The Electoral Reform Committee set up in 2007 by President Umaru Yar’adua and led by Justice Muhammed Uwais was charged with the goal of identifying solutions for Nigeria’s history of electoral crisis. The panel recently released its report with a recommendation to allow independent candidates in all future elections. A similar commission, the National Political Reform Conference, inaugurated by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 also proposed independent candidates. The proponents argue that such concept is an important universal democratic identity and further promotes freedom and broad participation. To a former military head of state, Abdulsalam Abubakar, “watching our political evolution and my observation of what obtains elsewhere, convinced me that we need independent candidates for all political positions.” According to Justice Uwais, the latest panel consulted widely, including papers from experts in Britain and America. Those comments are not unexpected given Nigeria’s penchant for emulating any scheme with US colorations. The following is a review of independent party concept in Nigerian history, its impact in the United States of America, and the consequences for the African nation.
The most vexing aspect of the Uwais report is that, on one hand, it proposes a drastic reduction to the number of existing political parties and, on the other hand, calls for independent candidates. So, why should the Electoral Reform Committee wait for the intervention of a Henri Poincaré of chaos theory to recognize that the idea of independent candidates in Nigeria is simply a political roundabout to multiplicity of ethnic parties? The country once experimented with independent candidates in the First Republic (1960-1966). The election results revealed that most of the candidates (for example Richard Akinjide, Isa Iko, and R.A. Afolabi) only won in their ethnic constituencies. In the current Republic, associations such as Progressive Party Alliance (PPA) and Democratic Peoples Party (DPP) led by former governors Orji Kalu of Abia and Dalhatu Bafarawa of Sokoto states, respectively, are perceived as political parties. However, their main purposes or popularity are tied to the home areas of the two leaders. The notion of multiplicity of parties or independent candidates in Nigeria has never been to foster the advancement of liberal democracy but simply an elitist agenda to capitalize on the passionate following of the candidate’s immediate constituency or ethnic enclave for selfish interests. This is a sharp contrast to the American experience where independent candidates are issue-oriented and have not always enjoyed the overwhelming support of their respective states.
The U.S. presidential elections of the last four decades (1968-2008) that featured more than two viable candidates sufficiently highlight the problems of independent candidates. Even though both Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton assumed power on the basis of a contentious Electoral College system; they were in reality elected with less than 50% of votes cast in the 1968 and 1992 general elections, respectively. Political pundits have attributed this uncommon phenomenon to the emergence of powerful independent candidates George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992. That was also the case with the 2000 elections, when Republican George W. Bush was elected president despite garnering fewer popular votes than his major rival, Democrat Al Gore. It is believed that a significant number of Democratic votes, especially in the controversial state of Florida, went to the 2000 third-party candidate, Ralph Nader. Furthermore, Jesse Ventura, a former third-party governor of the State of Minnesota in the United States of America was elected with only 37% of total votes cast.
An investigative analysis undertaken by Micah Sifry of US Public Campaign to determine the effect of third parties (or independent candidates) in American politics confirmed the various possibilities noted above. The study observed that (a) third parties significantly affect election outcomes, (b) third parties would make winning the majority vote by one party difficult, and (c) running multiparties elections is costly. Sifry regretted that political situations, where candidates are elected to office with minority votes are, “hardly an electoral mandate.” His study mirrors an earlier qualitative and quantitative study by C. Cullet published in Public Opinion Quarterly of 1996, which concluded that voters’ connection with third parties is merely for facilitation of broader political activism and liberty, and not necessarily to win elections.
Although both studies found that opinion polls still favor third party involvement, the examples where American presidents or governors are elected with less than 50% of votes obviously challenge the basic majority principle of democracy. Even though such US federal and state governments succeeded in sustaining stability and unity, it is misleading to compare those scenarios to a Nigerian society, and adopt a concept in which a minority of voters can decide election outcomes. In the first place, independent candidates in the US are institutionally constrained and discouraged through other preconditions, for example, authenticated nomination signatures, and funding. Of course such criteria are unrealistic for the Nigerian state, which is notorious for incoherent census data, and money laundering. Second, American democracy of rule of law and civil order has a rich history with clear identity and purpose. It has existed for over 230 years, compared to Nigeria’s 48 years of turbulent leadership. After all, the different Nigerian elections (for example 1959 and 1979) where the winner failed to record majority votes easily resulted to political crisis, as none of the parties was able to form government independently. Desperate attempts for outright majority in subsequent elections of 1964 and 1983 led to political intimidation and massive electoral fraud and, of course, eventual takeover of those governments by the military. Further, given that Nigerian politics is determined by ethnic sympathy, imagine the outcome with independent candidates in a country of over 300 belligerent ethnic groups and selfish billionaire politicians. Tribal sentiments, money, and individualism, instead of the people, then become the only important conditions for democracy. In that case, opposition parties and leaders are de facto ethnic or individual assemblies, which weaken unity of purpose and leadership effectiveness.
