By Jibrin Ibrahim
This month, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registered 23 new political parties, bringing the total number to 91. This might give the impression that Nigerians would have a lot of choice for the 2019 elections. Unfortunately, the political reality voters would have is that of a limited and frustrating choice between the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that ruled us for sixteen years until the recent past. The number of registered parties would continue to grow but their political impact would continue to be extremely limited. A few months ago, INEC itself declared that at least 18 of the registered political parties in Nigeria were operating with invalid national executive committees, whose tenures had expired or were not reflective of the federal character as required by the Constitution. It would be recalled that Sections 222(a-f) and 223 (1&2) of our Constitution stipulates clearly that registered political parties must have a functional national headquarters in Abuja. Furthermore, members of the national executive committees of the parties must not only reflect federal character but also have tenures that are renewed at intervals not exceeding four years. The Attahiru Jega INEC had de-registered a number of parties for not adhering to these constitutional requirements and for not winning seats in any elections but the courts have always been lenient and permitted parties to continue to have legal existence, even when they do not meet the constitutional requirements.
As I have argued previously, the legal conformity of our parties to the Constitution is in reality the least of their problems. Nigerian political parties have no ideology or programmatic vision, and even more important, they have no members who participate in party activities because they believe their parties have something to offer their country. Depending on their financial capacities, most parties, through their barons, source for and pay crowds to provide participants for their activities. It is for this reason that often, the same persons would be seen attending the activities of different parties. As elections approach, crowds line up to attend congresses and primaries for a fee, so bonanza time is approaching for what Nigerians have appropriately named the “rent a crowd” phenomenon. The reason why political entrepreneurs invest in registering new parties is a straight forward one. There would be a market for desperate politicians who will lose out in the forthcoming party primaries and would be willing to pay huge amounts of money to get a platform to contest the elections. Registering parties is therefore not about politics, it’s a business decision.
INEC, I suspect, understands what is happening but its hands have been tied since the Supreme Court judgment in Balarabe Musa and others versus INEC prohibiting the electoral management body from imposing extra-constitutional measures to prevent the registration of new parties. The risk we face for 2019 is that there might be a lot of names on the ballot, which would be cluttered by parties who almost no one knows. A lot of the contestants would be people who want to proudly state on their CVs that – I WAS A PRESIDENTIAL OR GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE FOR…. The effect of this sadly is that many non-fully literate voters would have serious challenges identifying the candidates they would like to vote for. If each of the 91 political parties in Nigeria today fields candidates for all the 1,558 constituencies to be contested in the 2019 general election, the Electoral Commission will have to grapple with 141,778 candidates – a Herculean task.
It would be recalled that the Fourth Republic was initiated through the 1999 Constitution. For its first election, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registered only three political parties – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP) and the Action for Democracy (AD). Following the Supreme Court judgement on the Balarabe Musa versus INEC case, the conditions for registration of political parties were liberalised. The Supreme Court ruled that INEC acted illegally by imposing conditions that were not known to the Constitution for party registration and declared its action to be outside the law. Subsequently, Nigeria’s political space witnessed an unprecedented opening with the emergence of 63 registered political parties by April 2011 and the number continues to grow each year.
The increase in the number of political parties does not impact significantly on the political process for a simple reason. From 1999, Nigeria operated as a one-party dominant political system in which the PDP held sway and controlled enormous resources, compared to the other parties. The president of the country emerged as the leader of the dominant party, although a party chairman existed and state governors became the leaders of the party at the sub-national level. The system was shaken in the build-up to the 2015 elections when key opposition parties merged to establish the APC, which won the presidential and most of the state elections. The PDP then went into a leadership crisis created by factionalism, which was eventually sorted out by the courts. The PDP was strengthened by the recent defection of the Senate president and some legislators, as well as Governor Aminu Tambuwal from the APC. The political narrative and contest is therefore about Nigeria shifting from a one-party dominant regime to a two-party dominant one. Meanwhile, the reality remains that the two parties are both essentially clientelist networks that are used by the party barons to “deliver” crowds for rallies and party congresses. Most of the other parties would remain platforms in waiting for barons that fall by the wayside.
Over the past two years, very many Nigerians had worked towards and hoped to have a Third Force that would change the nature of Nigerian politics towards good and democratic governance run by a new political class. A number of groups – the “Revive Nigeria Group” led by Aisha Waziri Umar; the “National Intervention Movement” led by Olisa Agbakoba and the “Emerging Political Leaders Group” led by Datti Baba Ahmed and Frank Nweke, made valiant efforts to break the political mould, change the narrative and activate a new type of politics. Hope was created by the success of the generational change advocacy of the articulate Samson Otodo and his YIAGA youth movement that, “We Are Not Too Young To Run”, creating hope that the old, tired and corrupt political class could be replaced by a “breath of fresh air”, which President Jonathan had promised to deliver but failed to do. Be that as it may, a few weeks to the party primaries, the key choice before Nigerians would be the APC and PDP.
The hard fact is that the basic narrative about Nigerian politics remains that the worst elements in our society – the crooks, the swindlers, the daftest and the most selfish constitute the majority of the political class. We are therefore paying the penalty spelt out by Plato that when the good ones do not participate in politics, it’s the others that govern them. It is important that the new and better generation of politicians we are seeking do not give up the struggle. They however have to think beyond 2019. It takes time, resources and organisation to be successful change agents in politics. As the new forces are making the choice of playing “useful” politics by seeking space in the APC and PDP or playing “the future of politics” by joining the other parties, it’s important for them to know that both pathways might enable them for the moment to march separately for now to strike together in future. For this ambition to be realised, they need to address the key weakness of the parties they find themselves in – to make party membership real, get party members not bosses to control party affairs and work towards getting the parties to respect democratic rules in their internal affairs. At the same time, the struggle to reduce the influence of money in the political process must continue.
A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development.