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2023 and Direct Primary: WHY GOVS ARE AFRAID

•The Tinubu factor •The facts, the farce, the controversies

Akani Alaka examines the controversies over the inclusion of direct primary in the amendment of the Electoral Act and why the governors are up in arms against it.

As it is, the battle for the complexion of the law that will guide Nigeria’s 2023 general election is not over. Nigerians had celebrated when after much criticisms and agitations, members of the National Assembly finally gave in to allow the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to decide the mode it wants to use to transmit election results from the polling – electronically or otherwise in the law. 

But the battle shifted to the mode to be adopted for selection of candidates by the parties when during the clause-by-clause consideration of the Bill in the House of Representatives, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, proposed an amendment to mandate political parties to use direct primary to select their candidates in the bill. The proposed amendment was voted for and adopted at the lower chamber with little opposition.

At the Senate, some lawmakers, mostly members of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP also tried to block the inclusion of direct primary in the Bill when the issue came up during consideration of the Bill. But just like in the House of Representatives, Senators in favour of direct primary had their way. 

The two chambers had consequently set up Conference Committees to reconcile disparities in the versions of the bill as passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives.

APC, PDP United In Opposition To Direct Primary

But even before the harmonization committee completed its work, the approval of direct primary had sparked an instant protest by governors elected on the platform of the governing All Progressives Congress, APC. 

The APC governors, operating under the aegis of Progressives Governors’ Forum (PGF) also rejected the move by the lawmakers to include direct primary in the amendment bill. Speaking after a meeting at Kebbi State Governor’s Lodge, Asokoro, Abuja, Kebbi Governor and Chairman of the PGF, Atiku Abubakar Bagudu faulted the National Assembly’s insertion of direct primary in the amendment bill. He added that it was the opinion of the governors that political parties should be allowed to use any method that suits them to choose their candidate.

Besides, Bagudu, at the meeting which was attended by nearly all the APC governors argued that direct primary will be too cumbersome, unwieldy and would overstretch the resources of INEC which has been given the task of monitoring the process in the new law. “Direct primary involves supervisory role by INEC. So, if multiple political parties are doing their primaries, INEC resources will be overstretched, and I think the chairman of INEC had even commented on that,” Bagudu said.

The Peoples Democratic Party has also condemned the inclusion of direct primary election by political parties in the nomination of candidates for elections in the amended law.

PDP National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, in a statement, said no party has the right to impose its will on another on the method to adopt in the primary election: “It is the inalienable right of each political party, within the context of our constitutional democracy, to decide its form of internal democratic practices, including the processes of nominating its candidates for elections at any level. The PDP also believes that no political party should force its processes on any other political party as the direct primaries amendment, a practice the APC, sought to achieve.”

Amendment Passed Nevertheless 

However, this did not stop the Senate and the House of Representatives from passing the Electoral Act Amendment Bill the next day, November 9.  In the Bill, INEC was given the sole power to determine the mode of transmission of results.

Also included in the new bill is an amendment mandating the use of direct primary for the selection of candidates. It reads, “87(1) A political party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this Bill shall hold direct primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which shall be monitored by the Commission.”

Still not ready to give up, the Governor Mai Mala Buni-led Caretaker/Extraordinary National Convention Planning Committee of APC had summoned the National Assembly caucus of the party to a meeting over the inclusion of direct primary in the Electoral Act the same day the bill was passed.

At the meeting held at the Presidential Villa presided over by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, the governor tried to convince the lawmakers to change their stand on direct primary without success. 

Mai Mala Buni, the chairman of the Caretaker Committee of the APC and governor of Yobe, presented the Committee’s position on party primaries.  President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila who attended the meeting insisted that the passage of the Bill that amended the Electoral Act 2021 by both chambers of the National Assembly was a statement of its commitment to the party’s victory in 2023.

To Sign Or Not To Sign

The battle to get direct primary out of the Amendment Bill shifted from the National Assembly to the Aso Rock Presidential Villa with the transmission of the  Electoral Bill to President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday, November 19 for assent. The Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Babajide Omoworare, in the statement entitled: “Transmission of Electoral Bill 2021” Omoworare said: “Please be informed that in pursuance of Section 58 (3) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) and the Acts Authentication Act Cap. A2 LFN 2004, the National Assembly has transmitted the Electoral Bill 2021 to Mr. President today Friday, November 19, 2021.”

