Last week, two things happened that have the potential to significantly remould our party system for the better. The first is the recognition of the merger of some opposition parties into the APC and the second is the court judgement that INEC cannot re-register political parties. Both are very positive developments.
The Fourth Republic was initiated through the 1999 Constitution. For its first elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recognised only three political parties – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the All Peoples Party (APP) and the Action for Democracy (AD). Following a Supreme Court judgement on the case Balarabe Musa v INEC, 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. Prominent among the new parties are the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Political Change (CPC) and the People’s Progressive Alliance (PPA).
In addition, many small parties took advantage of the liberalization of the political space to register parties that have proven to be largely unviable. It appears that some of them were established to access INEC’s funding support or as fall back mechanism for political heavy weights who lose out in power struggles within their parties.
The National Assembly 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. On 18th August 2011, INEC de-registered seven parties that did not contest for any election office in the 2011 elections. Two more de-registration exercises were carried out reducing the number of parties from 63 to 25. As I had argued previously in this column, 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 a 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.”
Since 1999, Nigeria has 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 has emerged as the leader of the dominant party although a party chairman exists and state governors are the leaders of their party at that level. The dominant party has therefore evolved to be an expression of executive power. The dominant party and indeed most other parties are mainly controlled by godfathers and barons rather than party members. These parties have clientelist networks that are used by the party barons to “deliver” crowds for rallies and party congresses. Indeed, parties tend to treat their members with disdain and utter disrespect. Consequently, the political relationship within the parties is essentially one between patrons and clients and the clients are mobilised on pecuniary, religious, ethnic or regional basis.
The Professor Jega led INEC has always shown concern for a party system that expressed scant regard to democratic rules in their internal affairs. INEC, I believe, has also been concerned about the high number of non-functional parties that only serve to clog the ballot during elections, which explain their eagerness to sanitise the party system by reducing their number. 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 of elected representatives before they can get onto the ballot. This is the path we should take in Nigeria.
Traditionally, competition in Nigeria’s party system is very intense within the ruling party and less so between the political parties. This is due to the fact that since 1979, Nigeria has developed the tradition of major blocs of the political elite coalescing into a single political party conceived as a hegemonic party. In elections that are relatively free and fair, namely, the 1959, 1979 and 1999 elections, the parties that had the highest votes, the Northern Peoples’ Congress, the National Party of Nigeria and the Peoples’ Democratic Party failed in their desire to be hegemonic or dominant through the polls. In the subsequent elections of 1964, 1983 and 2003, they all abused their incumbency powers to transform themselves into dominant parties. In essence, they used electoral fraud to boast their control of the political process and weaken opposition parties. This has been the reason why competitive party politics has been weak. The ruling parties have too often falsified the electoral game while the parties in opposition hove had too narrow a political base and insufficient resources to effectively compete for power.
It is in this context that the emergence of the APC could be a life changer in the party system we operate. The new party would have sufficient spread and resources to contest for power at the national level. This means the cream of the political elite who is focused on access to power have an alternative platform to realise their ambitions.
This is the possibility that has frightened the ruling PDP that appeared to have used surrogates to frustrate the emergence of the APC. INEC was principled and brave in going ahead to register the party. With the APC, it will now be possible to evolve towards a two party dominant system, a new paradigm that will make alternation of power possible. Of cause all this will depend on the capacity of the new party to get its act together, show respect to its members and practice internal party democracy. Meanwhile, many thanks to Professor Jega’s INEC and Justice Kolawole for inducing change in our party system.