INEC deregistration of 74 parties: Matters arising
Last Thursday, the Independent National Electoral Commission wielded the big stick by deregistering 74 political parties in one fell swoop. This is unprecedented and not a few Nigerians are happy with INEC’s decision with many commentators even asking that the number be further pruned down to a maximum of five. What those calling for further reduction do not know or fail to understand is that the electoral management body did not just reduce the number by fiat. The exercise was not arbitrarily brought down but based on certain constitutional and Electoral Act provisions.
Since INEC took that decision, I have been on several media platforms to discuss the development. I was on Independent Television, Nigeria Info 95.1 FM Abuja, Love 104.5 FM Abuja and had a telephone interview to West Africa Democracy Radio, Senegal on the issue.
I foresaw last Thursday’s political development and wrote my thoughts on it on this page in an April 3, 2019 article entitled, “Should INEC deregister non-performing political parties?”. As of that time when INEC was wrapping up on the conduct of the 2019 elections, many public commentators were already asking it to deregister the political parties believed to be liabilities rather than assets to the country’s electoral process. Many political watchers believed that most of the political parties did not add any value to the country’s democratic consolidation agenda but rather posed a threat to it.
Among the arguments put forward then was the fact that most of the 91 political parties that fielded over 23,000 candidates in the last general election were quite unserious as they did not campaign but were largely interested in the free publicity being given by the media and the civil society particularly during the organised political debates and voter education programmes. Many chieftains of the political parties divided their ranks by forming themselves into coalitions such as Coalition of United Political Parties and were busy endorsing candidates of the dominant political parties.
For instance, in December 2018, it was widely reported that 45 opposition parties under the CUPP adopted the Peoples Democratic Party candidate, Atiku Abubakar, as their consensus candidate for the 2019 presidential election. To expose the treachery in this dubious endorsement, we still had 73 presidential candidates contesting the February 23, 2019 presidential election. How come? Two days to the presidential election when all sensitive and non-sensitive electoral materials including ballot papers and results sheets had been printed and distributed nationwide, 12 presidential candidates of other political parties reportedly endorsed Muhammadu Buhari, according to a statement by the presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina. Did these candidates and their political parties read the Electoral Act on the condition for withdrawal from electoral contest?
According to Section 35 of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended, “A candidate may withdraw his candidature by notice in writing signed by him and delivered by himself to the political party that nominated him for the election and the political party shall convey such withdrawal to the Commission and which shall only be allowed not later than 45 days to the election”. This is the law but we had those pretenders calling themselves contenders withdrawing from a presidential race 48 hours to the election!
To also underscore the un-seriousness of these political parties, some of them do not understand the country’s electoral law. During the last elections, a few of them fielded underage candidates. However, due to the provisions of Section 31 (1) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended which ousted INEC power to reject party candidates, the unqualified candidates were allowed to run in the election. Quite unfortunately, that impunity continued and INEC had to wield the big stick in September 2019 when, ahead of the November 16 governorship election, it disqualified 14 underage candidates (six in Bayelsa and eight in Kogi State). Though some courts ruled INEC out of order for exercising the administrative power to disqualify candidates saying that the commission should have approached the court to do so for it, it is saddening that a presumed national political party will not be abreast of the electoral law under which it hopes to sponsor candidates for elections.
In many of the political parties in Nigeria, whether the 74 that were deregistered or 18 that survived the axe, it is heart-rending that internal party democracy is observed in the breach. Imposition of candidates is the norm among our political parties. In fact, I learnt from credible sources that some of the political parties were only established for mercantilist purposes rather than to broaden the democratic space and hold the ruling party to account. Not a few believed that the endorsements fad in the lead up to election were procured by the candidates and political parties who can afford it.
It is an open secret that though Nigeria is a de jure multiparty country, it is a de facto two-party state. The two dominant political parties are the All Progressives Congress and the PDP. I have heard said that these two dominant political parties actually gave birth to proxy political parties whom they could use to serve certain political interest during the electioneering period. For instance, it is believed that some of the political parties were established to stave off prospect of a total boycott of elections by the opposition political parties.
Other real reasons promoters of some political parties established them were to reap financially from post-primary crises that usually engulf the dominant political parties. Thus, these opposition political parties make their party platforms available to aggrieved contestants from the major parties. For usually undisclosed fees, these platforms are made available to any desperate candidates willing to contest election. That is why it is easy to see a member of a dominant political party getting a platform to contest election even if it is a day to the deadline for submission of party candidates.
These political parties also reap bountifully in the event of inadvertent errors on their list of nominees by INEC. For instance, should there be an omission in listing their candidate on the ballot paper, they quickly rush to election tribunal to plead unlawful exclusion from the election. There have been instances when a well-conducted election gets annulled on the basis of lawful nomination and unlawful exclusion by INEC. When that kind of scenario plays out, the winner of that election is quick to go and negotiate behind the scene to have the party contesting their victory to withdraw case filed at the election petitions tribunal.
My versed knowledge of Nigerian politics and elections may have afforded me an opportunity to see beyond the electoral laws; however, INEC did not base its action of February 6 on these aforementioned extenuating factors. According to its chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, the parties were deregistered for their inability to fulfil requirements for existence based on Section 225A of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). That section empowers INEC to deregister political parties found guilty of breach of any of the requirements for registration as a political party as well as failure to win at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in one state of the federation in a presidential election or 25 per cent of the votes cast in one local government area of a state in a governorship election; and failure to win at least one ward in a chairmanship election, one seat in the national or state assembly election or one seat in a councillorship election.
Recall that between 2011 and 2013, INEC under Prof. Attahiru Jega had deregistered a total of 39 political parties based on the provisions of Section 78 (7) (I and ii). However, several of the affected parties challenged the power of INEC to deregister them, particularly on the grounds that the Electoral Act is inferior to the constitution. Even now, many of the affected political parties have threatened to drag INEC to court to reverse itself based on the fact that it acted hastily without allowing all local government elections to be conducted by the State Independent Electoral Commissions to be concluded. It remains to be seen if the courts will agree with them.
On several occasions, I have been asked if deregistration of political parties is the panacea we need as a country to sanitise our electoral process and my answer is NO. The lasting solution is to make the criteria for party registration more stringent rather than making them very liberal as it is at present. Secondly, instead of deregistering political parties, why don’t we allow them exist in perpetuity and set a very stringent criteria for political parties to be put on ballot papers at elections? Criteria such as membership strength, national spread, financial resources and adherence to constitutionalism or internal party democracy can be the conditions precedent for a party to nominate candidates to be on the ballot paper.
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