries of amendments, is tormented by court decisions and all that, and yet the other bodies are not touched.
Let us even examine whether it is right. The constitution under the schedule makes provision for the functions of the National Assembly and it says the National Assembly shall have right to to organize, undertake and supervise all elections in the country to the offices of Presidents and so on to the House of Assembly of the State. When the law makes provision and said organise an election, if the law makes provision for organizing an election, it means the constitution has made provision, has given INEC the power to organize. When the National Assembly now wants to come in to tell INEC how to organize, the National Assembly is impinging on the powers that have been given to the Independent National Electoral Commissions because the Independent National Electoral Commission is the only authority given powers to organize and undertake and supervise. Supervision means the method by which this thing is done, it’s compliance. Organize means setting up the parameters for the election, undertake means actually executing the election.
Now, I’m not oblivious of the fact that in that same sub-section the constitution permits INEC to carry out all such functions as maybe conferred by the National Assembly. We are talking about functions, any function. Okay now, in the Electoral Act, the electoral act has stated clearly that the National Assembly has provided under the electoral act for the Independent National Electoral Commission to organize and supervise referendum. If you read the Electoral Act, it says ‘in addition to such powers as conferred on the National Assembly by the constitution, the Independent National Electoral Commission shall have the responsibility for organizing a referendum which has been established under the constitution, because the referendum which you can undertake for purposes of certain things has been set up, the constitution says look we can organize a referendum for certain circumstances but who will organize that referendum was not stated in the constitution. So the constitution now gives that function to the Independent National Electoral Commission under sub-section i. But the National Assembly cannot impose upon INEC how it would conduct the referendum because that is already given to it under the constitution. So when they now set out to sit from January to December discussing how to amend the Electoral Act, the people are just wearing babariga, going to sit down there doing absolutely nothing. Majority of those people are sleeping in the place because they are not concerned. It is stupid to amend the law which you have no powers to make. From the beginning, the Independent National Electoral Commission has the right.
This matter came up in 2015, when the Court of Appeal had to sit and determine whether the electronic results which was generated could form evidence for the purpose of establishing whether there was an election or not. We went to Court of Appeal, we told Court of Appeal, look everybody went, the education group of INEC went around telling everybody when you vote, do this, do that, do that, do that, the result will be captured in a paper. Now, that paper is tendered in court, INEC says no, that paper was not provided for under the Electoral Act. The constitution says you will tell us how to organize the election, you will organize it and you will train people on how to organize it and you will undertake the election to execute it and you will supervise it. You did all these using this electronic means, then all of a sudden, the matter goes to court, you say no, it was not provided under the constitution. Then why did you train people on the use of electronic facility? Why did you have to use electronics to identify people? We applied for a certified true copy of the result electronically generated and you gave it to us. It is your document and yet the court of appeal said no. I was stunned, but that was the decision of the Court of Appeal. So what gave rise to all these things is because our courts have chosen the side of irresponsibility because it is not responsible to act outside the constitution. So, that is irresponsibility. The courts have sided with this irresponsibility and have given judgment for people who just come to claim there was no electronic voting because it was not provided for under the constitution. So now they all want to put the thing in the constitution, in order to obviate the lacuna that was created by that decision in 2015, forgetting that a time would come when they would not be able to regulate everything INEC does because that is what they are trying to do. It is the responsibility of INEC to regulate election, it is not the responsibility of National Assembly to regulate INEC, the only thing National Assembly can do is to give INEC more functions, and functions is not regulation.
Okay, so how come nobody has contested this in court?
I don’t know.
No, no, no. I can’t. I’m not Father Christmas. I won’t bother myself. This is Nigeria, everything goes. I haven’t contested, but I’m sure somebody will. The situation is now necessitating somebody to look at this entire thing and put it before the courts. Perhaps the younger ones will, but am totally fed up with this Electoral Act. Like I said, it is the most amended law in Nigeria. Every year, they set up a committee to amend the Electoral Act. For 2010, they amended it four times, and yet it didn’t cure that lacuna which they now met in 2015 and that lacuna of course, the president played deaf and dumb, played completely deaf and dumb.
So will you want him to play the same deaf and dumb this time around?
Want him? They’d better not do anything because it suites his purpose. In any case, all his people, all the supporters, all the Hausas, all the Fulanis have come out to say they don’t want the law, they voted against it, even when they voted yessssss, their man knacked the gavel, the nays have it. Who is the fool?
So, where does this led us in 2023, finally?
Well, I see no future for democratic processes in this country. It is still the rule of the tongue. Nobody is ready for a democratic process. First of all, let us look at the antecedents that is preceding 2023. Look at in Anambra, the same thing. The political parties are not helping issues and that is the base of the electoral process. The nomination of a candidate to contest election is not credible. So, how can the election itself be credible? The political parties expect INEC to be independent and wonderful, but they themselves will not use a credible process in selecting a candidate through which that credible process is going to emerge. This is absolute foolhardiness and we expect to put in rubbish and get something, nothing can stand which has no foundation, that has always been my opinion. That is why in this state, I have set up that group called Project Integrity to set up a framework through which our governorship candidate of the PDP would emerge. It would not be a rule of the tongue anymore, it would not be, when somebody sits in his house and says oh, it should be this, another person sits in his house and says it should be this and we do nothing at the end of the day. What happens? In 2015, I was a victim of that impunity. We were 22 that paid money to contest for nomination.
We were not even allowed to vote for ourselves. That could happen then because people were now considerate, we said look we wanted a governor from Eket senatorial district, we have one. So, there is no basis for us to start fighting over this and so on and so forth. But can you just think for one moment, just for one moment, that the governor of the candidate which was brought was from Uyo and it could have happened, the state could have been in total turmoil, there would have been no peace till today. So we had to be careful in ensuring that if we want a democratic process for God’s sake let us be democrats. If you don’t want a democratic process, tell Buhari to go back and recall his uniform, wear the thing and come and sit in Doddan barracks or wherever he wants to sit, he will still run the country and there would be no problem. Nigerians are used to leadership like that. But if you want a democrat to run Nigeria, what you have to do is to allow the democratic processes to work. The people who pretend to be democrats, members of the National Assembly cannot afford to wake up and conduct themselves in a totally undemocratic manner and expect to get better results. That proposal to the president is incongruous, it is irresponsible, it is stupid, he should pull it back, withdraw it, apologize to this country for the waste of time and man hour and then proceed to give functions to INEC if they have no further functions to give, let them stop amending the Electoral Act.
Talking about this Integrity Project you just mentioned, how will you make it happen, every time elections hold, governors always play certain roles, certain very significant roles in who emerges, who succeeds them, so, how will you stop that?
No, you don’t stop it because governors, for instance, in our party the governor is the head of the party. Now as the leader of the party, the governor has a leading role to play in the party and we are talking about succession. It is not a successor to the house of assembly, it is a successor to the governor himself. So, the governor has a very serious role to play. We need to help the governor to arrive at a decision which will be popular, which will be fair, which will give everybody a buy in.
You see what happened in Imo State, the governor brought a candidate, but there was a crisis, there was a sitting governor and if the elders of the community, the political communities now came together and say look, we have to advice our governor on how to proceed by this, let us see how we can organize ourselves and make sure that, whoever the governor eventually supports is a popular person because the governor may not know. You can have three people around the governor who can influence him completely on everything he does, including the choice of a candidate, and these three people may come together to influence him, not because that fellow is popular but they believe that if the governor says this is my candidate, then everybody else will support. Yes, we would support because we wouldn’t have a choice, nobody wants to fight government, but a better approach, and that is the position of project integrity, the better approach is for the political community to come together to put certain standards in place for these people to meet. For instance, who are the candidates? What kind of person do the people want this time around? That is the thing the governor would not know by himself, the community will tell him. What are the issues that are very important to the people in the forthcoming elections, is it security, is it work for the youths, is it education, is it health in view of this COVID thing, what is it that is important to the people? So you prioritize them and weigh them and in the circumstance give them marks. So when you’re listening to a candidate or an aspirant speaks, he will tell you what he intends to do. You look at the weightiest column and see what the people expect, it’s what this man is saying?
So, when you are telling the governor, you are telling him look, everybody in this state says that the most important thing to them is security, they don’t think this man can give them, they think this man can give them because of abcd, they think this man can give them because of abcd, they think this man can give them because abc, they think this man can give them because of ab and they weigh the candidate in that insecurity separately, they take investments opportunities, they take projects which are outstanding, and how they want to. Remember in Cross Rivers State, Duke built the TINAPA project, Liyel came and couldn’t continue because he didn’t see the project, then this man(Ayade) comes and he even wants to sell it. So the people of Cross River have spent that amount of money for the vision and that money is lost because that vision cannot be realized. If people were elected on a vision, they would have had advantage, because this person would have come to actualize what this other person could not finish. There are projects which we have started in this state, there is the Free Trade Zone project, everybody knows what it will do to us, we are the only state with the longest sea boundary, we have a tremendous amount of advantage, vessels come into our shores at the shortest possible time. These are the things we are trying to do, we are talking about party loyalty. You are contesting election under a political party, how long have you been a member of the party, have you ever contested an election in the party, how did you come into the party? Because the person who came into the party because he was appointed a chairman of the local government is different from a person who came into the party to contest election as a councillor. This one benefited from an appointment, this one came in an election because he spent his money, he is a stakeholder. A chairman of the local government who is appointed by a governor is not a stakeholder, he is a servant. So people will now sit down to draw up this parameters, put it into proper poll, hand it over to the governor.
If we take investment opportunities as the cradle of our 2023 politics then we have to look for a person who can give us, and that is not a difficult thing to find because whoever can give us that would have a pedigree for it, that is Project Integrity and that is how we intend to influence the decisions which will be taken for the purpose of electing governor in 2023. We will not take over the role from the governor, we shall assist the governor, that’s what we intend to do.