Reflections on party primaries: Corrupt politics taints Nigeria’s democracy

By Olu Fasan

THIS year’s “Democracy Day”, marked on June 12, came on the heels of deeply flawed presidential primaries that threw up unsavory candidates for the two leading parties, the All Progressive Congress, APC, and the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP. There’s really nothing to celebrate in a democracy built on a corrupt and broken politics.

The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” is used in computing to convey the idea that poor-quality input will produce poor-quality output. The same is true of democracy: its integrity hinges on the quality of the underlying process that produces candidates for elections. In Nigeria, that process – party primaries – has been distorted by politicians and political parties.

From a “garbage in, garbage out” point of view, the starting point must be the quality of the politicians “inputted” into the presidential primary process. How high or how low is their integrity? Let’s be honest, for most of them, it’s very low indeed!

A few months before the primaries, former President Olusegun Obasanjo said that if the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offenses Commission, ICPC, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, had done their jobs properly, many of the politicians jostling for political offices “should have been in jail”. Well, ask me, Obasanjo was right.

In countries where the sources of politicians’ wealth are scrupulously examined, where the political system is protected against corruption, few of the aspirants would have dared to run for president. But such scrutiny is lacking in Nigeria, and the consequence was the conspicuous display of unexplainable wealth during the highly monetised primaries, which inevitably favored those with the deepest pockets, the largest war chests. Yet, when a democracy favors the stupendously wealthy, with dubious provenance, when it favors the highest bidder, it’s no longer true democracy.

Ideally, political parties should mediate the process; they should serve as bastions of democratic values ​​and honest politics; they should give citizens credible choices in elections. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s main parties are enablers of practices that erode political integrity, that privilege the rich in their internal “democratic” processes.

Take the ruling APC. It exposed itself as the party “by the rich for the rich” when it sold its presidential forms for a whopping N100 million; the main opposition PDP settled for a relatively modest N40 million! But why did APC sell its presidential forms for N100 million? Well, it gave two reasons, namely: 1) it needed money to conduct its presidential primary and 2) the amount would deter Unserious aspirants.

The first reason was implausible. APC was patently unprepared to hold its presidential primary by INEC’s original deadline of June 3. It took INEC’s extension of the deadline by six days to June 9 because APC held its primary from June 6 to 8. Even so, the primary was amateurish, beset with technical hitches and organizational hiccups that led to several suspensions of voting, and the prolongation of the event by several hours!

But did the N100million deter frivolous aspirants? Far from it. A motley crowd of 28 people bought the forms. Of these, three didn’t submit them, two withdrew before the primary and eight stepped down at the primary; nevertheless, each forfeited the N100 million paid.

Here’s the puzzle. Why would anyone pay N100million to buy a nomination form, and perhaps spend additional N50 million to run a campaign, for a presidential primary, knowing that he had absolutely no chance of winning and would eventually step down?

Some say it’s a bargaining plot. But it defies rationality to “invest” such an enormous sum of money in a political gamble based on some pie-in-the-sky calculation of putative returns. Well, Nigerian politicians, you might say, are not the most rational people in the world. I concur!

But, from a political integrity standpoint, we must ask a key question: Where did the aspirants, especially those long in public life, get the money from? Most of them said their supporters bought the forms for them. Fair enough, but can they publish details of the donors? Or is that too much to ask? Of course not!

That’s the practice in civilized nations. For instance, in the US, under the stringent rules of the Federal Election Campaign Act, all contributions towards presidential campaigns, including presidential primary elections, both monetary and in-kind, must be documented and, above certain thresholds, published. Similarly, in the UK, campaign donations must be recorded and reported to the Electoral Commission.

True democracy and honest politics are impossible without stringent transparency and accountability rules on campaign donations. But Nigeria’s electoral law is silent on the transparency and accountability of election financing, thus stripping the political and democratic processes of critical safeguards against corruption.

Well, we saw corruption in full force in the presidential primaries, with the blatant bribing of delegates. The popular phrase during the PDP’s presidential primary was “dollar rain”, a term coined to depict how presidential aspirants were showering delegates with dollars – not naira – to secure their votes.

Delegates at APC’s presidential primary were equally corruptly induced; they were “bought” and sequestrated by the rich aspirants, with the highest bidder pocketing and carting away the largest number of delegates.

In a recent TV interview, Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State said that President Muhammadu Buhari told him he wanted the delegates to “vote their conscience”. Buhari himself later hailed his party’s presidential primary as “the most competitive in the history of Nigeria’s democracy”. Really? These are false claims.

First, the delegates did not “vote their conscience” because they were “owned” and told what to do, with generous financial inducements. Second, the primary wasn’t “competitive” because there was no level-playing in a situation where a stupendously wealthy aspirant could buy over other aspirants, and “settle” most of the governors and their delegates.

Truth is, Nigerian politics is deeply corrupt, fueled by massive unexplained wealth and skewed in favor of the highest bidder. That’s the story of the presidential primaries of the two leading parties, APC and PDP. True democracy can’t emerge from such politics!

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