Nigeria: How Ambode’s removal dealt a blow to Tinubu’s direct primary dream

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 07:02

French President Emmanuel Macron stands next to Lagos Governor Akinwunmi Ambode at the Afrika Shrine in Lagos
Lagos Governor Akinwunmi Ambode (L) with President Macron dring happier times on July 3, 2018. Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters

President Muhammadu Buhari recently refused to sign the electoral bill, which sought to introduce mandatory direct primary in Nigeria’s electoral law. However, documents exclusively obtained by The Africa Report now show that the president’s action is partly connected to a controversial governorship primary that took place in Lagos three years ago. In so doing, it prevented frontrunner Bola Tinubu from getting the direct primary he craved.

In October 2018, Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode was fighting his biggest political battle yet. Having been governor for three years, he thought that – like his other colleagues across the country – he would automatically win his party’s ticket to contest for a second term. But his godfather, Bola Tinubu, had other plans.

Tinubu, who had handed Ambode the governorship ticket on a silver platter three years earlier, to the chagrin of more experienced politicians, decided that the governor would not be flying the APC’s flag in the next election. Instead, the party’s ticket would be given to a relatively unknown former commissioner, Babajide Sanwo-Olu. Tinubu’s reason was that Ambode had deviated from a ‘master plan’ that would have ensured that Lagos State remained on the path of development.

However, Ambode would not go down without a fight and this deepened the division in the party. Several governors reached out to the Lagos godfather, but his mind was made up. Governor Atiku Bagudu of Kebbi State, who had signed a lucrative rice contract with the Ambode administration, was reported to have gone on his knees to beg Tinubu, but all entreaties fell on deaf ears.

Amid the rising tension, the national headquarters of the APC was forced to postpone the party’s primary twice. Eventually, President Buhari had to step in, inviting Tinubu and other senior politicians to Abuja, with the view of getting them to support Ambode or at least ensuring that the tension didn’t escalate.

Tinubu assured the president that the APC would hold a transparent primary through the direct method and ensure a level playing field. He said Ambode was free to test his popularity in the party.

The controversial primary

The direct mode of primary enables all card-carrying members of a party within a state to vote for their preferred candidate. It is believed to be among the fairest forms of primaries because it allows everyone to take part in the process, unlike the indirect method, which only allows a few selected delegates – camped in one location – to vote for a party’s candidate

However, 24 hours to the Lagos primary, it had become obvious that Ambode was in for a rude shock. The governor said he was concerned that membership cards had yet to be distributed to his supporters, meaning that they would not be allowed to vote.

Trending videos of the 2 October 2018 primary showed how supporters of Ambode were barred from voting in many of the wards. In one video, an APC leader threatened that Ambode’s supporters would not be allowed to exercise their franchise.

The leader tells a cheerful crowd: “In this place we are not going to allow anyone to vote for Ambode. We will send you out of this place. We are for Sanwo-Olu and that is what our leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has said. The APC has a hierarchy and we have been directed by our leaders to vote for Sanwo-Olu. In this ward and this local government, we will not allow anyone to vote for Ambode.”

Amid the controversial primary, the representatives sent by the national headquarters of the APC to monitor the exercise insisted that no primary had been held. The next day, however, the committee led by Clement Ebri made a U-turn and decided to allow the primary to stand. The committee announced that Sanwo-Olu had garnered 970,851 votes, while Ambode had polled 72,901 votes, officially becoming the first governor in the history of Nigeria to lose a primary, and in a humiliating manner.

The godfather

The incident portrayed Tinubu as a ruthless godfather, who despite entreaties from the president, ensured that he had his way. It also reinforced Tinubu’s authority in Lagos State and kept other politicians on their toes. Nevertheless, Tinubu’s action drew the ire of some northern governors who felt slighted by his attitude.

With the 2023 presidential election approaching, Tinubu – with the help of Femi Gbajabiamila (his godson and Speaker of the House of Representatives) – ensured that direct primary was made mandatory in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. Many governors disapproved, recalling how Ambode was denied the party ticket despite a good leadership record.

A member of the Senate, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, alleged that the inclusion of mandatory direct primary in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill was Gbajabiamila’s idea. Na’Allah further claimed he was told that the provision was meant for a particular individual, hence the bill did not go through a thorough process before it was forwarded to the president for approval.

Direct primaries are also subject or susceptible to manipulation or malpractices and can be tailored to achieve premeditated outcomes by those who control the party structures…

“We are hearing that that law (direct primary) was intended for an individual. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” he told local media.

Like Senator Na’Allah, many governors believed that the direct primary provision favoured Tinubu. They found a willing ally in Attorney-General Abubakar Malami, who by virtue of his position, advises the president on what laws to sign. Consequently, the president wrote a letter to Malami, seeking his advice on the bill.

Malami’s response, which has now been obtained by The Africa Report, narrated how the Ambode plan was schemed out through the controversial direct primary.

Although Ambode’s name was not mentioned, it is highly likely that he was the one being referred to since he is the only governor in the history of Nigeria to lose a primary.

The letter says: “Direct primaries are also subject or susceptible to manipulation or malpractices and can be tailored to achieve premeditated outcomes by those who control the party structures as recently witnessed in a state where a sitting governor was edged out during the conduct of a direct primary after falling out of favour with the leadership of his party and not on account of non-performance while in office.”

In the document marked HAGF/SH/2021/VOl.1/43 and dated December 1, 2021, Malami further informed the president that mandating all political parties to adopt the direct mode of primary was undemocratic, even as he argued that advanced democracies like the United States also use the indirect or delegate system of primary.

Malami noted that the adoption of direct primaries would not eliminate the possibility of political godfathers hijacking the exercise. “Part of the benefits being pushed forward by advocates of direct primaries is that it will eliminate the influence of moneybags and godfathers in the political process. This is a total misconception,” the letter says.

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