Without a shadow of a doubt, the scheduled dates for Nigeria’s 2023 general election will be altered should President Buhari give assent to the Electoral Bill 2022 before the expiration of the 30-day timeline on March 1st, 2022. Speculations are rife – the President will sign the bill on Friday, February 25th, 2022, even though there’s no official statement from the presidency to the contrary. The indication that the President is inclined to assent to the bill rather than withhold assent is reassuring after the President set a record of being the first Nigerian President with the highest number of withheld assents to electoral bills since Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in1999.
In April 2021, Nigeria’s electoral Commission announced the dates for the 2023 general election – February 18th, 2023, for the Presidential and National Assembly election and March 4th, 2023 for the Governorship and State House Assembly election. While the dates for the elections were announced, the Notice of Election wasn’t issued by the Commission. In any case, the Electoral Act 2010 – the substantive electoral law, requires INEC to publish Notice of Election not later than ninety (90) days before the date fixed for an election. However, the Electoral Commission is not precluded from issuing a Notice of Election earlier than 90 days. The certainty that the general election will hold on these dates depends mainly on the combined effect of specific provisions of the Constitution and Electoral Act, amongst other factors. Electoral activities must be strictly executed within timeframes set out in the Constitution and Electoral Act. Non-compliance with these stipulated timelines renders a process or activity within the election value-chain a nullity or an illegality.
In fixing dates for an election, INEC takes cognizance Sections 76(2), 116 (2), 132 (2), 178 (2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), which provides that executive and legislative elections shall hold not earlier than 150 days and not later than 30 days before the expiration of the term of the incumbent or dissolution of a legislative house. Based on the Constitution, the earliest date for election into the office of President or Governor is December 31st, 2022 and the latest date is April 29th, 2023. Similarly, the earliest date for National Assembly and state assembly election is January 10th, 2023, and the latest date is May 10th, 2023. This gives INEC the autonomy to fix election dates within this timeframe. Strict compliance with this timeframe is required to avert a constitutional crisis and a lacuna in the democratic process.
While INEC has the sole prerogative to issue Notice of Election and fix election dates, the Commission is mandated by law to publish Notice of Election within a specific timeframe for the various elections. A Notice of Election is the official declaration by INEC to the electorates and political parties of the date for elections, timelines for the conduct of party primaries, submission of party nomination forms, and list of candidates. The publication of the Notice of Election is important to the electoral process as it marks the official flag-off and commencement of electoral activities such as party primaries, submission of list of candidates, public campaigns. This is similar to the lighting of the Olympic torch to announce the start of the Olympic games and attendant activities. The requirement of the law is that the Notice should be published in each state and FCT, and in each constituency where an election is to be held. In addition to providing clarity on different electoral activities in the election timetable, the issuance of a Notice of Election facilitates preparation and planning by key electoral stakeholders like INEC, political parties, voters, etc.
In the Electoral Bill 2022 awaiting presidential assent, the timeline required for publishing Notice of Election was increased from 90 days to 360 days. Clause 28(1) of the Bill mandates INEC to issue a Notice of Election not later than 360 days before the day appointed for an election. If the election dates for the 2023 election were to be maintained, INEC would have issued a Notice of Election on February 22nd, 2022, because the total number of days from February 22nd, 2022, to February 17th, 2023, is 360 days. Unfortunately, the inchoate status of the bill made it impossible for the Commission to issue the Notice. Concerned that the delay in assenting to the bill might affect the dates for the 2023 general elections, civil society groups organized a National Day of Protest on February 22nd, 2022, to mount public pressure on President Buhari to give assent to the bill.
As legislative practice and procedure stipulate, the Electoral Bill 2022 will take effect as soon as the President assents the bill. If this is the case, then the dates for the 2023 election earlier announced by the Electoral Commission and other subsequent electoral activities will be affected. In other words, INEC will announce new dates for the 2023 election because the February 18th, 2023 date already announced by INEC for the Presidential and National Assembly election, falls short of the 360 days’ requirement in the Electoral Bill, for the issuance of the Notice before the date of an election.
Should President Buhari give assent to the Bill on February 25th, 2022 as anticipated and INEC issues Notice of Election on the same day, the earliest date that the Presidential and National Assembly election may be held is February 25th, 2023; and March 11th, 2023 for the Governorship and State Assembly election. The latest date will be 9th April 2023, taking into cognizance the 21 days’ timeframe for runoff or supplementary election. Interestingly, February 25th and March 11th will still remain the earliest possible date – according to the Bill, even if the President assents on March 1st, 2022, which is the expiration of the 30 days constitutional timeline the President has to assent or withhold assent.
As the we await the President’s assent with optimism and the announcement of new election dates by INEC, Nigerians expect the change in dates will result in an election whose democratic credentials are unquestioned. In 2023, the durability of Nigeria’s 23-year-old democracy will be tested as citizens express popular choice by voting preferred candidates into executive and legislative seats. Amidst dwindling public interest in the electoral process, the 2023 election presents an opportunity to rebuild public trust in democracy through transparent, inclusive, and peaceful elections.
Samson Itodo is an elections, democracy and public policy enthusiast. Itodo serves as the Executive Director of Yiaga Africa and the Convener of the Not Too Young To Run movement. He is a member of the Board of Advisers of International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization that supports and promotes democracy around the world. Please send comments and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @DSamsonItodo.