Party primaries and outsized influence of money

‘Given the massive corruption busting responsibilities these two anti-graft agencies have in front of them already, expecting them to effectively monitor and prevent illicit financial flows across the 36 states in the political season would be a tall order. However, the anti-graft institutions could decide to beam the searchlight on some major aspects of the political terrain’

DEMOCRACY according to the universally acclaimed definition, is the government of the people, for the people, and by the people. This apt definition paints the ideal picture of the people at the grassroots wielding the most fundamental levers of the democratic process and deploying it to choose the government, which will in turn work towards the realisation of the aspirations of the people. Not much is said in the definition about how the democratic process should be funded. However, looking at examples from the bastions of world democracy, it is apparent that the funding is diffused in such a way that dark and dirty money is as much as possible prevented from undermining the will of the people. 

In the United States for instance where Nigeria borrowed its current cash guzzling presidential system, a huge deal of money gets swallowed up in the election contests. There are however rules, thresholds and accountability mechanisms, which limit the overweening influence of dark and dirty money. In those bastions of democracy, the reality is that it is not all spic and span when it comes to the use of money to influence the electoral process. However, the beauty of the system in the well-established democracies is that popular candidates without trailer loads of money in their bank accounts can still come out, dare the odds and win.

Since Nigeria is attempting to model its democracy alongside what obtains in the saner democratic climes, it is only logical that the character of its electoral process would come under intense scrutiny. The tricky question of how money is generated to fund political aspirations in Nigeria is occupying a place of prominence in the conversation as momentum builds towards Nigeria’s 2023 general elections. With political activities picking up pace, what many describe as the opaque and grotesque realities of Nigeria’s politics are emerging in the nature of funding for the party primaries. Going by the combined provisions of the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act, 2022, the political parties are the only legally permitted vehicles through which political aspirants can seek the mandate of the electorate. 

As such, one of the responsibilities of the political parties is to produce flagbearers through democratic primaries. These candidates produced by the parties would then go on to contest for positions in the general elections. As the primary season in the build up to 2023 takes shape, pro-democracy campaigners are expressing outrage over the outsized influence of money. Fears are rife that even at the stage of the primary contest the huge amounts being mentioned as nomination and expression of interest fees could effectively rig the process by translating it to an exclusive contest of money bags, while shutting out genuine contenders with the ideas and capacity to change the face of governance. It was the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which stirred the hornet’s nest, when it made the controversial decision to peg the total cost of nomination and expression of interest forms for presidential aspirants at a whooping sum of N100million. On its part, the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) put the cost of its own expression of interest and nomination for presidential aspirants at a staggering N40million. 

As expected, these sums as decided by the two major political parties have attracted intense scrutiny from a broad spectrum of stakeholders and observers in the polity. In the first place, there are analysts, who have stridently condemned the APC and PDP, just as they canvassed the argument that the high cost of nomination is a manifestation of ongoing unbridled corruption in government. The canvassers of this position have also described the imposition of such high fees as a recipe for corruption in government. The crux of the argument of those flaying the dominant parties is that only corrupt public office holders, who have access to the public treasury and have plundered the nation’s resources, would be able to come up with such a huge amount. Those in support of this line of thought also asserts that aspirants expending such massive amount to purchase forms for primary contests, which they are not even sure of winning, are individuals, who have most likely not earned their incomes through legitimate sources. 

To buttress the point, those who hold this view have pointed out that a quick scan of the primary field indicates that the purchasers of the party nomination fees are mostly government officials with access to public funds, who most likely have fleeced the said amounts from public coffers. They specifically make the point that even those who claim the monies for the forms were raised for them by supporters, have no evidence of how and when the funds were raised. Latching on to this position, several anti-corruption activists have taken matters into their own hands by approaching the anti-corruption agencies with petitions, calling for comprehensive probes of the sources of the monies with which the political aspirants are paying for what they described as overpriced party forms.

On the flipside however, there is the group of commentators on the issue, whose first line of defense is that the issue of the cost of nomination is an internal party affair, which does not concern those who are not members of the party. Those in this camp of supporters of the current nomination fees claim the amounts are reasonable, and have gone on to describe critics of the fees as meddlesome interlopers, who should rather focus on what is happening within their own parties, instead of being overly interested in what is happening within parties that they (the critics) are not members of. Protagonists of this view have gone on to state that the rationale for the high fee, is to ensure the parties involved rake in enough funds to support their candidates in the general elections. There are commentators who have also lauded the political parties for showing that the race for the presidential tickets is for the serious minded. On the basis of this thinking, the position is that the high cost of the nomination alone is a first step to clearing the field of pretenders by discouraging aspirants who do not have what it takes to play in a field that requires massive amounts of financial resources.

On the whole, the debate on the high cost of nomination brings to the fore some of the fundamental flaws inherent in Nigeria’s political system. Many analysts have pointed to the fact that Nigeria practices a cash-guzzling American style democratic system. Funding the electoral process is quite expensive and even the electioneering processes would require massive amounts of financial resources to run effectively. It is for this reason the new Electoral Act did an upward review of the campaign finance thresholds. Section 88 of the recently signed Electoral Act places a limit on the expenses a candidate can incur in a Presidential election. Sub (2) of the Act makes it clear that election expenditure by a candidate in a Presidential election shall not exceed N5bn. It is pertinent to state in the 2010 Electoral Act, the amount approved was N1billion. For governorship election, the threshold for financial expenditure as stipulated by the Act is N1bn. For senatorial and House of Representatives candidates, the threshold is N100m and N70m respectively. 

Apart from the fact that the Electoral Act has stipulated the threshold for all categories of political candidates, it has also imposed reporting obligations. Both candidates and political parties are required to hand in audited reports of their expenditures to the Commission. Ordinarily, the campaign finance monitoring role of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would become a critical function in discouraging dark and excessive role of money in the electoral process. So far, it appears the Commission is not so keen on that part of its mandate; as many in civil society have advocated, the onus is now on the anti-corruption agencies to preemptively keep a close watch on where the monies for the excessive cost of nomination forms are coming from. In the eyes of many citizens tired of the debilitating effects of corruption in the polity and the electoral process, the roles of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC) will prove critical in the coming days.

Given the massive corruption busting responsibilities these two anti-graft agencies have in front of them already, expecting them to effectively monitor and prevent illicit financial flows across the 36 states in the political season would be a tall order. However, the anti-graft institutions could decide to beam the searchlight on some major aspects of the political terrain. That way, there will be some deterrence, and the electioneering will not become a bazaar in which the supreme democratic wishes and aspirations of the people will be grossly undermined.    

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