Defection, the act of switching one political party for another, is one of Nigeria’s usual socio-political ploys and it played out in Edo’s election in a slightly comical fashion.
Earlier this year in September, Nigeria’s attention was on the governorship election in Edo State. Since the election did not happen within Nigeria’s general election period, the Edo State election became the arena for different political battles, foreshadowing the race for power in 2023.
The election’s main contenders were Godwin Obaseki of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Osagie Ize-Iyamu of All Progressives Party (APC) with Obaseki emerging as the winner.
The outcome of the election in Edo is multidimensional as it can be analysed from different viewpoints such as the struggle against political godfatherism; the strength of our democracy and the culture of cross-carpeting or defection in Nigerian politics. Defection, the act of switching one political party for another, is one of Nigeria’s usual socio-political ploys and it played out in Edo’s election in a slightly comical fashion.
The Edo election had an element of repetition: Obaseki and Ize-Iyamu had already challenged each other for the governorship position in 2016 (Obaseki emerged the winner then as he eventually did in 2020). What is intriguing, however, is that both candidates contested in the 2020 election with the parties they contested against in 2016. In simpler terms, both candidates have switched parties in the space of four years—a single political term—joining the party that was the ‘enemy’ some few years ago.
Obaseki defected to PDP in 2020, after internal strife against his then-party’s leaders, a move that led to his disqualification from the party’s primary. Ize-Iyamu, joined APC in 2019 from PDP. While many have praised the election as ‘decent’ by Nigerian standards (considering that the federal ruling party was defeated at the polls without much quarrel), we must note that there is a fundamental flaw to this particular election that we cannot choose to ignore. The switching of parties in this manner by both candidates, while not new in Nigeria, is troubling because it shows a disregard for the integrity of Nigeria’s political institutions.
NIGERIA’S CULTURE OF DEFECTION
In a 2018 essay for Democracy Speaks, Sentell Barnes, an international political party and elections consultant, noted:
Political parties are important institutions for developing policies and platforms and providing critical oversight and accountability of government action. Through their elected representatives, political parties implement policies that reflect the ideology of the party. However, this is not the case in Nigeria. Moving from one political party to another is seen as a way of gaining an advantage over the other political parties.
Since the First Republic (1963-1966), we have witnessed the culture of defection grow rapidly.
Although Nigeria is a liberal democracy and has a multi-party system, the PDP and APC are by far its largest and most extensive political parties. A critical look into the membership of the two parties will reveal a homogeneous make-up leaving the electorate to choose between six and half a dozen.
Moses Ochonu, a Nigerian historian, gave his view on this in a 2020 essay for Africa is a Country titled ‘Liberal Democracy has Failed in Nigeria’:
The legitimizing rhetoric of post-Cold War democratization was that even if democracy fails to improve the lives and civic freedoms of Nigerians and other African peoples, there is a consolation prize: the electoral mechanism of voting out nonperforming governments, which would, over time, entrench a culture of accountability. This claim has floundered spectacularly in Nigeria.
Moses’s view is a synopsis of election and post-election reality in Nigeria. Elections, which are one of the hallmarks of liberal democracy, have floundered spectacularly in Nigeria. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the much-touted ‘Change’ mantra of the 2015 presidential election failed spectacularly, too. APC, which won those elections on the back of an electorate desperate for a change in government in 2015, is now peopled with members of the defeated PDP. Some of these members like Godswill Akpabio and Orji Kalu are even back holding offices.
Other political parties are no less guilty of this because, in fact, the culture of defection pervades our political system. And what is worse is that these fringe parties are incapable of challenging the status quo due to limited war chest and lack of structure which leaves the electorate at the mercy of a technically one-party-styled system.
DEFECTION: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
Coming into a new phase as an independent country, Nigerian politics quickly descended into ethnic and religious rivalry. The federal election of the First Republic (1963-1966) reflected this issue with the parties projecting a strong ethnic base. When none of the parties could secure the required majority, the parliamentary deadlock of the election led to the first notable instances of defection in Nigeria.
The deadlock consequently led to the coalition of Igbo NCNC and the Hausa-Fulani NPC which was rather short-lived. After the NCNC pulled out of the coalition—following disagreement concerning the 1963 census, which allegedly favoured the northern region of the country—the NCNC split into two factions. A faction defected to the AG to form the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) while the rest of NCNC would later form an alliance with a faction of the AG to form Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP).
With the military in and out of the political scene, the brief spells of democracy in-between 1979 and 1999 when democracy returned fully were also characterized with high profile defections like Chief Akin Omoboriowo who defected from Unity Party of Nigeria to the National Party of Nigeria and Alhaji Abubakar Rimi who left the Peoples Redemption Party for the Nigeria Peoples Party, both in the Second Republic (1979-1983).
However, the rate of defections has worsened in the Fourth Republic since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Many of the elections that have happened since 1999 have been characterized by impulsive party migrations, most especially between the mainstream APC and PDP parties. The incumbent president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, contested in three presidential elections between 2003 and 2011 before he was finally elected in 2015. In the 2003 and 2007 presidential elections, Buhari was the flag bearer for All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). In 2011, he contested under the platform of Congress for Progressive Change (CPC); and in 2015 he won under the coalition of his two former parties with other minority parties, the APC, which became a new viable opposition against the sixteen-year hegemony of PDP.
Another recent notable defection is that of the n-PDP which will go down in history for its role in the first defeat of an incumbent president. The n-PDP was a splinter group within the PDP and broke away from the main party during the build-up to the general election in 2015. The faction was instrumental to the formation of the APC, which eventually produced the president in the candidacy of Muhammadu Buhari. APC is a cocktail of what used to the n-PDP, Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), CPC, a faction of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and ANPP.
