Friday, August 31, 2018 1:47 pm
The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire. The APC’s defection crisis is also an opportunity waiting to be seized.
By Muktar Usman
Soon after coming to power in the historic 2015 elections, the All Progressives Congress’ (APC) political compass was already pointing to a gathering storm.
In an April 2016 article titled ‘Nigeria’s ruling party at war with itself’, Premium Times painted a portrait of an APC that was paralysed by multiple internal crises: tensions arising from Bukola Saraki and Yakubu Dogara’s emergence as Senate President and Speaker of the House of Representatives, respectively, against the wishes of party leaders; divisions over top party positions; and a fracturing of the party, stemming from power struggles and personality clashes, in various states.
In December 2016, then-National Chairman John Odigie-Oyegun publicly acknowledged for the first time that the party’s internal divisions were affecting “the mode of operations and the level of interactions between the various arms of government and the party”.
Against this backdrop, the recent wave of defections from the party are not surprising. What is important now is how party leaders see the road ahead. If they are farsighted and true to their progressive aspirations, they will see the recent wave of defections, and the ones anticipated by political watchers as the 2019 elections draw closer, as a cleansing thunderstorm that scatters the clouds of ennui that enveloped the party soon after it won power in 2015.
State of Play
The ruling APC has a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both the Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, and the Deputy Speaker of the House, Yusuf Lasun, are APC members. Meanwhile, in the Senate, both the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, belong to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Since Saraki’s defection to PDP last month, APC leaders have been furiously trying to engineer situations that will result in a leadership change in the Upper Chamber. Constitutionally, however, the party lacks the numbers: the law requires a two-thirds majority (73 senators) to remove a Senate President.
At the time of writing, in the 109-member Senate, latest figures suggest that APC has 56 senators; PDP 49 senators; with the remaining 4 senators going to the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and the Obasanjo-linked African Democratic Congress (ADC).
In the 360-member House of Representatives, figures suggest that APC has 193 members, PDP 156, APGA 5, ADC 4, Accord 1, Social Democratic Party 1.
However, concrete figures showing which party has how many legislators will only emerge after the National Assembly reconvenes as several lawmakers defected after the legislature went on its annual recess on July 24. The National Assembly is scheduled to resume on September 25, but it could return earlier than that to pass the President’s supplementary budget.
Political manoeuvrings shifted into high gear soon after APC’s National Convention to elect party officials, which was held on 23-24 June.
On the 4th of July, a group of disgruntled APC members announced the formation of a splinter faction within the party. The ‘Reformed APC’ (rAPC), as they called themselves, mostly comprised members of the ‘New PDP’ (nPDP) – the politicians that fell out with the-then ruling PDP on the eve of the 2015 elections – and the defunct Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) – President Buhari’s former party that merged with two others to form the APC in February 2013.
In fact, the public face of rAPC were Abubakar KawuBaraje, leader of nPDP in APC, and BubaGaladima, a former close associate of Buhari who belonged to the CPC wing of APC. Galadima became the Chairman of rAPC.
Political watchers immediately saw in the emergence of rAPC, with its echoes of the 2013 nPDP rebellion and with its membership consisting of some of the orchestrators of that mutiny, the opening gambit of a larger plan culminating in a mass defection back to the PDP. Speculation was already rife that the rebels intended to move by month’s end. A defecting lawmaker is constitutionally required to vacate his or her seat and contest for a new mandate. The ‘inconvenience’ of new elections can be avoided, however, if the legislator is leaving a divided party. The rAPC, therefore, analysts noted at the time, was a scheme to factionalise APC, thereby giving legal cover for the defectors to jump ship without losing their seats.
The formation of rAPC sent a current through APC. President Buhari, who had previously maintained a hard-line posture against directly meeting the rebels, changed tack and met them; first, meeting Senate President Bukola Saraki on July 19, and then meeting Senator RabiuKwankwaso, leading a delegation of other senators, on July 23.
Only a month before, President Buhari had been adamant: “It is a party matter. I am not ready to sit down with any faction”, he said in a June 18 meeting with APC Governors. “If they have problems, they should go to the party. I will not interfere”.
Now with the defections seeming imminent, “It is interesting to suddenly see Mr President holding meetings with the Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki … Those who said they won’t lose sleep over the rAPC, have become sleepless in the last two weeks”, acidly observedKassimAfegbua, the splinter group’s spokesman.