Nigerians are waiting to see if the president will sign the bill into law given the opposition to the inclusion of direct primary as the only mode of choosing candidates by political parties.

Speaking a day before the Electoral Act Bill was forwarded to President Buhari for assent, Gbajabiamila said there was no reason for the president not to sign the electoral bill into law.

The Speaker, who spoke with State House correspondents in Abuja after meeting with the president, said Buhari supported direct primary because the president himself was a product of direct primary because of his popularity.

He added that indirect primary has not helped the growth of democracy.

“Democracy is defined as a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. ‘People’ is used three times in that definition. And it doesn’t start from general elections. It starts from primaries. So, we have made it very clear abundantly,” he added. 

Gbajabiamila added that direct primary would help young Nigerians to fulfil their political aspirations as intended by the Not Too Young To Run Bill. “You pass Not Too Young To Run Bill, but at the same time, you close the space for the young ones for whom you have passed Not Too Young To Run Bill. You have continued with your indirect primaries. How will the young people get involved? Now, they have a chance with the direct primaries. You have opened up the space and they can get in and mobilise themselves and if they are popular enough, they win the election. They are not dependent on any godfather,” said Gbajabiamila.

He also dismissed claims that direct primary would be too expensive for political parties and the electoral commission to handle: “I have heard that argument about cost. And this is what I have to say: do you put a price tag on democracy? I don’t think you should. What is too much and what is too little to buy freedom and democracy? I don’t think you should put a price tag on it.”

However, left to Dr Gbade Ojo, a Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Ilorin, President Buhari should not touch the bill with a long pole. Ojo, who once served as Chief of Staff to the late Governor Abiola Ajimobi, said that political parties must be given the freedom to adopt any of the consensus, direct and indirect modes of primary.

He added that using direct primary to select a candidate before going for the main election will be like conducting general elections twice. He added that political parties don’t have the mechanism to supervise direct primaries. “Such an imposition will amount to an infringement of their fundamental human rights. It should be an internal affair of political parties to decide which mode of primary they wish to adopt in selecting their candidates. For instance, if the All Progressives Congress (APC) is in love with direct primary, there is no reason why it should impose it on all other parties.

He, however, acknowledged that a direct mode of selecting candidates will reduce the influence of money in politics. “That is, it will be difficult to bribe millions of voters in a single space. I’m quite sure that Mr President will not allow himself to be misled into assenting to that bill. However, if the president assents to it, political parties can challenge the bill in court,” he said.

However, Ojo Adebayo, a former Commissioner for Justice in Oyo State disagrees with him. According to Ojo, the direct mode would see the return of power to the majority by restoring sanity in the process of choosing political parties’ candidates.

This, he said, would stop moneybags’ hijack of political parties. “The issue of the collegiate system allows for manipulation and corruption. It is subject to the manipulation of a few powerful individuals like governors. But with this, it means that sovereignty has been returned to the people,” Adebayo said.

The Farce of Direct Primary

However, beyond such idealistic hopes, analysts said direct primary has been mostly used for manipulation of the process of selection of candidates.

The APC had first indicated its romance with the direct election in 2018.

The then National Chairman of the party, Adams Oshiomhole had announced that APC NWC,  “decided that, to ensure popular participation, and to deepen democracy in Osun State, in line with the provisions of the APC Constitution which allows for either direct or indirect primary’, the governorship election primary in Osun State will be conducted based on direct primary.  What that means is that every card-carrying member of our party will participate in the process of nominating the flag bearer of the party.”

The primary election produced Gboyega Oyetola amidst cries of manipulation of the process, use of money to buy party members at the ward level where the elections were conducted and dispute over party register.

Ahead of the 2019 general election for instance, after fiddling with 

direct and indirect primary for all states, the Oshiomhole-led APC decided to allow state executive committee members to choose the kind of primary that they preferred.

