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A self-serving right of first refusal

All manner of phrases have entered into the lexicon of Nigeria’s skewed political firmament. We have had old hoary warhorses such as ‘excess liquidity’, ‘unspent funds’, ‘market-based reforms’ to name just a few. On the road to decisive, possibly game changing elections in 2015, we should get ready to be used to what is bound to be a recurring decimal. This has already been termed the ‘right of first refusal.’

This new template is to allow a serving president and governors the opportunity to become the candidates of their party during elections without a primary election. Its proponents canvass it as the situation in the United States of America from ‘where Nigeria copied the presidential system of government it is practising.’

The air of finality with which this statement is made should not preclude us from challenging its dubious authenticity. There is nothing written on stone that an incumbent President or Governor in the United States of America cannot be challenged in a party primary. Historical surveys confirm this. For example, in 1968, the insurgency campaign of the cerebral democratic Senator from Wisconsin, Eugene McCarthy, led to the withdrawal of incumbent Democratic Party President, Lyndon Baines Johnson from the Democratic Party primary contest. The withdrawal from the primary contest effectively ended the Johnson presidency.

Furthermore, in 1980, the late Democratic Party Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Moore Kennedy, unsuccessfully challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter, a fellow democrat at the Democratic Party’s national convention. At the convention Carter scored 2,123 votes [64.04%] to Kennedy’s 1,151[34.70%]. Instructively, nine other candidates stood against Carter at the convention. As we have illustrated with just a couple of examples, it is a fallacy to say that an incumbent cannot be challenged. Luckily the National Publicity Secretary of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Olisa Metuh has debunked what looks like an opportunistic self-serving manoeuvre. “As at today, what does our party constitution say? The constitution allows party primaries; we are not aware of any such move to change the constitution of that party for that purpose. The constitution that we have which was passed in 2012 allows for state congresses and national conventions where candidates will emerge; that is the constitution of the party.”

But when asked whether the PDP would consider amending its constitution he added a caveat: “We can amend if the members so desire before 2015.”

The ostensible reason for this concoction by its proponents is to ‘solidify the cohesion in the party’ and reduce what they described as ‘unnecessary distraction’ from politicians.’

Applied to the PDP, they are of the view that: “This is however, subject to President Jonathan accepting to contest for the office of the president in the 2015 presidential election. The same would be applicable to governors elected on the platform of the party seeking a second term in office.

“We are working on the modalities for this, because there is the absolute need to allow the president and the governors concerned to remain focused to deliver the necessary dividends of democracy.”

Unfortunately the opposite is likely to happen not just in the PDP but elsewhere. This we have seen, time and time again. Stifling the democratic space inevitably leads into rancour. It also leads to an undermining of the very same cohesion, which it was meant to preserve. If there is any doubt about this, just recall the sad debacle of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in last year’s Ondo State Gubernatorial Election. The unacceptable imposition of a favoured candidate rather than an open primary led to an internal implosion. Against the formbook and conventional wisdom, the party came third.

Our nascent (to use that ugly phrase) democracy can only be deepened by strengthening internal democracy. Indeed, real political parties thrive on diversity of positions and strongly entrenched internal democracy. This is why it was possible to unseat Thabo Mbeki, a sitting president at the African National Congress Party Convention. This showed very clearly that the ANC is a real democratic political party.

This is much more than we can say for our present political formations in Nigeria. Frankly, this sort of kite flying should not have come from the PDP. The party has shown a greater feel for at least the semblance of internal democracy than its competitors. In addition, there is also a warning here for the newly amalgamated All Progressive Congress (APC).

The APC will swim or sink on its position on internal democracy. The fate of the APC is crucial to the health of our democracy. The country needs a sensible government-in-waiting and the APC can only be taken seriously if it is truly democratic, otherwise it will implode.

Our call as always to the operators of the political space is to let a thousand flowers blossom. Our political economy can only be strengthened if real modern internally democratic political parties operate it. A party that cannot manage its internal processes will not be able to manage the economy.

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