Can Nigeria’s ruling party survive after Buhari?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Saturday, 8 January 2022 15:16

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari is seen at the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

Less than seven years after making history as the first opposition party to win a presidential election in Nigeria, the ruling APC party of Africa's most populous nation faces an existential challenge as President Muhammadu Buhari wraps up his final term in office.
A high-stakes meeting of Nigeria's governors on Sunday 9 January will be a chance to rescue it.

Buhari has always shown confidence in his composure. The retired general has been a central player in Nigeria’s chequered political history, having fought in the civil war, served as oil minister and military governor in the 1970s. In December 1983, he overthrew a democratically elected president and ruled Africa’s most populous nation with an iron fist for 20 months before he was also ousted.

But for the first time, during a recent interview with state broadcaster NTA, he showed a vulnerable side which many Nigerians had not seen since he assumed power nearly seven years ago. He warned that if the leaders of the All Progressives Congress (APC) cannot settle their differences amicably and quickly pick a date for the party’s convention, it could lose power.

“If the party (APC) cannot agree, then the opposition will take over,” he said.

Buhari further recalled how the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lost power in 2015 mainly because the PDP underestimated the strength of the opposition. Advising the governors on the need to allow internal democracy to thrive in the states, Buhari added, “The governors should allow the system to work. I am not a kingmaker. I have tried to get my position known that party leadership needs a bottom to top approach.”

Buhari, who was known as a serial election loser until 2015, understands the importance of party unity and how internal conflict could be detrimental to electoral success. Buhari contested three presidential elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011, garnering huge vote tallies but coming second because his party lacked a national spread.

In 2013, his Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) forged an alliance with the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), led by Lagos godfather Bola Tinubu, and the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP), a predominantly northern party, to form a mega party, the APC.

The alliance, which also attracted some prominent defectors from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), was initially written off by many observers as an unwieldy amalgamation of politicians with widely divergent views. The APC was a mix of northern conservative hardliners, southern liberal progressives and non-aligned individuals with the ultimate aim of ending the 16-year rule of the PDP and bringing an end to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan.

However, thanks to Buhari’s cult following in the north as well as Tinubu’s political strength in the southwest, coupled with the disunity in the PDP that led to the defection of five governors to the APC, victory became inevitable. Ironically, the party that had once been written off as a joke saw its standard-bearer elected president on 1 April 2015,  April Fools’ Day.

Cracks after victory

But soon after the party’s victory, critics said the APC was only a “special purpose vehicle” invented to exploit Buhari’s popularity in order to win elections. This applied mainly in the north, where many elected officials rode to victory on Buhari’s coattails.

Soon enough, the APC’s internal contradictions became obvious after victory had been secured and it was time to share the spoils of success. With Buhari in power, members of his original CPC party who had been with him from the beginning exploited their closeness to the new president to score some of the most powerful positions in government.

For instance, Abubakar Malami, who was the national legal adviser in the CPC before the APC merger, became the Attorney General and remains the most powerful minister in Buhari’s cabinet to date.

A few others who were not from the CPC also got some top government jobs. Apart from Yemi Osinbajo, who was picked as Buhari’s running mate by Tinubu, many of the Lagos godfather’s allies were left high and dry, straining Tinubu’s relationship with the president.

Tinubu’s wife, Remi, admitted this on live television when she said her husband was used and dumped.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the APC’s cracks was in the June 2015 internal elections to pick the leadership of the National Assembly. Senator Bukola Saraki, one of the politicians that crossed to the APC from the PDP in 2014, became Senate president against the party’s wishes.

Rubbing salt in the wound, Saraki ceded the position of deputy Senate president to a serving PDP member, Ike Ekweremadu, the first time in Nigeria’s history that an opposition member would hold such a high position in the Senate.

The story was similar in the House of Representatives where Tinubu’s godson, Femi Gbajabiamila, lost the speakership position to Yakubu Dogara, another defector from the PDP. Because Saraki and Dogara were never accepted by the APC, the National Assembly would become the opposition in Buhari’s first term.

Oshiomhole’s exit

Toward the end of his first term, Buhari reached out to his most strategic partner, Tinubu, to help him win re-election. Tinubu ensured that his preferred choice, Adams Oshiomhole, became chairman of the APC. He was able to lead the party to victory in 2019 but stepped on many toes in the process.

