Nigeria’s new Kingmakers

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari holding a flag during a recent campaign rally. He is running for a second term in office. EPA-EFE/STR
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In a country as diverse as Nigeria, few events provide such a clear melting pot of the country’s different groups as a political convention. Parties are mandated to maintain representation across the country, and they bring their lived experiences and priorities to bear when choosing a standard bearer. It is why the recent amendment of the Electoral Act, that changes the voting delegates at the convention, is another marker in evaluating Nigeria’s imperfect but ultimately sustaining democracy.

Nigeria borrows the delegate system from the United States and has statutory and ad-hoc delegates. The former are elected officials on the platform of the party and include everyone on the rung of leadership in the country – from the president to the chair of one of the 774 local governments – and allows them to take part in the voting process. The latter are party members selected specifically for the process of taking part in an ‘electoral college’ to conduct official party business and selections, which include state or national leaders to nominees for elected offices. In a party with little or no representation in any elected office, there is no real difference since there will be no difference in the type of delegation. But, in the larger parties that have elected officials, this bloc can be an influential and powerful voting group that can change the direction of these selections.

In February 2022, President Buhari signed into law an amendment to the Electoral Act. The bill made substantial changes to the electoral landscape, such as including the provision for electronic transmission for results and more powers to the electoral management body. However, a particular part of the bill became the bone of contention afterwards. Section 84 (12) states that “a serving political office holder cannot vote, or be voted for, at the conventions or congresses for any political party for the purpose of the nomination of candidates for any election in cases where it is held earlier than 30 days to the National Election”. Initially, the focus of this section was on appointed officials having to resign their offices before contesting for elected positions. But, an initially unexpected consequence was that most politicians focused on the latter part – not being able to be voted for – without understanding that it meant they too would not be able to vote in the coming elective conventions.

Members of the National Assembly sought to convince the president of the need to sign an amendment that would enable them participate in these congresses, but were unable to do so. At the presidential nominating conventions for the two major parties – the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – delegates were reportedly overwhelmed with bribes by candidates seeking their votes. The dust from the convention period has only just begun to settle and the impact of the delegate process has been seen – an estimated 60-70% of lawmakers have lost tickets to return to the legislature. Lawmakers, fuelled by recent developments, are making plans to override the president’s pocket veto (leaving the bill without assent or rejection after 30 days) and change the delegate clause – although this is already too late for this election cycle.

The electoral act, and the contentious delegate system, is the result of a disguised attempt by national lawmakers to seize control of political structures from state governors. The original electoral act amendment called for direct primaries, which would allow all registered party members to vote. This would upend conventional political dynamics since lawmakers could enjoy more job security and avoid the recurring trend of two-term governors seeking to enjoy the immunity and unlimited terms of the Senate. The eventual amendment, which allowed for indirect primaries and consensus arrangements to be considered, waters down the original spirit of the amendment. It is why the current delegate system, and the results, only highlight the powers that governors wield in the country. Unlike the attrition rate in the legislature, no eligible incumbent lost the party ticket to seek a second term. Those who were term-limited got their preferred successors installed as party nominees, while some followed the trend of seeking senatorial tickets.

Ultimately, this does not mark a distinct change in the political system. However, it does provide a clearer blueprint on how to change things. More than at any other time before, the results of the recent primaries have enthroned governors as the most important bloc in the country. But it also shows where changes can be made to whittle the influence of the 36 state chief executives. Regardless of the outcome of the legislature’s attempt to change the legislation, there is a clear weakness where governors are beholden to delegates who might not be as compromised or pliant as they expect. This might lead to a space where party primacy over individual personality becomes the norm and expectantly changes the way politics is carried out. It is why the biggest legacy of the 2023 election cycle will be increased voter sensitisation. More people are registering to vote and take part in the election process – with candidates inspiring followings outside the major parties.

This might be another step forward in the true goal of a democracy – a system where the electorate are really the true kingmakers.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja (adekaiyaoja) is a public policy analyst and holds degrees in International Relations and African Politics from Queen Mary and SOAS respectively – both University of London. 

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