LONG READ: Why the political primaries are the most important thing for 2019

by Wilfred Okiche

In December 2014, the Lagos state chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC) held its primaries to determine the party’s flagbearer for the 2015 elections. In Lagos state where the APC – and its earlier incarnations (ACN, AD) – had been in government since 1999, the primaries were considered the battle royale in the race for the government house. Except for the occurrence of an act of God, whoever emerged victorious was certainly on the way to occupying the seat in Alausa.

The reasons for this are twofold. When it comes to the business of winning elections in the state, APC leader and former Lagos governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu is in a league of his own, with no noticeable challenger posing a serious threat to his fiefdom. The opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at state level remains engulfed in a credibility crisis. The leadership vacuum all but guaranteed voters would not take them seriously, especially over an APC government that had maintained a consistent decent showing for the last sixteen years.

To lend an air of impartiality to the process, Tinubu publicly stayed away from endorsing any candidate but all signs pointed to a win for Akinwunmi Ambode, Tinubu’s former accountant general who had been anointed already by Oba Rilwan Akiolu. Ambode would go on to defeat 12 other candidates before eventually trouncing PDP’s Jimi Agbaje to be elected the fourteenth governor of Lagos.

It’s about time

The electoral cycle is about to begin anew and the permutations have begun already nationwide. Consultations are being made, alliances are being sought and the waters are being tested. Names are beginning to be drawn up and intentions are being made clear as Nigerians prepare to head for the polls once more.

It is all well and good to go out to vote on election day and to protect the vote after doing so, but to wait for voting season to participate in the electoral process is to not take full advantage of the opportunities that democracy presents.

The party primaries are so pivotal, yet so often under looked in the larger electoral process. They determine the candidates that will contest the main election and in many cases, even decide who eventually wins the contests.

For the 2015 elections, the PDP decided to jettison internal democracy and went ahead to present president Goodluck Jonathan as the party’s unopposed flagbearer even when it was obvious support for him was waning. The PDP never quite recovered from this move as it encouraged defections and calculations that eventually culminated in Jonathan becoming the first incumbent president to be defeated at the polls.

The APC on the other hand, made an elaborate show of picking their candidate through a process that while not entirely transparent, aced the credibility test. In December 2014, the APC carnival landed in Lagos at the Teslim Balogun stadium, Surulere and over 6,000 delegates from all thirty-six states filed out to pick Retired General Muhammadu Buhari ahead of four other heavyweights as the party’s flagbearer. Former vice president Atiku Abubakar who finished third and had been a victim of primary machinations in different parties described the process as “the most credible and transparent election to be ever conducted by any political party.”

The burden of choice

While the APC was basking in this singular moment of transparency, Nigerians, were left dismayed by the reality that was presented to them. In one of the most difficult electoral choices ever resented, the two biggest political parties between them, presented a failed president and a former dictator with bigot tendencies.

Goodluck Jonathan who was elected on a wave of goodwill only four years earlier had managed to squander every bit of it as his government watched helpless while thousands of citizens died, with many more displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency that ravaged the North East.

At some point, the terrorists held large swaths of Nigerian territory and established their own caliphate. Meanwhile Jonathan left his officials unchecked as they helped themselves to the treasury and impunity became the order of the day.

Buhari on his part still carried the stench from 1983 when he played a part in the overthrow of the Shehu Shagari led government through a coup plot. His tenure as head of state was characterised by gross human rights violation and a command and control economic policy. The years had not quite softened his image despite his numerous attempts at the presidency and the only thing he had going for him really was his strong anti-corruption stance.

These were the options Nigerians were faced with when they took to the polls. There was the KOWA party candidate, Professor Remi Sonaiya but her campaign never really took off beyond the major cities of the country and she certainly lacked the gravitas to make much of an impression. Nigerians were faced between a rock and a hard place it seemed, between the devil and the deep blue sea. The APC and PDP were the only two parties with national pull that could go all the way.

Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka captured the mood in an essay titled, “The Challenge of Change – A burden of choice” in which he struggled to find reasons to endorse Buhari. Soyinka argued, “Of the two however, one is representative of the immediate past, still present with us, and with an accumulation of negative baggage. The other is a remote past, justly resented, centrally implicated in grievous assaults against Nigerian humanity, with a landscape of broken lives that continues to lacerate collective memory.’’

Perhaps the disillusionment and cluelessness that has marked the first two years of the Buhari administration could have been avoided if the APC had challenged itself to come up with a candidate that was truly prepared to lead. But then again, political parties are in the business of winning elections and Buhari presented the best stab at defeating Jonathan, considering his tried and tested magnetic pull in the core north, and a strategic alliance with the south west. No other politician on the APC ballot could guarantee millions of votes before even the elections.

Getting it right

But the lessons have been learned, and it is quite clear to see now that for Nigeria to get it right, obsessive attention needs to be paid to the candidates at the level of the political party primaries. By the time the parties present their candidates, half of the work has already been done and the general population merely ratifies the best of whatever there is on offer. If all parties present terrible candidates then the citizens have no choice but to elect a terrible candidate. If the two candidates are excellent, then the people win. That is how democracy works.

