Last week, the country was engulfed in a mutiny across party lines. After members of the National Assembly surreptitiously inserted a provision in the Electoral Act Amendment Bill calling for direct party primaries, governors, who rarely agree on anything except money, cried foul. They loaded their guns and opened verbal fire on members of the National Assembly for being clever by half.
The governors know what they are doing. The Senate, for example, is their unofficial retirement home and the road to this lair begins with the party primaries. Roughly half of the 22 second-term governors have their eyes on the Presidency or Vice Presidency.
The other half have their eyes on the Senate, where 17 former governors - 12 from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), and five from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) - are currently cosseted.
They would not get there by sending roses to the party rank and file. Because they know where the dead bodies are buried, the governors reminded the lawmakers that while it may now be convenient to claim that they have seen the light, they were also beneficiaries of the wheeling and dealing of the indirect primary system, whatever its limitations.
Instead of pretending that this electoral ambush is for the greater good of the party rank and file, the lawmakers may as well climb down their high horses, admit that they hope that indirect primaries would save them from the tyranny which they once inflicted on others, and then go and sin some more.
As a matter of strategy, however, senators in their midst have left House Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, to champion the cause. The Speaker has spoken eloquently about how direct primaries would broaden party members' franchise and produce candidates who truly reflect the confidence and legitimacy lacking in the prevalent system of indirect primaries.
He has, of course, been silent on the double standards of current beneficiaries who are rooting for a system other than the one that produced them. Or the root of the problem. Things fell apart between the National Assembly members and governors when the latter refused to guarantee automatic tickets for returning lawmakers.
In retaliation, the lawmakers, including Gbajabiamila believed to be interested in the seat of their governors, decided to take their fate in their own hands by striking below the belt.
Kogi State Governor Yahaya Bello has weighed in. He said the problem is not with governors who obviously prefer to retain the indirect system, but with the huge financial burden that direct primaries may place on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and also, the chances that such a system would put smaller parties at a disadvantage. He did not say how.
The interesting thing about how both sides have framed the debate is their skill at hiding the facts in plain sight. National Assembly members, rooting for direct primaries, want to secure their freedom from the control of state governors who currently maintain a vice grip on the party in the states.
Governors fund the party. They decide who gets on the list of state or federal appointments or who gets what contract or party ticket. The governor is the state and the state is the governor. And when their tenure ends, they bump off any surrogates in the National Assembly who may be occupying their constituency seat and then take their place in the exclusive club.
Indirect primaries lend themselves more easily to abuse and the tyranny of state governors and tin gods who have the party machinery in their pockets. The qualifications of a potential candidate are not necessarily competence, character or vision. It is, on the whole, the ability to pay crooked courtesies among which back-stabbing, bribing, ego-massage, and running odd errands, are premium attributes.
For governors to relent and concede to a more open, transparent system would be to lose control and to hand the field over to their adversaries, when they are currently responsible for nearly 100 percent of party funding.
When Bello - or any of the governors - says, for example, that he is sorry for the extra financial burden or logistical nightmare direct primaries could mean for INEC, that’s only partly true.
Direct primaries, according to some estimates, could increase the commission’s monitoring cost by a quarter, since in the absence of a volunteer culture, INEC would have to send staff to all 8809 wards.
Yet, it would not kill the commission’s officials at other levels of redundancy, who are virtually on holiday for most parts of the year. It will also be putting the cart before the horse to assume that INEC would spend a fortune to monitor direct primaries when we know that the parties have dubious membership registers. In other words, the problem may have been maliciously overestimated.
Multiple sources told me that currently, governors spend between N8 billion and N10 billion to pay delegates during indirect primaries at a going rate of about N1.2 million per delegate. If you multiply that at ward, state and national primaries, you would find that the indirect system is only the lesser of two evils for its rottenness.
Yet, we have also seen from the examples of the chaos of direct primaries in 2019 in APC in Lagos, Ogun, Abuja, Akwa Ibom, Bauchi, Cross River, Kano, Niger, Taraba, Zamfara - and even the recent one that produced Andy Uba in Anambra - how bogus party membership registers were deployed. Our politicians will subvert any system just to produce the results they want.
There are other reasons why it may be a waste of time to split hairs over primaries - direct or indirect. To even get to that stage, a candidate would first have to pass the party’s screening, since only candidates who have been successfully screened can contest the primaries.
As long as party structures are in the hands of governors and party godfathers, all discussions about primaries are a waste of time. And the structures will continue to be in the hands of governors and godfathers until citizens sufficiently mobilise themselves to invest in the parties from the grassroots - schools, markets, clubs, town halls and so on.
It’s foolhardy to pretend that governors and godfathers will fund political parties only to hand them over to their adversaries or idealistic bystanders during elections. It won’t happen.
And there is the risk that the noise over primaries may also drown other important changes made in the electoral act amendment bill. For example, the bill addresses the cost of politics by capping the cost of nomination and campaign expenses and also increases the penalty for vote-buying, an epidemic which makes every election time Christmas time.
The bill settles the legitimacy of the use of biometrics, too. Diverse legal interpretations of the legitimacy of the biometric system have been at the heart of a good number of post-election limitations, perhaps the most rancorous in recent times being the contest between Nyesom Wike v Dakuku Peterside & others.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court set aside the judgement of the court of appeal that the non-use of the card reader, going by INEC’s regulation, significantly invalidated the votes. It was an extraordinary attempt to find a common ground between convenience and pragmatism on the one hand, and the rule of mischief and jurisprudence on the other. The court ended up making a distinction without a difference.
And, of course, in the midst of their turf war with governors over primaries, the lawmakers still managed to concede, in the bill, that however elevated their testosterone levels might be, they cannot share the statutory responsibility for transmitting results electronically with INEC. It was indeed a rare moment of introspection, as they reversed themselves and agreed that INEC could solely and immediately commence this important function.
On the whole, the system of primaries managed to supplant other important items in the bill, not because of its intrinsic value, but because as far as primordial self-interest goes, it offers the biggest nuisance value. But until the internal party structures change - and that means more citizens in the party rank and file putting their money where their mouth is - the noise about party primaries means nothing.
The rebellion is a storm in a teacup.
Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP