A Troubling History of Consensus Politics By Azu Ishiekwene
On March 26 at the Eagle Square, Abuja, the All Progressives Congress (APC) reinvented a version of consensus politics that ancient Rome and Greece would have been proud of.
After years of in-fighting and decay, and fearing that the opposition might rebound, the ruling party finally called its overdue convention. It rounded up aspirants who were jostling for its executive positions and told them, at gunpoint, that it was time to try something new: consensus.
Different tendencies in APC had run amok. President Muhammadu Buhari had to put his foot down and cut a deal with governors that conceded the chairmanship position to his candidate, Senator Abdullahi Adamu, without offering them anything in return.
That is what the consensus entailed – all contestants grudgingly accepting that they had agreed to give up their quest, in favour of Adamu, a one-time secretary to the Board of Trustees of the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP) and a significant contributor to former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s stillborn third term agenda.
It was a consensus that handed over the national leadership of the APC to prominent former members of the opposition PDP. They are believed to have repented and now, could go, and well, sin some more.
All other aspirants were pressed, literally at gunpoint, to submit their letters of withdrawal in the wee hours of the convention day. As you read this article, there is still a long line of broken and exhausted aspirants outside the party’s secretariat in Abuja, waiting to collect even the refunds for their nomination forms, promised nearly three weeks ago.
Whatever its shortcomings, consensus appears to be the APC’s homegrown answer to the growing calls to self-democratise. Indications are that the PDP may also be heading in the direction of a consensus presidential candidate.
For APC, a party that conducted its presidential primaries in 2014 through a delegate voting system, to resort to consensus in 2022, says a lot about how far down the road we have travelled democratically.
Of course, consensus candidacy is not a new clown in our political circus. It’s been with us a long time and Buhari was a beneficiary of this rather crooked system when he first contested as the presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Progressives Party (ANPP) in 2003.
During the party’s presidential primaries in Abuja that year, Rochas Okorocha and John Nnia Nwodo, who were also aspirants for the ticket, refused to step down for Buhari. Nwodo, in fact, addressed the delegates. He gave a speech in which he said, among other things, that, “my heart bleeds for Nigeria.” He warned delegates that their party was about to be hijacked and later staged a walkout along with Okorocha and others. In response to the protest, Buhari, the beneficiary of that “consensus arrangement”, would later describe the walkout as “an act of indiscipline.”
But that was not even the first consensus arrangement. In 1989, the Ibrahim Babangida regime rejected the six political parties registered by the National Electoral Commission and in their place, created the National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The government not only funded these parties, it built secretariats for them in all local government headquarters across the country. It went on to influence the emergence of presidential candidates for the parties by eliminating winners of initial primaries and barring them from re-contesting. It was a brazenly militarized form of consensus which produced MKO Abiola and Bashir Tofa as candidates for the presidency. The rest is now history.
General Sani Abacha also produced his own consensus. He registered five political parties. United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP); Congress for National Consensus (CNC); Democratic Party of Nigeria (DPN); and the National Centre Party of Nigeria (NCPN); the famous leprous fingers of one hand.
All four parties later “adopted” and endorsed him as its “consensus” presidential candidate. Only the Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM) had Alhaji Dikko Yusuf as its candidate – an obvious case of a defanged bulldog in a fight to give the appearance of a contest.
By February 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo came through the PDP presidential primaries in Jos, winning 60 percent while his closest rival, Alex Ekwueme, got 20 percent of the vote, with the remaining split among the other aspirants.
In opposition to PDP, the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and All Peoples Party (APP) merged and conceded their ticket to Olu Falae. Whatever the outcome of the PDP primaries, the military had decided that Obasanjo would become president. Everything, including the primaries, was pressed to achieve that outcome.
In 2003 Obasanjo won the PDP presidential primaries by a landslide polling 75 percent. Rejecting the outcome as a “charade”, the first runner-up, Alex Ekwueme who polled 17 percent of the vote, said the voting system was not in accordance with the regulations of the PDP; his protest was futile because, again, the party had “adopted” Obasanjo.
On his reluctant way out of office in 2007, Obasanjo had stopped all pretence of internal party democracy. He bullied all aspirants and forced all PDP governors to accept Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as consensus candidate during the party’s presidential primaries.
But then came 2014, when APC, advertised as the party of change, came on the scene. In spite of pressures for a consensus candidate during the party’s primaries, voting by delegates went ahead. Even though there was more money than ballots to be counted at the convention venue in Lagos, the event retained a veneer of competition. That pretence has vanished. PDP is heading towards finding a consensus candidate at its May 28 presidential primary; and I’m told by people who should know that that is what Buhari wants for the
APC, too. I don’t know how it would be achieved in APC. With a slew of candidates who have openly declared interest including the party’s national leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu; Governors Yahaya Bello and Umahi David; and potential aspirants like Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; Governor Kayode Fayemi; Ogbonnaya Onu; CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, and Rotimi Amaechi, how will consensus work?
Tinubu will step down for Osinbajo and the others? Or all candidates, including Bello who is already being likened to Abiola, will step down for Tinubu? Except it is consensus for him, what does consensus mean for a man like Tinubu, for example, who has literally sacrificed himself for Buhari and the party? Or Osinbajo who believes that having been Number 2 for
eight years, he should get the right of first refusal? For its part, PDP, the curator of consensus in Nigeria’s modern politics, is in turmoil, threatened by its self-made monster. And who knows? When all is said and done both the opposition and the ruling party may, against the run of expectations, produce Northern presidential candidates, as the fruit of “consensus”.
One leading aspirant told me on Tuesday, “The country is on a knife-edge. If we settle for consensus without the benefit of articulating a vision of how to get the country out of its current circumstances, and allowing party members to judge, we might as well settle for a national unity government and not waste money on elections. A contest is preferable to any hallelujah chorus consensus manipulated from the Villa.” Aso Rock laughed in response.
Of course, it’s entirely up to the political parties to decide how they wish to select their flag bearers. Bystanders who don’t like the process can wait to use their vote at the polls.
Yet, if this is a democracy as I think it is, and the political parties still pretend to be essential actors in the democratic space, it is absurd for them to improvise excuses to dodge open and transparent contests within their ranks.
Poorly run parties weaken and deplete themselves. They open the door to needless litigations, complicate the job of the election monitoring agency, and increase the cost of managing the electoral system. In the end, even bystanders bear the cost.
How the parties handle the primaries may be their internal affair, but there is clear evidence that the shambolic way they have carried on – and insist on carrying on – is partly responsible for voter alienation and apathy at elections. If they have decided to fix their primaries, they may as well finish the job by voting for themselves at elections.
And the APC, in particular, should be concerned, if not ashamed. If Adamu and other PDP returnees thought their former party was the home of poor habits, they would find that their present house has borrowed and perfected the worst examples from the opposition.
Everything PDP was notorious for, from corruption to incompetence and from fixing elections to fixing party primaries has now become a part of the APC’s DNA. The party is crumbling without even making an effort. That is why it cannot recognise the basic fact that consensus in a party primary to produce the country’s number one citizen, is an error of taste.
Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP