By Tijani Adeyanju
For the first time in the country’s political history, there was a historical change through the electoral process in 2015 of the government in power from the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). This was seen as a major leap forward in the deepening of democratic practice in Nigeria with the possibility of the electorate effecting governmental change through the ballot box thus compelling politicians in control of state power at various levels to at least make a modicum of effort to be responsive to the demands of the electorate and deliver on their mandate from the people. After 16 years from the transition to civil rule in 1999, Nigeria had experienced uninterrupted adherence by the military to its constitutional role of defending the country’s territorial integrity rather than usurping and exercising political power.
The 16 years of the PDP in power, however, showed that formal democratic rule could very easily degenerate into dictatorial party rule masquerading as a competitive electoral system. Ironically, the PDP was born as a democratic organization formed by experienced politicians, including its current National Chairman, Dr Iyorchia Ayu, to put pressure on the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha to quit the political terrain to enable the emergence of a government elected by and responsible to the people. The PDP’s inaugural National Convention at which former military Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo (retd), emerged as the party’s presidential candidate in 1998 was characterized by free, open, competitive and credible primaries in which the late Dr Alex Ekwueme was his formidable major competitor.
Rather than deepen democracy within the PDP and thus in the party as a whole as the first ruling party in this dispensation, President Olusegun Obasanjo immediately moved to seize control of the party structures at all levels after his election. Internal party democratic processes at all levels became entirely farcical as the PDP was systematically reduced to no more than a parastatal under the control of OBJ’s imperial presidency. The Presidency imposed and removed national officers of the party at will brooking no form of institutional autonomy whatsoever to enable the party play its critical and inevitable role towards ensuring both a stable and continuously evolving democratic polity as well as good governance by giving guidance to and holding its members in the executive and legislative arm of government accountable.
Through its control of the party structures, the Obasanjo presidency also determined who emerged as elected executive and legislative public officers at all levels. With the supposedly Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also wholly subordinate to the Obasanjo presidency, the government initially enjoyed tremendous success in its undisguised project to preside over Nigeria as a One-Party state. This no doubt motivated and fueled the publicly stated optimism of the party’s leaders that the PDP would rule Nigeria for 60 years. The 2003 and 2007 elections in particular ranked among the worst in the country’s electoral history. Winning candidates in many states were announced directly from INEC’s headquarters in Abuja with the stated electoral figures utterly unreflective of the actual configuration of political forces on the ground. Many of these fictional victories in a number of states were upturned by the judiciary particularly after the 2007 elections.
With the failure of his administration’s gambit to amend the constitution to eliminate term limits and continue in office through its infamous ‘third term agenda’, Obasanjo railroaded the late President Umaru Yar’Adua and Dr Goodluck Jonathan through the PDP presidential primaries to succeed him as President and Vice President, respectively, in 2007. A man of integrity, Yar’Adua admitted that the elections that brought him into office were badly flawed and initiated far-reaching electoral reforms, the implementation of which were truncated by his unfortunate demise. Under the Jonathan presidency, the subordination of the party to the presidency continued and the utilization of executive power to impose the incumbent on the party as presidential candidate for the 2015 election resulted in the implosion that led to the PDP losing presidential power and the victory of the APC in that year’s election.
Although it came to power riding on the mantra of change which the electorate presumed meant doing things differently from the PDP, the APC has astonishingly simply followed in the footsteps of the PDP by a faction of the party carrying out what amounted to an intra-party coup, removing the comrade Adams Oshiomhole-led National Working Committee (NWC) unconstitutionally and imposing the immediate past party leadership chaired by the Yobe State governor, Mallam Mai Mala Buni in 2020. What was meant to be a six-month interim NWC to give way to newly elected party executives turned out to be a two-year tenure under Buni characterized by frequent changes of the rules of the game and the continuous shifting of the goal posts. It was a near successful mutiny against the continuation in office of the sit-tight Buni Caretaker Committee that led to the last National Convention which brought in the current Alhaji Abdullahi Adamu-led National Working Committee of the APC.
Unfortunately, the Convention that brought in the new party executives was not utilized to restore the APC’s democratic ethos and entrench the control of its structures and processes by rank and file party members. Rather, a form of what could only be described as coerced consensus was used as the method of primaries that saw the emergence of party leaders that were really the choice of a powerful few. To his credit, President Muhammadu Buhari has personally adhered to constitutional and democratic principles in his relationship with the party. However, the power and influence of his office have been unfortunately exploited by a powerful cabal to impose the party leadership in an attempt to seize control of the party structures. A minority within the APC has thus utilized its to presidential power to consolidate on the coup executed with the arbitrary imposition of the Mai Buni Caretaker Committee in 2020.
To further deepen the stranglehold of these reckless few not just on the ruling APC but on political power in Nigeria beyond 2023, there is an all too obvious plan to try by all means to utilize the consensus mode in picking the party’s presidential candidate in this weekend’s party convention. The new Electoral Act allows the party to adopt direct, indirect or consensus mode of primaries. All party members will be involved in direct primaries while elected delegates from the wards and local governments will constitute the electoral college to elect the presidential candidate through indirect primaries. For the consensus mode to be constitutional, all aspirants must sign a written agreement to step down for one among them. Given the constraints of time and resources, the direct primaries mode is obviously impracticable for the APC. As was demonstrated during the convention to elect party executives, with many aspirants shedding tears while reportedly voluntarily stepping down, the consensus mode can easily degenerate into veiled imposition. The indirect mode of primaries is thus the best, most pragmatic and best option for the APC in the circumstances.
Already, no fewer than 28 aspirants have obtained the APC nomination and expression of interest forms at a cost of one hundred million Naira each. Most of them claim to have the competence, pedigree and character to occupy the office they are aspiring to. Many have been campaigning hard nationwide to win over the majority of party delegates. Why would any of them then prefer being imposed as a consensus candidate by a cabal rather than selling themselves to delegates and vying in competitive intra-party polls? Will a candidate imposed by a cabal if he emerges as President not be beholden to and entrapped by such a power cult once in office to the detriment of good governance? It is important for the APC leaders to realize that the stakes in the presidential primaries, unlike election of party leaders, are so high that the imposition of a candidate through coerced consensus will most inevitably lead to an intra-party implosion within the APC that can catapult the PDP back to power in the 2023 presidential election.
Today, the electoral commission is much more autonomous than it was in 2015 and 2019 and the electoral processes are more technologically driven, social media-monitored and almost impossible to manipulate to aid fraud. If the APC takes the electorate for granted by imposing an unpopular candidate through coerced consensus, an act difficult to distinguish from a coup, it will grant the PDP victory in the presidential election despite the latter’s own internal contradictions. And with the way the APC went all out to morally indict and publicly disgrace many members of the PDP when it assumed power in 2015, key members of the ruling party today cannot be too sure that they will not be candidates for judicial trial and prolonged imprisonment if they cavalierly jeopardize their chances of victory in next year’s elections although this may not be bad for the evolution of more responsible, transparent and accountable governance. In such an occurrence, President Buhari will of course be personally unaffected because there is no reason to doubt his honesty and financial incorruptibility. But some of those abusing his trust in them to perpetrate impunity, violate stipulated party structures and processes thereby endangering his legacy. They will be the ultimate losers.
Adeyanju, a Public Affairs analyst, writes from Abuja