But it later came out with a statement approving different modes of primary across the 36 states of the federation a few days to the election. 

As was observed then, the party approved indirect primaries in some of the states where some of the incumbent governors had strong contenders for their seats. For instance, while the indirect primary was approved in Kaduna and Katsina where Nasir el-Rufai and Bello Masari were on the ballot seeking reelection, in Lagos, the APC approved direct primary for party members to decide if they are ready to allow Akinwunmi Ambode to run on their platform for a second term.

Other states where APC used direct primaries in 2019 are Ogun, Osun, Ondo, Imo, Bauchi, Bayelsa, Taraba, Zamfara, Edo among others. 

Some of the APC chieftains, including incumbent governors in Ogun, Imo, Lagos especially had cried foul over the conduct of the direct primary as they believed it was manipulated from Abuja to kick them out of office, in case of Lagos or to ensure that they were not succeeded by their favourite candidates, in case of Imo and Ogun.

But even at that, the party was inconsistent as further analysis show that extraneous factors of godfatherism which ironically, the direct primary was meant to curb may have influenced the party’s decision. 

Many of the state chapters of the APC where the direct primary was used to conduct the election for selection of candidates have been in crises since then.

APC had earlier used direct primary with party members purportedly voting across the nation to give President Buhari a second term ticket. The manipulation of the process in 2019 was reflected in the fact that most of the candidates who emerged victorious with the use of direct primary scored more votes than they were able to garner during the general election.

For example, Sanwo-Olu won the Lagos APC primary with 970,851 but scored 739,445 votes to defeat Jimi Agbaje of PDP to emerge governor in an election he was expected to garner more votes because it will also include non-party members.  The farce of direct mode of the primary was also reflected in the recent Anambra election where the APC candidate, Andy Uba who won the direct primary with over 200,000 votes but could barely score up to 50,000 in the governorship poll. 

Direct Primary, Tinubu and 2023

Nevertheless, the lawmakers in the National Assembly are rooting for direct primary because of the belief that it can be a way to evade the stranglehold of governors who most times determine who gets which ticket through the indirect mode of primary usually populated by their appointees.

As canvassed by Gbajabiamila, the lawmakers believe that their prospect of a return to office will be enhanced if every card-carrying member of the party participates in the process of nomination of the flag bearer of the party for each position.

On the other hand, the governors, some of whom are already completing their second term fear that such mass participation may be to their disadvantage as they may not be able to control every card-carrying member of the party during the primary.

However, for the APC governors and some of those eyeing the presidential ticket of the party, there is the added fear of the factor of Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos and chief advocate of direct primary.

It was believed that the use of direct primary in Osun in 2018 and most of the states in 2019 was due to the influence of the Lagos State Governor. In all the instances, Tinubu was able to get his favoured candidates elected at the primary. Though he has not declared for the 2023 presidential election, many groups are already springing up, urging him to run.

Analysts say if Tinubu decides to run, the adoption of a direct primary for the selection of the presidential candidate, just like the party did in 2018 may be in his favour. 

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Thus, some of the governors in support of the presidential ambition of the former Lagos governor, while afraid of how the adoption of direct primary may affect them in their states, are rooting for it at the national level.

Reports indicated that the disagreement among the 22 APC governors on the mode of primary nearly led to fisticuffs between the Nasarawa State Governor, Abdullahi Sule and his Kogi State counterpart, Yahaya Bello at a recent meeting on the issue. Sule who has never hidden his support for power shift to the South in 2023 and his support for Tinubu had reportedly spoken in favour of direct primaries at the meeting. But he was opposed by his Kogi State counterpart.

The Kogi governor is one of the aspirants for the 2023 presidency who has been very vocal about his ambition. The fear of Bello and other governors, according to analysts, was that the former Lagos governor might be unstoppable if the direct mode of primary which may be totally out of their control is adopted for the presidential election. 

Analysts said if President Buhari eventually signed the amendment bill into law, the governors might shift their attention to the APC National Convention scheduled for February.

But there are also indications that the PDP may challenge the bill in court if signed into law by the president. For the Electoral Act, the battle is not over.