Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Why Direct Primaries Is Not A Magic Bullet

Defending his advocacy for the emergence of political party flagbearers and candidates via direct primaries only, the Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila said, “If I know that my return will depend on some few men, I may not care about you. But suppose I know that my return will depend on my accountability and representation to the people, I will do the right thing.” The Speaker further argued that “it is important for this generation to open the door of leadership to the next generation. We must allow every Nigerian to participate fully in the process of leadership.”


As noble as the Speaker’s intent may be, the reality is grimmer than the Speaker would like to admit. Direct primaries are ideal because the process demands inclusion and the creation of a level playing field. In Nigeria’s political environment, however, the situation is much more complicated. The Speaker is right to point that if elected officials are beholden to a “few men” – power brokers – who control the party structures that determine their re-election, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for such elected persons to remain loyal to the people.


What the Speaker has cleverly shied away from is that whether via direct or indirect primaries, those few individuals are often likely to determine the outcome. We saw this in the 2018 APC gubernatorial election primaries in Lagos state where the incumbent, Akinwunmi Ambode, was unable to clinch his party’s ticket because those few men wanted someone else.


Also, the Speaker’s point about “opening the door of leadership to the next generation” is an idea nestling high in the clouds. Perhaps, if major political parties were governed by a true democratic culture and led by individuals whose financial or parochial interests do not shape their principles, then we can be confident that a new generation of democrats could run through that open door. At the moment, however, the power structures within many political parties rest squarely on the shoulders of those who seek to perpetuate themselves in office, only leaving enough room for their immediate families and cronies.


On the feasibility of organizing transparent party primaries across the country, it is hard to see how this can be achieved, given our lack of resources and capacity. Conducting credible direct primaries requires that political parties have a credible and verifiable membership register. A situation where a person can vote in Party A’s primary election on Friday, and do the same in Party B’s primary election the day after only makes mockery of the entire exercise. Little wonder why political parties post ridiculous numbers during their so-called primary polls and struggle to find a fraction of such numbers during the general election.


A few weeks before the November 2021 governorship election held in Anambra state, the All Progressives Congress (APC) conducted direct primaries to determine its flag bearer. Senator Andy Uba was declared the winner of that election, having garnered 230,201 votes. Let us take it for granted that an official from the Independent Electoral Commission supervised and monitored that election. Is it not a surprise that Senator Uba was only able to muster 43,285 votes after all votes were counted statewide? What happened to the other 186,916 “card-carrying” party members who voted for him during the primaries? Did they change their mind or did they all fall ill on election day?


Beyond the necessity of having a credible membership register, there are also challenges of cost and logistics if credible primary elections are to be conducted at scale. While major parties such as the PDP and the APC may have minor problems funding such an expensive exercise – after all, they both have access to state resources – other parties may not be as fortunate. It is also worth mentioning that Nigeria is not a two-party state.


Other political parties without access to state resources are crowd-funded by party members who insist on the judicious use of their contributions. This is not to say that political parties are not exploring alternatives by leveraging technology. The Youth Party, for instance, has developed a credible mobile voting system that allows all party members to vote during primaries, with results delivered a few minutes after the close of polls.


More importantly, political parties are governed by their constitution, which derives its legitimacy from the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Lawmakers, who are themselves partisan should, therefore, restrain from dictating to political parties how they choose to govern themselves. Party members who adopt a candidate by consensus through an affirmation process can be said to have participated in the leadership selection process in the same manner as those who vote in a direct primary election. Political parties should reserve the right to choose the approach that suits them, whether direct, indirect, or consensus. The only condition should be that the view of the majority is reflected in the eventual choice(s) made by the leadership of the party.

Latest Posts