Since Nigeria’s return to civilian government in 1999, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has ruled the country almost unchallenged.
25 political parties are registered with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) but only a fraction of them are clearly visible in the political arena. At times, the more popular opposition parties have won gubernatorial elections or secured legislative seats, but these wins have typically only come in regions where these parties are traditionally strong: the South East for All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA); the North for the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC); the South West for the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN).
Nationally, the opposition has been no match for the PDP which has swept all three general elections since 1999. Until now.
The sudden arrival on scene of the All Progressives Congress (APC) could finally provide a viable rival to the PDP in the upcoming 2015 elections. The APC was created in early 2013 when three major opposition parties − the CPC, ACN and All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP)− came together with a faction of APGA in a broad coalition. This merger brought together about a third of Nigeria's state governors and national legislators.
Since then, the APC has undertaken an aggressive membership drive which has been rewarded by mass defections from an already crisis-ridden PDP. The state governors of Sokoto, Kano, Kwara, Adamawa and Rivers State − five of the seven governors in the self-styled PDP splinter group, the 'new PDP' − joined the APC in November. Barely a month later, 37 members of the House of Representatives left the PDP for the APC, thereby giving the latter a slim majority in the lower chamber. In the upper house meanwhile, 22 senators indicated their interest in crossing over to the APC too, but only 11 have now done so formally. The Nigerian Constitution provides that a legislator shall vacate their seat if they leave the party on whose platform they were elected, unless that defection is as a result of a division in their original party. The defectors understandably held on to this caveat and were able to secure a court order preventing their seats being declared vacant until the court gives a final ruling on the matter.
For now the PDP retains leadership of the Senate – with 61 seats to the APC’s 44 – but, pending the determination of the matter in court, it is possible there will be further defections to the APC, thereby giving the new opposition party a much-desired, if slender, majority in the upper house too.
Yet as the excitement over the emergence of a powerful opposition party dies down, there are lingering questions over whether the APC actually brings anything new to the country’s politics. The party is actively wooing former PDP members to its ranks, raising concerns that the same old names will be recycled in the 2015 elections. This issue has caused friction within the new party itself.
Governors who defected from the PDP seem to have assumed that they will take over the leadership of the party in their states and nominate the party chairman. But the original APC party leaders in those states are rightly aggrieved; they feel they should not be expected to automatically relinquish their positions to the newly-arrived governors. This situation recently came to a head in Kano and Sokoto where tension over the issue has run highest; the party leaders, both former governors of their respective states, have gone against the tide and dumped the APC for the PDP. This shows that cohesion within the APC is still fragile and party members who feel their interests are not being represented will become disillusioned and leave the party.
These power tussles can easily be dismissed as teething problems for a new organisation consisting of disparate political groups, but how the party handles those issues will go a long way in determining what it can achieve. Nigerian politics is not based on competing ideology but rival interests and ambitions. It is common practice for a politician to leave their party for another simply because they have been passed over for the party ticket in a forthcoming election. The prevailing attitude is summed up in a popular saying: “no permanent enemies but permanent interests." In this way, political rivalries in Nigeria can be acrimonious and even fatal, but the flip side is that long-time adversaries can come together in power-sharing arrangements which ensure both sides win.
The next couple of months will be crucial. The greatest test will be in uniting the party around a presidential candidate that is acceptable nationwide. If this is not achieved, the APC could lose the public support it currently enjoys against the ruling party whose house is in shambles.
The successive defections of governors and legislators have demonstrated to even the most casual Nigeria-watchers that the PDP is in crisis. However, following the recent resignation of former national party chairman, Bamanga Tukur, the new chairman Adamu Mu’azu has apologised to the departed party members and has spoken of winning them back to the party. He is clearly on a reconciliation drive, meaning the PDP is starting to reorganise ahead of 2015.
The crisis within the PDP has partly been attributed to President Goodluck Jonathan's unspoken ambitions to run for re-election, a move which would go against the unwritten rule that the presidency rotate between a Northerner and a Southerner. Jonathan has so far kept his cards close to his chest, refusing to speak about the 2015 elections and thereby buying himself time to assess the competition and strategise. For various reasons, the president is less popular now than when he was elected in 2011, not least because of his failure to deliver economic transformation, his weak stance on corruption, and slow response to the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East.
That being said, his performance approval rating stood at an average 49% for 2013, and a number of interest groups from his part of the country have come out to publicly declare their support for a Jonathan re-election.
