This thing called structure, By Mahmud Jega

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Eighteen candidates on the ballot in February’s presidential election became less visible during this holiday period. They held no mass rallies, town hall meetings, Million Man Marches or even major newspaper and television interviews. It is a costly lull since there are only seven short weeks left to the election, that is, unless you have a solid “structure.” A candidate with a solid political structure on the ground is still campaigning every day and every minute even if, as a detached observer, you don’t see it.

Since the party presidential candidates emerged in May, we have often heard talk about some candidates having no structure while other candidates have solid structures. Politicians have not spared the time to tell us the meaning of structure, so much so that many Nigerians are confused about it. What is this structure in Nigerian politics and why is it so important?

Ideally, a political party should have an office, a functioning party executive and well defined members, registered or not, in every state, ideally in every local government, as much as possible in every ward, and if possible in every village and hamlet. In 1978, one of Chief Michael Ani-led FEDECO’s criteria for getting registered as a political party was to have functional party offices in at least two thirds of the states, which were 19 at the time. Although more than 50 groups applied, only five were registered. It was later said that PRP did not really qualify but the military rulers told FEDECO to register it lest voters in its stronghold of Kano State destroyed their voters’ cards.

In 1989, Prof Humphrey Nwosu-led NEC’s criteria required a party applying for registration to include in its application forms the names, addresses and even passport photos of all its members. As a result, we saw on TV some political associations arriving at NEC’s Lagos office with trailer-loads of documents. Television crews reported at the time that Alhaji Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa arrived with PRP’s application papers tucked under his arm, just when Chief Olu Falae arrived with PSP’s papers in 10 trailer loads! In the end, none of them was registered.

In 1999 too, INEC’s registration requirements were stiff, as a result of which only PDP, APP and AD were registered. Again it was said that the military government told INEC to register AD, not because it met the criteria, but because it had a historical base of support in Yorubaland and, with June 12 still a red hot issue, not registering it could imperil the transition program. It was in 2002 that the courts annulled the stringent registration criteria and paved the way for registration of NDP and UNPP, which participated in the 2003 elections. The court ruling subsequently opened the floodgates for mass party registration, until at one time we had more than 90 registered parties and the ballot paper was long as toilet roll.

There was a reason why FEDECO made registration criteria stringent in 1978. The country had just adopted the presidential system of government. Unlike in the First Republic when parties were content to be based in their home regions and then form alliances, you need this thing called “spread” to win a presidential election, i.e. a quarter of the votes in at least two thirds of the states, which is 24 states today. We still have many briefcase political parties in Nigeria today but their purpose is not to win election; it is to sell their tickets to disgruntled defectors who lose the nominations of major parties.

So, we ended up in this Republic with fairly large political parties with roots planted in many or most states. For most of the life of the Fourth Republic, the largest party by far was PDP. Since 2015, APC has become even larger than PDP. Both parties at one time or the other controlled three quarters of all state governments. Other parties that made appreciable impact in this Republic were ANPP [which in 1999 won 9 state governorships], AD [which captured 6 state governorships in 1999] and ACN [which, through the agency of courts, had 5 state governors at one time]. The only other parties that ever won governorship polls in this Republic were APGA [Anambra and Imo], Labour Party [Ondo] and Orji Uzor Kalu’s Progressive Peoples Alliance [PPA], which won Abia and Imo governorships in 2007 before Governors Theodore Orji and Ikedi Ohakim defected to PDP.

How does a Nigerian political party ensure “spread”? Since 1978, there were two ways in which it could be done. One method is to have an overwhelming political figure as party leader. Once Chief Obafemi Awolowo was announced as UPN’s founder in 1978, it immediately gained strong structures in the old West and other areas where Action Group was once strong, e.g. southern Gongola State. Once Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was lured into NPP in 1978, it overnight gained deep structures in the old East. The same thing with PRP leader Malam Aminu Kano, which gained for the party instant structures in Kano and Kaduna States and in other areas where NEPU was once strong.

