Crisis is brewing in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) over the mode of primary for the 2023 general elections, as contained in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, which has been ratified by both chambers of the National Assembly. Although the National Assembly, which is dominated by the ruling APC, settled for a direct mode of primary for future elections, it has pitched governors elected on the party’s platform against the National Assembly.
The opposition to the bill first came to light, shortly after the Conference Committee of the National Assembly harmonised the versions passed by the two chambers. On Monday, November 8, the Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF), the umbrella body of the governors elected on the platform of the ruling party, after a meeting of the forum expressed their rejection of Section 87 of the bill. Chairman of the forum and Kebbi State Governor Abubakar Atiku Bagudu rejected it vehemently. He also hinted that the governors would lobby the leadership of the National Assembly for a rethink and a review of the bill before presenting it to the president for assent. Bagudu said political parties should be allowed to pick the option best suited for them. The governors also noted that the idea of direct primary is against the spirit of Executive Order signed by President Buhari, which frowns at large gatherings in the wake of the global pandemic, Coronavirus.
The governors also reason that “direct primary would not only be too cumbersome but unwieldy, and overstretch the limited resources of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which is mandated to oversee primaries conducted by political parties”.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila is fully in support of the idea. For him, the direct primary will engender accountability and effective representation in the polity. Hence, the two chambers of the National Assembly did not hesitate to pass the clause. Justifying this position while hosting a delegation of Nigerian youth, led by Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare in his office, the Speaker said with the use of direct primary, political office holders would not be restricted to pleasing a group of people selected as delegates but would work for the interest of their party members, and, by extension, the electorate.
Despite the growing tension between governors and members of the National Assembly over the issue of direct primary, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Senator Kabir Gaya believes it will eliminate godfathers in the country’s political lexicon. He said: “The direct primary is essentially meant to give power to the grassroots, a thing Mr. President prefers, being a democrat, who believes that the power should be with the people.”
Meanwhile, the APC 2014 Constitution (as amended) also makes provision for direct, indirect, and consensus options for the emergence of party candidates for general elections.
While direct primary involves the participation of all party members in the selection of the party’s candidates, the indirect primary entails the use of delegates who are usually leaders and members of the executives from the ward, local government to state levels, to elect the candidate(s) at a congress or convention.
Proponents of the direct mode of primary argue that the option is popular given that the indirect method, which requires only delegates from among elected party executives at wards, local governments, states, and the national levels is considered very corrupt and anybody who has money can buy his/her way to emerge as candidate. The belief is that delegates used during party primary, which are few, relative to the size of party members are loyal to governors and therefore end up doing the bidding of governors by electing only aspirants chosen by governors. In addition, the delegates are alleged to also be very corrupt, which makes party primary to be very expensive. Aspirants must virtually purchase the vote of every delegate. Nigerians, especially members of political parties, detest the indirect method; partly because it is believed that it is the cause of almost all the leadership challenges facing the country whereby wrong people emerge into leadership positions, simply because they can buy the ticket to contest elections.
Dr. Salihu Mohammed Lukman, the Director-General Progressive Governors’ Forum (PGF), also believes direct primary would eliminate problems of imposition of leaders and candidates and that it will also reduce vote-buying, rigging and manipulation associated with indirect mode of primary. He said direct primary will bring political party leaders closer to members, and consequently citizens closer to elected representatives.
In what political watchers describe as a hasty decision, the ruling APC without wide consultation endorsed the position of the National Assembly on direct primary. The party in a statement by its National Secretary, Senator John James Akpanudoedehe reaffirmed its commitment and support for constitutionally permitted innovations that will improve the transparency and credibility of electioneering processes and internal democracy.
But, the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) has criticized the idea, describing it as “a retrogressive provision that seeks to wipe off all the gains achieved in our electoral practice since 1999”. The party added that the development was a “humongous blow to the development of democratic norms and a plot to introduce anarchy during internal party elections as currently obtainable in the APC”.
The APC has, however, advised Nigerians to ignore the PDP. It insisted that “the PDP is only pretending to be an opposition political party”. Akpanudoedehe said: “The APC reaffirms our commitment and support for constitutionally-permitted innovations that will improve the transparency and credibility of Nigeria’s electioneering processes and internal democracy, specifically the nomination of political party candidates.”
The party commended the patriotic disposition of the 9th National Assembly in passing the amendment. It said: “It is the right thing for the National Assembly to aggregate and consider the clamours by civil societies, interested stakeholders, and indeed all Nigerians on all matters requiring legislation. The APC as a party and government will continue to stand for and support free, fair, transparent, and credible elections. We call on well-meaning Nigerians to join us in this quest to deepen our democracy.”