Critics may contend, as always, that, “Rome was not built in a day,” meaning that the United States had its fair share of challenges and failures in course of national development. Indeed the Americans never claim to have a perfect system. So, shall Nigeria, then, copy both the perfect and the imperfect portions—in the process of forging a better nation? Common logic does not favor our generation to sit idle by at this stage in societal development and expose Nigeria to the same mistakes the United States made two or three centuries ago. Japan has not been waiting for an approval from the original inventors of automobile before realizing that it could manufacture vehicles that are more fuel efficient! In a nutshell, any attempt to misconstrue true democracy as the province of one particular nation or people is an exercise in futility; conditions for effective leadership should be contingent upon the local environment.
The challenges facing Nigerian political systems have seen a wide range of debates since national independence. In light of the failures of various party models, even former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a senior advocate of one-man rule, and the incubator of a boisterous 2002 unlimited multiparty law, now has reasons for moderation. In his words, “an individual who cannot find accommodation within few political parties must have a different un
derstanding of party politics in a democratic society, more so when political parties have no ideological differentiation.”
In an event leading to the 2007 elections, the National Publicity Secretary of the Action Congress party, Lai Mohammed illustrated the problem with a logistical cobweb:
“If there are 47 political parties today in Nigeria and if the constitution or the law says we must have an agent, can the polling booth accommodate 47 agents without confusion? We all know what these polling booths look like. In most places, they are just sheds, which means that in every polling booth, in addition to the voters themselves, the political agents alone would account for about 10 per cent of the electorate, because no polling booth can take more than 500 by our law, unless it is changed.”
A statement by former Senate President Ken Nnamani to foreign organizations regarding irregularities in the 2007 elections is instructive:
“The danger again is because of the nature of our own democratic practice in Nigeria. We have too many political parties with the result that it is only one that is physical. All the mushrooming proliferation of parties do not really encourage democracy in Nigeria and perhaps in other African countries. If we are to do it right, we cannot exceed two strong parties, so that each party can checkmate the other.”
These viewpoints are tune with the reigning consensus in Nigerian political studies that the 1993 presidential elections featuring a limited two-party system offered best hope. The election results reflected a detribalized voting pattern, with candidates winning overwhelmingly in different parts of the country.
The plot to re-introduce independent candidates in Nigeria’s electoral system at this critical time in history is a recipe for national disaster and should be rejected. Such scheme will lead to weaker opposition parties, and political anarchy, where individuals will have little or no allegiance to party principles and common good, since they can always run for elections independently. Robert Dahl is one of the most prolific writers of this century and often revered as the quintessential dean of American political scientists. In the book, Regimes and oppositions, he analyzed the impact of opposition parties on leadership development and cautioned that, “Whenever the barriers to the expression and organization of political preferences are low, one should expect (as the usual thing) the emergence of multiplicity of camps,” which hinders the advancement of political process. The basic tenets of effective leadership also refer the innate ability of individuals to compete and excel under a given structure or constituted authority in admiration of their followers.
All told, the Nigerian leadership predicament lies on an elitist misconception or manipulation of the word freedom—leading to a democracy that is designed with little or no attention to the local environment and national history. The result has been multiplicity of parties, ethnic politics, and fragmented opposition—which exacerbate lack of checks and balances and, consequently, state of dictatorship and continued looting of public funds. Thus, the new proposal for independent candidates is nothing but a needed tonic for the Peoples Democratic Party to further exploit the opposition and perpetuate power for the attainment of the 60 year-rule currently being canvassed by its party chairman, Vincent Ogbulafor. For sure, some government henchmen or other activists may suggest otherwise, arguing that, after all, the recent multiparty elections featuring independent candidates in a neighboring country of Ghana produced a credible opposition structure. But, again, Nigeria is a different political mass and simply more sophisticated. And we are definitely not hoping for a Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings at this stage of human civilization! What is needed is a model that best promotes the guiding principles of democracy relative to the Nigerian conditions. Such system should instead minimize chances of ethnic or billionaire politics, and; importantly, lead to a simple but competitive election, where a winning party secures majority of the votes cast at a single ballot.