The greatest challenge facing Nigerian democracy is the absence of a real and functional party system. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has just declared that at least 18 of the registered political parties in Nigeria are operating with invalid national executive committees whose tenures had expired or were not reflective of the federal character as required by the Constitution. It would be recalled that Sections 222(a-f) and 223 (1&2) of our Constitution stipulates clearly that registered political parties must have a functional national headquarters address in Abuja. Furthermore, members of the national executive committees of the parties must not only reflect federal character but also have tenures that are renewed at intervals not exceeding four years. The Attahiru Jega INEC had de-registered a number of parties for not adhering to these constitutional requirements and for not winning seats in any elections but the courts have always been lenient and permitted parties to continue to have legal existence even when they do not meet the constitutional requirements. The Mahmoud Yakubu INEC has given the defaulting parties a 90-day ultimatum to abide by the law or face sanctions.
The legal conformity of our parties to the Constitution is in reality the least of their problems. Nigerian political parties have no ideology or programmatic vision, and even more important, they have no members who participate in party activities because they believe their parties have something to offer their country. Depending on their financial capacity, most parties source for and pay crowds to provide participants for their activities. It is for this reason that often, the same persons would be seen attending the activities of different parties. As elections approach, crowds line up to attend congresses and primaries for a fee. Although most parties have no real members, more are being registered. This week, 21 new parties have been registered bringing the total number of parties to 68. Meanwhile, INEC has explained that the applications of 90 other political associations for registration are now being processed. With elections around the corner, political entrepreneurs are busy registering new parties to cater for desperate politicians who will lose out in the forthcoming party primaries and would be willing to pay huge amounts of money to get a platform to contest in the elections.
The hands of INEC have been tied since the Supreme Court judgment in Balarabe Musa and others versus INEC prohibiting the electoral management body from imposing extra-constitutional measures to bar parties whose national executive committees have been properly constituted. As more parties get registered, the logistics of organizing elections become more complicated. The INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmud Yakubu was right to point out this week that if each of the 68 political parties in Nigeria today fields candidates for all the 1,558 constituencies to be contested in the 2019 general election, the Electoral Commission will have to grapple with 105,944 candidates, a herculean task.
It would be recalled that the Fourth Republic was initiated through the 1999 Constitution. For its first elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) registered only three political parties – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP) and the Action for Democracy (AD). Following the Supreme Court judgement on the Balarabe Musa versus INEC case, the conditions for registration of political parties were liberalized. The Supreme Court ruled that INEC acted illegally by imposing conditions that were not known to the Constitution for party registration and declared their action illegal. Subsequently, Nigeria’s political space witnessed an unprecedented opening with the emergence of 63 registered political parties by April 2011. The Professor Jega INEC trimmed the number of parties down but now the number is growing once again and it’s very difficult to refuse to register parties that meet the basic conditions.
The National Assembly had intervened in the matter through Section 78(6) of the 2010 Electoral Act, which provided INEC with the power to de-register any political parties that failed to win any executive and legislative seats in elections. Only ten parties won seats in the 2011 elections. It became easy for INEC to use this amendment to reduce the numbers. As I had argued previously, INEC was wrong to jump at the opportunity provided by the Electoral Act because the Supreme Court judgement was clear in upholding the principle of freedom of association and had rebuked INEC severely for creating difficult conditions for party registration. It was therefore not surprising that the Federal High Court sitting in Abuja before Justice Gabriel Kolawole nullified the deregistration of political parties by INEC. The court also declared Section 78 (7) (ii) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended, which said parties must win seats in the state and National Assemblies election as null and void. Justice Kolawole made the declaration in a suit filed by Fresh Democratic Party (FDP) and its presidential candidate in the 2011 general elections, Rev. Christopher Okotie. With this judgment INEC cannot deregister any party except in accordance with the provisions of the 1999 Constitution. In his judgment, Justice Kolawole sealed the argument by declaring that: “The concept of deregistration of political parties is strange to the 1999 Constitution.”
From 1999, Nigeria operated as a one-party dominant political system in which the PDP held sway and controlled enormous resources compared to the other parties. The President of the country emerged as the leader of the dominant party although a party chairman existed and state governors became the leaders of their party at that level. In the build up to the 2015 elections, key opposition parties merged to establish the APC, which won the elections. The PDP then went into a leadership crisis created by factionalism, which is now sorted out by the courts. We would know in the coming months whether the PDP would become strong again and lead Nigeria from a one-party dominant regime to a two-party dominant one. Meanwhile, the reality remains that the two parties are essentially clienteles networks that are used by the party barons to “deliver” crowds for rallies and party congresses. Most of the other parties would remain platforms in waiting for barons that fall by the wayside.
The problem with the parties remain that they do not really have members and they show little regard to democratic rules in their internal affairs. As the Chairman of INEC explained, the key role these parties will play in the coming elections is to clog the ballot. When I served in the Justice Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, the overwhelming opinion of Nigerians was that they wanted a party system with between two and five parties. We understood this sentiment but took the wise decision that it is wrong to use administrative fiat to reduce the number of political parties.
Democratic political systems have traditionally used one clear method to reduce the number of parties contesting elections. They have developed regulations that make it impossible for parties without significant support to be on the ballot. Rather than de-register the parties, they allow them to exist but insist they must show their support through signatures from a large number of citizens or elected representatives before they can get onto the ballot. This is the path we should take in Nigeria.