Rivalries within Nigeria’s ruling APC party raise spectre of electoral meltdown

By Ruth Olurounbi
Posted on Thursday, 2 September 2021 17:58, updated on Tuesday, 28 September 2021 15:32

Supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari celebrate the announcement of results favouring his All Progressives Congress (APC) party in their state in Kano, northern Nigeria Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Two years ahead of national elections in Nigeria, and its two main parties are in disarray. Activists in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) are spending time attacking their fellow party loyalists, rather than those in the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

The same could be said for the PDP whose members are embroiled in a fight over the chairmanship of their party. (See Opposition in the Opposition).

The PDP offers only token criticism of the APC government under President Muhammadu Buhari as it struggles with serial crises on the security and economic fronts.

Both parties are locked in internal battles – not over the best policies to address the mounting pressures on Africa’s biggest economy, but for the top jobs in each party which will determine their presidential candidates in 2023.

Key to that is who holds the national chairmanship.

In the PDP, embattled Uche Secondus is hanging onto the chairman’s post but in the ruling APC it is up for grabs, and the competition is playing out regional and state factions according to Bukola Bolarinwa, Africa Analyst at Control Risks.

“[Rival] interests have begun to seek support and build leverage for the state delegates which has created camps within various state and national groups,” says Bokarinwa.

Breaking the rules?

At the centre of the fight over the national chairmanship of the APC is Yobe State governor, Mai Mala Buni, who is the party’s temporary chairman and  leads its interim national committee.

Buni’s opponents, many of whom are supporters of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, say he must step down immediately because he is breaking the country’s constitution that states an incumbent state governor cannot take a second job.

This means, they argue, that the party risks being disqualified from  elections because its top officers are breaching the country’s constitution.

The Buni thing was just an extension of this struggle. It will get worse as campaign season comes closer.

Buni, backed by the Attorney General Abubakar Malami, is ignoring his opponents  and is going ahead with party congresses at local government level on 4 September. This will be the first stage in choosing delegations to the party’s national convention next year.

The divisions over Buni’s position is the first true test of unity within the APC, according to Bolarinwa. The party was founded in 2013 as a coalition to defeat the PDP which had dominated national politics since 1999.

Core to that mission was Buhari’s leadership and massive voter support in the north. With Buhari’s exit due in 2023 and widespread criticism of APC rule, all that could change.

“Without a unifying goal and candidate, the coming months will determine if the party has created structures and leaders that can inspire,” says Bolarinwa, “… and pick a unifying presidential candidate and popular governorship candidates”.

The Buni crisis

The Buni crisis is “merely a lagging effect and the APC has in fact already imploded into its various camps, broadly its original components, the CPC (Congress for Progressive Change) faction which is mainly Northern-based, and the CAN (Action Congress Nigeria)-faction, which is mainly based in the South-West,” says Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.

No quick fix is in sight, says Nwanze: “The Buni thing was just an extension of this struggle. It will get worse as campaign season comes closer.”

Behind the fight over Buni’s position are deeper schisms linked to sundry factions preparing for their presidential run in 2023. Chief among those players are ex-governor of Lagos State and now ‘national leader’ of the APC Bola Tinubu and his ally, former governor of Edo State and former national chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole.

Tinubu, a leading contender in the 2023 Presidential race, and Oshiomhole were controlling the APC’s National Executive Committee but lost out in a power struggle last year to a faction backed by Attorney General Malami.

The compromise solution, approved by President Buhari, was to appoint Buni as interim chairman to run a caretaker committee until fresh elections could be held for the party’s highest decision-making body.

But that is yet to happen.

This is more than arcane Abuja politics…

These disputes had threatened the APC’s position in elections in Zamfara, Ondo and Edo states. Since then, the Zamfara governor defected from the PDP to the APC and the Supreme Court validated the APC candidate Rotimi Akeredolu as governor of Ondo State.

Some of the party members are wary of the repeat of Zamfara State experience in 2019.

But Edo state, where Godwin Obaseki won the governorship election, remains in the hands of the opposition PDP.

This holds lessons for the APC, says Olaoluwa Afolabi, who has reported on Nigerian politics for nearly two decades.

“Some of the party members are wary of the repeat of Zamfara State experience in 2019,” he says explaining that the Supreme Court ruled that the APC’s candidate selection process broke the law and and gave the governorship to the opposition PDP candidate Bello Matawalle.

It was only Matawalle’s subsequent defection to the APC that returned Zamfara to its control. So the challenge to Buni’s chairmanship has heavy implications.

If the Buni-led leadership is illegal, the process for wards, local government, state and national congress of the party will also be nullified,” says Afolabi. That means the opposition could “reap bountifully” from the ensuing chaos in the ruling party, he adds.

It’s simply a matter of law, and if the Supreme Court finds reason to go against the current leadership of the APC, argues Afolabi, “… the PDP will be the sole beneficiary, since it is the strongest opposition party in the country.”

Going forward

Selecting a unifying national chairman and conducting credible congresses would be the first step for the party to close ranks, says Control Risks’ Bolarinwa says.

But analysts such as SBM Intelligence’s  Nwanze don’t see a healing of the rifts any time soon.

“I don’t see any closing of ranks. But unless something changes rapidly, I think that the party will remain in power beyond 2023. The real question is what state it would be in after that, and what state the country would, by extension, be in?”

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