he news that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had shown 74 hitherto registered political parties the exit door from the corridor of political participation came to me with a welcome relief. This is one decision that INEC has taken for the right reason for a long time. INEC has commenced the process to help breathe some fresh air into the political arena and rid the system of political halleluyah boys who have feasted for so long on the weaknesses in the system to remain afloat.
Having 92 registered political parties in Nigeria is as sickly as the country is. Political parties that could easily be referred to as briefcase parties, have dominated the political noise for quite sometime now, parading Nigerians who have no national agenda seeking to run as presidential candidates of their mushroom parties. When elections are over, you often see them scoring zero as though they didn’t vote for themselves or their own parties. Ask to visit their offices, you are likely going to invite trouble. Some hire porta-cabins and use them as makeshift office space. A lot others hire offices just to fulfil the constitutional requirement for registration, and once they are registered, they shut down only to resurface when elections are knocking at the door.
Majority of them begin and end with their mobile briefcases. Their membership starts and ends with their family members. Some appear so amorphous that you begin to wonder how they were recognised ab initio as registered political parties. Now that the constitution has set a standard of engagement, and considering the dismal outing of these political parties in the 2019 general election, it is understandable why the electoral body is making this pronouncement. In order to grow our democracy, we must deliberately and consciously introduce measures that would deepen the process to make elections more credible. The volume of political parties on the ballot paper often makes it cumbersome for the electorate to make their choices. Too many colours are always on display, too many logos, spaces provided for thumbprint often appear slim, making room for overlap of thumbprint and the resultant invalid votes. There are too many “jungles” to cross in the course of election conduct in Nigeria. Due to the overloaded ballot papers, counting of votes is always another kettle of fish. Results that should be announced within 24 hours, take days to be announced. The fewer the parties, the more concise the process, the better and tidier the outcome. Some parties exist just for the fun of being used as litigants after elections.
We need to reform our electoral system and process to engender a more credible outcome each time we queue up for election. We must streamline the space to promote unity in diversity. The more the parties, the more divided we become. If I have my way, I will call for a two or three-party system, where all the divergent political persuasions and hues would be swallowed up. This will help to cement relationships, build new relationship and promote unity. The flexible process that leads to party registration has also become a problem rather than a solution. The ease at which politicians flock in and out of political parties to register their own party contributes to the upsurge. At the slightest provocation, party members exit one party and enter into another. The rate of defection is high. If the options are few or limited, there is the likelihood that this practice will reduce. The greater responsibility of INEC is on how to handle the plethora of fresh applications waiting to be considered as new political parties. This is where INEC needs to read the riot act. It needs to ensure that the processes and requirements leading to the registration are not as flexible as presently obtains. If this process is not deliberately checked, INEC will end up with the same problem it was trying to avoid. Over 100 applications of political associations are waiting for consideration as registered political parties.
In 2001, I was part of those who fought for the liberalisation of the political space because some of us felt the outgoing military oligarchies were trying to dictate the political process and conscript the democratic space. I left the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and co-formed the National Frontiers which paraded quite a number of PDP’s formidable members; Late Chief Sunday Awoniyi, Late Ume-Ezeoke, Dr. Paul Unongo, Alhaji Isa Ahmed, Alhaji Abubakar Musa and several others. Having mounted the desired pressure on the electoral body, the National Frontiers got registration on the 22nd June, 2002 as National Democratic Party (NDP), along with All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and United Nigeria People’s Party (UNPP). As formidable as NDP was, we were unable to make any meaningful breakthrough at the 2003 general election. Most of our candidates were moles sponsored by the ruling party to “arrest” our tickets and dump the campaigns for the election. As much as we laboured to make the desired impact, we could not break the ceiling glass. After the 2003 elections, we repositioned the party and championed generational leadership change. We thought that would attract a preponderance of the youths population into our party, but the youths preferred already made parties where all the big names were.
After the 2007 general election that produced Late Umaru Yar’Adua, the need to start looking inwards became manifest. The NDP started its own internal leadership crisis due to the greed of certain individuals who wanted to pocket the grants INEC was allocating to parties. It was the annual grant that initially fuelled the scramble for more political parties, until a time when the Electoral Act amended the provisions and stopped the practice. A lot of persons then saw the process as a commercial venture. Some of those recently deregistered political parties took off from that philosophy. Many of them have over the years refused to change their Executive members and officers. There are perpetual National Chairmen of political parties. Some chairmen have spent 14 years in office, some 10 years, others eight years depending on when the party was registered. Aside from being chairmen, they often become the presidential candidates of their parties at the turn of every election season. They scramble for any available largesse and write letters of solicitation for funds even when they know the opportunities do not exist for them to make any remarkable impact. Some travel outside the country to deceive unsuspecting Nigerians with overbloated statistics that the odds favour them. They collect money, donations and contributions to procure the next meal, instead of preparing for election. They hardly conduct National Convention let alone congresses to elect Executives of the party at Ward, Local Government, State and National levels.
The electoral body must be ready to purify the system. It should get a copy of the Justice Uwais-led committee report, and strive to implement a few of its workable recommendations. The report had earlier suggested to have at least three political parties or at most five, to strengthen and deepen our democracy. A situation where we parade 92 political parties, majority of which are redundant, dormant and almost dead in-between elections, does not augur well for a democracy that is still work-in-progress.
The electoral body must take the bull by the horns to get this kicking. It can go a step further to set rules for those who intend to feature presidential candidates. Requirements for those who intend to feature presidential candidate should be such that would help to further prune down the number to a manageable size. From 18 political parties, we can have five strong presidential candidates through alliances and or mergers depending on the scenario. That way, there will be a more robust contest for the available votes at the election. A multi-ethnic country like Nigeria will be able to build and sustain political integration if fewer political parties are made to stand for presidential election. The more political parties we have, the more divided we become with different ideological persuasions without a national consensus.
The arguments put forward by some of these political parties are not strong enough to overturn this decision of INEC. The electoral body must be resolute, firm and uncompromising. It must be blind to the partisanship of those supporting more parties. It should test the efficacy of the constitutional provisions in the law courts up to the Supreme Court. We must strengthen our democratic process and build strong political parties that would make the process more attractive, and acting as checks and balances on one another rather than have multitudes of dormant political parties like sole proprietorship with no discernible addresses. This is why I will call on the INEC to further prune down the figure from 18 to maybe 5, or deliberately encourage mergers to reduce the number. When All Progressives Congress (APC) was birthed in 2014, Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), and part of APGA, lost their identities to embrace the new party. From that strength which it derived from the merger, they were able to contest for power in 2015 and eventually won. That should be the motivation instead of deriving joy to exist as a fringe party for the sole purpose of commercialising the electoral process. The way to go is what INEC has started, it must be encouraged, supported, motivated and buoyed to take this to a logical conclusion in the interest of strong, virile and participatory democracy.