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Party primaries and safety of democracy

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That the worst assault on Nigeria’s democracy is often unleashed by the nation’s politicians is a sad fact of life. Doubly tragic is their seeming relentlessness as they wield the cudgel.

For example, primary election, a simple process by which members of a political party can indicate their preference for candidates before the general election is fast becoming another source of conflicts and indeed instability. This is not only disheartening, it must be nipped in the bud before greater damage is done.

Indeed, there is now a sense in which it can be said that the main trouble with Nigeria’s democracy is the curious absence of capacity of politicians to handle internal democracy within their ranks. And inherent in this is intolerance that often results in multifaceted litigation before and after elections.

This development has not only exposed the fragility of Nigeria’s political parties, it constitutes a threat to democracy itself.Indeed, the political parties have become mere special purpose vehicles conveniently put together by ideological strange bedfellows to take over power and share the spoils of office, a phenomenon that does not augur well for democracy and must be brought to an end.  

For instance, the ongoing rancour in the ruling All Progressives Congress is a confounding spectacle in which members are sharply divided on whether to adopt the direct or indirect primary method to pick its candidates for the 2019 general elections.  On this matter, party officials including its spokesperson have been saying different things at different times on the outcome of its NEC meeting on the issue. While both the party chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, and the spokesman Yekini Nabena have insisted that direct primary would be used, governors and their supporters have claimed that the party decision is that the states should choose any method best suited to them – according to the constitution of the party, which allows direct, indirect and consensus method. 

However, Oshiomhole who has defended the decision of the NEC noted that, “direct primary is free from the vices associated with the indirect primary… it cannot be manipulated, (and) it is not prone to corruption.” He added that the party “wants the party members to have ownership of the party… to give our members a sense of belonging.” This argument, to say the least, should have been used to arrive at a consensus at the same NEC meeting where controversial decisions emerged.  
 
A political party is as strong, as good, and as vibrant as its membership, the mandatory monetary contributions of which form its financial base and independence. A party is as strong as the number of its members whose commitment to the shared philosophy and ideology of the party sustain its uniqueness and credibility and whose expanding or shrinking size determines the election into office and in turn, the political direction of the state.

The main opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, is also crisis-prone as it has so many presidential aspirants, governorship, national and state assemblies’ elections candidates who will have to go through the primaries too. Unfortunately, little, apart from quest for power, binds all of them together.

While each political party is at liberty to choose the mode of primary election it prefers, it is important to appeal to all party leaders to note that threats to democracy have always begun with careless handling of internal democracy. Nigeria lost the first republic to intra-party crisis. Even the third republic during which the infamous June 12, 1993 election crisis dominated issues was lost to absence of strength of character in political party leaders who cheaply and arbitrarily signed away victory when military authorities conned them into abandoning democratic ideals.

A democracy, therefore, is as strong as its political party system. And this begins and ends with how the leaders allow their internal laws to rule them. When the so-called god fathers manipulate the parties in pursuit of personal rather than public interest, they set the nation and its democracy on the path of failure.

Therefore, every action of the party management must, as a matter of ‘internal rule of law,’ conform to the provisions of the party’s constitution. There are no perfect systems: both direct and indirect primaries have their good and bad sides. But the most critical point is the content of the character of the operators of the system. No party should lose sight of the power of organisation, decency and orderliness. First, there should be clarity and sincerity of purpose within the context of the laws that guide them. And some critical elements that will assist compliance with the law such as a properly documented party membership register should be in place and accessible, to avoid controversies during elections.

Party membership with photo identification will enhance transparency of the primary election as a process and once the process is transparent, the likelihood of frivolous litigation that can trigger further complications is minimised.
 


Specifically, the constitution of each party should spell out clearly the procedure for choosing who runs for office on behalf of the party. And every member of the party, irrespective of rank and feeling, must abide by the relevant provisions of the law and procedures. Internal democracy demands defined and fair rules and submission to those rules by members, high and low.   

Meanwhile, the governing party, the APC should note that it has the responsibility to show good example. So its conduct of its primaries should be a source of inspiration and faith in the political system. All the political parties, of course, have much work to do instilling discipline and decorum in their ranks.   
 
Character and maturity are still in short supply. And this is tragic. For if the political parties are acrimonious and indeed lawless, how can they present for offices at all levels such good leaders as Nigerians desperately seek today?


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