Getting the process right would, of course, involve getting as many people as possible to get their hands dirty and partake in the entirety of the process. It is no longer enough to argue passionately about politics, on and off social media, speak convincingly and effectively, and then leave the actual process to a certain group of people. Every single citizen is invested in the Nigerian projected and politics isn’t reserved for a certain type of people.

Everybody isn’t going to run for office but everyone can influence it such that only the best of us can do so and this involves a continuous cycle of staying woke, and ensuring that the process throws up mostly qualified and competent persons.

Such a merit-based system is possible, but only with a lot of backbreaking hard work. The first step is getting as many young, enlightened and intelligent people, from all walks of life to join the available political parties and register as card carrying members. Change can only occur from within and getting a foot in secures a better advantage.

Being a card carrying member involves active participation; in meetings, rallies and other decision-making avenues. No one should be ever too busy for nation building, lest the project be hijacked by unscrupulous elements. Change isn’t a one off cataclysmic event, it is a series of incremental steps pushing towards a desired goal.

The ward level is the primary unit of all political parties. Interested persons should begin to network at this level; show up for meetings, contribute in any way possible, take on some community responsibility and secure visibility. At some point, it becomes easier to influence decisions either by running for elective positions or as engaged stakeholders. Political parties elect people from the pool of what is available to them. This scales up to the local government, state and even the federal level.

Not everyone can run for office but everyone can ensure that only the most qualified are put forward.

How the system works

To play the game, one needs to first have a thorough understanding of how the system works in Nigeria. Most political parties have their constitutions and these documents dictate how exactly candidates are to be chosen.

A study of the present political parties reveals that primaries can be held by direct or indirect means. Since 1999, when the PDP flirted with open primaries in choosing governorship candidates, the indirect primaries have been the order of the day.

The indirect system involves the use (s)election of delegates, a cross-section of the entire community, that will go ahead and decide for the majority who picks the party ticket. These delegates are chosen from ward level. For the most part, certain officials are considered statutory delegates and are returned by virtue of the positions they occupy. These include ward chairmen, woman leaders, youth leaders etc. Ad-hoc elections may be conducted to fill out the remaining spots. Parties rarely conduct elections though and names are compiled by whomever controls the party structure. Candidates who are able to influence the choice of delegates make sure that the party fields names that are loyal to their cause.

The delegates on their own part tend to see this process as a money-spinning venture, ensuring that they make enough money trading votes for money. The commercialisation of this process has always been present but during the 1993 elections, the endlessly wealthy Social Democratic Party (SDP) presidential candidate, MKO Abiola was reported to have stepped things up ten notches.

Abiola’s well-oiled machinery was able to gather the delegates and render them incommunicado in a hotel outside the Jos venue of the convention, all the while plying them with gifts. He secured the party ticket.

The direct system of conducting primaries allows card carrying party members to elect their own candidates and gives the power to the people without the fear of open manipulation by candidates. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara has been quite vocal about his support for direct primaries and for the option A4 system of balloting. Addressing a gathering of female legislators this year, he remarked, “To be more candid, direct primaries can help even in general elections because once a candidate emerges under those conditions, you will know that he is generally accepted by the people.”

The PDP still smarting from its 2015 loss has advocated for a return to open ballot system. The Lagos state APC, however, took two steps backward when it resolved to pick its candidates for the unified state local government chairmanship positions by consensus. Such candidates will be loyal to the party structure that brought them in instead of the people.

Vision 2019

As the youth begins to consider choices for 2019, there has been noise about floating a youth party and gathering round a consensus “youth candidate.” This kind of talk derives its legitimacy from unlikely political events in France where 39 year old Emmanuel Macron was elected president on the platform of his independent party En Marche!

But the rationale behind this thinking is deeply flawed as Macron was not elected solely on account of his youth. He rode a wave of rising disillusionment with the establishment, and unspooled an impressive grassroots campaign that actively sought communities most representative of France as a whole. These focus group sessions helped his party prioritise their electoral promises and manifesto.

Instead of seeking to push a youth agenda that may be counterproductive, young people should begin to think of how to make the system work by playing the game as well as the elders have.

The media has a duty to ensuring that the primaries process is well covered and every candidate should be subject to the kind of scrutiny that makes it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. It isn’t enough for politicians to reel out list of promises. They should be followed with carefully outlined details of how they are going to be implemented.

Fact checkers should get to work separating fact from fiction and candidates at all levels should be engaged directly with the people either through town hall meetings and public debates. Expecting national dailies to obsessively cover state and local government elections at the primaries level may be too much to ask but regional dailies should be prepared to step up to the challenge.

It is quite clear now that there is no such thing as the political messiah. The failure of President Buhari has shown that the term is merely a ruse for citizens to excuse themselves from doing the hard work required of them. People are only as good as the environment they find themselves in and the process of nation building cannot be outsourced to a selected few. Institutions made up of people united by a common goal are the only factors that can guarantee structural change.

A fellow once observed that all politics is local. Wiser words have not been spoken. To ensure that we get the best out of the electoral system in 2019 and beyond, it is best to pick a spot and start digging.