Debate over direct primaries puts Nigeria’s politicians, parties in quandary
By Iwok Iniobong
The recent passage of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill 2021 by Nigeria’s National Assembly inserting direct primaries as the legal mode for political parties to pick their candidates for general elections is currently dominating discourse in the polity.
While direct primaries involve the participation of all party members in the selection of party candidates, the indirect primaries involve the use of delegates who are usually leaders and members of the executives at the ward, local government and state levels, to elect the party’s candidates at a congress or convention.
Unlike indirect primary, which is organised in a particular selected venue, and is often restricted to only delegates, the direct primaries take place at ward levels.
Across Nigeria there have been diverse views about the issue, while some have kicked against it, others have supported NASS decision.
Some stakeholders have argued that NASS should allow political parties to pick the option best suited for them. Similarly, others have pointed out that direct primaries was only out to restore sanity, give the party back to the people, rather than the current practise where the nomination of candidates for election has been hijacked by few party leaders.
The practice now is that the indirect primaries has enabled a few political power brokers to hijack party platforms, at the expense of the majority, by only allowing some carefully selected party delegates to elect candidates.
Among the opponents of the idea of a direct primary is the Progressive Governors’ Forum of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who are in favour of an indirect primary being operated presently.
Since their spirited attempts to scuttle the lawmakers’ effort did not scale through, observers say that their next move perhaps, is to lobby President Muhammadu Buhari not to sign the bill into law.
Speaking recently on why he pushed for direct primaries when hosting a group of youths, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, noted that it would bring more accountability and adequate representation as political office holders would not be restricted to pleasing a group of people selected as delegates, but work for the interest of the generality of party members, and by extension, the electorate.
Gbajabiamila stressed that some members of the political class might not be comfortable with the arrangement, but added that the majority of the masses were in support of direct primaries, which he said would give them the opportunity of deciding who would represent them.
“If I know that my return will depend on a few men, I may care about you. But if I know that my return will depend on my accountability and representation to the people, I will do the right thing. It is important for this generation to open the door of leadership to the next generation. We must allow every Nigerian to participate fully in the process of leadership. I, therefore, stand with Direct Primary.
“That’s why I said at different fora that I’m for direct primaries. We have to do this for the sake of the institution. When you gather yourselves (as youths), chances are that you’ll win. Democracy is a government of the people. Democracy is not just a general election. It starts from the primaries.”
But Gbajabiamila’s position did not go down well with the Kebbi State Governor and Chairman of the PGF, Atiku Abubakar Bagudu, who faulted the National Assembly’s insertion of direct primary into the law, maintaining that political parties should be allowed to pick the option best suited for them.
Bagudu stressed that the resolution was against the spirit of Executive Order signed by President Buhari, which frowns at large gathering in the wake of the global pandemic, adding that cumbersome, unwieldy and would overstretch the limited resources of INEC, statutorily mandated to oversee primaries conducted by political parties.
“We have discussed the pros and cons. There has been concern that political parties are voluntary organisations. We express the concern that political parties be allowed to choose from the options that they so desire. There is an Executive Order, signed by President Buhari against large gatherings. These are issues we discussed and hope that the best will be achieved for Nigeria,” Bagudu said.
Amid the uproar, the federal lawmakers are insisting that the move was necessary to safeguard the nation’s democracy.
Spokesman of the House of Representatives, Benjamin Kalu said recently that both chambers adopted direct primaries because it far outweighs the indirect primaries, which he noted was not in consonant with the tenets of democracy.
Meanwhile, while the furore generated by the issue of direct primary is tearing the APC apart, it is not clear what the positions of the PDP Governors are on the issue.
Just when the bill was passed the PDP responded through its Spokesman, and condemned the NASS decision, saying that no party has the right to impose its will on another on the method to adopt for primaries 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 own processes on any other political party as the direct primaries amendment, a practice of the APC, sought to achieve,” the PDP had said.
But reports say that the PDP Governors appear relatively unbothered on the issue, especially since they are in control after the recent national convention in which the entire party structure at the national level is in their firm grip. Furthermore, it appears that the PDP Governors are confident that whether it’s direct or indirect primary, they are fully in charge for the time being.
However, pundits say that though direct primaries might not solve the developmental challenges facing the country and its electoral system, it would eliminate the ‘highest bidder’ syndrome existing in most political parties in Nigeria and go a long way in reducing the emergence of fraudulent and questionable individuals as candidates.
Similar view was shared by Political Analyst, Kunle Okunade who noted that direct primaries system would give back the parties and candidates to the members of the political parties which would indirectly deepens internal democracy and reduces candidates’ imposition by the few stakeholders.
“With this candidates with legitimacy would emerge and this will strengthen the country’s electoral process. My fear is whether the party leaders would follow the due process in the practice of direct system because based on observations of how it was practiced in 2019 in Lagos APC, the process was allegedly fraudulent and shambles,” Okuade said.
Speaking in an interview with BusinessDay, Chekwas Okorie, popular politician and founding member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) applauded the decision of the federal lawmakers, saying that it would deepen democracy, give the party back to the person which was long overdue.
“I have always supported direct primaries; I have been an advocate of it for years, because it guarantees inclusiveness in selecting a leader from the councillor to the president in political parties. Every party member participates and selects the leader that they want.
“The practice now is bad; the delegates are often handpicked by the governors, these delegates would go on to carry out the order of the governors.
“But in indirect primaries somebody who is not popular but can deliver can go on and win. Party members have a right to choose their leaders and they would not disappoint, if they do they don’t vote for such a person again.
The party’s constitution is clear on the right of party members, which is to vote and be voted for, but with the situation now their rights are being curtailed.
Equally, speaking in similar vein, Kayode Kehinde political analyst, said that direct primaries adopted by federal lawmakers was in recognition of the agitations against the ills of favoritism and god-fatherism within the Nigerian political system, adding that since they represent the people their position should be respected.
“Going by the most discussed key position on the adoption of the direct primaries election by NASS as a question of whether NASS or any other structure should propose or impose on political parties on what model to adopt in the process of choosing their party representatives for elections, a valid perceptive to this is that NASS is a body that acts as a representation of the people and by necessity, it should discuss issues in the interest of the people.
“We know the injustice in the current system, hence, if it is considered, the indirect electoral process in party Primaries is not a platform in expressing the peoples’ decision with political representatives, so it should be!”
Furthermore, among the concerns by stakeholders is that direct primaries would place an extra additional logistics burden on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to monitor direct primaries involving the 18 registered parties. Questions have been asked if the commission has the capability to cope with such an enormous task.
There are those that are concerned that the enormous resources required for such may put extra financial burden on the country.
Such is the view of Governor of Benue State, Samuel Ortom, who said he would not support the idea of direct primary elections for political parties because it will cause more problems than envisaged, while more money would be needed.
He said that INEC lacked the required personnel to monitor the conduct of direct primaries by political parties.
“The electoral law should allow political parties to adopt any of the processes suitable for them in conducting their primaries. The adoption of direct party primaries will only give the governors more power to do whatever they want,” Ortom said.
Festus Okoye, INEC, National Commissioner and Chairman, Information & Voter Education Committee said monitoring direct primaries comes with greater financial and security implications, adding that INEC would require about 17,618 officials to supervise direct primaries involving APC and PDP alone in one day.
According to him, “If a political party decides to organise its primary at the local government level, it means that the Commission must deploy monitors to the 774 local government areas of the country.
“The monitoring of direct primaries has financial and national security implications. The ad-hoc staff must be harvested from ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) or the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) or the universities or other sources as may be determined by the commission and supervised by a certain category of our staff.”