One day, in our elections’ annals, we shall look to this year as the milestone when the delegate came of age. These ubiquitous, yet anonymous, entities have been with us since political processes were introduced by the British in the 1950s when they were winding up to leave us to our own devices. The delegates to party conventions even in those political parties of yore, Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC), United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), and National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), were organised to select candidates that in turn were offered for election to the nation. I guess this became a neater alternative than allowing every interested party member gunning for a post to go for it. That would have been a regular bedlam, a free-for-all, that would not have been easily regulated by the electoral commissions.
This became the norm particularly in the dispensations of the 4th Republic. The delegate was, albeit, a surreptitious arrival. Nonetheless, even in the 1990s when the Babangida military regime organised that famous 1993 election that was infamously truncated, there were talks of hijacking an entire troop of delegates and sequestering them in isolated hostels and guest houses out of the reach of competing aspirants. This was with a view to keep them away from the perceived malevolent influences of the competing aspirants and that the delegates votes would be guaranteed at the convention ground.
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The same practice was widely adopted when civilian rule started again in 1999. It became an even more potent force in the hands of the state governors who eventually assumed a more omnipotent influence over the entire spectrum of the polity. The governors became so overweening with the iron-fisted control they had over the delegates from their states that they could pick and choose aspirants to various positions. Obviously, something had to give way. Other stakeholders, particularly those in the National Assembly who felt short-changed in the power game took up the gauntlet to water down the powers of the governors by making the primary elections manifestly more democratic. They had to do that because their positions could be threatened if they did not win primaries at the grassroots controlled by delegates under the influence of governors. And if one were not in the good books of the governor it was tantamount to foregoing the elections. The attempt to make changes in the electoral law took many turns and twists during many assembly tenures until this more determined 9th Assembly finally put the screws. The debate on the electoral act carried on not only within the hallowed chambers of the National Assembly but also widely in the media. For the first time the role of the delegate came under intense scrutiny by all. For me it looks like the coming of age of the delegate whom even though remaining anonymous, would henceforth be under the watchful eyes of the public.
The delegate has been making an overwhelming presence in our psyche in the last many days when the parties have been making final preparations to hold presidential primaries in Abuja. Most of the states have already concluded their local primaries for offices of the governor, the National and State Assemblies and from what had circulated in the media there would be nothing to celebrate in the role of the delegate. They are depicted to be corrupt, demanding money to sell their votes to the highest bidder or under the influence of a local godfather whom in most cases would be the governor of the state. In most reports the delegate is perceived as a person without a mind of his own or one whom personal pecuniary interest overrides all other sublime considerations.
Now that the delegate has come of age it has also become the butt of jokes mostly in our robust social media circuit. I have seen a video in Kanuri language where someone went to a village to seek for the hand of a damsel. When the village grandees wanted to know him better, he pompously introduced himself as a delegate. I have seen another entry elsewhere where someone was bitterly regretting the course he studied in the university. He said: “If I had known I would have studied ‘delegate’ in the university – BSc Delegate”. There is also one that is trending on WhatsApp where a delegate is celebrating his new car which he bought with the proceeds of delegate’s activities at a primary election. I guess many readers would also be familiar with the video where delegates were returning money collected from a candidate that had lost the primary election. In another video delegates were described variously as ‘political bandits’, ‘reigning yahoo boys’, ‘grassroots of Nigeria’s problems’, ‘power belongs to God, dollars belong to the delegates’. Harsh words, but probably unpalatable truths.
It is obvious to all and sundry that the National Assembly has still got a lot of work to do on the Electoral Act. What has so far been the performance of the delegates has not ingrained the necessary confidence in the political processes. In the bid to curtail the power of the governors we have created a faceless behemoth that could consume the political process if not handled adroitly.