Leadership Selection in Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Challenges and Prospects


“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” – Dr. Seuss

Discussing various issues around poor leadership selection in Nigeria’s contemporary politics has become something akin to the proverbial broken record – or, perhaps scratched compact disc (CD) may be the better term to apply in this instance, since we are talking about contemporary issues here, as opposed to the traditional ways of doing things. In other words, the problem with our candidates selection process – and I use the term “leadership” liberally to encompass any elective or appointive position, from the bottom up, which includes candidates for all appointive and elective positions, as well as the leadership of the various legislative houses after elections – is fast assuming the status of the conventional problem with the weather; everyone knows and talks about it, but nobody seems to be able to do anything to change it.

However, much unlike the weather systems, where there is little or nothing any one of us can do as humans to change the course of nature, the problem of our leadership selection process is well within our powers and wherewithal to work and improve upon, but we somehow always fail to do those vital little things that are required to make a marked difference. Indeed, the process of leadership selection in our own peculiar environment is a totally different ball game altogether in the sense that those who have somehow appropriated and cornered for themselves the rights to pick out or select from amongst the long list of aspiring politicians on our behalf appear to be either reluctant or strangely uncomfortable with pushing forward and implementing the kinds of reforms that will ensure only individuals who meet the relevant criteria of qualification, knowledge, experience, vision, skills, wisdom and courage, amongst others, are put forward for such positions. This is, perhaps, because such people may not be amenable to being teleguided or pushed around in a manner that their benefactors have come to expect over the years.

As a result, they often prefer the largely docile type, regardless of whether they possess or lack these vital criteria or skills set, or, indeed, even the necessary educational qualification to deliver on the job. In fact, more often than not, such ‘favoured breed’ usually end up having to use fake or cooked-up certificates – sometimes with the foreknowledge or even at the prodding of their benefactor(s) – in order to meet the prescribed minimum qualification for the envisaged office or position.

All this, happening in a country that is substantially blessed with highly educated and experienced pool of qualified personnel in virtually all spheres or disciplines of human endeavor one can possibly think of under the sun. Consequently, the envisaged realistic elimination of the “garbage – in, garbage – out” syndrome will take quite some doing, and one personally sees it remaining with us for a very long time to come. Unless, of course, this set of self-appointed ‘kingmakers’, also known locally as “godfathers”, who perennially go about oozing their familiar overbearing attitude on the rest of the population either change their ways, or we somehow collectively find a way to dislodge them from their current vise-like grip on our political leadership selection process, with a view to liberalising and democratising it, to make it a more open one eventually.

In addition to its prevalence in almost all the registered political parties we have today, the pervasive ‘godfather challenge’ also exists in virtually all parts of the country, and is not necessarily limited to any one state or geopolitical zone in particular. But you certainly witness more of such instances with the candidates submitted from one specific state in the South East, for instance, where the added problem of double nomination appears to be a persistent challenge and recurring decimal with virtually every election conducted within the last two electoral cycles. By and large, one is merely speaking in general terms, based on one’s very little experience and admittedly even far less knowledge of how these things played out in the past. However, that is not, in anyway, suggestive of the problem being particularly restricted to that specific state alone, by any chance.

Of course, one very much understands and appreciates the concept of expecting the voters to choose the best among the candidates on offer across party lines. But the main challenge here is that majority of our largely uneducated pool of electorate, on their part, do not still understand or appreciate the fact that they can, indeed, vote for the candidate of a different party other than the main party they support, depending on the quality of the candidate presented by each party. In other words, the concept they seem to generally accept and entirely go by, more often than not, is one which tends to imply that once they massively support a particular political party or candidate in a state or an area, it then automatically follows that they just have to vote and return any and all candidates presented by that party across all the conceivable election types conducted by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) – i.e. Presidential, Governorship, Senatorial, House of Representatives and State Houses of Assembly elections – and possibly, even local government council elections conducted by the various State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), regardless of whether or not other more qualified or better suited candidates may be running for the same position on another party platform.

