The Nigerian constitution does not allow for independent candidates. So, anyone running for public office must do so on the vehicle of a political party. It also gives the independent electoral commission of Nigeria (INEC) powers to register political parties in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and an Act of the National Assembly. Pursuant of those powers, INEC, beginning in 1999, set very tough requirements to meet to be registered as a political party. Many aspiring parties were unable to meet the requirements. Many at the time thought the guidelines set by INEC were so restrictive only money bags could form political parties.
When, in 2002, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi and others, successfully challenged the decision of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) at the time to refuse registration to his political party, the National Conscience Party (NCP) and many others on the grounds that they did not meet the requirements for registration set by the electoral body to be licensed as political parties, we all rejoiced and thought the decision of the courts to throw open the door for anyone or any group to register political parties to contest elections was a big victory for democracy and the freedom of association. It did not occur to us that multi-party systems work best in a parliamentary setting with proportional representation in place and is not particularly suited to presidential systems, with an inbuilt winner-takes-all arrangement.
Regardless, and as a consequence of the ruling, INEC, on December 3, 2002, registered twenty-two (22) new political parties, prominent among which were the National Conscience Party (NCP) of Gani Fawehimni, Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJ) led by former Inspector General of Police, M.D. Yusuf, the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) led by former Kaduna state governor, Balarebe Musa, and the Green Party led by human rights activists, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) to contest the 2003 general elections.
One of the consequences of the ruling was that the door was thrown open to just anyone to register a political party to contest elections without meeting any set threshold. But just like the opponents of the decision had argued then, none of the twenty-two registered political parties had grown or evolved into a national party. In fact, none of the 22 political parties still exist today, or rather, none of the 22 political parties is still recognised by INEC as a political party. Some still exist as shells rather than vibrant political parties truly fulfilling the functions of a political party of aggregating interests, educating the populace politically and serving as vehicles for capturing power. Of course, this is not to suggest any political party in Nigeria performs the real functions of a political party outside of being vehicles for capturing political power.
The unintended consequence of having an unregulated space for political parties is that during elections, there could be as much as 100 political parties, majority of which, it is clear, were set up mainly for transactional purposes, for selling endorsements, and for hobnobbing with politicians of the main parties in search of connections and filthy lucre.
Take for instance the last presidential election. As much as 71 presidential candidates contested the elections but it was clear only two candidates stood any realistic chance of winning. The others were in it not to win but may even have been formed as shells of the major parties to confuse, distract, and even balkanise votes of either of the major parties. First, many of them have just a single office or a few offices and branches and do not boast of branches and structures around the country – a prerequisite for any party that is serious and desirous of winning a national election.
Secondly, many of them just sprang up so close to the elections and had not mobilised across all nooks and crannies of the country. Unsurprisingly, they began revealing their true intent so close to the elections as they jettisoned their pretentious candidates and began adopting or selling their endorsements for either the candidates of the APC and the PDP. Thirdly, on the day of the presidential elections, none of the parties deployed agents to the over 120, 000 polling booths except the two dominant parties, an indication they were not really contesting to win.
However, INEC was bound by law to take them seriously, increasing the logistic difficulties and the costs of the elections. Most voters didn’t find the long and unwieldy ballot paper funny as they had to search on end for the parties of their choice and run the risk of their votes being voided because the space allowed for thumb-printing had shrunk significantly. It got so bad that international media made fun of Nigeria’s motley of candidates contesting the presidential election, comparing them to the sizes of the entire parliament of some countries.
In 2019, there were 93 registered political parties with 40 awaiting registration. After the elections, INEC de-registered 75 of them leaving just 18. Apparently, the law still allows INEC to de-register a party that fails to win at least 25% of votes cast in one state of the federation in a presidential election or one local government of a state in a gubernatorial vote; and fail to win at least one ward in a chairmanship election, a seat in the national or state legislature, a seat at the councillorship level.
The problem is that although INEC cannot prevent them from being registered. INEC can only deregister them when they fail to win or perform well in an election. But by then, they would have received grants from the federal government through INEC; they would have hawked their party platforms to desperate and failed politicians from the other parties; they would have hawked their endorsements and cashed out already. Even if they are de-registered, key players will rebrand and come back again during the next election circle to partake in the bazaar.
As the 2023 election circle draws near, we expect a proliferation of political parties, often by the same individuals behind the previously deregistered parties. It is business time for them.
Clearly, the courts did not foresee the abuse that the opening up of the political space will engender. We have a responsibility to clean up the political space and prevent mercantilist and transactional parties as we have them today. Only then can we begin to focus on reforming existing political parties into aggregators of different ideologies. The National Assembly must find a way to prevent the bastardisation of the idea of political parties in a democracy.
• A portion of this article was earlier published on February 4, 2021