The n-PDP consisted of five PDP governors, 40 legislators such as Dino Melaye and Bukola Saraki and other stalwarts including former vice president, Atiku Abubakar.
By 2019, just four years after leaving PDP for APC, the majority of the n-PDP’s members had returned to PDP after accusing the APC of marginalizing its members. Bukola Saraki, was the face of the crisis, as he had become the Senate President against the wish of his party, APC. According to APC, Saraki’s action was ‘a monumental act of indiscipline and betrayal to subject the party to ridicule’ when he defied the party’s straw poll to determine who became the Senate President; a move that was considered Machiavellian and, eventually, ostracized him and the n-PDP from the rest of APC.
THE 2020 EDO GOVERNORSHIP ELECTION IN CONTEXT
The defections that happened in the build-up to the 2020 Edo governorship election, no doubt, added an extra layer of intrigue to the election and the most troubling prediction of an outbreak of violence.
It is not illegal for a politician to leave their party if they feel the party is no longer aligned with their vision but when such exits become a regularity, citizens lose the opportunity to build sustainable political institutions. While the choice to leave or join a party is personal, an unchecked culture of defection, as we have in Nigeria, suggests a lack of distinct ideologies across parties.
Other countries may provide lessons: for example, in South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) identifies with African nationalism considering South Africa’s history of apartheid rule. The ANC reflects a desire to divorce black South Africans from the debilitating impacts of apartheid and aims to create a fair society for everyone. In Tanzania, too, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the dominant party and the second-longest ruling party in Africa, which initially espoused African Socialism, has now evolved into Social Democracy.
Questions to ask now are: in the 16 years of PDP’s democratic rule, what did PDP stand for? In the five years of APC’s incumbency, what has the party stood for? In Edo State, what distinct ideals did Obaseki and Ize-Iyamu present to the Edo people? Edo people, like most Nigerians, pandered to manifestoes, a list of promises cooked up by the parties, because there was no opportunity to hold such parties accountable to a set of values.
Another problem with the culture of defection is the crumbling of the opposition party. At the national level, we have already seen an extensive outlay of this but in Edo we saw the mockery of democracy. PDP accepted Obaseki when the intra-party wrangle in the APC reached its peak and initially edged him out of the race. Not only did PDP accept him with open arms he was also prioritized, with the party eventually making him the flag bearer, ignoring the intra-party democratic process.
Before Obaseki’s move to PDP, PDP was his opposition and had extensively campaigned against him. While he may have benefited from switching parties, where does it leave the Edo people that opposition parties cannot hold the ruling party accountable and would rather poach their members? The late Nigerian scholar, Pius Adesanmi, once explained that many of the problems Nigeria faces as a country are an offshoot of Nigeria’s lack of a ‘founding myth’, the fact that Nigeria grapples with asserting its own meaning. In his essay, ‘The Struggle for Meaning’, Adesanmi noted:
[….] Our condition replicates the essential features of the Native American situation in terms of loss of meaning to a fissiparous ruling elite that got the first and only shot at making Nigeria mean in the buildup to independence and proceeded to mal-define Nigeria’s foundational myth as a reflection of the primal needs of the belly – the belly of their class. There is no nation without a foundational national myth. When the myth commands the attention and respect of the citizenry, it garners legitimacy and hegemony as leadership and followership come to subscribe to it as the fundamental identity of a perpetually unfinished nation.
In essence, Nigeria lacks a founding national myth because its leaders, among many other things, have ‘mal-defined’ political parties as a means to get candidates through elections and not as a means to effect social and political development. Our inability to agree on a unified meaning of Nigeria set in motion Nigeria’s undoing in 1959. Our political parties mirrored a deep-seated ethnic division rather than a nationalist agenda and the federal election of the First Republic immediately became one of the earliest casualties. This undoing saw an internal scramble for Nigeria, everyone seeking ‘a piece of the cake’, a problem the country still faces today. And instead of building political institutions that will outlive all of us, we are locked in a perpetual competition for the national cake.
THE NEED FOR REFORMED LEGISLATION ON DEFECTIONS
Against the harmful effects of defections on Nigeria’s development, legislation provides the best shot at a solution. This is because legal reforms can force politicians to carry out serious introspection before identifying with a party or before moving out of one. Currently, the only constitutional blockades to checkmate the madness of defections are the provisions of sections 68 and 109 of the 1999 Nigerian constitution (as amended). Section 68 (1g) states that a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives shall vacate his seat in the House of which he is a member:
If being a person whose election to the House was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before expiration of the period for which that House was elected. Provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of division in the political party of which he was previously a member or of a merger of two or more political parties or factions by one of which he was previously sponsored.
This is inherently weak legislation as the loophole is glaring. The division within a political party is almost as constant as daylight and could be used as a convenient excuse by any politician to pursue personal interests rather than adhere to the ideals which the party stands for.
Nigeria needs a new law to reduce the rate of defection. Consider, for instance, the Anti-Defection Law in India which specifies that a member of the parliament can be disqualified if he/she ‘voluntarily gives up the membership of such political party’.
As explained, the Anti Defection Law in India was made because ‘Such shifting of allegiance was considered to be a symptom of endemic political corruption, which in turn provided some legitimization for corruption prevalent in other aspects of life in the country.’
In the light of Edo governorship election, defections must be brought under more scrutiny to build enduring political institutions capable for steering the country’s development and reduce the risks of political violence due to irrational transfer of loyalty. Defection is not a politician’s issue alone because intra-party politics form a microcosm of the larger democracy and the issue of defections has far reaching consequences on the Nigeria’s development.
Without stemming the tides of defection, we run the risk of fully losing the essence of periodic elections.⎈
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