Oshiomhole’s major fault, apart from his high-handedness, was his loyalty to Tinubu, a man who is also seeking the presidency. Everything Oshiomhole did – including the suspension of some governors – was believed to have been ordered by Tinubu.

Worried by Tinubu’s control over Oshiomhole and the party, several governors including Kayode Fayemi (Ekiti), Atiku Bagudu (Kebbi), Muhammad Badaru (Jigawa) and Mai Mala Buni (Yobe) came together to orchestrate Oshiomhole’s suspension and eventual ouster from the party. A feud with Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State cemented his fate, which was heavily exploited.

Through a series of court cases instituted against Oshiomhole, he was suspended as the chairman of the party but that wasn’t enough. His coffin needed to be nailed.

The governors found an ally in Malami and convinced Buhari, as the unofficial leader of the party, to dissolve the National Working Committee (NWC) of the APC to put an end to Oshiomhole’s leadership. The reason stated was that the court cases were “distracting the president from his official duties” and they needed to end.

Buhari obliged and set up a caretaker committee led by Governor Buni. The panel was given the task of organising a national convention within six months that would produce a new chairman and other members of the NWC.

New crisis

Buni was able to record some successes in the party especially by getting three governors from the PDP to defect to the APC. The governors are Dave Umahi (Ebonyi), Ben Ayade (Cross River) and Bello Matawalle (Zamfara). These defections, however, created some problems in these states. This is because governors are recognised as official party leaders in their states. As a result, when the three governors joined the APC, they displaced the party leadership and installed their own loyalists.

In addition, the Buni committee has failed to organise a convention before the December 2020 deadline set by Buhari.

Rancorous congresses

Congresses are a series of internal elections conducted to pick leaders of the APC at the local level. After leaders have been elected at the ward level, then come local government congresses followed by state, regional and then zonal level elections. The process culminates in a national convention where national leaders including the chairman of the party will be picked.

But the underbelly of the APC would eventually be exposed during the congresses as several factional leaders emerged. This happened across 12 states. The feud was mainly between governors and ministers and between governors and senators.

In Kano, two state chairmen emerged with one being loyal to Governor Abdullahi Ganduje and the other loyal to Senator Ibrahim Shekarau. In Osun State, two factions sprang up with one loyal to Governor Gboyega Oyetola and the other loyal to the Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola.

The same thing happened in Ogun State, where Governor Dapo Abiodun and Senator Ibikunle Amosun produced two factional leaders. A similar story played out in Delta, Kwara, Zamfara, Akwa Ibom and others.

Currently, there are at least 15 separate court cases instituted by aggrieved parties that have bogged down the APC. Due to the crisis, the APC has not been able to pick a date for its convention while its main rival, the PDP, held its convention last November and is waiting on the sidelines, hoping that the crisis within the APC will cause it to implode.

Furthermore, those who will elect the national leaders at the national convention must be drawn from all 36 states. This means that all congresses at the state level must have been concluded before a national convention can be held. Omitting one state from the convention could nullify the entire exercise, hence the importance of settling differences in the states first.

The APC has set up a reconciliation committee led by Senator Abdullahi Adamu to address the challenges. The committee has visited several of the crisis-ridden states but there has been no commitment by warring parties that cases would be withdrawn from court. Admitting that his task is herculean, Adamu stated, “The committee would not be able to reconcile those who do not want to be reconciled.”

A race against time

Time is also running out. The Buni committee, which is also facing legitimacy issues, cannot function beyond June, when Oshiomhole’s four-year tenure is set to expire. This is because Section 223 of the Nigerian constitution mandates that all political parties elect officers in intervals “not exceeding four years”.

Confirming this, Buhari warned, “We have a time frame; we have to work around it because the four-year cycle is constitutional. It cannot be interfered with by anybody. So, if the party cannot agree, then the opposition will take over.”

With this in mind, the 22 APC governors are now expected to hold a crucial meeting to pick a date for its convention. Should the party fail to hold its convention by June, it will not be able to participate in the 2023 elections and disintegrate, making Buhari the last presidential candidate of the party.

Confirming the possibility of such a scenario, the director general of the APC governors’ forum, Salihu Usman, in a memo to the 22 APC governors said the Buni committee should be dissolved if it cannot organise the convention by next month.

“Once things go wrong with the party, the governors and especially the leadership of the Forum will be damaged politically,” he lamented. “More worrisome is the fact that we would have all succeeded, both leaders and members, to have contributed to damaging the political credentials of President Muhammadu Buhari.”

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