In May 2019, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released the timetable for the governorship election in Bayelsa and Kogi States. The timetable highlights series of activities beginning with the notice of election scheduled for the 17th of August 2019 and immediately followed by the collection of the forms CF001 and CF002 which kickstarts the timeline for the conduct of the party primaries scheduled from 18th August to 5th September 2019. Party primary is a fundamental activity in the electoral process for several reasons. At first instance, the primary election is central because it is the process through which candidates emerge in a political party to contest in the elections, without which parties cannot field candidates in the elections.

In addition, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not provide for independent candidacy but recognizes duly registered political parties as the platforms upon which an individual can contest in an election. On another instance, primaries facilitate the right to contest in an election because the conduct of primaries is a major determinant of a political party’s access to the ballot. As reiterated by the supreme court in APC & Anor. V Senator Kabiru and Ors (Zamfara APC case); “where a political party fails to conduct primaries, then it is apparent that that political party cannot participate in the general elections. For this reason, all political parties have promulgated their constitutions and guidelines where the procedure for selection of candidates for general elections is provided.” As such, only parties that have duly conducted primaries in line with the Electoral Act and Guidelines for the conduct of primaries and within the timeline in the election timetable are granted access to the ballot.

Beyond the guarantee of the access to ballot, party primaries ordinarily are to set the agenda for the elections giving aspirants the opportunity to highlight the issues in their manifesto as they commence their campaigns for the primaries. Although this is not always the case, as political parties in Nigeria are yet to appreciate the importance of robust political debates on issues during elections as more focus is just on the politics of winning the party ticket. However, the ability of different aspirants to articulate the issues in their manifesto during the campaigns for the primaries enables the voter to understand what each candidate represents and make informed decision at the polls. As Nigeria’s democracy grows, there is more interest by citizens and civil society groups in the party primaries which ordinarily are viewed by political parties as “party affairs”. The growing quest to observe the primaries is borne from the recognition of the role the primaries play in our electoral democracy and the fact that the shortfalls from the primary elections can hinder efforts targeted at achieving credible elections.

As revealed in the Yiaga Africa Watching the Vote observation reports on the 2019 Party Primaries, the monetization of the primaries and the non-compliance with existing laws and guidelines created an environment that enabled the increase in the reports of the purchase of the PVC, voter inducement and vote buying. In addition, were incidents of electoral violence and the litany of pre-election cases that negatively impacted on the 2019 general election.

Accordingly, while political parties may assert that the primary election is an internal political party, the reality is that the primary election sets the tone for political campaigns and has major impact on how democratic or otherwise the elections will be. A flawed primaries process enables a vulnerable electoral system exposed to election related conflicts, undermining the confidence in the electoral process and leaves a litany of aggrieved persons which as was the case in the 2019 general election, leads to a plethora of pre-election cases. This growing trend of flawed primaries is not sustainable, remains inimical to the development of our electoral process in Nigeria and at the least raises situations that create distraction to the electoral commission in the preparation for election.

Cynthia Mbamalu, Programme Manager, YIAGA AFRICA