Direct or Indirect primaries: How do we know which systems works best for Nigeria


At its last National Executive Committee, the APC announced that it favours direct primaries for elections at the federal and state levels going into the 2019 polls. The recommendation by the party’s leadership in Abuja has divided opinions at the state level as some Governors have expressed unease with the process of a direct primary. On Wednesday, the Plateau State chapter of the party resolved to adopt indirect primaries, while the direct system is set to be used in Kano.

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The APC’s constitution provides for the use of either method and also provides for choosing candidates by consensus. What then are the deciding factors for each state’s choice of which primaries system to adopt for the elections next year?

What is Possible?

Reality reminder: When it comes to the art of the possible normally called politics, rules and norms are applied always to the possibility that they can be manipulated for selfish purposes. It is a proper starting point for appreciating why members of the same political party in different states could be divergent as to what means they should follow in choosing candidates. Being a game of numbers, the measures that will be accepted by politicians are most likely those where the numbers can be positioned to produce an advantage. Hence, the choice of which system of primaries to be adopted has much to do with encouraging a limited independence of sorts, the buzz is that “politics is local”, but at its heart is enabling several big interest groups to be able to manage their numbers to their advantage. The key word being “manage”.

Indirect Stomach Infrastructure

With direct primaries, registered members of a state’s party get to vote directly in the primaries in a one-man-one-vote scenario, as a form of preliminary election to decide candidates from a pool of aspirants.  Different from indirect primaries, there is no choosing of delegates designated to elect candidates for the voters, a factor which has a number of implications ranging from a lower possibility to buy influence but also a greater chance of not having a water-tight system. Nigerian politics have taught us that periods when political parties have indirect primaries are the times not to be in desperate need for hotel accommodation. The independence of delegates to vote their preferred aspirants is questionable and it is credible to suggest that the pervasive culture of stomach infrastructure that rears its ugly neck at polling units on election days first begins its gestation at hotel lobbies the night before party primaries.

Direct Violence

In Ondo state, the prospect of direct primaries has raised alarms about the “spoiling” of the APC. The state’s party leaders describe it as another “evil”, a form of corruption and have rejected it to avoid, in their words, violence. It is possible to see where such fears would emanate from; without a transparent system that documents all possible voters, a direct primary system would be open to virtually anyone who shows up with any obtained proof of membership. As Nigeria’s political parties have chosen to not invest in properly ensuring a structured membership process, the fears of the integrity of a direct primary process are not entirely unfounded. No wonder even among states where President Buhari’s has loyal Governors, at least one, Yahaya Bello’s Kogi state, has opted to have the indirect option citing the need to avoid throwing the party into confusion.

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Vote of Confidence

For the APC, direct primaries make sense for this presidential primary where the expected outcome is that Muhammadu Buhari will retain the party’s ticket for the coming polls. Being a preliminary election, it would be a way for the party to affirm the president’s popularity and show force. Without any challengers, there is in fact no necessity for a presidential primary for the APC; the consensus method could as well be put to use at its convention. Going ahead with a primary would be based on a need to demonstrate internal democracy but, ultimately, to emphasize Buhari’s stance as the man to beat next February.

At the end of the day, the formula to be used by any political party for picking their candidates will come down to the balance between showing that they have a fair mechanism and expediency.

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