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Understanding Nigeria’s Weak Party System by Ladipo Adamolekun


After five election cycles (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015), Nigeria’s party system has remained fundamentally weak.  Strong evidence of this weakness is provided by the current inchoate state of the two major parties, the All Progressive Congress (APC) that controls the federal government and twenty-three of the thirty-six states and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that ruled at the centre from 1999 to 2015 and controls twelve states.  Besides the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) that controls one state government, all the other 65 registered parties (27 of them were registered in 2017) largely exist only on paper, notwithstanding the requirements for effective national spread prescribed in Part III, D of the 1999 Constitution.

Cross section of Former Political Office holders in the State Box during the 2017 PDP National Convention at the Eagle Square, Abuja. Photo by Abayomi Adeshida 10/12/2017

Uninterrupted nation-wide supremacy

The PDP that enjoyed sixteen years of uninterrupted nation-wide supremacy – it ruled at the centre and in a majority of the thirty-six States – only recently managed to resolve its leadership crisis after over one year of a vicious struggle between two warring factions. Strikingly, its opposition politics at the federal level is ineffectual: its top leaders in the National Assembly (NASS) are “eating” at the table with their APC colleagues in a chop-and-I-chop coalition that is absent in the executive arm of government. The majority APC in power at the centre since June 2015 has been bafflingly tentative in its exercise of executive power and executive-legislative relations are the least coherent since 1999.  Thus, far from a “check and balance” role, the informal APC/PDP coalition leadership in NASS conducts business from time to time as an opposition to the executive. This disconnect between the APC “majority” in NASS and the APC that controls the executive at the federal level has undermined the party to the point that it has continued to procrastinate holding its mandatory convention.

In my considered opinion, Nigeria’s weak party system is due to four key factors: a long period of military rule, change from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government, restrictive and over-detailed provisions on political parties in the 1999 Constitution, and a political class that lives off politics. I will draw attention to some interconnections among these explanatory factors and conclude by proffering some remedial measures.

  1. Military rule stunted the growth of political parties

Political parties were proscribed throughout close to three decades of military rule between 1966 and 1999 with the exception of military president Babangida who baulked the trend of his predecessors. He created two artificial political parties – Social Democratic Party (SDP), a little to the left, and National Republican Congress (NRC), a little to the right – as government parastatals with the government financing party secretariats across the country.  However, his charade was exposed when he annulled the widely-acknowledged free and fair presidential election won by M. K. O. Abiola in June 1993.

Although the pre-military political parties could not contest the elections that ushered in a four-year civilian interlude between 1979 and 1983, three of the four strong parties that emerged in 1978 were re-incarnations of region-based parties of the pre-military era: Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was the old Action Group (AG) in Western Nigeria; the Nigeria People’s Party (NPP) was the old National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in Eastern Nigeria; and the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) was the old Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) in Northern Nigeria.  Only the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that emerged as the successor to the old Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) – the dominant party in the North in the pre-military era – attracted some key figures of the old AG and NCNC, thereby gaining the semblance of a strong national political organization. The re-incarnation was underscored by the continuity of three of the pre-military era leaders: Obafemi Awolowo (AG), Nnamdi Azikiwe (NCNC) and Aminu Kano (NEPU) at the head of UPN, NPP and PRP respectively. The NPN had a new leader (Adisa Akinloye) because the pre-military era leader (Ahmadu Bello) was killed during the 1966 January coup d’état.

The undisputable consequence of the long years of no-party military rule was a political landscape characterised by the salient features of military culture: authoritarianism, arbitrariness, centralism, uniformity, and rule by diktats, all linked to the military’s total reliance on the legitimacy of the gun and a unitary command structure. In contrast, the pre-military political landscape was characterised by a devolved federal system, electoral competition, and, to a considerable extent, the rule of law. Furthermore, there was strong evidence of citizen mobilization for political participation.  For example, from my late teens to early adulthood, I was a participant-observer of a remarkable degree of mobilization of citizens for political participation in both urban centres and in rural areas. Specifically, I was an active participant in the activities of the youth wing of the Action Group, one of the three major political parties during the immediate years preceding the advent of military rule in 1966.

Because the return of the characteristics of the pre-1966 political landscape was short-lived – a little over five years between 1978 and 1983 – very many members of the political class that emerged in 1998/1999 (approximately all those that were born after 1950) had no experience of the effective political mobilization of citizens during the pre-1966 era.  The long years of military rule ensured that the apprenticeship that younger civilian politicians would have had to democratic politics in general, and party organization and management in particular, under the “masters” did not take place. I would add that the high comfort level of the majority of today’s politicians across parties with over-centralisation of power and resources at the federal level is due largely to their neglect of the appropriate lessons from the developmental leaps recorded by their predecessors during the pre-1966 years of a devolved federal system.  And I would argue that this is the major explanation for the failure of the National Assembly to agree on provisions that would reduce the prevailing over-centralization of powers and resources among their proposed constitutional amendments that State Houses of Assembly are currently reviewing.

