Direct primaries: Politicians just eat that frog

First, let us burn all the bridges. That must have been the mentality of the National Assembly when it passed the recent amendment to the Electoral Act which mandates the use of “Direct Primaries” by all political parties as the procedure for selecting its candidates for general elections.

For any keen observer of our politics, they will agree that after 22 years of uninterrupted democratic experience and minor tinkering around the edges, it was about time to disrupt the political process and inject bold new ideas to strengthen its base for at least another 22 years. Afterall, this is the age of disruption!

I say this because, at the conceptual level, one of the arguments of scholars has been that we have always copied or adapted good practices from other jurisdictions but sadly in a haphazard manner.

An often-cited example is the argument that we adopted a federal system of government but somehow it is administered with a unitary civil service structure which is only fit for a parliamentary system of government. 

We created a federation without voluntary federating units rather the central government broke its single territory into subdivisions called States, handed out pockets of roles and responsibilities to them and called them federating units. Now the country is faced with demands for devolution of powers or restructuring depending on the political scientist you talk to.

It was just in the same way we operated a multi-party democratic system for 22 years where the majority of party members were no more than glorified passers-by in the process of nominating candidates for their own political party. On this last point, the Amendment of the Electoral Act once signed into law will reverse this and put party members right in the driving seats of the nomination process.

So, let’s discuss Direct Primaries and how the process works. It is an expansive process by which every political party documents its membership across the country, avails aspirants seeking to contest on the party’s platform its membership list to enable them to engage directly with such members and ultimately allow those members choose their preferred aspirant to be the candidate of the party in the general elections. Indeed, as can be seen, party members are the center of gravity in this process.

The role of party executives and officials is to facilitate this interface between prospective aspirants and party members in a manner that ensures fairness and satisfies all including the unbiased umpire Independent National Electoral Commission “INEC” which have powers to monitor party primaries by Sections 85 and 86 of the Electoral Act. This role of party executives and officials is the twenty percent that makes the eighty percent difference in the success or failure of the entire process. Therefore, this piece is to consider certain key ingredients that must be put in place to deliver the desired outcome in Direct Primaries.

The first is a robust Membership Register. In the eyes of the law, political parties are considered voluntary clubs or associations, therefore registered membership is vital to participation in its activities. For the major parties in Nigeria, membership registration is done at the Ward level and a Register of members is generated and preserved at the Ward Secretariat of the Party although copies are sent to the Local Government, State and National Secretariats respectively. I am aware that the All Progressives Congress “APC” has provisions for online registration of members in Article 9.1 (ii) of its Constitution and record of this is kept at the national secretariat.

For the purpose of Direct Primaries, this Register of members must be sacrosanct. Creating electronic copies and having them accessible online improves the sanctity of the Register because this will prevent arbitrary mutilation of Registers few days to primaries election. Also, copies of such Register will be filed off with INEC and updated versions sent to them as well. It is necessary to clearly indicate the time frame for registration of new members and thereafter a final register must be generated at least 4 or 5 months before primaries. Within 3 months to the date fixed for party primaries, the Register of members must be made public as this would give prospective aspirants ample time and the specific detail on where to seek for his ambition.

The second ingredient is re-jigging the Organizing Departments of political parties and synchronizing its work with Organizing Departments of State Chapters of the party. This Department within the secretariat of political parties is often headed by the National Organizing Secretary. It is the engine room for the conduct of party primaries as they are responsible for all outfield events of the party. Under the regime of Direct Primaries, they will be responsible for delineating the entire country into small voting geographies (either Polling Units or Precincts), identifying voting centers within those geographies, appointing Leaders or Prefects who would coordinate the events on the ground on the date of primaries election. The Department would also prepare ballot papers, arrange for their delivery for use and evacuation after use for safe keeping should the process be challenged in court in pre-election matters. These are enormous responsibilities to take on therefore Organizing Departments must be better funded, better staffed with more skilled and dynamic personnel as well as better structured in terms of its internal specialized operating units. Further, there may be a need to share some of these responsibilities between other Departments and offices like the Office of the National Secretary of the party.

