In this blog, Michaela Collord asks whether the APC can remain unified for long enough to deliver the change that they promised to fellow Nigerians. Michaela is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford. This blog post was originally posted on the Presidential Power blog.
In Nigeria’s March 28 elections, the All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential candidate won an historic victory. Muhammuadu Buhari and his running mate Yemi Osinbajo beat the incumbent candidate Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by a margin of two million votes. The victory heralds the first political transition in Africa’s most populous state since the return to multiparty politics in 1999. The APC further consolidated its gains with a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The PDP’s defeat was due in part to the party’s association with rampant corruption, economic turmoil amidst an oil price slump and insecurity in Nigeria’s North East. During his campaign, Buhari positioned himself as a credible candidate both to fight corruption and to reinforce Nigeria’s military offensive against Boko Haram. Immediately after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared him winner, Buhari again reaffirmed his intention to pursue an ambitious reform agenda, pledging for instance to restructure Nigeria’s corruption-prone national oil company.
With popular expectations running high, Buhari and his APC will soon be put to the test. Outgoing President Jonathan will dissolve his cabinet on May 28 in preparation for Buhari’s inauguration the following day. The two chambers of the National Assembly will then formally convene in early June.
With the formation of an APC government imminent, the question is whether the party and its President will be able to deliver on their promises, and also avoid the regional and ethnic tensions that have plagued Nigeria’s politics in the past.
There are early signs that Buhari and the APC are facing an uphill battle, notably aggravated by tensions within the party coalition. Ahead of the elections, the APC effectively avoided any major divisions, cementing an alliance between the North and South West through the choice of presidential candidates. Buhari hales from the North West while his running mate Yemi Osinbajo comes from the South West and was also backed by the regional Kingmaker, former Lagos governor Tinubu.
This pre-election entente quickly dissipated after the polls. Only days later, regionally-based factions within the APC began jostling over leadership positions, notably within Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives. The President of the Senate is the number three position in Nigeria, followed by the Speaker of the House and the deputy positions for each.
In a country where regional differences are a key factor in shaping politics—and the source of manifold political tensions—careful ‘zoning’ or ring-fencing of positions is a common practice; in theory, it helps settle expectations and avoid controversy. The APC National Executive Committee had, prior to the elections, tentatively agreed to choose its Senate President candidate—to be confirmed through a Senate vote—from among its North Central Senators. This decision set the NEC on a collision course with a majority of its Senators-elect, who are members of regional caucuses, each of which proposed its own preferred candidate for the position of Senate President. The Senators have also accused the NEC of trying to use ‘zoning’ to favor specific individuals.
A week away from Buhari’s inauguration date and unable to resolve its internal disagreements, the APC has now opted to have no zoning arrangements in the legislature at all. On Wednesday, May 20, the Chairman of the party, Chief Bisi Akande denounced zoning as a negative legacy of the PDP. He affirmed the APC was not going to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors, mistakes which ‘caused the [PDP] to lose credibility not only among its members but also among Nigerians.’ Instead, ‘In our desire to have the best legislature, we are not considering any zoning arrangements whatsoever.’
Rhetoric aside, it is clear the APC has failed to reach an agreement, a situation made all the more apparent in light of the recently planned retreat for all APC Senators-elect, which is scheduled for May 22-23. Officially labeled as ‘part of efforts being undertaken by the party to ensure that the legislators hit the ground running for the benefit of Nigerians,’ the retreat is more likely a last minute effort to smooth over differences. One concern is that, should the APC fail to agree on a candidate for Senate President, the opposition PDP will take advantage of divisions and thereby influence the outcome of the Senate vote to its advantage.
That fear is perhaps exaggerated, especially given the crisis currently plaguing the PDP. Since their historic loss, PDP leaders have been busy pointing fingers, blaming each other for the defeat. On May 20, both the PDP Chairman, Adamu Mu’azu, and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the party, Tony Enenih, resigned. Mu’azu, in particular, was under intense pressure after PDP governors and other top party leaders accused him of siding with the opposition during the election campaigns.
In general, the main challenges facing President Buhari and the APC as they face the realities of government are not external but internal. The question is whether the party—a broad coalition of actors from the across the North, South West and South South—can hold together. It will certainly need to preserve its unity if it is to wage a battle against Nigeria’s entrenched corruption. The outcome of that struggle, more than anything, will determine whether the March 28 elections truly did mark a turning point for Nigeria.