Meanwhile, during this period, PDP leaders also perfected their plans to facilitate rAPC’s defection. At the party’s 80th National Executive Committee Meeting, held on 23 July, they crucially agreed to accept the defectors as equal partners at the level they join – for example, a defecting Governor or senator could expect the same privileges as their PDP counterparts in terms of control of party structures. After the meeting, PDP’s National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbondiyannoted with satisfaction that the party was now poised to “hunt for members of other political parties”.
At the 80th NEC Meeting, PDP also agreed to change its name as a concession to rAPC, although strong resistance within the party, especially from the likes of Sule Lamido – immediate past Governor of Jigawa State, a former Foreign Minister, and one of the few big-name politicians to have remained loyal to the party since its founding in 1998 – appears to have killed this idea for now.
On July 24, the storm finally broke. 51 APC lawmakers – 14 senators and 37 members of the House of Representatives – defected to PDP. Amongst these first movers, the standout was arguably Kano State’s senator RabiuKwankwaso whose influence extends throughout much of the north of the country. The defections continued into the first days of August, with the most significant being Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom, who decamped on July 25; Senate President Bukola Saraki and his ally, Kwara State Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed, on July 31; and Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal on August 1.
Defectors also jumped in the other direction. The most significant so far is Senator Godswill Akpabio – PDP’s Senate Minority Leader, a former Imo State Governor and political heavyweight in the South-South – who decamped to APC on August 8. A ThisDayop-ed by Tunde Rahman, Asiwaju Tinubu’s Media Adviser, highlights the importance of Akpabio’s defection to party bigwigs. The move, Rahman said, “has given APC a huge inroad into the South-South where the party seems non-existent”.
The situation appears to have stabilised somewhat. Governor of Imo State RochasOkorocha, for example, has reportedly assured President Buhari that no more Governors will defect from the party. Observers, however, remain circumspect. The political compass still points to more defections to come. The party remains factionalised in some states: Rivers State is one such example where senator Magnus Abe is engaged in a bitter fight to clinch the party’s gubernatorial candidacy. And besides, political watchers are anticipating another shuffling of the deck after the National Assembly reconvenes and crucially after the parties conduct their primaries in a few months’ time to elect their 2019 candidates for state and federal legislative positions, Governorships, and the Presidency.
Historically, post-primary periods are defection rich. Losing politicians often decamp to try their luck in other parties. GovervorOrtom, who has now returned to PDP, defected from the party in December 2014 in precisely those circumstances. Then a PDP Gubernatorial aspirant, after losing out in the party’s primaries, he decamped to APC under whose banner he contested and won the 2015 election.
Explaining the Defections
Commentators and analysts have blamed several factors for the defections. Chief amongst these is the lack of an ideology clearly separating the parties, thereby making it easy for disgruntled politicians to jump from one party to the next. A case in point is the situation of Senator Dino Melaye and former Senator Smart Adeyemi who stood against each other in 2015 for the Kogi West senatorial seat on the platforms of APC and PDP respectively. Both men have now cross-carpeted, and if they succeed in clinching their respective party’s tickets, they’ll stand against each other again in 2019 – only this time Melaye will be the PDP candidate and Adeyemi the APC candidate.
Another factor is the power struggle within parties – usually between Governors, legislators, and ministers – for control of party structures at state and national level. The cases of Senator Shehu Sani and Speaker of the House Yakubu Dogara exemplify this phenomenon. Although the APC party leadership has so far succeeded in stopping the defection of both men, it’s the problems they were having with their Governors – Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai and Bauchi State Governor Mohammed Abdullahi Abubakar, respectively – that drove both men to the brink of defection. Political watchers still have their eyes fixed on Speaker Dogara as his remaining in APC has not yet been conclusively determined.
Another factor is the larger ambition of politicians who feel the electoral position offered by their party as election approaches doesn’t match the position they aspire to. Most analysts see the defections of Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal and Senator RabiuKwankwaso through this prism, as they left to pursue their Presidential ambitions. Senate President Bukola Saraki can also be partly explained by a desire to pursue his Presidential ambition.
Underpinning all this is the pressure of approaching elections and the struggle for party tickets. It is often taken as gospel that political incumbents in Nigeria are like immovable mountains who are difficult to unseat. In reality, however, the turnover in the political space, especially in the legislature, is remarkably high.
According to Dr LadiHamalai, the Director General of the National Institute for Legislative studies – the National Assembly’s in-house thinktank – on average over 70 percent of Nigeria’s legislators fail to make it back after their first terms, compared to other African countries where the average turnover rate is about 50 percent, and the United States – where we copied our Presidential system from – which has a remarkably high legislative retention rate of over 90 percent. Her research shows that in the 2015 elections, for example, 67 percent of senators and 72 percent of House of Representative members failed to get re-elected.
