Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
Ahead of the 2023 general elections, the National Assembly has commenced moves to give legal backing to independent candidacy in the country, thereby rekindling hope for persons who are not members of political parties to be able to contest elections.
Recently, the two chambers of the National Assembly passed for second reading a bill to alter the 1999 Constitution (as amended) to provide for independent candidacy in future elections in the country.
The bill seeks to alter Section 131(c) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) which makes it compulsory for aspirants to elective offices in the country to be members of any of the registered political parties.
The bill, which has been referred to the Special Constitution Review Committee in both the Senate and House of Representatives, is one of the proposed legislations the Committee will consider in the ongoing efforts to further alter the 1999 Constitution(as amended).
Expectedly, there are varied opinions on the idea of independent candidacy as is obtained in some parts of the world.
The proponents believe that independent candidacy will help to broaden the political space in the overall interest of the country.
They argue that several professionals, who ordinarily are well equipped to contribute to national development shy away from contesting for elective offices, because of what obtains in political parties, especially in getting party nominations.
Therefore, for those in this school of thought, independent candidacy will help to free the polity from the vicious grip of political godfathers, who determine party candidates for various elective offices.
Pundits say the biggest hurdle for aspirants to elective positions has often times been the party nomination process, with party tickets going to the highest bidders.
Recently, there have been several instances where litigations on who is the validly nominated candidates linger for months after the general elections.
On the flip side, those opposed to the proposed legislation, argue that the country is not ready for it. According to this school of thought, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) may not be able to cope with the conduct of elections, involving independent candidates and candidates of the over 50 registered political parties.
The chief whip of the House, Tahir Monguno, strongly believes that independent candidacy will help to strengthen the country’s democracy..
Monguno, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) from Borno State, who is also the sponsor of the proposed legislation entitled “a bill to alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 to allow for Independent candidacy to any elective office in Nigeria and for related matters,” during debate on the general principles of the bill, recently, said it will give more opportunities to qualified Nigerians to contest for elective offices.
The lawmaker argued that currently, there is the notion that political parties in the country, often times are hijacked by a few individuals. He noted that the implication is that a lot of qualified persons interested are discouraged from getting involved in elections as contestants.
According to him, “the bill is to deepen democracy in our county. There is this perception that political parties are hijacked by few groups of people. Because of that, a lot of people that are desirous to contest election are excluded.
“Political parties are supposed to have manifestos. But as it is now, our political parties have the same manifestos. There is need for people that have contrary views to be able to seek elective offices. There is need for independent candidacy, to deepen the political space.”
Sergius Ogun, a member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) representing Esan North East / Esan South West Federal Constituency of Edo State, said Nigeria should learn from the United States of America (USA), from where it copied the presidential system of government, making provision for independent candidacy.
“Over there we have independent candidacy. I know that there are professionals that want to participate in politics but are discouraged by the rigours of the political parties,” he stated.
Regardless, the chairman, House Committee on Finance, Abiodun Faleke, says the proposed legislation has a lot of demerits. Faleke stated that it is doubtful if independent candidacy will be feasible in the country.
According to him, independent candidacy will increase the cost of conducting elections in the country, as well as increase post elections litigations among other challenges.
The lawmaker, who represents Ikeja Federal Constituency of Lagos State on the platform of the APC is concerned if the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has the capacity to contend with the issues to be thrown up by independent candidacy, in the event that it becomes law.
Nevertheless, a Non Governmental Organisation(NGO), Partners for Electoral Reforms, says though the process and procedure for the Independent candidacy might be tedious, an unbundling of INEC will make things easier.
The chairman of the group, Ezenwa Nwagwu told Daily Sun that the benefits of independent candidacy to the country’s democracy, far outweighs whatever drawback it might be associated with.
Nwagwu said: “The procedure and processes for it can be tedious; it therefore means for us to enjoy such democratic nicety like it is in other countries the unbundling of INEC becomes a priority, so it can face it’s core business of conducting election.”
Former Minister of Transport, Ebenezer Babatope, told Daily Sun, that there should be an avenue for aspirants aggrieved about the nomination process in their respective political parties to contest elections as independent candidates.
According to him, “if people who are aggrieved about the choice of their political parties for elective position, let them be free to go to INEC to say I want to contest as an independent candidate. But the bottom line is that INEC must be committed totally towards giving Nigerian people free and fair election.”
Nwagwu concurs. He said, “the hijack of the dominant political parties by chief executives and money bags and the other parties putting up their tickets for sale to the highest bidder makes independent candidacy appealing.”
According to him, with independent candidacy, “self respecting people can jump the hurdle of evident lack of internal party democracy and test their popularity with their people.”
However, the quest for independent candidacy in the country is not new. It has been a reoccurring item in Constitution Review exercise in the country in recent times. For instance, in the eight assembly, both Chambers have proposed an amendment of section 131 of the Constitution to enable people who are not members of political parties eligible for elections. However, the proposals did not scale through during the last Constitution alteration exercise.
Therefore, analysts say that for the current move to scale through, it is imperative for the proponents, especially the civil societies to do a lot of mobilisation and citizen engagement, as well as engaging with the lawmakers at both the federal and state levels.
For the dream for independent candidacy in the country to become a reality, the proposed legislation must survive at the Committee stage, after which it will be presented to both chambers of the National Assembly, where it must be supported by 2/3 of the lawmakers in both the Senate and the House.
If the bill scales through in the National Assembly, it will then be sent to the state houses of assembly, where like in the National Assembly, two/third of the state assemblies must vote in support, before it is sent to the President for his assent.
No doubt, the bill has enjoyed wide support in the parliament, but whether the proponents can successfully push it through the constitution review exercise is another issue all together.
Nevertheless, there is hope in the horizon for citizens interested in contesting for elective offices but do not want to belong to any political party to actualise their aspiration.