What has happened:
On February 6, Nigeria’s Senate voted in favor of amendments to Nigeria’s Electoral Act, the law which governs key aspects of the manner in which Nigeria’s national elections are conducted. Though the proposed amendments contain a number of interesting provisions, one provision in particular —which relates to the sequencing of Nigeria’s presidential, state, and parliamentary elections —has become a source of controversy.
At the heart of ongoing debate is the fact that the bill approved in the Senate proposes to upturn the order in which elections are held such that elections for members of Nigeria’s National Assembly will now be conducted first while State elections and Presidential polls will subsequently be held.
Nigeria’s electoral management bureau, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has already released its polling time-table which, drawing on precedent, stagger the national elections—with the Presidential election holding first followed by those for the State and National Assembly. If the bill is passed the INEC will therefore be forced to reverse its calendar. The implications of this reordering have been the cause of much speculation and scrutiny given the fact that Nigeria’s next national elections, scheduled for February 2019, are barely a year away.
Moreover, passing these amendments brings the Senate in line with the House of Representatives, Nigeria’s lower chamber of parliament, which unanimously assented to the same amendments in January. Their approval in the Senate thus means that the President Buhari’s signature is the final hurdle in the path for the acceptance of the amendments into law.
What is at stake:
The passage of this amendment in both chambers of Nigeria’s National Assembly sheds light on a number of important developments. Firstly, as has been noted in the Nigerian press, the proposals reveal the National Assembly’s recognition of the importance of the ‘bandwagon effect’ in Nigerian elections. The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon wherein voters cast their ballots in favor of the party they consider the most likely winner of an election. [i] This effect has been particularly pronounced in national elections in Nigeria where elections are staggered, and where it is common for the party which wins the Presidential election, typically held first, to not only win a majority in subsequent State and National Assembly elections but also to win over members of the opposition party who frequently defect to the winning side [ii]. Given President Buhari’s popularity and his likelihood to seek a second term, this is a factor which could have a significant impact on the composition of the next National Assembly. The current National Assembly’s decision to pass this amendment thus appears to signal its desire to at least limit, if not reverse, the influence which the outcome of the next Presidential elections will have on the National Assembly races.
These amendments also signal increasing factionalism in Nigeria’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC). President Buhari is the de facto leader of the APC, which has reportedly endorsed him for a second term. The APC also commands a majority in both the Senate and the House of representatives and is represented in the leadership of both houses. The fact that this bill nonetheless garnered enough APC votes in order to pass in both Houses suggests that APC members in the legislature may no longer see their fate as tied to that of the President. Instead — and perhaps as a third implication of the passage of the amendment — this suggest that members of the legislature are seeking increased independence from the influence and control vested in the executive branch. An increasingly independent legislature would mark a significant development in Nigeria’s Democracy, in which, given its enormous powers, executive influence has typically been all-but-insurmountable.
What happens next:
For precisely the above reasons, it is safe to assume that President Buhari is likely to veto the National Assembly’s proposed amendments. The president will see the upcoming election as an opportunity to shore up his support in the legislature and to limit the sort of independence which has allowed the National Assembly propose this amendment in the first place. Assenting to the proposed electoral schedule which could rob the president of influence is for this reason certain to be a none-starter. In the event of a presidential veto, it is also likely that the legislature will seek to override the president, a highly plausible scenario given the bill’s popularity in the National Assembly thus far. What is likely to happen beyond this point is difficult to precisely estimate. However, whichever direction the resolution of this debate ultimately falls will certainly play a significant role in the management and outcome of Nigeria’s upcoming elections.
[i] Morton, R. B., Muller, D., Page, L., & Torgler, B. (2015). Exit polls, turnout, and bandwagon voting: Evidence from a natural experiment. European Economic Review, 77, 65-81.
[ii] Omilusi, O., P. (2015). “The Nuances and Nuisances of Party Defection in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.” International Journal of Multidisciplinary Academic Research, Vol. 3, No. 4.