Postscript by Waziri Adio
President Muhammadu Buhari injected some oomph into the already charged political terrain on Tuesday. At a meeting with governors of the states controlled by the All Progressives Congress (APC), he renounced the disinterested impression he gave five months earlier and confirmed what many had always suspected: that, as a departing president, he will fancy the privilege of determining who flies the flag of his party in the 2023 general election. And he did it in a scripted way. He delivered a cryptic and teasing speech, one that was studded with copious hints that winked simultaneously in different directions.
As if that is not enough drama, the president cranked up the suspense by flashing a to-be-continued card. Then, he jetted out of the country for a few days, returned, then flew out again. This is tease artistry in vintage form. The country is literally waiting on his decision. Lovers of high-octane political drama are salivating noisily for the next episode of this evolving and engrossing drama. Pundits are scrubbing the speech for definitive clues and journos are furiously working their sources. Governors and party leaders are holding endless and inconclusive meetings. And some aspirants and their supporters are joyfully inserting themselves into the expansive arc sketched by the president.
It is not inconceivable that the president had made up his mind a while back but prefers, for whatever reasons, the last-minute approach. Eventually, the sell-by date of the suspense game will lapse; and the president’s choice will be announced or whispered to the governors and other party grandees. The last-minute approach may or may not end up as a genius move. The widely-held assumption is that the outcome of the APC convention will be a foregone conclusion once the president unveils his preferred aspirant. That assumption may hold, and it may not. Precisely because politics is the art of the possible, there is no 100 percent guarantee in this game. There are many ways in which things can pan out at the APC convention billed to start tomorrow. Here, I will highlight four such scenarios.
The first scenario is that all the other power centres in the party dutifully line up behind the president’s choice. This is the consensus option. This means that not only do the governors and godfathers concede to the president the right to choose the party’s flagbearer but also that all the other cleared aspirants will withdraw from the race and endorse the consensus candidate in writing as required by Section 84 (9) of the Electoral Act 2022. In this case, the convention will just be to fulfil all righteousness: to ratify the choice of the consensus candidate.
There are many reasons to suggest this is APC’s preferred option. Most of the members of its national leadership emerged by consensus at the national convention held just a little over two months ago. There were reports that aspirants were asked to sign and submit prior letters of withdrawal with their nomination forms, possibly as part of a plot to engineer consensus. The chairman of the APC screening committee, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, also disclosed on Friday when he submitted his committee’s report that all screened aspirants were asked about their views on the consensus option.
However, this option will fly only if the president’s choice squares firmly with the preference of the governors and the other godfathers in the party and the other cleared aspirants decide or are persuaded not to call for an actual vote. If the president and the party are able to pull this off (and this is a big if), this will be the best-case scenario for the ruling party: the president will have his way and the party can head into the general election as a united and formidable family. But given that at least one of the frontline aspirants is unlikely to step down if he is not the president’s choice or not asked to nominate someone else, the consensus option is unlikely to happen.
This nicely leads to the second scenario, which can be called the modified consensus option. Here, the party’s flagbearer will be determined through an open contest because the formal conditions for consensus stipulated in the electoral act cannot be met. But the outcome will be predictable. And the outcome will be predictable because the president would have been able to line up a majority of the delegates for his preferred aspirant. This means that the party will opt for indirect primaries as direct primaries cannot be conducted before expiration of the extended deadline. But the broad consensus that would have emerged prior to the commencement of voting at the convention cannot be overcome by any challenger.
This scenario is achievable if the president focuses his energy on building a winning coalition behind his preferred aspirant rather than pursuing formal consensus, and if he succeeds in getting most of the governors and the godfathers to concede to him the right to be the sole determiner of the party’s flagbearer. In this case, the election becomes a mere formality, a cake-walk for the president’s anointed. For this option to work, the president will need to pick someone who is broadly acceptable and he needs to disclose his preference on time and be ready to put all his political capital behind the person until the votes are tallied.
This option is viable but not risk-free. The outcome of the contest is likely to leave at least one of the challengers bruised, which poses a major risk to the party in the general election, especially if the bruised challenger is someone with a base and structure robust enough to tilt outcome in the general election. But this risk will be easier to manage if the contest within the party is open and fair and if the party invests sincerely and heavily in post-primaries fence-mending. Time will be another challenge for building such a broad pre-primaries consensus. There is a possibility that some key stakeholders might be unable to get of out prior commitments that may be at variance with the president’s preference. Another risk to this form of consensus-building is that there are many and sometimes irreconcilable interests at play, ranging from the regional to the personal. That said, the few days left, if judiciously and mindfully utilised, are enough to put in place robust risk-mitigation strategies.
The third scenario can be called the forced preference. Here, the president leverages the enormous weight of presidential powers and state apparatus to force his will on his party. In this case, it would not matter if the anointed is unpopular or is unacceptable to most or a significant section of APC’s critical stakeholders. Also, it would not matter that some of the aspirants are unwilling to step down. All means, fair and foul, may be deployed to make the president get his way. Such means could include not clearing some aspirants on criteria outside of the ones stipulated in sections 137 of the 1999 Constitution and 84(3) of the Electoral Act 2022, releasing some stinkers about unwanted or difficult aspirants, putting enforcement agencies on their tail and even blocking them from leaving their houses or from accessing the venue of the event, doctoring the delegates’ lists, and making the voting pattern traceable to hint at possible repercussions.
There will be enough national and state-level playbooks to guide a resort to such naked display of power and there will be enough advocates for it, even among the ranks of aspirants. But it is laden with risks. Some of the underhand tactics may be successfully challenged in court, may make the party deeply fragmented and more vulnerable, and should worry all those interested in free and fair general election next year. My sense is that President Buhari will not tow this path.
The fourth scenario is the defeated preference. This is where the president fails to get his way, with his anointed defeated, even if narrowly, in an open contest at the convention. This scenario is possible in different ways but we can narrow down to three: the challenger gets a majority of the votes because he has secured the backing of the states with the highest delegates and a significant spread in the 22 states controlled by APC and the 14 states not controlled by the party; a challenger wins narrowly in a crowded field by securing the highest number of votes but not the majority of votes because the method adopted is the first-past-the-vote; and a challenger defeats the anointed aspirant in a two-way race by securing the tacit support of other significant power blocs on need for equity and through deft management of interests.
This scenario can play out for a number of reasons: one, because the president failed to declare his preference on time and thus left it too late for his endorsement to count; two, because the president for so long did not get involved in party affairs unlike his only other term-barred predecessor, and this left the field wide open to others more politically involved to project influence and secure binding loyalties in different parts of the country; and three, because the national working committee of the party, largely installed by the president, is less than three months old on the saddle, and not rooted enough to enforce the will of the president.
But this scenario is a very problematic one for the party. The flagbearer’s victory may end up being pyrrhic. The president loses face for being unable to see his preference through. A bruised president is worse than a bruised aspirant, especially when that president is the party’s main electoral asset, its 12-million vote machine. If this scenario sails through, also a big if, the party has extra work on its hands, and a lot will depend on the disposition of the president. Will he brush aside the disappointment, revert to the father-of-all persona and rally his party behind the flagbearer he didn’t prefer or will he become more detached and leave the flagbearer and the party to their devices?