A major spinoff of the conventions that produced the national officials of the two leading political parties in Nigeria is the sudden elevation of the word ‘consensus.’ This word has transformed not only into the most frequently used word in our political lexicon but also into a simultaneous source of hope and anxiety for political aspirants.
In the next two months, as the parties work themselves into a feverish mood to choose their flagbearers for the 2023 general election, the stock of consensus is expected to soar even higher. However, it is doubtful if the leading parties can pull off the consensus option in their presidential primaries as easily as they did in choosing members of their national executive committees. The stakes, and likely costs, are significantly different.
To start with, the use of consensus as a method for selecting party officials or flagbearers is not as new as it now appears. It has always been an option, pressed into service in different guises and for different purposes. Basically, it is a form of veto by party leaders or elders (or even party owners in some cases).
The dominant forces in the parties could exercise such a veto either because they have earned the goodwill to extract concessions or because they have the structure that can easily deliver their wish. In most cases, aspirants are simply asked to wait for their turn. Or they are just requested to step down for the anointed person for the sake of equity or peace or a united front or any other convenient justification. In most cases, a real contest is likely to produce the same anointed aspirant, especially when the party leaders have the structure and the zeal to enforce their wish. But not always.
One famous exception was the 1978 gubernatorial primaries of the United Party of Nigeria (UPN) in old Oyo State. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the highly respected leader of UPN, wanted his long-term ally, Archdeacon Emmanuel Alayande, to be UPN’s flagbearer in the state. Archdeacon Alayande was one of the early and loyal members of UPN’s predecessor, the Action Group (AG) when it was formed in 1951. But a much younger Chief Bola Ige successfully challenged Awolowo, his party leader, and Alayande, his former school principal, to clinch the ticket all the times the party conducted its primaries in 1978. Ige later went on to win the 1979 governorship election.
Another iteration of consensus politics was on display in the build-up to the 1983 general election when Chief Awolowo and party elders decided that all the governors in the five UPN states should go for a second term. Some party members felt this was contrary to prior agreements. Those not happy with the decision couldn’t force their ways through the primaries but some of them decamped to the ruling party at the centre, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN).
Among others, Chief S.M. Afolabi and Chief Akin Omoboriowo, who were both deputy governors in old Oyo and Ondo states respectively, left the UPN fold. This made the UPN vulnerable in the two states, losing both states in the general election and retrieving only Ondo State at the tribunal. In a related vein, Awolowo wanted Chief Josiah Olawoyin to return as UPN’s flagbearer in Kwara State in 1983 but his hands were forced as Senator C.O. Adebayo emerged. Adebayo went on to defeat NPN’s Adamu Attah, the incumbent governor who had fallen out with his godfather, Senator Olusola Saraki.
This short historical detour is necessary because the present South West is reputed for a form of consensus politics: the phenomenon known as ‘Baba So Pe’ (‘Baba has said’ or ‘Baba has decreed’). When framed negatively, it is seen as an imposition by the father of the party or by the party elders. But it can also be seen positively as a way of going strong into the actual election and limiting costs and rancour.
Preference for consensus is not restricted to the West or South West—it is present in different forms all over the country. Some will even tell you it shows internal cohesion/party discipline and that it aligns more with African tradition because intense internal competition is at odds with the family spirit that a party should have.
Consensus is embraced and reviled in equal measure by our political class depending on who benefits. It is not unusual that some who support it when they benefit may oppose it when they lose out. As the cases mentioned earlier show, consensus doesn’t always work: it can be successfully challenged and, when not properly managed, it can lead to loss at the polls for the party that insists on it.
It is also important to state that though it reduces the number of people choosing the flagbearers of the parties when compared to direct and indirect primary methods, the consensus option is not necessarily less democratic or less legal than the other two methods. The law allows it as a democratic method for choosing candidates. The only thing is that when placed on a spectrum, direct primaries will be the most representative, indirect primaries will be in the middle and consensus will be the least representative (mainly because the sense of all agreeing to present one candidate is usually contrived or coerced). And please harbour no illusions—all the methods can be gamed.
