The political horse-trading ahead of the 2023 presidential elections in Nigeria reached a climax recently, when the National Assembly, Nigeria’s highest legislative body, approved an amendment of the electoral law that would make it mandatory for all political parties to choose their candidates through the direct primary system.
If passed, it gives Bola Tinubu the upper hand in the race to secure the APC presidential nomination for the 2023 elections, argue analysts.
A coalition of APC Governors are attempting to sway President Buhari from signing the bill.
Currently, the constitution of all political parties in the country gives them the right to choose the modalities for picking their candidates for the presidency, governorship, Senate and other elective positions.
The two systems currently in use are the direct primary and indirect primary.
The indirect primary, better known as the delegate or collegiate system, involves camping a few thousand representatives in a particular location and then having them cast their ballots. The candidate with the highest number of ballots wins the primary and becomes the standard bearer of the party.
It is the most common method of electing candidates because it is more convenient. In 2015, all political parties adopted this method and this was how all candidates emerged.
The second method is the direct primary system, which allows all registered members of a party in a state to directly participate in the primary. Rather than have a few thousand delegates camped in one location to cast ballots for candidates, millions of party members go to their wards across different locations to vote for a candidate. This system is more cumbersome and not easy to control because the number of registered members is usually controversial.
Sources tell The Africa Report that the plot to ensure that the direct primary system is made mandatory in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill was hatched by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, and his godfather, Tinubu, who has been the biggest advocate of direct primaries since 2018.
They have also reportedly recruited Senate President Ahmad Lawan into their plan. In 2015 and 2019, Tinubu partly funded Lawan’s campaign for the Senate presidency. He thus had a favour to repay, and was willing to do it, as long as this didn’t offend Buhari.
Let’s not make this only about Tinubu. It is a victory for democracy. This proposed law will ensure that the most popular candidate emerges…
Around the same time, Tinubu’s campaign had received a huge boost, as he had been endorsed by the northern caucus of the House of Representatives when they visited him in London. However, Tinubu understood that the best way to convince politicians to agree to a plan was to give them one that would benefit them directly.
Unsurprisingly, Tinubu’s backers are glowing.
Speaking to The Africa Report, Bosun Oladele, a former parliamentarian who is the Secretary of Southwest Agenda 2023 (SWAGA 2023), and a Tinubu campaign surrogate, said he was optimistic that the direct primary would boost Tinubu’s chances of victory.
He added, “On whether Tinubu will win, we are convinced that the people will choose him. We are convinced that the people will vote for him because the direct primary now gives them the power to make Tinubu the candidate of their choice. The direct primaries will boost his chances.”
Many federal lawmakers are currently engaged in publicised feuds with their respective governors, who relegated them during the last congresses to pick party leaders. Aware of the immense powers that governors wield, with regards to determining who wins party primaries, these lawmakers are convinced that the best way to secure re-election in 2023 is to defang the governors. Thus, mandating all political parties to conduct direct primaries would reduce the power of governors to influence the outcome of primaries.
A top APC chieftain tells The Africa Report that the plan is also timely, as it came barely weeks after the party’s recent state congresses, which gave the 21 APC governors the upper hand.
Aware of the grand scheme, the main opposition party – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – quickly issued a statement rejecting the plan to make direct primaries mandatory, but the APC leadership led by Yobe State Governor, Mai Mala Buni, seemed not to understand the implication of the proposed law. The APC thus asked the National Assembly to ignore the PDP and go ahead with its amendment.
APC makes a U turn
When the APC understood what was at stake, it summoned a tripartite meeting between the governors, the federal lawmakers and the leadership of the party, at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, in a bid to stop the amendment.
Incidentally, most of the governors who are openly against the direct primary are those who are opposed to Tinubu’s presidential ambition.
An invitation letter, which was seen by The Africa Report, stated that APC lawmakers had been invited to a meeting by Buni, who is the de facto chairman of the APC. They were all supposed to gather at the Presidential Villa by 5pm on 9 Tuesday November. The meeting would be presided over by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo in the absence of Buhari, who is in Paris on official duties. However, the purpose of the meeting was not stated.
Aware of the APC governors’ plan to stop the bill, the Senate and the House of Representatives swiftly passed the bill barely four hours before the meeting was held, and approved it for onward transmission to the President for assent, a fait accompli.
Essentially, the matter is no longer in the hands of the legislature but the President, who will then take the final decision. The lawmakers, however, have threatened that should Buhari fail to sign the amendment within 30 days, it will be passed through a veto.
When the meeting presided over by Osinbajo was eventually held, it was too late. Even at the rancorous meeting, the lawmakers stood their ground, insisting that they had no regrets.
Why governors dislike direct primary
Why do most governors prefer the delegate system to the direct method? In a word, control.
The delegates who are recruited to vote at the primaries are usually handpicked by governors and are paid heavily to do their bidding. The delegate system has ensured that more than 90% of the time governors are able to determine who wins the party primaries in their states.
With the direct system, primaries are like main elections, which are unpredictable because of the sheer size of those who are allowed to vote. It means a person is likely to win a primary based on his popularity and not solely on the blessing of governors. This makes governors more vulnerable and less influential.
For an influential candidate like Tinubu, who is wealthy and commands a huge support base across many states, he could gain a substantial number of votes even in a state where the governor dislikes him. With three out of the four most populous states like Kano, Katsina and Lagos already supporting his ambition, the direct primary could work in his favour.
Most of the governors who are openly against the direct primary are those who are opposed to Tinubu’s presidential ambition. These include Mai Mala Buni of Yobe State, Atiku Bagudi of Kebbi State, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State and influential head of the Governors’ Forum, and Mohammed Badaru Abubakar of Jigawa State.
All eyes on Buhari
With the amendment finally passed, Buhari will now have to sign it for it to become law. Already, some governors have all but relocated to Abuja, awaiting the president’s return. Some have already begun lobbying Attorney-General Abubakar Malami, who is Buhari’s chief legal adviser. Will the president sign the bill?
In an interview with The Africa Report, Senator Adeseye Ogunlewe, a former minister of works, who is also a staunch supporter of Tinubu, says the direct primary system would ensure that the most popular candidate emerges at the APC primary next year.
Ogunlewe, who is a former lawmaker, says governors hijacked the party and failed to let democracy thrive, but this time around, things will be different.
“Let’s not make this only about Tinubu. It is a victory for democracy. This proposed law will ensure that the most popular candidate emerges. Let everyone go to the field to test their strength. I have been a delegate before. All delegates do is to collect money from aspirants. This has undermined the indirect primary system, but with the direct primary, it is like a general election. The most popular candidate will emerge,” he says.
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