Caught in the web by the opposition of the governors and the insistence of the lawmakers, the majority of whom are members of the ruling party, the APC leadership seems to be in a dilemma. The party sought to broker peace through a tripartite meeting chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. But, at the end of the day, the direct primary was upheld.
While many observers viewed the insistence of the lawmakers on the idea as a “coup” to strip the governors of their “overbearing” control of the party structure, the governors have equally deployed various political scheming to upturn the passage of the bill to have a firm hold on the parties.
Moves are being made by both parties to ensure the buying in of President Muhammadu Buhari. While the governors are reported to have made various attempts to convince the president not to append his signature on the bill. To this end, the state chief executives have engaged a top-ranking minister, to reach out and convince the president as soon as he returns from his overseas trip not to sign. The two groups (the governors and lawmakers) are in the last week engaged civil society groups, political analysts, and public opinion moulders to subject the media and public space to the necessity and otherwise of the direct mode of primary by the political parties.
A pressure group within the governing party, Concerned APC Stakeholders, through its co-convener, Ayo Oyalowo endorsed the efforts of the lawmakers at a press conference in Abuja and called on President Buhari to be on the side of the people by accepting the bill.
Reacting to reports of moves to get the president to veto the bill, Oyalowo quipped: “We are confident that Mr. President will not veto the bill because he is someone that wants to see the return of the party to the people and one sure way of doing that is through the direct primary option. Mr. President must have come to realize that the governors, as powerful as they are do not mean well for the party and the polity and so won’t toe their line of argument. The president will sign the bill into law.
“Direct primary portends good fortunes for the party, as the issues that will be thrown up by this option will be far less and manageable than the issues that indirect primaries will create. The candidates of the party would by popular choice and not as a result of the influence of a privileged few and this will ensure that we go into the election as one.
In what many people described as a Biblical “hand of Esau and the voice of Jacob”, the hostilities and intrigues took a new dimension at the weekend. The PGD director-general who accused the lawmakers of smuggling the clause into the bill also labelled National Assembly members as products of the same indirect primary they now want to be jettisoned for direct primary.
In the statement entitled “Internal Party Democracy and Politics of Candidates’ Nomination”, Lukman said: “Almost all elected representatives in the National Assembly are as guilty as governors on the allegations they levelled at the state chief executives.” The director-general who is accused of speaking the minds of his employers added: “There are at least 12 former governors currently serving as APC senators. While negotiating to emerge as senators, they must have also been working to ensure the emergence of their preferred choices who are currently serving as governors through the dreaded indirect method. Could these former governors who are currently serving as senators claim to be innocent of all the undemocratic practices associated with the indirect method? Could the current serving governors be the only promoters of the bad undemocratic practices of imposition, vote-buying, etc. through the indirect method?”
He was particularly alarmed by the role being played by the APC lawmakers in the matter. He said: “It is worrisome that APC members in the National Assembly are the ones pushing for this amendment. Rather than leaders of the party negotiating as among themselves on what needs to be done to produce internal agreement to resolve all challenges facing the party, increasingly, structures of the party are being abandoned and other structures outside the statutory organs of the party are being used to attempt to address perceived problems.
“The whole insertion of the provisions requiring political parties to adopt the direct method in the Electoral Act would appear to be an afterthought. This is because the original bill, which was subjected to the joint public hearing by both the Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday, December 9, 2020, at the National Assembly complex in Abuja didn’t contain the insertion of Section 87 Sub Sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. There was only the insertion of Section 87(1 and 2).”
Ahead of the 2023 general elections, the ruling party cannot afford to bungle all the gains of the electoral victory of 2015 and 2019. The rhetoric and the reasons advanced for and against the inclusion of the mode of conduct of party primaries, analysts argued that the federal lawmakers in the two chambers seem resolved to fly or sink with the bill. They may be holding to their chest their next line of action, should the President do the bidding of the governors and refuse to sign the bill.
For the governors, Section 87 of the Electoral Act (Amendment Bill) 2021 may be the spanner in the wheel of their continued control of the party. a legal practitioner, Nelson Ugokwe said if the tension generated by the bill is not properly managed, it may affect the hold of the ruling party in power during the next general election. He said: “The federal lawmakers seem to have won the sympathy of not only ordinary party members, but the Nigerian populace and the electorate with the passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021. Nigerians are looking forward to the bill being assented to and put into operation. Mr. President should read the body language of Nigerians and give us what we want. An Electoral Act that gives power to the people and not to the select few. Anything short of this may be a political Waterloo for the APC come 2023.”
Who blinks first. Will the governors be able to convince the President to hold his assent to the bill, or will the legislators have their way? The President has the final say. His decision may make or mar the electoral fortune of the party at the forthcoming general election.