This method was repeated in 2011 when, due to General Muhammadu Buhari’s towering political stature, CPC that he floated instantly gained structures all over the North as ambitious politicians scrambled to ride to power on his apron strings. The problem with that arrangement, however, was that it brought instant structures as well as limitations because each of those giant political figures was abhorred in some areas. Just as with Zik, Awo and Aminu Kano, Buhari’s personal popularity came with regional limitations, and CPC had almost no presence in the South and parts of the Middle Belt. It ameliorated that by merging with ANPP and AC in 2013.

NPN and GNPP took a different tack. The first time NPN held its Protem Exco meeting in late 1978, it announced Alhaji Aliyu Makaman Bidda as its Protem National Chairman. He was a big First Republic political figure, Second Deputy President General of NPC, but he was politically less overwhelming than Zik, Awo or Aminu Kano. However, NPN followed up by reeling out a list of nearly 200 of its prominent members all over the country. It was a very intimidating list and its contained prominent political and technocratic elite figures from every corner of Nigeria. The first time I saw it, I thought NPN would win the 1979 elections. Overnight, NPN had a strong party branch in every state and every Local Government while other parties struggled to get a foothold in many areas. GNPP too tried the alliance option, much less successfully, especially when Uncle Waziri Ibrahim refused to surrender to Zik one of the two top offices of either National Chairman or presidential candidate, leading to the party’s split into NPP and GNPP.

Now, in 2003, when INEC registered UNPP and NDP, the two of them immediately held national conventions and nominated Chief Jim Nwobodo and General Ike Nwachukwu respectively as their presidential candidates. They were soon running around holding presidential campaign rallies and press events. Yet, they had no functional offices or executive officers in most states, or even governorship, senatorial, House of Reps or state assembly candidates. One UNPP member told me at the time that he stood up at a party meeting and said, “We are only talking about Presidency. Why can’t we have candidates for other offices?” He was shouted down!

It was not an idle question. To the extent that all registered political parties in Nigeria have no ideological orientation to speak of [except PRP], they win or lose elections entirely based on their ability to “mobilise” voters by other means. To win a wide election such as governorship or presidential, a party needs to pinch votes from every corner of the state or the country, in addition to getting overwhelming votes in its strongholds. That is where structures come in. Most Nigerian voters do not care a hoot about ideology, program or manifesto, or even promises made on the hustings. They are mobilized to vote in a particular way by someone, a kinsman, friend, in-law, respected cleric, benefactor, traditional ruler or more remotely by a regional, ethnic or religious champion. Prevailing socio-economic conditions and performance of incumbents matters, especially to middle class voters.

If your party has functional and dedicated executives at every level, and also has candidates for all other offices, you expect each and every one of them to mobilise his kinsmen, friends, in-laws and everyone else who ever benefitted from him in terms of rent payment, school fees, hospital fees, Sallah ram, support for wedding etc. to vote for the party’s candidates. Thus, if a presidential candidate appears to be resting during this break period, he is still campaigning because every wedding ceremony that his “structures” attend, every condolence visit that they pay, every money that they hand out in support of a medical bill and every “prayer session” that they hold after which officiating clerics are settled, is a campaign.

The biggest new phenomenon in this election circle was the entry of Peter Obi into Labour Party, which instantly energized it, especially with the help of social media, and made it an important contender in the race. So also is Rabi’u Kwankwaso’s entry into NNPP, making it an important contender. This is the charismatic leadership strategy of the Zik/Awo/Aminu Kano/Buhari mould, which previously was never enough to win a presidential election. Conglomeration of disparate political figures from all over the country such as in APC and PDP could be cumbersome and even troublesome, but it is their kind of “structure,” pinching votes here and there across divides, that has always won elections. We will see if 2023 is different.

– Jega is a newspaper columnist and public affairs analyst

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