News filtered out recently that Senator Abba Moro from Benue State, who was once a powerful Minister for the Interior under whose supervision there was a scandal about employment into the Nigerian Immigration Service happened – sponsored a bill for independence candidacy to add some flavor to Nigeria’s political space. It looks likely that the idea will scale through this time, and Moro will be the unlikely hero if that happens. Many democratic romantics – especially those who like utopian ideas and hardly get close enough to know how politics work – are very much taken by the idea of independent candidature in Nigeria. These are the people who disdain every political party in Nigeria and call all politicians terrible names. They believe that ‘good’ people (otherwise interpreted as disconnected folks with their brains in the skies – should contest for elective positions as independents, with no affiliation to anyone.
Historically, the idea of independent candidature in our type of presidential democracy has always been around. In fact, before political parties came to the forefront of the democratic process as a way of coalescing the democratic efforts of people in society, most of those who ran for elections did so as independents. George Washington, America’s first president, was an independent in 1789. But he remains the only person who has won the presidency as one. As time wore on, democratic politics evolved into a game for the supremacy of political parties as people found out that for better reach, they’d rather work with others than be lone wolves. The idea of independent candidacy has therefore only been marginally successful; it fails almost 100% of the time when deployed across large populations and spatial diversification. Recent successes include a young Member of Parliament in Kenya who borrowed the bicycle with which he ran his campaign, and won. The American experience has been less salutary; Billionaire Ross Perot gave it arguably the best shot in 1992 and 1996. Later on, Ralph Nader ran for presidency in the US, scoring just 3% of the votes. A certain George Wallace had run in 1968, getting 14% of the votes. Also John B. Anderson ran in 1980, scoring 7% of popular votes.
The problem with independent candidacy is that simplicita, one person steps up to the electoral parties and informs the electoral umpire (INEC in this instance), that he, alone, is equivalent to a political party. Such a person must be a phenomenon whether in his local area, state, or nationally. Now, how does the umpire go about confirming that indeed this person is a phenomenon; well-known and well-loved in society, such that every Tope, Diala and Halima does not throng the ballot paper and lead to a proliferation of contestants (after all everybody thinks they are important, especially in our dear country Nigeria where civilians have started slapping policemen for fun).
Therefore, for the process to work, the umpire asks for signatures from x number of people. INEC could look at the average number of votes it takes to win historically and ask for genuine signatures numbering a sizable percentage of those votes. So, let’s say it takes 10,000 votes to win elections into the House of Reps in a particular constituency, INEC could call for say 5,000 signatures to be sure that this person even stands a chance. The electoral body could also call for 10,000. It depends on how the law is crafted and whether all the parties involved (INEC and the legislature) have done their research. Otherwise, there will be confusion. Agreeing on the number of signatures is the first hurdle. At the presidential level for instance, with votes averaging say 10 million for winners, an independent candidate may have to produce that many genuine signatures. Emphasis is on the word ‘genuine’, because all signatures supplied will be verified by not only INEC, but all existing political parties and other prospective independent candidates in that particular contest. Verification means direct confirmation from these signatories via phone or physically, to confirm whether they are aware that their signature is about to be used for this purpose. They will be asked if they know the candidate, and if they had been genuinely approached by canvassers, and if they supported the aspirant/candidate aspiring for that particular office.
If at all any number of the signatories to the petition would deny knowledge of the petition, or they become untraceable, the quest would have been nullified. Now, there should be an amount deposited by the independent candidate to foot the bill for this extensive verification process. We recall the fiasco that ensued when Senator Dino Melaye was being recalled by his Kogi West people. Less than 5% of registered voters in that constituency could be accessed even after INEC had deployed substantial resources. There could also be an issue whether the names of signatories should be traceable to the very messy electoral register of INEC, which has never been cleaned up and still houses the names of millions of dead people, fictitious people, multiple registrants, ghosts, and whatnots. The issue of cleanup has been raised by the House of Representative and nothing has come out of that.
Then, the process is prone to litigations. Many will sue INEC for not recognizing them. Many suits will come up if INEC sets any level of hurdles for independent candidates to scale, whether monetarily or logistically. Many suits will come up when INEC does clear an independent candidate as people will point to all sorts of minute omissions. Nigerians have become quite litigious and many feed from manipulating the electoral process. Many parties will sue and be sued over issues of verification. This is also a country where many people have no specific addresses. People list their addresses as ‘Near Emir’s Palace’, ‘Near Police Station’. Nigeria does have post codes, but most people are unaware of it and I’m not sure it’s being used adequately and appropriately. So, how does verification of signatures happen? Will candidates not allege that their applications are being thrown out by INEC unfairly, or challenged unfairly by other contestants especially on platforms of political parties, simply because they didn’t do thorough jobs of verification? Will parties not allege that despite their own evidences of forgeries and fictitious signatories, INEC still went ahead and cleared particular candidates because the commission was induced? Don’t we have enough cases in the courts already, especially surrounding our democratic process?
And indeed, what is a signature? A vast number of real voters in Nigeria are illiterates, who have no signature. They are comfortable using thumbprints. But how will thumbprints be verified? What about those who have no phones? Are thumbprints going to be acceptable as signatures then? Do signatures have to be physical on paper, or electronic? If electronic, are we open to mass manipulation by techies? Have we not also seen so many times how ballot papers are being massively thumb printed by only one person.
So, I believe that this independent candidacy thing is another romantic idea being pushed by those who don’t want to get involved in the nitty-gritty of our politics. And they are being naïve. At best, like it happened in Kenya, you may be able to elect a couple of councilors if state governors actually allow voting at that level. When stakes get higher, you will find how difficult the task of winning an election is through the independent route. It’s no wonder that only a few billionaires have tried it even abroad, and most if not all, have come up short. For a presidential election for example, a serious candidate will need perhaps a modest 10 canvassers in every ward of Nigeria, to move around convincing people for say six months. They have to be paid. Nigeria has close to 9,000 wards. That is a modest 90,000 people on your payroll. If you pay them an average of N3,000 a day just to be very modest, you have to pay out N270,000,000 daily including weekends when most people are at home and can be reached. Over a modest three month period, this is a modest N24.3 billion spent paying salaries or allowances of canvassers. And only God will help you if many of them don’t simply sit under trees and write all sorts of funny names and other details for you, on the basis of which you will be disqualified when subjected to proper and often vindictive verification by INEC and your opponents? Now, who is ready to spend these kinds of amounts just to contest and lose, just because you think you are the best thing since nkwobi and God’s gift to Nigeria?
So, dear Nigerians, it is back to engaging with political parties and the political system as we know it. We cannot escape our reality. And there are no shortcuts. Sorry.