Critical Issues Ahead of Super Weekend

Postscript by Waziri Adio

The already charged political landscape will become more animated this week as the big two political parties choose their presidential flagbearers in Abuja. The most consequential decisions around the 2023 general election will be taken mostly by delegates within a few days of what can be called our Super Weekend. Expect suspense, plot twists, rhetorical flashes, denouement and other elements of good political drama. No matter how it ends, one thing is certain: the week will be full of drama.

There will be drama from the screening of the 25 presidential aspirants still standing on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). There will be drama from the dozens of aspirants in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and APC making their closing, fevered pitches to the delegates, who will be feted and shielded in equal measure. There will be drama from shifts in delegate counts, from last-minute alignments and re-alignments, and from desperate and calculated trade-offs. And there will be the minute-by-minute drama of the primaries proper. This is the week that political junkies live for.

In this high-octane week, some issues will be playing high in the minds of political actors and keen watchers of politics; and some developments are bound to come into view because they go with the terrain. These issues and developments are likely to shape not only the outcome of the primaries of the Big Two but also the permutations for the 2023 polls and beyond. I will highlight four of these elements here.

The first issue is the implication of the amendment to Section 84 (8) of Electoral Act 2022 which the Senate hastily passed on 10th May 2022 and the House of Representatives duly concurred with the following day. The amendment was reportedly transmitted to the President on 13th May 2022. It was yet to the signed at the time of writing this.

For context, Section 84 (8) of the electoral law signed by President Muhammadu Buhari on 25th February 2022 states that: “A political party that adopts the system of indirect primaries for the choice of its candidate shall clearly outline in its constitution and rule the procedure for democratic election of delegates to vote at the convention, congress or meeting.” The key words here are: elected delegates will choose the candidates of parties that adopt indirect primaries. This section does not exclude other delegates but a principle in law is that what is not mentioned is not intended. And for this purpose, the electoral law supersedes precedents or whatever else is in the constitutions and rules of individual parties. 

Effectively, statutory delegates have thus been excluded by the current electoral law from voting in indirect primaries. The statutory delegates include the president, the vice president, the governors and their deputies, federal and state legislators, local government chairmen, their deputies and councillors, and key party officials at federal, state and local government levels. The amendment passed by the National Assembly on 11th May 2022 was intended to correct what was clearly an unintended exclusion of this high-heeled class of delegates.

Since the president and the key political actors are all involved, a presidential assent is still possible. But having a late and hasty amendment to the electoral law raises some fundamental issues. To be clear, the problem is not that an amendment was rammed through in one legislative day in each chamber of the parliament. There is nothing untoward as long as all the processes were followed. Indeed, a law can be passed, amended or repealed in one day. But our legislators hardly attach same speed to things that do not directly affect them. More importantly, it is quite rich if the entire elected political class could be blindsided on something as significant as this even in areas that affect them.

In the two leading parties, the statutory delegates constitute the majority of the usual delegates. APC was expected to have 7, 800 delegates, out of which 2, 322 (or 29.76%) are elected delegates and 5, 478 (or 70.23%) are statutory delegates. On its part, PDP was expected to have 3, 700 delegates, out of which 810 (or 21.89%) are elected delegates and 2, 890 (or 78.10%) are statutory delegates. What this means is that without the amendment, only between 22% and 30% of earlier expected delegates will choose the presidential flagbearers of the two leading parties.

On the face of it, this should reduce the final cost of the primaries in terms of accommodation, feeding, transportation and other expenses. But many will also lose out, from business owners to delegates and other key political actors. For one, the presidential aspirants have invested considerable time and resources courting only statutory delegates because the elected delegates were not yet in place. The junkets across the country and the expenses incurred may have been in vain, as no one makes refunds in this game.

Using only elected delegates alters the political calculus in many ways, especially in terms of tipping the balance of power in favour of the governors who constitute the most formidable power bloc in the country. Governors are now in control of at least between 70% to 90% of delegates at play from their states.

Some of the parties have started their primaries without the amendment. INEC also has a requirement that delegate lists must be transmitted to it seven days before the primaries and statutory delegates can be part of such lists until amendment is signed. If the amendment to the act is eventually signed, there will be questions and possibly litigations about whether the rules can be changed in the middle of the game. That is a potential landmine.

The parties can opt for direct primaries or consensus primaries as a way around this avoidable logjam. Given INEC’s June 3rd deadline for conclusion of primaries, time may be too short to organise direct primaries across the country. Also, Section 84 (9) (a) of the electoral act makes the consensus option less feasible for the two leading parties: all cleared aspirants will need to withdraw from the race and endorse the consensus candidate in writing. It will take quite an effort to pull that off, given the calibre and desire of some of the aspirants. 

The second critical issue is the case instituted on 29th April 2022 at the Supreme Court by the President and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) on the constitutionality of Section 84 (12) of the same electoral act. This is the section that states that political appointees cannot vote or be voted for in a convention to choose the candidates of the parties except they had resigned their positions 30 days prior to the primaries. The president and the AGF contend that the section is in conflict with sections 42, 65, 66 and others of the 1999 Constitution.

The Supreme Court adjourned hearing on the case to 26th May 2022, after acceding to the request of Rivers State to be joined. Prior to that, President Buhari had asked his cabinet members interested in running for office to tender their resignation before 16th May 2022, and most of them complied except those who changed their minds on running for office. State governors had issued same orders much earlier. Based on these developments, it is difficult to know whether this case was instituted just to prove a constitutional point or to provide legal cover during screening for aspirants who might not have resigned 30 days before the primaries. No matter the outcome of this case, it may lead to a party being deemed to be without a candidate if one of the affected aspirants emerges from the primaries.

The third issue is zoning. PDP has decided to throw the presidential race open to all zones. APC has not said a word about zoning, though an overwhelming number of its presidential aspirants is from the south. There are two opposing arguments about where to zone the presidency: one posits that after eight years of a president of northern extraction, power should naturally rotate to the south; the other counters that the south would by 2023 have been in power for 13 out of 24 years of the Fourth Republic. Each argument has a corresponding counter but beneath the hesitation of the dominant parties to take a categorical position on zoning is the crude calculation about winning the next election.

Whether the parties take categorical positions or not on this issue, zoning (and even micro-zoning) will feature prominently during the presidential primaries. The fact that aspirants from all zones are allowed to run does not mean there are no or there will be no informal agreements on zoning or that it will not play out by default. Past primaries offer a guide here. However, how the parties handle this hot potato will have implications not only for voters’ turnout and preferences next year but also for post-election peace and development in the country. It is therefore very important for the political elites to start figuring out how to deal with the fallouts.

The fourth is what I will term primary colours: this week will witness intense jockeying by the aspirants and their supporters for the most coveted tickets in the race. To maintain the lead or displace those in the lead, each camp will throw everything it has into the last mile.

This will manifest in different forms: advocacy for consensus option for those likely to be advantaged by it, last-minute jostling to keep or snatch delegates, saturation of the media with adverts, analyses and projections (including disinformation and fake news), attempt to use social pressure to change the outcome, desperate horse-trading with powerful individuals and power centres, deployment of blackmail in different forms, withdrawal of some aspirants for others, and in APC, a spirited move to get Buhari’s endorsement.

It is going to be a long and interesting week, with a series of meetings, constant changes in the league tables (especially among the top three), and dramatic switches of loyalties. It should be a week to savour, at least for the neutrals.  

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