With the power to deregister political parties on account of their abysmal performance, the Independent National Electoral Commission is under pressure to wield it now that the 2019 elections are over. There are 91 registered parties, but only 72 of them participated in the last general election.
Even before the polls, when the number was 68, the electoral body’s Chief Technical Adviser, Bolade Eyinla, bemoaned the figure because of the inherent administrative challenges it posed to the commission, just as he hinted that more than 100 political associations were seeking registration. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana, says not more than 10 parties would survive if INEC invoked the enormous powers conferred on it in Section 225 of the 1999 Constitution following an amendment in 2017.
The section stipulates that INEC can deregister a party on the grounds of: “(a) failure to win at least 25 per cent of votes cast in (i) One state of the federation in a presidential election; or (ii) one local government of the state in a governorship election; (c) failure to win at least – (i) one ward in the chairmanship election; (ii) one seat in the national or state House of Assembly election; or (iii) one seat in the councillorship.”
The Electoral Act 2010 in Section 78 (7) (ii) had vested in INEC, powers to deregister parties, which it activated in 2012 against parties that did not meet the electoral benchmark after the 2011 general election. The then National Chairman of the Peoples Redemption Party, Balarabe Musa, one of the advocates of unfettered access to the ballot, opposed the move. He challenged the action up to the Supreme Court and won. The court ruled that the so-called moribund political parties could not be axed in so far as their executives were still active. Moreover, Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution on freedom of association was a convenient sanctuary for the motley of parties. INEC’s earlier setback based on the Electoral Act 2010, which came in conflict with the Constitution, must have compelled it and lawmakers to get the power enshrined in the amended Section 225 of the Constitution.
Given the country’s extant political milieu, INEC has a Herculean task to delist any party now as local government elections have not been held. Since 1999, governance at the grassroots has been at the whims and caprices of state governors, who choose to appoint caretaker chairmen, instead of holding elections for elected officials to emerge. It is for this reason that the National Chairman of the Action Peoples Party, Ikenga Ugochinyere, warns that “INEC will forever be held legally hostage from deregistering any political party…”
Liberalisation of the political space is one of the legacies of the late lawyer, Gani Fawehinmi. He saw INEC’s refusal to do so as an anti-democratic move that should be stopped. Ultimately, in 2003, the Supreme Court entered a judgement in his favour. From a few parties at the inception of the Fourth Republic, the country had 30 parties in 2003; 50 in 2007; 60 in 2011 and 91 in 2019. None of them is anchored on any strong ideological mooring, unlike in the First Republic. Now, with 100 organisations awaiting INEC’s recognition, the figure might spike to at least 150 parties before the 2023 polls.
For such a primeval and absurd electoral environment, this certainly is a big problem that nobody can wish away. Right from the outset, INEC complained of the challenges the unwieldy number of parties posed to it in supervising their primaries with its limited personnel. The effect on cost increase was self-evident; and on Election Day, it took a most painstaking effort for the most enlightened of voters to decipher the party of their choice on the unusually long ballot paper. What is more; folding it properly to avoid any ink blur was a major concern, which might have contributed to the large number of the 1,289,609 votes voided in the presidential election. This was the highest ever recorded.
As some candidates in the last election confessed, abuse of the liberalised political space has set in. The National Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Adams Oshiomhole, revealed this much to officials of the United States-based National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute in December: “I can tell you how many requests I have from these so-called political parties that if you pay me this (amount), we will announce that we are supporting your presidential candidate… We must be careful so that in the name of freedom, we do not create democratic merchants, creating more confusion, generating more heat.”
Elections at some levels should not be open to all comers. Without necessarily infringing on the right of Nigerians to form parties, it has become imperative for Nigeria to adopt certain strictures, which some developed democracies use to limit parties’ access to the ballot and induce some seriousness in them. In the US, new parties in some states need to poll between two and three per cent of the votes cast in previous elections, to qualify for the next round. For an Independent candidate to qualify for a presidential election in California, he must garner the signatures of 178,039 voters, being one per cent of the total number of registered voters.
In New York, state law requires a party to earn 50,000 votes in order to stay on future ballots. For a political party to field candidates for national election in India, it must have won two per cent of legislative seats in Lok Sabha (India’s lower House) from at least three different states; be recognised as a state party in four or more states, or polled six per cent of votes in four states in addition to four seats in the Lok Sabha. Therefore, the scenario in Nigeria must take a more lucid shape in 2023