The Senate recently approved the use of direct primaries for nomination of candidates by political parties for elections in spite of opposition by some Nigerians and political parties. It also directed that the primaries should be monitored by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). This was part of the amendments by the Senate on some clauses of the Electoral Act (Repeal and Re-enactment) Bill 2021, passed on July 15, 2021.
The Senate had earlier approved a provision in the Electoral Bill which allowed parties to use either direct or indirect mode of primaries in nominating candidates for elections during primary elections. In the new bill, Clause 87(1), which deals with nomination of candidates by parties, states: “A political party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this Bill shall hold direct primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which shall be monitored by the Commission.”
This is different from the earlier adopted Clause 87(1), which says: “A political party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this Act shall hold direct or indirect primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which may be monitored by the Commission.” While direct primaries involve the participation of all party members in the selection of candidates for elections, the indirect primaries entail the use of delegates who are usually leaders and members of the executives at the ward, local government and state levels, to elect the party’s candidate(s) at a congress or convention.
There is no doubt that both have their advantages and disadvantages. In settling for the direct primaries, the Senate must have put into consideration the chaotic atmosphere at the various congresses and conventions by political parties in the country. It must have also been seriously concerned about the crisis in the parties and the court cases that trail the selection processes. On the surface, direct primary gives party members equal opportunity to determine who their standard bearer in an election should be. It takes the party to the people and allows them to have a say in the selection of their candidates. It is equally more representative and relatively transparent. Notwithstanding the perceived gains of direct primaries, the strategy has its drawbacks as well. It is unwieldy and cumbersome to organise. It also requires a huge outlay of logistics and resources. Direct party primary is as demanding in organisation as a general election. The organisers would have to deal with the logistics and security of conducting the primary election in every polling unit at the same time.
Direct primary would have been the ideal if the political parties have an agreeable and authentic list of members. In our own peculiar case where accurate number of members of a political party is still not obtainable due to our poor statistical culture and impunity, it will be difficult to organise a transparent direct primary election. Without a comprehensive data of party members, the exercise will be open to manipulation, abuse and corruption. With obvious challenges on the part of INEC in terms of personnel and other administrative logistics, monitoring the primary elections of all the political parties will be more tasking on the commission. With these problems, we think that the Nigerian political system is not yet ready to embrace the direct primary in selection of their candidates. In spite of its advantages, we advise that the direct primary should be kept in abeyance for now. Besides, some political parties are opposed to it because it is the duty of the parties to determine the kind of primary election they want and not a prescription from the Senate.
Moreover, the imposition of direct primaries on parties will amount to an interference in the internal democracy of the parties. It will not augur well with our multi-party democracy which allows each party some measure of independence. In the interest of peace and stability and development of enduring democratic culture, let the Senate allow each party the freedom to decide the mode of primary they want. Ordering all parties to take to direct primary is dictatorial and undemocratic. It is not in tandem with democratic ethos and does not suit the federal system of government we are operating. It will lead to increase in the cost of nomination procedures and thereby surrendering the processes to moneybags against the wishes and aspirations of the people. With the direct primary mode, it would be difficult for political parties to meet the cost of conducting internal elections, except the party in power.
Democracy is about freedom of choice. Imposing the mode of party primary on political parties defeats the essence of democracy. The right to select their representatives should be left exclusively for political parties to decide based on their internal arrangements. Instead of meddling in the affairs of the parties on how to choose their candidates, there are other things that should engage the attention of the lawmakers. Let the legislators be concerned with making laws that will guarantee free and fair election, equal and unencumbered participation of Nigerians in election, reducing the high cost of election and mitigating the period for litigation on election matters.
With the 2023 general election fast approaching, this is the time to look into these grey areas. Forcing the parties on a particular mode of primaries is an overkill. Primaries are internal affairs of political parties and should be left for them. The Senate should give a second thought to the proposal and allow political parties to determine their own type of primary.