The Power of Delegates





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It is obvious from the way the presidential  aspirants of the two major political  parties have crisis-crossed Nigeria in the last few weeks that the elected delegates to the conventions hold some powers. The aspirants have been “meeting” the elected party delegates who would elect the flagbearers of the respective parties. Already delegates are already deciding the fate of aspirants seeking their party tickets for  the legislative elections in some parties.

The inexplicable omission  of the statutory delegates in  the Electoral  Act 2022 has even made the elected delegates more “powerful,”  you may say. In the absence of the “super delegates,” the elected  delegates from the various constituencies can now assume all the powers to make and unmake things at the convention.  

Indirectly, the decision of who would be the next president actually begins with  what the  delegates do with their votes in determining the candidates, in the first place. As a matter of fact, in a situation in which a party is highly favoured to win the real election by a combination of factors, it is the delegates that would initiate the  process of victory for its candidate. This partly explains why  there is the  concentration of media coverage on the primary elections of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Since pundits do not give much premium to the possibility of a third force springing a surprise in the political landscape, the projection is that the next president will be the candidate of APC or that of the PDP. This lucky candidate  will  emerge at the primary election  of either  of the two  political parties scheduled to take place in the next few days. Well, who says the pundits cannot be wrong? 

That is why the process of choosing the delegates ought to be imbued with greater democratic substance than what  has been the culture in this dispensation. For instance, it is far from being puritanical to insist that the culture of democracy would be enhanced if the emergence of these delegates themselves is subjected to the rigor of a more credible  democratic process.

Although primaries are intra-party affairs, the presidential aspirants of the APC and PDP have conducted their physical and digital  campaigns as if  the inter-party election fixed for February next year is already on the stage. The sizes of the billboards already  erected by some aspirants are as big as what they would put up if they eventually become candidates. Even non-card carrying members of the political parties are deeply involved in the campaigns towards the  the primaries. 

So, are the delegates fully conscious of their central responsibility  to deepen the democratic process with their votes? Or are  the delegates wielding  their enormous powers without responsibility?

The answers to these  questions are worth pondering as part of  the thoughts  about the evolution of the primary elections of parties. Increasingly party primaries have  become more complex   over the years with all the hiccups and controversies that could sometimes be very bitter. When the experiment with the presidential system began in 1979, there were  no elaborate primaries of the parties. This was partly explained by the fact that  the 1979 presidential election took place in the course of a political transition in which a military regime  superintended.  Perhaps  it was only in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that  a number of northern presidential aspirants emerged based on a “zoning arrangement.”  Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who emerged as the candidate, eventually won the election. Not much of primaries took place before the candidates of the other parties emerged as follows:  Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN); Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigerian Peoples Party(NPP);  Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim, Greater Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP) and Mallam Aminu Kano, People’s Redemption Party (PRP). It was, of course, understandable that the presidential tickets of the parties would be automatically available to these respective political heavyweights. Besides, the history of the formation of the  parties was such that  rancorous primaries were simply inconceivable.

The creative method of open ballot system code-named   “Option A4”  was designed by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) chaired by Professor Humphrey Nwosu in the stillborn Third Republic. The process  climaxed with the big primaries of the National Republic Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) with the election of   their respective candidates – Alhaji Bashir Tofa and Bashorun Moshood Abiola. They both   derived  their mandates from the grassroots through the delegates to the national conventions. There were stages of transparent elections leading to the emergence of the delegates.  The primaries of the NRC and SDP were indeed momentous events. The tone of the real elections was  more or less set by the dynamics of the primaries.

At the beginning of this dispensation, the primaries of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and the PDP were conducted  in different modes. The primary election of AD that took place in De Rover Hotel in Ibadan was more of a conclave.  Chief Olu Falae was “elected” as the candidate, “defeating” Chief Bola Ige. The bitter memory of the controversy that was generated by that unique exercise still lingers. Two presidential aspirants – General Olusegun Obasanjo and Dr. Alex Ekwueme- polarised the PDP in the keenly contested primary election. Obasanjo emerged as the candidate.

In the last 23years, eventful primaries have come to define the major parties even as new ones come on stage while some others  have changed forms and nomenclatures  during alignments.