  1. Impact of change from parliamentary to presidential system on political parties

In a British-style parliamentary system that Nigeria operated in the pre-military era, the emphasis is on the exercise of political authority by the majority party in parliament. The leader of the majority party who is the head of government (called Prime Minister, PM) is an elected member of parliament (MP) representing a constituency in the same manner as all the other MPs. The accountability of the PM and his/her cabinet (all selected from the party’s MPs) to parliament means that serious attention is paid to discipline among MPs in the majority party who know that a new election would be necessary if their party in government were to fail on a crucial parliamentary vote such as the budget vote or a vote on a motion of no confidence moved by the opposition party. In these circumstances, the good health of political parties is the business of both the leaders and rank and file party members in parliament.

In contrast to the centrality of political parties in a parliamentary system, the president whose election is based on the entire nation as his/her constituency is the central player in the US-style presidential system that we adopted in the 1979 Constitution and maintained in the 1999 Constitution. His cabinet members are selected from outside the legislative body (called Congress – House of Representatives and Senate) and any member of Congress appointed into the cabinet must resign his membership of the body.  The emphasis is on the exercise of political authority by the president; the buck stops at his table and he is solely accountable for the exercise of executive power.  Although the division between majority and minority party is important in the Congress that performs the oversight role (including the power to remove the president through an impeachment vote), it is common to have situations of “divided” government when the president’s party is in a minority in one or both parts of Congress (the House and Senate).  In these circumstances, the role of parties is not emphasized and parties in presidential systems are generally weaker than parties in parliamentary systems.

A recent illustration of the weak party system in the USA is Mr. Donald Trump’s ability to literally hi-jack the Republican Party and win the presidential election in 2016. Between 1987 and 2012, he was a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat for varying periods. And he had re-joined the Republican party for barely four years when he won the party’s nomination to contest the 2016 presidential election that he won.  So, continued maintenance of a presidential system of government would mean acceptance of a party system that would not be as strong as that in a parliamentary system of government.

  1. Restrictive and over-detailed constitutional provisions on political parties

Several of the provisions on political parties in the 1999 Constitution are directly linked to our former military rulers’ mind-set on how best to promote the unity of the country.  Specifically, a few were directly inspired by the model of military president Babangida who created two artificial political parties as government-owned parastals with each having government-financed headquarters in every state of the federation.  For example, Article 222 (e) prohibits the creation of political parties that “are confined to a part only of the geographical area of Nigeria”.  While this provision is faithful to Babangida’s model of mandatory nation-wide parties, it is incontestable that the financial implications is a major explanation for the pronounced monetization of politics in the country.  The detailed constitutional provisions on party finance – Articles 225, 226 and 228, (c) – are more appropriate in the Electoral Law than in a Constitution. (Significant parts of Article 222 are also inappropriate in a Constitution). Strikingly, political parties are not mentioned in the US Constitution!

Obligation of nation-wide parties

It is important to stress that after nineteen years the obligation of nation-wide parties has not manifestly promoted national unity. Indeed, invocation of “federal character” (relating to the constitution and rules of a political party (Article 223) has emerged as a key factor of discord in the two parties that have ruled at the centre since 1999. The contrasting experiences of Canada and India are instructive: state-based and province-based parties that co-exist with nation-wide parties have contributed significantly to national economic development whilst they form alliances with other like-minded parties to compete for the exercise of political authority at the centre.  Even the separatist-oriented provincial party in Quebec has been kept within the Canadian federation through measures that make continued membership of a united Canada more attractive than separation.

Finally, the fact that sixty-eight (68) political parties had been registered by December 2017 is evidence of considerable elasticity in the interpretation of associations that meet the criteria of nation-wide spread required by Article 222 of the Constitution. Of the four dozen or so parties that qualified to contest during the 2015 election cycle, only three (3) produced members in the 8th National Assembly (2015-2019): APC, PDP and APGA.  And with only four members in NASS, all from the South-east geopolitical zone, APGA is no more than a zonal party.  Therefore, it would be correct to assert that the majority of today’s 68 parties are fictitious. Does it make sense to continue to maintain this fiction?  Or would the combination of nation-wide and state-based and zone-based parties be more appropriate in the Nigerian milieu?

Professor Ladipo Adamolekun writes from Iju, Akure North, Ondo State.


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