The third point to note is the need to ensure general management of the pre-primaries process. This entails issuing Guidelines for party primaries at least 2 or 3 months before the date of the primaries and alongside making public copies of membership register within that same time frame. Furthermore, political parties must publish the qualifying requirements for of persons to “Primaries Election Committee” which delegates with powers to conduct primaries. They must be clear about the consequences for a failed primary election, especially one that is due to unsavory actions of “Primaries Election Committee” members. There would also be a need to indicate requirements for participation as Adhoc staff of the “Primaries Election Committee”. The political parties would have to train these Adhoc staff on their roles and the Directorate of Research, Legal and Organizing Departments of the party must take the lead on this. Over many election circles, the institutional knowledge created would provide a solid foundation for improvement of the process.

The fourth is the need to have staggered Presidential Primaries. This is inevitable because of the huge logistical nightmare holding direct primaries for presidential aspirants in one day would present. That would require covering over 176,000 polling units across the country on the same day whereas, with hundreds billions of naira in allocation, properly structured operations and years of experience at it, INEC still deals with a myriad of issues trying to achieve this. It will be foolhardy to expect political parties to achieve this feat in such a short period of time. Instead, political parties should have their primaries over a 6week period with each week spent on each of the 6 geo-political zones in the country. This will allow for shuffling of resources and personnel of both the political parties and INEC.

The final point I will speak about is the need for funding. Till date, none of the major or minor political parties in Nigeria can clearly lay out its procedure for generating revenue and this fuels the suspicion that they survive on government patronage which is undesirable. Though politics is an expensive venture, the biggest financial asset of political parties are its members. As a minimum, members of political parties must pay membership dues either monthly or annually and a record of such payment must be filed with INEC periodically by political parties. For a party like APC which claims to have over 16million members, at N100 per member monthly, the party will rake in revenue in excess of N19 billion annually which is a significant amount. However, in the wake of this amendment, it is vital for the government to consider granting political parties a one-time “allocation” through INEC to aid them attain compliance with processes and procedures necessitated by this amendment.
From all of the above recommendations, it is clear that strong oversight from INEC is necessary to finally realize the spirit and letter of this amendment. Its current tacit and almost insipid posture to intra-party affairs has to change because it is the sole statutory regulator of that space and its role goes beyond merely monitoring congresses, primaries and meetings. Its engagement must be proactive and progressive as its communication is clear and firm. INEC must create platforms for periodic reviews among political parties and stakeholders on progress made on critical milestones towards achieving Direct Primaries. In my view, all the action points discussed above would form part of those milestones. It is necessary to state that the problems associated with Direct Primaries as seen even in the recent Anambra State Governorship nomination process within APC is a consequence of the lack of the above ingredients. Therefore, we should all need no further convincing to get to work immediately.

The journey to a better democracy where the office of the citizen is truly empowered as the ultimate employer of public servants is worth-while. It is with fidelity to this dream that great nations often set sail even absent the perfect conditions at sea. Direct Primaries will elevate political parties beyond platforms for actualizing political ambitions into becoming leadership processing machines. It will place the ordinary Nigerian in charge of this critical machine. It will ensure the emergence of underdogs and wildcards who are able to do the hard work of reaching out and winning popular support of party members. It will increase political participation and drive up turnout during general elections because the people, already, would have been invested. In this era of great citizen circumspection of politics in general, it will re-energize our democracy and encourage new entrants to participate. Therefore, we must commend the National Assembly for finding the courage to first “burn all the bridges” and then eat that frog. When the President assents (which is expected following his public posture on this issue), we as a nation can get creative on finding ways to make this vital amendment work for the ordinary Nigerian. This may just be the golden bullet we have been searching for as a nation.

Arobo Esq. (FIMC) of the African Leadership Network for Youth writes from Abuja via gh[email protected],

08066752120, 09099068516.