The past week has featured perhaps the highest spike in the popularity rating of President Muhamadu Buhari in his six year old tenure, as he emerged the bride who is wooed by two camps, each of which needs him to favour its case in the assent or otherwise, of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021. The bone of contention between these two lobbies is section 87(1) of the Bill which makes it mandatory for all political parties to adopt direct primaries in selecting candidates henceforth, for elective offices.
For clarification, direct primaries provides that all registered members of a political party in any constituency are eligible to participate in selecting candidates for any elective office. indirect primaries provide for a designated political party to select delegates firstly, who will in turn select candidates who will carry its flag for contesting elective offices. Since last week when the development occurred, political circles across the country had been abuzz, over Buhari’s predilection on the matter.
In one vein is the lobby of powerful Nigerians who are demanding that the President should not assent to the Bill as passed last week by the Conference Committee of the National Assembly, formed from the two chambers to harmonise their respective positions on the Bill. To demonstrate the vehemence of this lobby, a top level stakeholders’ meeting of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), reportedly comprising state governors as well as other power brokers within its ranks, and which had Vice President Yemi Osibanjo as Chairman, rejected the provision of direct primaries. They want the President not to assent to it, and seem willing to swerve him with the weight of party loyalty.
Meanwhile, to accentuate that the opposition to direct primaries crosses party lines, is the stand of some governors of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), such as that of Benue State Samuel Ortom, who for once is sharing a common position with strange bed-fellows as it were, in the ruling party. According to him, direct primaries will be too expensive for both the political parties as well as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct. He was nevertheless silent on the more profound distortion of democracy through play-out of capriciousness in the selection of delegates by state governors like him, in polls exercises across the country.
In the other vein are also Nigerians who are praying that the President will not succumb to what they see as tacit blackmail from several powerful but largely parochial interests, and thereby fail the country by not assenting to the Bill, which they see as the ultimate solution to launching the country’s political terrain on a course of rectitude and sustainability. To this second lobby, the situation provides a testing ground to define Buhari’s premium on popular will, and what he makes of it. Will he sacrifice popular will of majority of Nigerians for the whims and caprices of the narrow strand of the society who makes up the political elite, is the question before him.
For the purpose of emphasis, the supporters of direct primaries include the members of the country’s central legislature – the National Assembly who ordinarily are acting in consideration of the overwhelming, popular will of teeming Nigerians masses, to redefine the political culture of the country. They are joined by other members of the Nigerian public who also share the aspirations of seeing a new Nigeria where every vote counts in any election.
As things stand, the country is faced with a stand-off between the painstakingly derived, popular resolution of the National Assembly on one hand and the largely parochial concerns of a strong phalanx of potentates (such as state governors in particular) whose antecedents hardly define them as voluntarily altruistic in their leadership endevours. The situation thus leaves Buhari with the better option of siding with the National Assembly and by implication the voice of the Nigerian people, or endorsing in error, the continuation of self-serving proclivities of the anti-direct primaries lobby.
It is in this respect that the President needs to be guided by factors that will not defeat the overall goal of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021, both for now and the future of the country. In the circumstance, the President owes present day Nigerians and those yet unborn the duty to ensure no factor should outweigh the imperative of availing the country a robust electoral culture whereby all polls shall be seen as credible, free and fair. Without equivocation, such a dispensation can only occur when the country ensures that every vote, counts. This is where direct primaries provide the framework as it will impel aspirants to strive to know their party members, and also be known better by the latter.
Seen in context, one of the immediate revelations of the tussle over direct and indirect primaries is the syndrome whereby impunity serves as the life blood of the typical Nigerian and in fact African political potentate. It actually does not need the enterprise of rigorous forage into the country’s political history to appreciate that Nigeria’s electoral culture is beset with grave weaknesses which include the intolerance of the political elite especially in the executive arm of government, to share power with the masses, even as the ethos of democracy dictates so.
From an endless series of instances, lessons abound that the liberties granted political parties in the Electoral Act 2010, to adopt any of the options of direct or indirect primaries in picking candidates for elective offices had been serially abused by entrenched interests in these parties. It is not out of place to note here that historically, the actual selection of delegates in most party primaries exercises across the country, favours merely handpicked beneficiaries who are imposed on the respective party structure, courtesy of the indirect system. In the same vein the outcome of this practice has been the perennial emergence of several misfits in the corridors of power who come to public service not to serve the public, but their personal interests and those of their sponsors.
A measure of the deep rooted nature of electoral incontinences in Nigeria is the report on the 1959 General Elections that ushered in the country’s independence government where the British colonialists lamented over the high incidence of acts of impunity by the Nigerian elite, and wide spread practice of vote buying. Since then the culture of distorting polls results by any means possible has rather been deepened rather abating, hence prompting the need to introduce drastic measures that will provide traction for change. Section 87(1) on direct primaries in just one good step in the right direction.