The three different methods can produce different results. But they can also produce the same outcome, as we have seen in some instances where a party leader would pick an aspirant and get his way through direct or indirect primaries. This happens when the party leadership is in full control of the party structure.
The Electoral Act 2022 has introduced some interesting complications to the use of the consensus option. In Section 84 (9), the Act states that: “A political party that adopts a consensus candidate shall secure the written consent of all cleared aspirants for the position, indicating their voluntary withdrawal from the race and their endorsement of the consensus candidate.” In Section 84 (10), the Act further stipulates that where no such written consent can be obtained, then there should be direct or indirect primaries.
This is one of the innovations of the current Electoral Act and what makes the default to the consensus method both an interesting and a complicated proposition. Parties can choose consensus but they must meet stringent conditions: all the cleared aspirants must not only voluntarily withdraw in writing, but they must also endorse the consensus candidate in writing. While it may be difficult to decipher if such letters are written under duress, it is reasonable to expect that some aspirants may not withdraw, with what we saw with the election of party officials during APC’s convention. These aspirants may thus force resort to direct or indirect primaries, which they may win.
One possible option is for the parties that favour consensus not to clear such potentially difficult aspirants. But the Electoral Act has also taken care of that. In Section 84 (3), the Act states that: “Parties cannot impose additional nomination or disqualification criteria except as prescribed under sections 65, 66, 106, 107, 131, 137, 177, and 187 of the Constitution.”
These sections of the Constitution relate to the age, academic qualification, party membership, sanity, citizenship, bankruptcy, conviction, indictment etc. It is difficult to change the status of any of the aspirants on these parameters within two months. Besides, the Constitution says some of these, like being adjudged a lunatic or of unsound mind or being sentenced or declared bankrupt, will not be the basis for disqualification if the issue is under appeal. It is not impossible that some hardliners will insist on disqualifying unwanted aspirants and dare them to go to court. But doing so will put their party’s ticket in jeopardy.
Based on the provisions and scenarios, it may be easier to enforce the consensus option in the smaller parties than in the two leading parties, especially at the presidential level. For one, the stakes are much higher in the two leading parties. Anyone who gets the ticket of either party stands a good chance of becoming the next president. Second, both parties have political heavyweights who cannot be easily bullied and who can force direct or indirect primaries by refusing to withdraw, who can win the contested primaries, or who can significantly hurt the parties’ chances if they move elsewhere or opt to do anti-party.
In the same vein, both APC and PDP have some known and speculated aspirants who can only stand a chance if they are adopted as the consensus candidates. For this group, the move for consensus is the sole electoral strategy. And their hope is that the instruments and goodwill of the state and of the party will be deployed to their advantage. For those in APC, they are banking on how the president had his way in getting the chairmanship of the party and hoping the same deference will be accorded to him in choosing his party’s flagbearer. Additionally, they think the new party leadership will enforce their wish.
Those who favour consensus in these parties either want a shortcut or do not want to take any chances, knowing how the deep pockets and political reach of those they are targeting with consensus can change the game. Consensus is thus not a neutral tool in this dispensation: it is a rosy promise to those who stand to gain from it and a viable threat to those who may be edged out with it.
Time will tell whether the president will seek a concession on the flagbearer or will simply ask for a level playing field for all aspirants. Also, there is a possibility that such a concession may not be readily granted even if the president asks for one. The political class is already looking beyond the present. It is doubtful if the new national executive is strong enough to force its way. There have been references to what happened in 2007. That analysis misses one important point: the prior investment that led to the total control of the leading party before the primaries. I don’t think the time between now and June 4th is enough for garrisoned politics.
Though slightly in a different space from APC, PDP also hardly has a dominant power centre that can force its will in the 2007 mode.
The reality now is that the control of the two leading parties is highly decentralised. If any of the aspirants forces a contest, those in control of the party structures in the states where the parties are both in power and not in power will have an edge. And this is irrespective of whether the leading parties go for direct or indirect primaries.
There is a possibility that the different controllers of the decentralised power centres in the parties may agree to or be nudged towards, and press their individual structures in support of, either the least disagreeable or the most sellable aspirant. That’s a possibility. But in politics, many things are possible, including political lords making cold calculations solely on the basis of allegiance and interests.
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