Since Tuesday, November 9, 2021, when the National Assembly passed the Electoral Amendment Bill after the report of the conference committee that harmonised the different versions of the bill passed in July 2021, there has been a raging controversy over the adoption of only the direct primary as the mode of candidate nomination process. In case you do not know, party primaries are internal elections of registered political parties aimed at choosing parties’ standard-bearers that will participate in general elections. Other internal elections conducted by political parties are elective congresses and conventions organised to elect party members into party executive positions. It is part of the leadership recruitment process.
In the extant law, which is the Electoral Act 2010, as amended, the mode of party primaries is enunciated in section 87. It has 10 subsections. Provision was made for two types of primaries viz direct and indirect primaries. Direct primaries involve all eligible members of the party voting to elect their flagbearers in a general election. Just as the law sets an age limit for voting and contesting elections, a political party can also set criteria for the eligibility of members participating in party primaries. Criteria could be age, payment of dues, fees and levies imposed by the party, length of time as members, attendance of party meetings, etc. Indirect party primary on the other hand is a delegate or electoral college system where delegates are first appointed or elected, who thereafter will have the honour to elect the party standard-bearers. Indirect primary has been mostly preferred by political parties because it is easier and more cost-effective to organise. However, direct primary is more inclusive and participatory.
My position on the current hullabaloo is that the National Assembly should not have tampered with section 87 of the Electoral Act as amended. That choice of direct or indirect primaries should have been left to party managers. However, I am not ignorant of the politics behind the insistence of the National Assembly to restrict the choice of primaries to only direct primary. It is meant to checkmate the excesses of the governors who have already railroaded the elective party congresses held so far in the ruling All Progressives Congress in their favour. Recall the allegations of imposition of party executives at the ward, local and state congresses of the APC through the subterfuge of ‘Consensus Arrangement.’ It is noteworthy that many of the APC states are embroiled in crises which led to the holding of parallel congresses and litigations. The rife allegation is that governors of the 22 APC states have hijacked the party structures and populated the party executives with their loyalists. These are the people that will be relied upon to conduct the party primaries ahead of the 2023 general elections.
Be that as it may, the truth of the matter is that both direct and indirect primaries are susceptible to corruption and gross abuse. After all, it was a controversial direct primary that was used to edge out Governor Akinwumi Ambode of Lagos State ahead of the 2019 general elections. It was similarly deployed to purportedly favour Senator Andy Uba ahead of the November 6, 2021 governorship election in Anambra State.
As I have said in several media interviews I have granted on this issue of party primaries, what is lacking is internal party democracy, the rule of law and due process in the administration of Nigerian political parties. Truth be told, the entire value chain in the candidate nomination process needs to be reformed and not just the party primaries. For instance, the costs of expression of interest and nomination forms in the dominant political parties particularly the APC and the Peoples Democratic Party are very prohibitive. The last presidential EoI and Nomination Form in 2018 was N45 million. Ahead of the 2022 governorship election in Ekiti and Osun states, APC is charging N22.5 million. These are non-refundable deposits. These amounts can build a modest house and that is what aspirants are expected to pay and lose if they fail to win the party ticket.
Next is the screening of aspirants ahead of the party primary. Many of the political parties have mastered the act of using screening committees or panels to disqualify aspirants that they do not want to win the primaries. Both the screening committees and the appeal committees that are usually set up to interview aspirants are loyalists of power brokers within the party. For instance, the screening committee set up by Adams Oshiomhole as the National Chairman of APC disqualified Governor Godwin Obaseki ahead of the 2020 Edo State governorship election. The rationale for this was purportedly due to defective certificates. However, these were the same certificates he presented when he first contested in 2016. These were the same certificates he presented when he defected to PDP last year and all Nigerian courts, including the Supreme Court, have upheld his electoral victory. It was a similar disqualification of Hon. Chukwuma Umeoji by the All Progressives Grand Alliance screening panel, precipitating the political crisis that engulfed the party ahead of the November 6, 2021 governorship election in Anambra State. So using screening panels to do hatchet jobs is not uncommon in Nigeria’s political field.
Of what essence is the compulsory monitoring of party primaries by the Independent National Electoral Commission when section 31 (1) of the Electoral Act says ”Every political party shall not later than 60 days before the date appointed for a general election under the provisions of this Act, submit to the Commission, in the prescribed forms, the list of the candidates the party proposes to sponsor at the elections, provided that the Commission shall not reject or disqualify candidate(s) for any reason whatsoever”. Nigerian political parties have abused this omnibus provision to nominate unqualified candidates with INEC being legally handicapped to reject such defective nominations.
Did you know that you may not participate in or contest a party primary and yet emerge the candidate of the party as was the case when Obiora Okonkwo became the standard-bearer of Zenith Labour Party in the recently held Anambra Governorship poll and as was similarly the case when former Deputy Governor of Ondo State, Agboola Ajayi, emerge the candidate of the same ZLP in the 2020 Ondo State governorship election? This is made possible by the legal provisions contained in sections 33 and 35 of the extant Electoral Act 2010, as amended. These sections have to do with political parties substituting already nominated candidates. The intendment of the framers of the electoral law was that an already nominated candidate may die before the election or choose to withdraw from the race. In that event, there will be a fresh nomination by the political party. However, what many of the parties, especially the fringe parties, do is nominate a candidate and then trade off that ticket to a higher bidder who may come from any of the dominant parties. They then pressure or induce the already nominated candidate to formally withdraw from the race and substitute him or her with a fresh nominee who may have paid handsomely for the ticket.
The reason I have highlighted all these stages of the candidates’ nomination process is that, whether direct or indirect primaries are okayed for candidate nomination, it can be manipulated by the powers-that-be, the party gatekeepers, to favour their anointed or preferred candidates. Even if an aspirant did not participate in the primary, he or she can still become the party standard-bearer as explained in the preceding paragraph. By the way, while it may be true that direct primaries may be more expensive and cumbersome, part of the reasons the Inter-Party Advisory Council may be against direct primaries is that it may expose the paucity of party members in many of the registered political parties. Even the dominant political parties may not have a credible party membership list. It is unfortunate that none of the political parties in Nigeria knows exactly how many members they have. If any of them is sure of their membership list, let them publish it for public consumption as INEC has been doing with the National Register of Voters.
I learnt the president has asked INEC, and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, for legal opinion on the newly passed Electoral Bill 2021. I should suggest that whatever reservations there may be with the bill, the president should be encouraged to sign it while he may, thereafter, sponsor an amendment to the new Act. This was the masterful way he handled the controversial Petroleum Industry Act. It’s barely 14 months to the 2023 general elections and the new legal framework is needed quickly for purposes of electoral planning and budgeting.
Electoral Act Amendment: Much ado about party primaries