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Political parties and democracy in Nigeria

30 July 2006 at 22:58 | 579 views

"Nigerian parties have a wide range of techniques to eliminate people from party primaries, including the use of power by powerful ‘party owners’, party barons, state governors, godfathers and so on; zoning and other forms of administrative fiat; violence by thugs or security personnel; bribing of officials and voters to support particular candidates; and simply disregard for the results declaring the loser as the winner."

By Jibrin Ibrahim, Fabian Okoye and Tom Adambara

Political parties are indispensable for making democracy work and deliver. Finding the proper conditions for better internal functioning and effective legal regulation of political parties is of key importance anywhere.

This report is a result of world-wide research and dialogue with political parties as part of International IDEA’s Political Parties’ programme, where International IDEA is working with national and regional research partners to improve insight and comparative knowledge. The purpose is to provide for constructive public debate and reform actions helping political parties to develop.

Political parties researched: Alliance for Democracy; All Nigeria Peoples Party; All Progressives Grand Alliance; and Peoples Democratic Party.


Nigeria currently has 33 registered political parties. Some 24 of them were registered just before the 2003 elections, while three were registered in February 2006 after the completion of the research. Most of them are very small and have little impact on the political process. The four parties chosen for this report were selected because they won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the 2003 elections. The desk study phase on the country context and external regulation of political parties drew on an analysis of the country’s constitution and laws, as well as published sources. Unpublished materials-such as party documents, newspaper reports and mimeographs-were also consulted.

Interviews were held with paid, full-time party officials at the party secretariats. The interview process on the internal functioning of the political parties was difficult and time-consuming, since all four parties underwent periods of internal crisis during the research period. Indeed, some of the party offices were closed and under police protection, or were occupied by one faction of the party. The situation improved by April 2005, however, and it was then possible to administer the questionnaires with the help of party staff at their secretariats.


Nigeria is a federation of 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. It has a presidential system of government with an executive President, a judiciary and a bicameral National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) whose members are elected. Political crisis during the First Republic led to intervention by the armed forces and a civil war between 1967 and 1970. It also led to 30 years of military rule, except for the four-year period between 1979 and 1983. In 1999, the military government organized general elections and President Olusegun Obasanjo thereafter took office.

The last general elections were in April 2003. The next are scheduled for 2007, because those elected at the state and federal levels have a four-year tenure, with a maximum of two terms for the executive. The human rights situation has improved relative to the period of military rule, but there are still several human rights violations. The population lives in profound poverty, largely due to mismanagement of the economy and widespread corruption. In Transparency International’s last report, Nigeria was ranked sixth from last on the organization’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI).

The ruling party is the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose winner-takes-all outlook, coupled to the authoritarian tendencies of incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo, pose a threat to the country’s democracy. Stability is also threatened by communal clashes, as well as violent insurgencies in many parts of the country.

Nigeria’s first general elections were held in 1960 when the British colonial authorities were preparing to hand over power to a local political leadership under the parliamentary system of government. The second general elections in 1964 were marked by boycotts in many areas. This led to the end of the First Republic in January 1966 and a military takeover of power. The armed forces ceded power to civilians in 1979 under the leadership of President Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Widespread electoral irregularities and other malpractices, however, were decried by opposition parties, as well as by civil society following the 1983 elections. This led to another military takeover in December 1983.

The military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida organised elections in 1992. The elections were inconclusive, however, because the result of the presidential election was annulled just before the vote-counting was completed. A new election was held by General Sani Abacha in 1997, but these too were inconclusive. General Abdulsami Abubakar, who succeeded Sani Abacha, organised the elections that brought the present incumbent, President Obasanjo, into power. President Obasanjo presided over the last general elections in April 2003. Both elections have been generally acknowledged by the opposition parties, civil society, and local and international observers as beset by large-scale irregularities.

During the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida (1985-1993), an eight-year transition programme began. General Babangida went further than the earlier regime in the regulation of political parties, decreeing that only two political parties would be registered. He instructed politicians to choose one of these parties as the platform for the attainment of their political ambitions. His government also wrote the parties’ constitutions, funded them and built offices for them throughout the country.

General Sani Abacha, who succeeded Babangida, registered five political parties. Remarkably, he induced all five parties to adopt him as their sole presidential candidate, but he died shortly thereafter. He was succeeded by General Abdulsalami, who registered three political parties and organized general elections that led to the election of General Obasanjo in 1999.

On the Freedom House World Country Ratings, Nigeria is classified as partly free in terms of political rights and civil liberties. This rating has been unchanged for the past five years.

Regulatory framework

Sections 221-229 of the 1999 constitution make elaborate provision for the registration, functioning, conduct and finances of political parties setting difficult conditions for the registration of political parties. As a result, only three parties were registered to contest the 1999 elections. This was partly because the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the country’s election management body, imposed conditions for registration that were more stringent than the provisions of the constitution. The Electoral Act was later amended and the procedure for registering parties was liberalised somewhat. Nonetheless, Nigeria retains a very illiberal regulatory regime for the registration and functioning of political parties.

The effect of these conditions is that parties that emerge must be very big, very rich and have the capacity to bring together money-wielding forces from different parts of the country. In effect, the major factor in party formation is not the aggregation of people with similar ideologies or interests but the establishment of ethnic coalitions led by regional barons with strong financial backing.

Internal functioning and structure

Election of leadership

The most important aspect of the parties’ internal functioning is that the regulatory framework outlined above tends to give rise to a situation in which political ‘godfathers’ play a major role in internal party politics. Parties have formal procedures for the election of their leaders but these procedures are often disregarded; when they are adhered to, the godfathers have means of determining the outcomes.

At the party congresses, leaders are elected and candidates are nominated for elective positions. The elections, however, are usually pre-determined and party bosses tend to have the final say in the selection of leaders. This process leads to the continual internal party crisis that the country has experienced. Party bosses or godfathers are unwilling to allow internal party democracy, a circumstance that leads to frequent conflicts and constrains the development of parties as popular organizations. Indeed, over the years these party bosses have developed comprehensive techniques for eliminating popular aspirants from party posts and for preventing them from being nominated for elective positions.

Techniques for the elimination of popular aspirants

Nigerian parties have a wide range of techniques to eliminate people from party primaries, including the use of power by powerful ‘party owners’, party barons, state governors, godfathers and so on; zoning and other forms of administrative fiat; violence by thugs or security personnel; bribing of officials and voters to support particular candidates; and simply disregard for the results declaring the loser as the winner

Policy development

Given this history, policy development tends to be disarticulated from policy implementation. While formal party structures such as the National Conventions and the National Executive Council have responsibility for policy formulation, the policies that get implemented in practice tend to reflect the desires of godfathers rather than formal party organs. Given this context, Nigerian party life is characterised by a very low level of debate on policy options and by members that are only active during election periods. There is urgent need for Nigerian parties to prioritise the issue of policy development.


Parties are partly funded by the state. The regulatory framework requires that parties prepare regular audited financial reports. Most party funds, however, come through party financiers and the details of these sums rarely enter the formal process of party accounts. Indeed, the role of money in contemporary Nigerian politics is so overwhelming that it tends to supersede other considerations. Precisely for this reason, the country’s political parties provide only very limited opportunities for marginalised individuals-youths, the poor and women.

Marginalization of women in politics

The marginalisation of women from political power in Nigeria’s patriarchal political system dates back to the colonial era, and women were not allowed to vote in Northern Nigeria until 1976. This marginalization has continued into the Fourth Republic. Of the 11,881 electable positions available during the 1999 elections, only 631 women were in contention. Only 181 of them won (a mere 1.62 per cent of the total positions).

Following the political party primaries for candidates in the 2003 elections, it became evident that the elimination of women through a well-orchestrated process of manipulating the outcome of most primaries was virtually party policy across the board. Indeed, the primaries were a charade because most popular candidates-female and male-were eliminated by party barons and replaced by other candidates who enjoyed the support of state and party executives. Studies of 15 female political aspirants reveal the following means of marginalizing women.

The indigeneity ploy

The 1979 constitution introduced the concept of ‘indigeneity’ into Nigerian public law to guarantee a fair regional distribution of power. Over the years, the principle has been subverted to discriminate against Nigerian citizens who are not indigenous to the places where they live and work. Women married to men who are non-indigenes of their local governments suffer discrimination. In their own constituencies, they are told that by marrying out, they have lost their indigeneity. In their husband’s constituency, they are told they do not really belong because indigeneity is based on the consanguinity principle.

Challenges and opportunities

Nigerian political parties were conceived to be cohesive, national bourgeois parties. Nonetheless, the aim or political project of most Nigerian parties has been the development of a national system for sharing out the ‘national cake’ as a system of patronage. This is why the parties are established as coalitions of various factions of regional and economic rent-seekers. Most party leaders see their political party activity as a means to further their business interests.

Nigerian political parties face two challenges. First, an extremely high level of corruption has made politics a competitive business. Second, the regulatory framework for the establishment of parties should be changed so that new parties do not have to forge coalitions of the wealthy as a basis for their registration.

About International IDEA

Founded in 1995, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) is an intergovernmental organisation that seeks to promote and develop sustainable democracy world-wide.

About CDD

The Centre for Democracy and Development is a non-governmental organisation which aims to promote the values of democracy, peace & human rights in Africa and especially in the West African sub-region.

*Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, is Principal Researcher at the Centre for Democracy and Development; Fabian Okoye and Tom Adambara are Research Assistants at Global Rights.

Source: Pambazuka News

Photo: President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria