The nearly N60 million which supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar recently spent on presidential nomination forms for the two politicians has triggered renewed debates around campaign finance provisions.
The last 10 days have seen some deep-pocketed loyalists of both politicians pick up presidential nomination forms on their behalf at their respective parties secretariat, a development that somewhat validated the claim amongst presidential aspirants that each’s ambition was foisted on them by their supporters.
Mr Abubakar, vice president from 1999-2007, was perhaps the first presidential aspirant to openly say his nomination form was paid for by his supporters on August 31.
Mr Abubakar was said to be on his way to purchase his nomination form at the Peoples Democratic Party’s national secretariat in Abuja when his loyalists arrived at his campaign secretariat about five kilometres away to inform him that they had already done so on his behalf. The Atiku Support Group, an umbrella body for those who helped raise the N12 million form fee, subsequently presented the document to him.
When he received the form, Mr Abubakar could not hold back tears at what seemed the generosity of his loyalists.
Although Mr Abubakar’s critics saw the development as a political gimmick, the legal implications were not immediately raised as a concern. It was when Mr Buhari’s supporters pulled off a similar political gesture that Nigerians began to see a problematic trend.
Supporters of Mr Buhari announced on September 5 that they had paid N45 million to the All Progressives Congress for the president’s nomination form at the party’s secretariat. The Nigeria Consolidation Ambassadors Network (NCAN) said it paid for the form while Mr Buhari was in China, and would present the document to him when he returned to the country and took enough rest.
Like the Atiku Support Group, NCAN said it raised the funds through its members from across the country, and both vowed to work harder towards the victory of their respective candidates at the presidential election next February.
Mr Buhari returned to the country on September 7, where he had attended a regional summit with other presidents from West Africa. But before he returned, critics were already calling on him to reject the form, and the calls intensified following his arrival.
Mr Buhari is expected to receive the forms today (Tuesday) at the presidential villa. If that happens, critics say he would be in breach of the electoral law. They argue the N45 million which the group spent violates campaign finance provisions in the 2010 Electoral Act.
Section 91 (9) of the law said no individual or other entity shall donate more than N1 million to any candidate, an amount which constitutes only a fraction of the combined N57 million the two groups spent on Messrs Buhari and Atiku.
Both presidential aspirants and their supporters who are buying forms for them are in breach of the electoral law, said senior lawyer Mike Ozekhome.
“In the case of an individual or any other entity who donates more than N1,000,000 to any candidate of a political party, section 91(11) criminalises this by imposing punishments ranging from nine months’ imprisonment or N500, 000 fine (or both) to such an individual or entity,” Mr Ozekhome told PREMIUM TIMES Saturday.
Mr Ozekhome said each group responsible for the purchase of the ticket for both politicians is an entity and should not have donated such a huge amount.
But Sunusi Musa, the leader of NCAN, said the group has not violated any law by purchasing a form on behalf Mr Buhari. He argued that the electoral law distinguished a candidate from an aspirant and said Mr Buhari is only an aspirant after all nomination processes had been concluded.
The electoral law said someone is a candidate only when the person’s political party has held a convention where the person was voted by delegates or as adopted as a consensus, he told PREMIUM TIMES Sunday.
“I am a senior lawyer, I can tell you that we have not violated any law,” Mr Musa said. “We have studied the law carefully over several weeks before we took our decision and anyone who thinks we have done anything wrong should approach the court.”
Mr Musa said he did not expect the president to yield to critics’ calls on him to reject the nomination form. He also insisted to PREMIUM TIMES that NCAN is a registered political group and not a faceless one as being speculated.
“We have all our registration documents with the Corporate Affairs Commission,” he said. “But if anyone wants to challenge us on this also, they can go to court.”
PREMIUM TIMES was unable to confirm the group’s registration after an electronic query of the CAC’s database Friday night. Elections cycles in Nigeria often see countless political action groups spring up, but most of them are often not duly registered or led by identifiable individuals.
Paul Ibe, a spokesperson for Mr Atiku, said his principal’s supporters purchased the ticket on his behalf as a sign of affection which no one should read any hard meanings to.
“Some activities are done for symbolism not to really break the law,” Mr Ibe told PREMIUM TIMES Saturday. He, however, acknowledged he does not have enough understanding of the legal complexities of the electoral functions, saying some controversies could just be about how individual political parties see them.
Mr Atiku’s campaign would look into the matter in the next few days by getting legal opinions from experts, he added.
The APC has also pushed back against perceived illegalities in the purchase of a nomination form for Mr Buhari, who is widely considered a shoo-in for the party’s ticket.
“Aside from the fact that there is a world of difference between an *Aspirant* and a *Candidate* in the eyes of the law, there has been no contravention” of the law,” the party said Friday.
The party said NCAN acted as a collection medium to aggregate micro contributions from thousands of Nigerians keen to ensure Mr Buhari’s re-election.
But Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, another legal practitioner, said the electoral law was “definitely” violated.
“Why people want to invest in a candidate is because they think it is profitable,” she said while strongly questioning the moral justification behind the practice.
“So once the people you have invested into get into power, the next thing is recovering your investment and the people that cast the vote like you and I, where will our priorities begin to matter,” Ms Ibezim-Ohaeri said.
She urged citizens to show more outrage by seeking court interpretation of the purchases.
“It is not just enough to go on social media and say this is a violation, the courts are open,” she said.
Samuel Ogala, an Abuja-based lawyer, said the group was not registered and cannot be charged for committing any crime. He argued that only registered firms are considered an entity under the Nigerian law. d
“The Electoral Act says no individual or other entity should donate more than N1 million. A group of persons cannot be seen as an entity. An entity in this case is an organisation, whether corporate, political or just an NGO, that is registered under the law,” he said.
“It is a group of people coming together to say they want to give their support,” he said. “That does not mean it is an entity. The question that need to be asked is how much did each person contributed and if there was anybody in the group that contributed more than N1 million.”