It is important for the Nigerian people to debate and take a position on the number and quality of political parties desired or desirable in our democracy. This we should do now since we have close to two years before the next general elections that will take place in 2019.
Why the urgency in the debate and why is the debate necessary and desirable? Why can’t we continue with the existing political parties and the existing electoral framework and avoid unnecessary debates and heating up of the polity?
These are legitimate questions and concerns but we must never run away from confronting challenging issues and questions. We must banish the ghost of postponing debates and shying away from confronting intricate and thorny national issues on grounds that feathers will be ruffled or that national unity and security will be threatened. Nations and countries do not make progress and leap into a new age without ruffling feathers and confronting national challenges.
Why then is it desirable to confront the challenge of the number and quality of political parties in Nigeria? At a quarterly consultative meeting with leaders of political parties held at the commission’s headquarters on the 15th day of March 2017, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Mahmood Yakubu confirmed that Nigeria has 40 registered political parties and 86 pending applications.
The implication of this is that by the time Nigeria gets really set for the 2019 elections, Nigeria and Nigerians may be confronted with over 100 political parties jostling for space on the ballot paper. Do we really need 100 political parties in Nigeria and must the ordinary people of Nigeria be forced to wade through a ballot paper containing the logo of over 100 political parties? My answer is no. Why then should we allow phantom political parties clog the ballot paper and confuse the Nigerian people?
My position is that those that framed the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended) never envisaged and never wanted the existence of phantom political parties or parties founded and anchored and based in the regions or the states.
In other words, the framers of the Constitution want Nigeria to have national political parties with national outlook and appeal. I am strengthened in this view by section 221 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999(as amended) which provides that “No association other than a political party, shall canvass for votes for any candidate at any election or contribute to the funds of any political party or to the election expenses of any candidate at an election.” The gravamen of this section is that a political party must field candidates in an elections and canvass votes for its candidate.
Any registered political party that sits back and refuses to field candidates in an election and refuses to canvass votes for its candidate is no longer a political party but an ordinary association that can operate without being registered. It is therefore counterproductive to clog the ballot paper with the logo of unserious political parties who have reduced party politics to a mere joke.
Of course I understand the politics of mergers and alliance but the fact still remains that it is irresponsible for 20 political parties that have refused to act and behave like political parties to band together and claim that they have adopted or endorsed the governorship candidate of another political party.
Furthermore, section 222 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is clear and certain that regional or state-based political parties have no place in our electoral system. It provides that for any association to function as a political party, the membership of the association must be open to every citizen of Nigeria irrespective of his place of origin, circumstances of birth, sex, religion or ethnic grouping.
It also provides that the name of the association, its symbol or logo that shall not contain any ethnic or religious connotation or give the appearance that the activities of the association are confined to a part of the geographical area of Nigeria. Going further, section 223 of the Constitution provides that the constitution of registered political parties must ensure that members of the executive committee or other governing body of the political party must reflect the federal character of Nigeria.
The members of the executive committee or other governing body of the political party shall be deemed to reflect the federal character of Nigeria only if the members thereof belong to different states not being less in number than two-thirds of all the states comprising the Federation. It is evident that the framers of the Constitution want national political parties to take the centre stage in the electoral process.
Unfortunately, some individuals, groups and organisations have exploited the lacuna in the Constitution and the Electoral Act, 2010(as amended) to form portfolio political parties with no identifiable ideology, organisation or desire to be political parties.
As a member of the 2007 Electoral Reform Committee headed by the Hon. Justice M.L Uwais, part of our mandate was to make recommendations relating to the registration and regulation of political parties. We tried to interface with the political parties but some of them have their offices in business centres while some could not be located. A number of them vehemently resisted attempts made by the committee to visit their offices because they had none.
Some of them rented or hired offices for purposes of registration and dismantled them immediately they got their registration. Some of the leaders of political parties ran their parties from their portfolios and computers.
This phantom political party organisation thrives because section 222 of the Constitution requires parties to have their headquarters in the Federal Capital Territory Abuja and no more. What matters is not the geographical location of the office but the fact that it is located within the parameters of the area called the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The size of the office is also immaterial.
The rest of the requirements for the registration of political parties as encapsulated in sections 222 to 229 of the Constitution involve paper work which anybody can put together.
Of course I understand and appreciate the argument relating to political pluralism and having political parties existing and representing diverse interests. However, those that framed the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria considered those arguments and settled for national political parties aggregating the interests of all Nigerians.
This they did considering the dangerous ethnic and religious mix of Nigeria and the fact that some fifth columnists can exploit a loose and regional-based party to further polarize Nigeria and exacerbate our ethnic and religious fault lines. It does not make sense to have 100 political parties representing nothing just because we want to be seen to be politically correct.
There is no interest or national ideological persuasion that 10 political parties cannot represent. It is demeaning to call the telephone lines of acclaimed national political parties and have same ring in a business centre.
The National Assembly should tighten the regime for the registration of political parties. National political parties should have at least a functioning and functional office in the six geopolitical zones of the federation. The National Assembly should also revisit the bill for the creation of a Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission.
An independent political party’s registration and regulatory commission will be more focused and more professional in the handling of the affairs of political parties and free the INEC to concentrate on its core mandate of organising and supervising elections. We must drop the puritanical “follow follows” ideology of text book conformism and tow the path of what works for us as a people.