EXPLAINER — How Nigeria’s Political Parties Choose Presidential Candidates

I find it odd how little Nigerians know about the political system of the country they live in. It is difficult to be a part of effecting changes in the system when we do not know how candidates are chosen and elections are conducted. I hope this explainer will play a part in providing this much-needed civic education.

There has been a lot of noise about the presidential primary elections taking place this weekend by the two top political parties. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has scheduled its primary elections for May 28 and 29, while the All Progressive Congress (APC) has scheduled its own for May 28 and 29. One of those who emerges this weekend is certain to be crowned President in 2023.

This is why when a fellow said social media fans of Peter Obi should do the groundwork of appealing for the PDP to allow Peter Obi to emerge as the party’s presidential flag bearer, I knew he has a great point. But how do these parties choose their candidates?

In 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan signed an electoral act which requires all political parties to hold primaries. If a party does not hold primary elections, the candidate is disqualified from contesting the general election where every citizen with a Permanent Voters Card (PVC) has a duty to vote.

The Types of Primary Elections

There are two types — Direct and Indirect.

In a direct primary election, registered party members simply vote for the candidate they wish to be their party’s flag-bearer. If you have a party card, you are eligible. This is usually what people mean when they say you should join a political party, because under this system if you do not have a card, you do not vote. In April 2014, the direct primary system was used to elect Gboyega Oyetola as the APC gubernatorial candidate in Osun. All party members voted.

In an indirect primary election, party members decide delegates, who then vote for the party’s candidates on their behalf. More on delegates later on.

Which Type Will Be Used by the Parties?

The two parties are adopting the indirect primary elections. The direct primary has been criticized for being too expensive. It is not difficult to see how. PDP claims to have at least 20 million members, while APC says it has 41 million members. If true, this will make them two of the biggest political parties in the world. In fact, it would make APC the fourth largest party in the world, trailing only the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, of India (180 million); Chinese Communist Party, CCP (91 million); and the Democratic Party of USA (48 million). APC would have more members than the Republican Party of the USA (35 million).

To conduct a primary election for more than 20 million people would mean that they would be conducting elections for more people than entire countries; more than Chile, the Netherlands, Rwanda, or Cambodia. That would require a lot of logistics.

Therefore, the indirect primary is favoured.

How Does the Indirect Primary Work?

The Indirect primary work uses delegates. There are two types of delegates — Adhoc and the statutory. After the delegates are selected, whether ad-hoc or statutory, a convention is held to enable them decide on who will fly the party’s flag in an election.

Ad-hoc delegates are chosen at ward congresses held across the country. Party members select someone to vote on their behalf in the party’s gubernatorial or presidential primary elections.

Statutory delegates are party members who have or are currently occupying public office. They are made up of current and former presidents, governors, deputy governors, as well as members of the National and state House of Assembly. They also include ward councilors, local government chairmen and vice-chairs, and political party chairmen in all 774 LGAs.

Unfortunately for statutory delegates, when President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Electoral Act of 2022, he made away with statutory delegates. According to Section 84(8) of the Act,

“A political party that adopts the system of indirect primaries for the choice of its candidate shall clearly outline in its constitution and rules the procedure for the democratic election of delegates to vote at the convention, congress or meeting.”

It was a bummer. From about 7800 people who were expected to be delegates, the number has reduced to 2340 for APC. For PDP, its delegates have been reduced to 810 delegates. More on these numbers later. Strangely Abubakar Malami, Attorney General, who forwarded the Act to the President for his signature is now reported in newspapers to be pushing for an amendment to the Act to allow statutory delegates. The president has refused.

The Pitfall of the Indirect Primary

The indirect primary may be less expensive than the direct primary, but many experts have suggested that it is prone to manipulation. It has been criticized as making it easier for party leaders to influence. Delegates are usually elected with the influence of the power brokers so are expected to vote in alignment. While they are not obliged to do this, delegates are frequently expected to vote for the endorsed candidate not minding his proposed policies. There have been exceptions when delegates vote against the intention of the delegation but this is an exception rather than the rule.

Daily Trust reported last week that certain presidential candidates have been soliciting delegates’ bank accounts in an apparent attempt at electoral bribery rather than promoting their ideas and proposals. Bloomberg also reported last week that politicians are buying so many dollars to bribe delegates that it is driving the Naira to new lows. The Naira has fallen to 610 to a dollar over huge demand for dollars in cash from politicians competing for support from delegates in the party primaries.

How are the Ad-hoc Delegates Determined?

I mentioned that APC has 2340 delegates and PDP has 810 delegates. For APC, the 2,340 include three representatives from each of the country’s 774 local governments and six area councils in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) (2322 + 12). For PDP, the 810 delegates are based on one National delegate per local government area and one each per state to cover the physically challenged (774 + 36).

For the state elections, only the five delegates elected from each ward are allowed to vote for the party’s candidate as governors, senators, House of Representatives and states’ House of Assembly members for the APC. For PDP, it will be the three delegates elected from each ward.

The Buhari Factor in APC

As presidential aspirants flock to states to campaign for delegates, there is an unwritten rule, especially in the North, that the delegates will go for however the president chooses. When Borno State governor, Babagana Zulum, hosted Rotimi Amaechi on Sunday, Zulum said the APC delegates in the state are waiting for Buhari’s counsel on who to choose as the party’s flag bearer. In Kaduna, Nasir El-Rufai endorsed Rotimi Amaechi saying he is Buhari’s loyalist and confidant and should be supported. This is hardly democratic. In practice, delegates are stooges who answer to powerful people.

There are insinuations that the president has refused to sign an amendment to the Act to allow statutory delegates, which will allow many more delegates, in a bid to get at another presidential aspirant, Bola Tinubu. Under the new arrangement of ad-hoc delegates, Lagos State, which was once among the league of states with a large number of delegates, has suddenly decreased from 304 to a pitiful 60 (three delegates times 20 local government areas). It has lost 244 delegates in one fell swoop. Another stronghold of Tinubu, Borno state where he has enormous support from former governor Kashim Ibrahim, has also lost its status as a state of many delegates. Because it has 27 LGAs, Borno should have the third-largest number of delegates. But now, it has fewer delegates than Akwa Ibom and Oyo. As a result, Borno has dropped from third to fifth place in terms of delegates.

Primary Elections are Important

If you read this far, you would have recognized the significance of party primary elections. The general population can only vote for those who are put forward by these parties and as I have shown their processes are rarely transparent. Nigeria does not favour independent candidates who do not have to use parties. Therefore if the delegates gang up to elect 2 rogues, your options are limited to making one of the rogues the president. Abstaining from voting is hardly better because you are not removed from the policy consequences of a rogue President. They determine the cost of rice and transport fares and school fees, even how your employment is or how well your business thrives.

Politics is indeed at the grassroots.



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