Overall it seems likely that Jonathan intends to run for a second term in 2015 and recent cabinet appointments lend credence to this. The president sacked 11 ministers last year and has just announced replacements which are overwhelmingly from the North. This could be an attempt to head off accusations of partisanship and project an image of an inclusive government. It is also likely he hopes the appointments will win him support in the North-East and North-West, the two regions where his approval ratings are lowest.
If he does wish to run, Jonathan’s first task will be to secure his party’s ticket. Presidential candidates are chosen by 3,000 to 4,000 party delegates from across the country, comprised of appointed and elected officials. Many are loyal to him – ministers and board chairmen of federal agencies that he has appointed, legislators who have not defected, and delegates from states whose governors will back his second term bid − but Jonathan needs to ensure that nothing erodes this support base before the primaries which are just a few months away.
The 2015 election timetable just released by INEC fixes the presidential and National Assembly elections for 14 February 2015, while the elections for governors and state houses of assembly will take place exactly two weeks later.
There have been mixed reactions to the announcement of these election dates. Perhaps the biggest concern for those who are not in support of the current timetable is that it encourages a 'winner takes all’ effect where the outcome of the presidential election could influence the state elections as politicians immediately decamp to the party of the president-elect. Be that as it may, it is doubtful the dates will be changed and most politicians are pleased the timetable has been released early, as it gives them more time to prepare.
Having the polls in February is also meant to give enough time for the resolution of any electoral matters that may arise before the tenure of the current administration expires on 29 May, 2015. However, while 3 months may be enough time to conduct supplementary polls if necessary, it is insufficient for the conclusion of any potential election-related litigation. Election results are regularly contested in Nigeria and cases have been known to go on for 2 to 3 years.
In addition to the internal party politics, there are three things one ought to watch as the election period approaches:
Firstly, INEC has to perform for the elections to pass off smoothly, and current confidence in the commission and its chairman, Attahiru Jega, is low following botched governorship elections in Anambra State.
Alleged irregularities in voter registers and electoral malpractice by INEC officials, the latter admitted by the chairman, led to supplementary polls in several local government areas, while some parties called for the elections to be annulled altogether. Naturally, this has raised questions about INEC's capacity ahead of 2015.
Jega still commands a lot of respect, however, and admitting the lapses on the part of the commission seems to have worked in his favour. He has requested N93 billion ($560 million) to conduct next year’s elections, but there is a possibility this figure might be further increased by the legislature in a bid to ensure that the commission has adequate resources. With two more states due to hold elections this year, INEC has more chances to get things right and everyone will be watching closely.
Secondly, elections in Nigeria have often been marred by violence, and the activities of armed thugs in volatile regions have kept voters at home in previous polls. Ahead of 2015, election-motivated violence appears to have prematurely reared its ugly head in Rivers State. There have been several skirmishes between Governor Rotimi Amaechi’s supporters and those who oppose him, and after police forcefully broke-up a rally in support of the governor and injured a serving senator, concerns are high that the instruments of state power may be employed against opposition party members.
During the 2011 elections, the nation was outraged when several members of the national youth service corps employed by INEC as ad hoc electoral officials were killed in the North. After the announcement of the election results, which declared Jonathan the winner, groups loyal to CPC candidate Muhammadu Buhari rioted across the North, leading to several more deaths. There is no guarantee that such a situation will not repeat itself.
In the North-East, the three states where the Boko Haram insurgents have been most active are also red flags. In May 2013, a state of emergency was declared in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, and INEC has expressed concerns that it may not be possible to conduct elections in those states. Their governors disagree: they argue that violence is greatly reduced and are lobbying for emergency rule to be lifted in a bid to ensure that their states remain relevant in the electoral equation. It is another tough call for INEC.; what happens, or does not happen, in those states, could be used a sticking point to challenge unfavourable election results.
Finally, previous election years have been marked by falling exchange rates and increased inflation as patronage-led spending floods the economy with cash. This year, the Central Bank has already noted a spike in the demand for dollars and has indicated it will take steps to address the supply and demand imbalance in the bureaus de change. The Central Bank governor is well known for not being afraid to go head-to-head with government, and he may use his control of monetary policy to mitigate the impact of expected election year cash injections on the economy.
He has already promised to continue to focus on anti-money laundering, a move that may curtail the fiscal leakages usually associated with an election year. He has also announced an increase in the cash reserve ratio for public sector funds from 50% to 75% effective from February. While this may not have any impact in terms of reducing the money available to government, it does curtail the possibility of dollar speculation by the banks themselves.
All in all, it may not be business as usual for Nigeria's politicians this time around.
A version of this article originally appeared as an AfricaPractice Africa InDepth report.
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