By Jibrin Ibrahim
In his address to the 11th meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the All Progressives Congress (APC) on 20th April 2022, President Buhari warned the party leadership at the national and state levels not to impose unpopular candidates as the 2023 election approaches. He called on them to always follow due process in all the party processes as well as to develop robust mechanisms against corruption:
“I call on all party members to abide by all extant laws, rules, and regulations and to leaders of our party to avoid the imposition of candidates that cannot win popular elections. This dictatorial behaviour cost us many strategic seats in the past leading to some of our strong members, unfortunately, opting to go elsewhere because of the unfairly oppressive behaviour of party leaders at the state level.”
The President therefore came out very clearly on the side of transparency and strict adherence to internal democratic processes within the party.
To the great surprise of Nigerians, President Buhari did a U-turn on Tuesday 31st May telling the 22 APC governors that they had successfully imposed the candidates they wanted in their states so they should give him the same privilege of allowing him to hand pick his successor:
“In keeping with the established internal policies of the Party and as we approach the Convention in a few days, therefore, I wish to solicit the reciprocity and support of the Governors and other stakeholders in picking my successor.”
Of course, the President cannot choose his successor because the mandate has been given to Nigerian citizens by the Constitution, who alone can elect the next president. Maybe what he meant is that he alone should decide who will emerge as the APC presidential candidate. Here again, there is a problem. The Electoral Act gives power to party members to elect their preferred candidate.
For me, what is disturbing is that the President is saying that since the governors imposed their own candidates, he too would want to impose his candidate on the party. He is therefore giving up the moral high ground he occupied and taking the option of, to use his words, of engaging in dictatorial behaviour leading to the imposition of an unpopular candidate on the party. To be clear, any candidate imposed by an individual is by definition unpopular.
In his response to this development, Salihu Lukman, the National Vice-Chairman (North-west) of the APC has cautioned the President against taking this path, correctly pointing out that the risk is the reputation of the President himself. He added that:
“The big fear is that combining both legal and moral authority, being our President, if you are to nominate your successor to what extent can other party leaders influence your decision? If party leaders are unable to influence your decision with respect to the choice of successor, what will be the guarantee that your choice can aggregate the expectations of Nigerians?
The damage being done by President Buhari’s announcement is massive. Party leaders and stakeholders have been meeting almost continuously since his address to the Governors. They are trying to map out strategies either in support of or against the president’s announcement that he wants to impose a candidate. The most direct stakeholders are the APC presidential aspirants who paid a hundred million naira each for the right to contest. Some of them have been very clear that they will not accept the idea of a consensus candidate, insisting that competitive primaries must take place. It is important to point out that the Electoral Act stipulates that consensus candidates can only be considered in conditions where all of the aspirants make a written declaration that they are willingly stepping down for a consensus candidate. This option is closed in the APC as it stands today. Any imposition of a candidate would lead to a major crisis that could affect the chances of the party in the elections.
Another serious concern is that the President is said to have set up a small committee to help him determine who his successor would be but the membership of the said committee has not been announced. Many are worried that the committee might very well be the small group of friends and relations around the President. If this is the plan, then it would create a situation in which non-APC stakeholders determine for the party who their flag bearer would be. What is the purpose of the party National Executive Committee (NEC) and National Working Committee (NWC) if they are excluded from participation in the decision-making process of their own party? It is not surprising that allegations and protests have already emerged that the party chairman is working in concert with people outside the party leadership while marginalizing NEC and NWC.
The core crisis emerging within the party has been their inability to resolve the issue of zoning and power rotation. It was widely expected that after eight-years of President Buhari in power, the party would concede power to its leaders from the South. Strong opposition from within the party have resisted this arguing the party has no rotation principle in its Constitution. This might be true but the question posed is one of fairness and balance. There will be collateral damage is rotation does not occur even if it is not yet clear how deep the damage will be. The game changer might very well be the imposition of a Northern candidate by a Northern President that could push southern stakeholders into open revolt. The other question would be the fate of the Vice President, one of the southern candidates. If he is the chosen one, other candidates from the South could revolt and if he is not chosen, there would be uncomfortable questions about the lack of regard for his loyalty and hard work.
All these banana peels can be avoided by the President withdrawing his threat to impose a presidential candidate for the APC. Party primaries were invented to resolve leadership selection through the use of the democratic method. Nigerian democracy advocates have been very concerned about disregard for intra-party democracy and free and fair elections in the primaries held so far. President Buhari should heed the advice from people of goodwill and democratic disposition that he should not join the dictators who disregard due process and free and fair elections. His imposition of a candidate on the ruling party would definitely be a faux pas he can avoid.