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Why order of election matters

I do not know whether or not the National Assembly has the constitutional power to fix the order of next year’s elections, as the House…

I do not know whether or not the National Assembly has the constitutional power to fix the order of next year’s elections, as the House of Representatives is trying to do through an amendment to the Electoral Act. Some lawyers are saying that INEC’s constitutional power to fix election dates includes the power to fix the order of elections. For INEC this may be just a technical and logistics issue. For politicians however, order of election is an existential political issue; it could go a long way in determining whether or not a major political office holder survives the 2019 election. 

Of three powerful groups of elected politicians in Nigeria, namely the president, state governors and National Assembly members, each one wants his or their election to be the first to be held in 2019. There are very good reasons for that. For example, in 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan was happy that the presidential election was to hold first. This was because he did not trust PDP governors, especially those in the North. Many of them were unhappy with him and they did not mind if he lost the election, provided they won their own elections. However, if presidential polls were to hold first, every PDP governor must work hard to get the president re-elected, otherwise his own prospects of getting re-elected [in the case of first term governors] or of retaining the party in power [in the case of second term governors] will be in peril. 

Jonathan strategists took due note of 2011; even though CPC won 12 states in the presidential election, it won only one in the subsequent governorship election, which was not even among the 12 it won earlier. Many political pundits however think CPC lost the governorships due to its bitter infighting and clumsy last minute candidate substitutions, not so much because it lost the presidential election. Luckily for INEC in 2015, the then opposition APC did not seem to mind that the presidential election was to hold first. This was because APC believed that its presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, was its chief electoral asset and was in good stead to win the election. If he did win, then things would be much brighter for APC’s governorship and other candidates because of the likely bandwagon effect. Indeed, Buhari’s victory in 2015 facilitated an APC sweep of governorship and other elections.

As 2019 looms, different powerful blocs are making different calculations. Right now the Presidency might have calculated that despite its many political and governance problems, Buhari is more popular than his party and its governors. That despite the disorganised and unappealing nature of APC nationally, the president could still appeal over the party’s head directly to voters, if he decides to contest. The danger, from the Presidency’s point of view, is that if governorship polls were to hold first, many first term APC governors could be defeated. Such governors would then lose interest in the president’s re-election or even actively work against it. Personally popular or not, governors control the local party machinery and losing their support is a huge risk. 

Governors have different concerns. From the look of things, APC governors in the forefront of the campaign for Buhari to seek re-election are the ones with serious political problems at home. They may not be able to ride to a second term on their own steam and are hoping to cling tightly to Buhari’s political coattails. This is especially true in the far North. On the other hand, South West and Middle Belt APC governors will make their own calculations as to whether they should cling on to Buhari or strike out on their own. 

Conditions are different in the various North Central states. In Benue State for example, Governor Ortom was up until late last year in the forefront of the campaign for a Buhari second term. Given his poor record at home, Ortom saw it as political saving grace. The herdsmen/farmers clashes changed all that. Ortom held on tightly to the herdsmen issue as his best bet for  re-election. Rumours are that he will soon desert APC and return to PDP so he can actively paint Buhari as the herdsmen’s protector, a ruse than can win votes in Benue. 

His neighbour Governor Simon Lalong will quietly calculate whether Buhari is still sellable in Plateau or whether he himself can get re-elected on account of his own record. The governors of Niger, Nasarawa and Kogi will make different calculations. Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi will continue to cling tightly to Buhari’s coattails because of both his dubious governance record and the ethnic odds against him in 2019. Depending on whether they decide that the president is a political asset or liability in their states, each governor would want either the presidential or the governorship election to come first.

In the South West, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu’s political machine must be doing some hard thinking. Asiwaju’s colleagues and himself must decide if they can sell Buhari in the zone again. If not, they don’t have very good options. They are unlikely to go to Obasanjo’s CFN and they are unlikely to go to PDP, which is controlled by their bitter political rivals. Their last fallback position is to forsake federal power and consolidate their hold on the South West, the geopolitical zone in Nigeria most able to do without federal power. 

Enter National Assembly members. Of the three broad groups of elected officials, MPs are the least powerful in electoral terms. On their own they can hardly hold on to their seats either in party primaries or in general elections. Although MPs are frantically looking for money in order to appease their constituents and safeguard their seats, even a lot of money cannot save an MP’s seat in party primaries if the governor bargains it away as part of jockeying to retain his own seat. In fact, many MPs were given their seats in 2015 only after they pledged to relinquish them in 2019 for other party actors. Some senators are holding their seats for the governor to complete his second term, while many Reps will lose their seats to powerful commissioners, state assembly speakers or heads of powerful state government agencies. This is not to mention rich businessmen who may walk into the party at the last minute and grab the seats by making hefty financial donations. Also, when most Nigerian voters go to the polls, MPs win or lose elections mostly due to popularity of parties, governors or presidential candidates, but hardly on their own steam.

It is for this reason that MPs are now clamouring to have their elections held first so that both the president and governors will sit up and ensure their re-election, lest they are affected by negative bandwagon. On the other hand we expect the presidency to work hard, probably surreptitiously, to maintain the current order of elections. The first time that presidential elections were held first in Nigeria was in 1983. Newspapers  reported at the time that it was the ruling NPN’s Strategy Committee headed by Alhaji Umaru Dikko that demanded that the 1979 order of election be reversed in order to strengthen President Shehu Shagari’s position against his own party and its governors. FEDECO, which was not very independent, adopted the arrangement, as it did other NPN schemes such as refusing to register the Progressive Peoples Party [PPP] and instead registered Tunji Braithwaite’s NAP, hoping it will pluck some Yoruba votes away from UPN.

As Daily Trust on Sunday argued in its editorial yesterday, it is not logical to conduct Presidential and National Assembly before governorship and state assembly elections. Even if the courts rule that INEC has the power to determine the order of elections, it should not insist on holding presidential elections first.

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