In a significant political development, 27 members of the Rivers State House of Assembly officially joined the All Progressives Congress (APC), bidding farewell to their former affiliation with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This momentous event unfolded on Monday, December 11, 2023, as the defection letters of the assembly members were publicly disclosed on the floor of the House. Consequently, this mass defection has reshaped the dynamics in the Rivers State House of Assembly, leaving the PDP, formerly a majority, with only 5 members and relegating them to the minority.
It is important to stress how the Constitution views candidates nominated on a political platform and those elected to office. The power to sponsor candidates in an election is the sole preserve of a political party and the power cannot be challenged by the Independent National Electoral Commission. However, this power must be exercised under laid down rules and regulations considering the amendment to the Electoral Act and recent judicial decisions. Therefore, the votes gotten by any candidate in an election are those of the sponsor, which is the political party.
The Nigerian constitution is clear on what to follow when members of the State House of Assembly defect to another political party. The Constitution in section 68(1) states that “a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member if – (g) Being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that House was elected; Provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.”
The question to ask then is whether the PDP in Rivers state or at the National Level has been factionalized or what indeed constitutes a division in a political party. Worth mentioning, however, is that the PDP in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Hon Debo Ologunagba, demanded that “the Speaker of the Rivers State House Assembly immediately comply with the provision of the Constitution by declaring the seats of the 27 former lawmakers vacant.”
What constitutes division in a political party?
In the case of Sunday Ifedayo Abegunde v Ondo State House of Assembly & Ors, the Court of Appeal in its ruling stated that “the person defecting to another party must prove that the party he is leaving has been divided into two or more. That is to say, the party must be so polarized as to have two chairmen, two or three different Boards of Trustees each claiming to be the authentic one and each still bearing the same party name. That is the type of extreme division envisaged by the Constitution. The defector would also be covered by the proviso where the party has split into two whereby one of the factions is bearing another name and he chose to join the faction of the party with the new name.”
To avoid any ambiguity, the Appeal Court also held that “A community reading of sections 221, 222, 229 of the Constitution as well as section 80 of the Electoral Act, clearly shows that the division envisaged by section 68(1)(g) of the Constitution refers to division in the party at the top or centre not division at the State or Local Government level. Since a political party is recognized as one corporate entity, the division must affect the entire structure of the political party at the centre, i.e., the national leadership of the party. A political party has to be looked at as a whole and not piecemeal.”
Considering the tendencies, and even excesses of Nigeria politicians, where members seeking to defect from a party could themselves instigate a division, the Supreme Court held in FEDECO v Goni that the act leading to the defection must not have been caused by the defecting legislator.
The 27 lawmakers in Rivers State cannot benefit from an act of illegality. Being lawmakers themselves, they must hold themselves to a higher standard and tow the path of honour: to vacate office and seek re-election.