It may not be an exaggeration to say   that warts and all the political culture of party primaries are getting more sophisticated, election after election.

However, the popular perception is that delegates often return  from party conventions richer.  This is, of course, one of the reasons why it is said that the current politics is too expensive for those contesting elections.  It is not an issue for only  the delegates and the aspirants. It is a symptom of the structural faults in the polity and the deficit in the  democratic content of the process. A lot of money is believed to be spent by aspirants in mobilising the delegates for their votes. In a light-hearted mood, Governor Nasir el-Rufai remarked  the other day that “some people say that delegates may not make heaven” given the manner in which  they “endorse” every aspirant that “meets” them for support during the primary election. The governor spoke when an APC presidential aspirant, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, was introduced to the Kaduna State delegates. Although El-Rufai quickly  added that the “Kaduna state delegates would make heaven,”  the point is not lost on observers. The Kaduna delegates had earlier endorsed another presidential aspirant, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu,  before they subsequently embraced other aspirants who also visited the state to canvass for delegates’ votes. On another occasion,  former governor of Jigawa State and a notable chieftain of the PDP,  Alhaji Sule Lamido,  described primary elections of political parties as “human trade fairs,”  what with the humiliating  manner in which the  delegates are  sometimes treated by agents of aspirants who act as if they have procured the delegates’ votes as commodities. In the past, some delegates “mobilised” to support an aspirant were reportedly “camped” in venues in which rival aspirants would have no access to them before voting. In some cases the handsets  of the aspirants were  seized to avoid communication with opponents or actions that could lead to sabotage. There have been reports of other crude  “strategies” by some  aspirants.

Nonetheless, drawing from the American experience, there is a basis for enthusiasts of liberal democracy in Nigeria  to be optimistic. With time the rough edges of the process would be smoothened just as  the primaries in the American presidential system have evolved. There is certainly  a need  for the development of the process. It is indeed an evolutionary process in historical terms.  When the “direct primary” system  began in Wisconsin in the United States in 1903, the idea was primarily  to deepen democracy by giving the people the power to choose candidates. It was a revolt of sorts against the party apparatchik, in favour of democratic participation. The progressive elements in American politics pushed the idea of primary election on a reformist note. Left to the party bureaucracy they would rather the candidate was chosen by the caucus. The preferred candidate by the  party caucus in the process was  similar to what in the politics of Nigeria today is  called “consensus candidate.”  In fact in the early days, even non-party members could vote in the election of party candidates in the United States. It was all taken in the spirit of widening the democratic  space. In fact, American political parties had  what was called “closed primary election” in which black people and other minorities were excluded. Some historians  describe this exclusionary process  a “white primary.” So liberal democracy has not developed without some dark spots in its history. Therefore, those who are distressed about what  takes place  at the “delegates market” that  is a feature of the  primary election today should not write off the system. With legislative and other reforms the system could be improved. Perhaps, it safe to venture a prognosis that the culture of party primaries would evolve according to the peculiarities of Nigerian political history. The fanfare, wheeling dealing and geo-political calculus are features that could  be refined.  For instance, while vote buying  during primary election should not be rationalised the fact remains that primaries are essentially  costly affairs. The important thing is to know where to draw the line between legitimate expenses for logistical purposes and the corruption of the process which, in any case, is a crime.

Besides, the manner in which a party handles its primary election has immense implications for the future of the party. The outcome of the primaries would either cement the organisational cohesion of the party  or cause some fissures in its ranks. This thesis will be tested by the  2022 primaries of the political parties,  whether major or minor. The obvious reason, of course, is that  the parties are essentially special vehicles for any aspirant  seeking a ride to power. Hence political parties hold conventions to conduct primary elections because the laws compel them too so. But parties hardly hold policy conferences because there is no  ideological and  political compulsion to articulate party visions and strategies of development.    

In sum, the power of the delegates to decide the candidate of their respective parties should be exercised with a deep sense of responsibility. By their actions in the coming days, the delegates should correct the negative perception that the  process of choosing a party’s  candidate  is a transactional one. The delegates should be conscious of the fact that they have a huge role to play in deepening democracy with their precious votes.

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