The resulting dangerous phenomenon, which is largely fuelled by such mindset, has appropriately been dubbed and has since come to be known and regarded as the “bandwagon effect” in local electoral parlance. Again, since this kingmaker or godfather syndrome appears to have permeated virtually all or most of the major political parties that stand any chance of winning a seat in any election as we speak today, what this means is that even where the voters are sufficiently informed about the preferred or desirable type(s) of candidate(s) to vote in an election, they may sometimes actually end up being left with not much of a choice for a particular position (not all, perhaps, admittedly), if the godfathers in all the major parties decide to field less than desirable candidates.In that case, therefore, it simply becomes the small matter of choosing between the lesser of two or, perhaps, more ‘evils’, if you excuse the use of the term.

It is the full realisation of this fact, coupled with the vise-like grip of such godfathers on existing party structures that informed INEC’s decision to include amongst the list of amendments to the legal framework it submitted to the National Assembly as far back as late 2012 or thereabouts, the need for the introduction of Independent Candidacy in our electoral laws. The idea behind that is for the purpose allowing (an) independent candidate(s) – i.e. any eligible person(s) who happen(s) to meet a very strict set of specified qualification criteria for such – to be able to circumvent the influence of godfatherism in deciding who gets to be on the ballot as a party candidate. Perhaps, not totally unexpectedly, that amendment did not sail through in the end.

I recall one presentation at an international elections forum where the representative from the Electoral Commission of India informed the audience about a new radical inclusion on their ballot – the first and only country in the world to have done that, so far – during their last general elections known by its acronym, ‘NOTA’, which stands for “None of the Above”. This unique voting option, which was introduced following persistent pressure from the voting public who consistently complained that they often do not like any of the candidates vying for certain positions in an election, allowed such voters to still go out and cast their vote (a right they consider as their sacred constitutional duty), by rejecting all the candidates on offer, rather than the more traditional way of signifying such rejection by staying at home and abstaining from voting completely on election day.

During its first year of introduction on a test basis, over 6 million people opted to vote ‘NOTA’ in place of any of the party candidates, which sent a very clear message as a way of registering their utmost discontent with all the competing political parties in the elections over what they considered as their wrong choice of candidates. The next logical question I asked the presenter afterwards, which he wasn’t able to satisfactorily respond to, is what then happens if the faceless ‘NOTA’ ends up receiving the highest number of votes at the end of the day?The presenter could not come up with a satisfactory response, which may, perhaps, be because, even though 6 million votes may appear to be a huge number on the face of it, they do not envisage such a scenario happening any time soon.

For instance, while many relatively smaller countries within the African continent still marvel at Nigeria’s huge registered voting population figure of just over 70 million (i.e. those with valid Permanent Voters Cards) during the last general elections in 2015, the Election Commission of India put the number of people who were eligible to vote in their 2014 general elections at a whopping 814.5 million, representing an increase of a whopping 100 million people in a space of just 5 years over and above those registered for the 2009 elections! It would, of course, be nice to see how that figure compares with what may be obtainable in the world’s most populous country, except that China, with a population of 1.4 billion compared to India’s 1.3 billion people, is not a democracy, so we may never have a basis for such a comparison any time soon and, perhaps, never will.

And, yes, the legally permissible recall of elected officials in Nigeria is a rather tedious process, which probably explains why none has succeeded thus far in our recent history. I am not exactly sure what may have obtained during the First Republic, but as much as I can tell, nothing of that nature has happened ever since. Of course, there is this ideal notion that the voters should be free to choose the preferred candidates of their choice, regardless of party affiliation, and there are, perhaps, a number of instances one can possibly cite where that has, indeed, been the case. But, having said that, what about a probable situation where all the possible alternatives as presented by the different parties end up not being from among the “experienced bests”?

One might say that appears rather far-fetched or highly improbable, but it is not completely beyond the realm of possibilities, as far as some of these godfathers – who actually exist in most of the major political parties, by the way, although, admittedly, more prevalent in some than in others – are concerned. The most conceivable solution, therefore, still lies in the ultimate release of the party structures from the vise-like grip of godfathers and other money bags, to make way for a more open and democratic system of selecting candidates, because even the Independent Candidacy route is not entirely accessible to everyone, in the sense that one still has to have the wherewithal – mostly financial – to campaign and sell oneself outside of the formal party structure, even if the requirement for such has been met. As Abraham Bell rightly argues, “it is a moral and sociological absurdity if the best men are not elected”.