On Thursday, May 30, 2013, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Tony Anenih, stirred the polity with a proposal that some people consider controversial: he proposed that the PDP should reward incumbent presidents and governors who perform well in office with an automatic second term ticket. Speaking in Abuja, at a dinner organised by President Goodluck Jonathan for select group of the party’s top leadership, Anenih said his proposal would position the PDP to come out of its present challenges stronger and more united.
If accepted by the party, his advocacy will, naturally, make those who fall within his categorization, “skip” the usual rancorous party primaries. Prominent among the beneficiaries will be President Goodluck Jonathan whose perceived interest in the 2015 presidential contest has already generated heated arguments, especially after an Abuja High Court, presided over by Justice Mudashiru Oniyangi, last year declared him eligible to contest for a second term if he so wishes.
Ever since the suggestion, Anenih, the man well known as political tactician-in-chief, has received unfair knocks from different quarters, especially from people who have either not fully digested and reflected deeply on it, or have opposed it for their selfish ends. Some have also wrongly interpreted it as a plan to undercut the democratic process.
No doubt, Anenih’s proposal is borne out of his genuine concern for the PDP which has been weighed down in recent times by internal problems. His reasoning is that while party primaries are unavoidable, especially for incoming chief executives, it is definitely an unnecessary distraction for incumbents aspiring for a second term,especially when they do well. Besides, as he argued, energies and financial resources could be reserved for the bigger battle against the other parties in the general elections.
Though the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and other opposition groups have criticized the suggestion, the strongest of them has come from former Vice President Atiku Abubakar who has threatened to drag the PDP to court if the policy is adopted. While the ACF, the socio-cultural umbrella organization of the North and obviously a meddlesome interloper in PDP’s internal affairs, condemned the suggestion on the grounds that it would violate the provisions of the Electoral Act on internal democracy, Atiku, an interested stakeholder and leading member of the party, said he opposed it because it amounted to a “consensus arrangement” and an “adoption” which would be equal to a “travesty of democracy.”
But then, Atiku’s utterances are most surprising, going by his political antecedents. For a man who contested the PDP primaries of 2011 as the North’s “consensus” candidate, it is an irony that he has chosen to attack Anenih’s proposal on the argument that “consensus” arrangements are undemocratic. When did Atiku, who gleefully celebrated his adoption by the Adamu Ciroma-led group of 17 Northern Elders, develop such a strong allergy to adoption and consensus? As his democratic credentials have usually been criticised, the recent utterances are seen as one of those contradictions in his politics since his desperate quest for the presidency started in 2006.
The question to ask is: is Anenih’s suggestion really undemocratic? The answer, of course, is no, especially if reference is made to practices in other democratic presidential systems? One must never tire of making reference to the United States of America, not only because of her democratic history but because our present practice was directly lifted from there.
The inescapable conclusion that must be arrived at is that over the years, it has become the convention in the US that an incumbent president is accorded sole candidacy of his political party at the party’s convention, so long as he is willing to run for a second term. Even in advocating this practice, Anenih went further to suggest that the automatic tickets should go to incumbents who, by their performances, merit them. So why then would anyone quarrel with the suggestion that such a practice is adopted in Nigeria where primaries for the president and governors are even more divisive and threaten national unity?
In fairness though, Nigeria which has been experimenting the US model of presidential democracy, both in the Second Republic and the present dispensation, has not deviated from this practice either. Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo who had, at those eras, sought re-election as sitting presidents, were obliged by their parties. In 1983, Shagari was largely unopposed for the ticket of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) while in 2003, Obasanjo prevailed against candidates like Alhaji Abubakar Rimi and Barnabas Gemade to get the PDP re-election
ticket. The difference is that unlike in the second Republic when Shagari’s re-election ticket was automatic, members of the ruling PDP have increasingly bickered over such issues.
What the present proposal seeks is simply to institutionalize it in the PDP and remove the uncertainty and unnecessary divisions that are associated with it. The party will simply go to the nomination primaries with the candidatures of the lucky sitting presidents and governors as fait accompli, even if genuine opposition or prearranged opponents are encouraged to enter the race in order to give the processes a semblance of democracy through the stamp of voting. The party machinery would have been properly driven to seamlessly achieve the agenda.
Indeed, in all her long history of democracy, the US has held the light on issues of political stability which is the basis on which the policy of continuity and consensus is usually canvassed. Since 1900, for instance, as many as 12 US presidents have been elected to a second term in office, while others failed. It is instructive to note, however, that those who failed to make it, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, were not denied the tickets by their respective parties, but lost in the general elections proper, due to other factors.
Two instances will suffice. In 1992, Republican Party’s George H.W. Bush lost his bid for re-election to Democratic Party’s William Clinton because of widespread discontent at home arising from a faltering economy and continued high deficit spending. In 1981, Democratic Party’s Jimmy Carter lost his re-election campaign to Republican Party’s Ronald Reagan. Carter’s defeat was traceable to the hostage-taking of U.S. embassy staff members in Iran which dominated the news during the last 14 months of his administration.
The like of Atiku may have chosen to ignore the fact that while the choice of who becomes President ultimately rests with the people, the party in a presidential system has a duty to grant the sitting President the right of first refusal.
Besides, it is difficult to fault any proposal that reduces the rancor, disaffection and threats to national unity that are, these days, associated with the ruling party’s presidential primaries. Automatic tickets for re-elections are therefore not only the practice in developed democracies, its adoption by the ruling party will certainly signpost increasing maturity in the nation’s democratic journey. After all, this is better than the process adopted in the opposition parties, especially the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) where some political godfather and quasi-political godfathers sit in the comfort of their mansions to select and impose candidates on the people for elective positions in their states.
· Ojeifo contributed this piece from Abuja.