The surprising decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission to reject African Peoples Congress’s controversial application for registration as a political party is being viewed with cautious optimism by many, writes Vincent Obia
In a surprise move, the Independent National Electoral Commission on Monday announced its rejection of an attempt by a controversial group, African Peoples Congress, to register as a political party. INEC said the group’s application for registration, dated February 28, did not meet the requirements of the law.
The contentious application, which was made public early in the month, had prompted a flurry of protestations. Many saw it as a move orchestrated by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party to cut the ground from under the feet of the popular opposition merger, All Progressives Congress, whose name had been etched on the public psyche.
APC, a merger of three parties – All Nigeria Peoples Party, Action Congress of Nigeria, and Congress for Progressives Change – as well as a faction of All Progressives Grand Alliance – has been trying to register as a political party. And the sudden appearance of the rival group bearing the APC acronym had jolted everybody. But it also jolted promoters of the merger party into awareness of a procedural error of failing to officially notify INEC of their intention to become a political party.
Penultimate Saturday, the INEC chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, said on a Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Kaduna, Hausa phone-in programme, Hanu Dayawa, that sponsors of the opposition APC must choose a new name. Jega’s reason was that the merger promoters never declared a formal intention to form a party under the name of APC until about five days before, after another group had approached the commission with a plan to register a party under a name with the same acronym.
“In spite of all the noise going on, none of these political parties who want to merge has held their convention. We only read in the newspapers that they have the intension of merging and nobody wrote us until about five or six days ago,” Jega stated.
“Only one group came. The group asked one lawyer to write INEC saying they want to form a political party with a particular name and they want to know the rules and procedure for registration as a political party.”
That one group was the rival APC. Its protem national chairman Onyinye Ikeagwuonu claimed about a fortnight ago, during a press conference in Abuja, that they had completed all requirements for registration as a political party.
But Jega said, “People are just making noise over the name, which is still in the market, while we have not even reached that stage of registration. While all these noises were going on, another group came up seeking for registration with the same name.”
That was yet another incipient political set, All Patriotic Citizens.
The group is, however, said to have written to INEC to withdraw its March 8 application for registration as a political party, citing “the ongoing controversy on the acronym APC.” As for the opposition merger, the INEC chairman said, “We have told them to look for another name… We must operate according to the rules and we will work with anybody who fulfils the provisions of the law.
Somebody first came with the name and we have explained that we are already screening the person who first came with the name.”
Jega’s words on the opposition APC merger were quite brash. So no one really expected that INEC will backpedal on the rival APC registration.
But the letter from the commission to leaders of the rival APC, dated March 21, said their application fell short of Section 222 of the 1999 Constitution, which says, “No Association by whatever name called shall function as a political party unless: (a) The names and addresses of its national officers are registered with the Independent National Electoral Commission.” INEC said the group’s application did not contain the addresses of its national officers.
INEC’s Director of Publicity Emmanuel Umenger is quoted as saying there would be no going back on the decision not to register the rival APC. The about turn announced by the commission on Monday came out of the blues. It is ordinarily a pleasant surprise. The element of surprise was palpable even among staff of the electoral body.
But many people seem cautiously reluctant to sing INEC’s praise. Apparently, the recent experience with the rival APC has taught people to be circumspect. Despite the fact that PDP has denied any links with the rival group, it is suspected in many quarters that the ruling party might have simply changed route and strategy to achieve the same result of sabotaging the opposition merger’s emergence as a political party.
Though, the general belief is that INEC has bowed to the obvious verdict of the court of public opinion. Whatever may be the case, promoters of the opposition merger need not be surprised into believing that they can now succeed effortlessly. They have to watch their backs.
Ikeagwuonu has vowed to fight INEC’s refusal of his group’s attempt to register as a political party in court. The battle may soon shift to the judiciary. Judicial officers would say the courts don’t respect public opinion, but follow the law. But in many cases, they have tried to avoid getting too far away from public opinion. As the battle for APC moves to the courts, the judiciary would be expected to reassure the sceptical public and prove that it can serve the cause of justice and democracy.