Nigeria not yet Ready for Direct Party Primaries ~Obo Effanga

It is reported in the news that the Senate is proposing an amendment to the Electoral Act to make it mandatory for all political parties in Nigeria to apply the direct primaries in the selection of candidates for election.

As a Nigerian, I am deeply concerned that the Senate may be exercising too much prescriptive power over the right of political parties to choose how to conduct its affairs in a democratic manner. This is because selection of standard bearers of political parties by direct primaries is by no means the only democratic process to select candidates.

I am further concerned about the practicability of this, given that the decision, if it becomes law, would place a huge burden on the Independent national Electoral Commission (INEC) to ensure its practicability. INEC is a regulator and has inherent power to regulate the affairs of election. However, INEC can only monitors but not organise the primaries of political parties. INEC also has no powers to nullify a party primary. Party primaries can only be nullified by the court.

Yes direct primaries seem the best way to give every party member an equal opportunity to determine who their standard bearer should be. But the direct primaries would ony make sense if the parties have an agreeable and authentic list of members. To ensure that this happens, there would have to be a regulation from INEC that mandates every political party to publish and deposit their membership list with the Commission, as regulator by a given time before the elections.

Let us look at some practical realities here. Supposing we want to have the primaries for the governorship election for all the existing parties. Each political party will have to pick a distinct date for its primary election because the primary election takes the form of a general, involving members to vote in public places, most ideally in the polling units. The organisers would then have to deal with the logistics and security of conducting that in every polling unit at the same period.

Please note that a direct party primary is as huge in organisation as general election. Think back at how that is done in the US. It is even managable in the US because it is just two political parties involved and direct primaries is not applicable in every state.

Too often when the legislature in Nigeria heaps responsibilities on INEC and the citizens excitedly supports that, they seem to lose sight of the fact that we have many political parties in Nigeria who should be equally monitored, not just the so-called ‘major’ political parties.

To get a grasp of my point, let’s use any state as case study. Let us assume that a state has 5000 polling units and all the existing 18 political parties are to conduct direct primaries to select their governorship standard bearers. This is even assuming that we don’t eventually have more political parties than 18. It means that each of the 18 political parties that wants to select a governorship candidate will be seen in each of those 5000 polling units, each party on a different day and INEC will be there to monitor.

So there will be party primaries in each polling unit 18 times! This is before the general elections. By the way, no state office of INEC has the staff strength to cover every polling unit to be monitored during party primaries. The only way INEC can monitor those would be to rely on ad-hoc staff, just like those who conduct general elections. Where would the cost for such humongous organization and monitoring come from, a total of 18 times before the general election?

By the time people see 18 party primaries in a single polling unit for the governorship election, another 18 for the presidential elections, they would be so wearied that they will not be ready for the main general election. This is because polling units are located within the communities and to be effective, the direct party primary must take on the format of a general election (with all the anxiety, tension, commotion and even violence and disruption of activities).

Many of the Polling Units are located in public facilities such as schools. Those primaries would disrupt activities in schools on each of those 18 days, because they cannot all be held on weekends. Even if a resident in the community is not a member of any political party, and as such not expected to go out to vote, his/her life’s endeavours would have been disrupted at least 18 times in the community before the general election for just one position. Can we really afford such disruption to our lives?

One hopes that the National Assembly in finally signing off on this would consider these fine details before deciding. My fear is that if we continue with this trajectory and hope to see all these in the 2023 election, we may run into a huge confusion and unmanageable process.

Obo Effanga is the Resident Electoral Commissioner, INEC Rivers State

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