This often leads to pressures to defect whenever elections approach as politicians look to improve their chances of re-election by shopping around for “automatic” tickets – in other words becoming a party’s flagbearer without going through primaries. As APC’s Senator Shehu Sani memorably puts it: “Defection is a seasonal storm in [Nigeria’s] political climate in the way you have the rainy season”.
One factor that is specific to the defections that hit APC is the vacuum in the party’s top leadership that left the sparks of crisis that emerged soon after the 2015 elections unaddressed until it became a wildfire that almost consumed the whole house.
President Buhari famously refused to step in, even when the conflagration started gaining momentum, instead insisting that party leaders, such as Governors, “should deal with all issues… I will not get involved” – even when it was clear that some Governors were the root cause the crisis. To many, one of the original sins of the party was allowing Bukola Saraki to emerge as Senate President in 2015. A substantial part of the blame lies with President Buhari who, unlike previous Presidents who directly intervened to support their candidates, refused to weigh in to ensure his – and the party’s – preferred candidate became Senate President.
“The only difference between what happened in the past and what played out in the 2015 Senate inauguration”, says Ismail Omipidan of The Daily Sun, “was the fact that President Buhari refused to show open sympathy for any of the candidates for the position”.
Compounding this problem was the widespread perception that the former National Party Chairman John OdigieOyegun lacked the will and stature to stand up to party bigwigs – particularly Governors – and enforce party supremacy. It is noteworthy that Adams Oshiomole, who became Party Chairman in June, inherited a fractured party that was paralysed by crises in 24 states. 32 senators were initially expected to defect – an outcome that would have crippled APC in the Senate. Oshiomole’s outreach and negotiations are widely credited with trimming that figure to the 14 that defected on July 24. Senator Shehu Sani, for example, openly acknowledges the decisive role played by Oshiomolein keeping him from defecting.
The Road Ahead
An enduring fallout of the APC defections is the party leadership’s almost fanatical quest to remove Senate President Bukola Saraki from office because he is now a member of the minority PDP and therefore has no “moral right” to preside over the Senate.
Another, less noticed but more positive, fallout is the calls for electing party and political office holders through direct primaries that is gaining increasing momentum within APC.
The Electoral Act stipulates that political parties can choose candidates for party or political office through either “direct” or “indirect” primaries. In a direct primary, all registered members of a party elect the party’s candidates. In an indirect primary – also called a delegate system – a few thousand delegates, chosen by virtue of being party officials or former political office holders, elect the candidates.
The delegate system – beloved by party chieftains, Governors, and politically powerful ministers and senators because it gives individuals with deep pockets greater control over the selection process – has often been criticised as undemocratic and corruption prone. This is unlike the direct primary system which it is often argued will make parties more democratic by giving grassroot members greater influence over the selection process and will motivate them to vote during elections as they will be voting for individuals they themselves chose during the primaries.
A key reform agenda of Adams Oshiomole since he became APC’s National Party Chairman is pushing for direct primaries to become the party’s preferred choice for choosing its candidates for elective positions. After successfully trialling it in Osun in July to choose the party’s gubernatorial flagbearer for the upcoming September 22 election, the momentum seemed to lose steam as the party returned to the delegate system to select the flagbearers for Bauchi South and Katsina North senatorial bye elections.
The defections, however, appear to have given the reformists pushing for direct primaries – such as Femi Gbajabiamila – a new lease of life. In the internal battles in the party over the question of direct primaries, they have adopted a narrative which says the recent defections can be almost singularly reduced to a lackof internal party democracy which has given party godfathers an outsized and unhealthy influence in the party. This narrative for explaining the recent defections, while not wholly true, serves a larger purpose because it gives the reformists a powerful rhetorical weapon in drawing a dividing line between, as they argue, an APC that is anchored in grassroots and progressive politics and a PDP that is elitist and held hostage by godfathers.
With the triumvirate at the top of the party – President Buhari, the party’s highest political office holder; Bola Tinubu, the party’s National Leader; and Adams Oshiomole, the National Party Chairman – all publicly voicing their support for direct primaries, the reformists feel it is now or never and that the defections crisis was a necessary crucible which must culminate in the emergence of a more democratic party.
In a way, they are right. The defections the party has endured is not only a crisis, but an opportunity waiting to be seized. As the saying goes: The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire. The repeated blows it endures from the swordsmith’s hammer, in between being plunged into molten fire, is what gives it its strength and flexibility.
– By Muktar Usman, Political Analyst, writes from London. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @JanguzaArewa