Nigeria has witnessed a proliferation of political parties since the country returned to democratic civil rule under the Fourth Republic.
Although only three parties were registered by the military government for the elections in 1999, the latest general election in 2019 saw a record 91 political parties that fielded over 23,000 candidates.
On February 6, 2020, INEC took the nation by surprise by deregistering 74 out of the 91 registered parties that participated in the 2019 general elections. Only 18 parties are currently left on INEC’s register.
The commission said its decision followed a comparative review and court-ordered re-run elections arising from litigations on political parties in the last elections.
It said the political parties performed poorly and failed to win at least one political seat in the last general elections. INEC also said the parties breached the requirement for registration of political parties under section 225 of the Nigerian constitution.
Expectedly, the exercise sparked public debate as to whether the electoral umpire has the constitutional power to make such a move.
Some of the affected parties kicked against INEC’s action, insisting that it acted against illegally.
All Grand Alliance Party (AGAP), Fresh Democratic Party (FDP) and Alliance for Democracy (AD) cried foul and accused the electoral umpire of illegality.
On their parts, KOWA party, Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), and the Socialist Party of Nigeria vowed to seek legal redress.
KOWA acting national chairman, Mark Adebayo, said his party and 32 others had approached the Federal High Court, Abuja in 2019, to restrain INEC from deregistering parties pending the determination of the suit.
He said the court upon hearing the Motion for an Interlocutory Injunction adjourned for ruling on February 17, some days before the INEC hammer.
The National Youth Leader of the SPN, Hassan Soweto, said the move to shrink the democratic space was an attempt to ensure that politics is accessible to only the rich who are in a position to buy votes and sponsor electoral thuggery.
The Inter-Party Advisory Council of Nigeria (IPAC), the umbrella body of registered political parties in Nigeria, described the INEC decision as an affront on the judiciary, an abuse of the Court Process and a conscious disregard for the rule of law.
It added that there was an existing court order restraining INEC from de-registering the political parties pending the determination of the suit.
“The Federal High Court, upon hearing the motion for an interlocutory Injunction on January 23, 2020, adjourned for ruling on February 17, 2020,” he said.
Not satisfied with the decision of INEC, 33 out of 74 political parties deregistered filed a suit seeking an order of the court to restrain the electoral commission from deregistering them.
The court last week granted the injunction sought by the parties barring the electoral commission from deregistering them.
Justice Anwuli Chikere said INEC failed to counter the application by the applicants ”whose rights must be protected”.
Some experts have also applauded INEC’s action saying none of the 74 affected parties won at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in at least one state, nor won a single local government in a state during the governorship elections during the 2019 general election.
”The deregistration of political parties is an effort to sanitise the electoral process,” said Samson Itodo, the Executive Director of Watching the Vote, an election observer group.
He said, ”The latest action of deregistering political parties who failed one of the criteria for registration or could not win at least 25 per cent of votes cast in one state of the federation during the 2019 presidential election or win a single local government in a state during the governorship elections, is no doubt in line with the constitution.”
Former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who headed the National Assembly Committee on the Review of the 1999 Constitution for 12 years, insists INEC has the constitutional backing to deregister political parties if proven to have performed poorly at elections.
For him, parties crying foul do not understand the provisions of the constitution on the issue.
This certainly is not the first time INEC would deregister parties since the restoration of democracy in 1999.
In 2003, it struck out some political parties from its register. This prompted the late legal luminary and former presidential candidate of the National Conscience Party, Gani Fawehinmi, whose party was one of those affected, to challenge the action of the electoral body in court. He contended that deregistration of parties violates the freedom of association.
In January 2003, the court made an order of injunction restraining INEC, its agents, officers, privies “from basing the registration of political associations as political parties on the aforesaid offending provisions of the Guidelines and the Electoral Act, 2001.” It also dismissed in its entirety the cross-appeal brought by INEC.
INEC, under the chairmanship of Attahiru Jega also embarked on the exercise when he axed 39 political parties between 2011 and 2013 on the strength of Section 78 (7) (I & ii). As it is now, the affected parties challenged the action.
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Fresh Democratic Party (FDP) under the leadership of Chris Okotie, a clergyman, instituted a case in an Abuja High Court. The court, in its judgement in July 2013, restrained INEC from deregistering any political party.
The court appears to have followed the same pattern as Mrs Chikere of the Federal High Court in Abuja also held that the electoral commission failed to oppose the application by the applicants whose rights of association must be protected.
What usually follows after such is decisions are taken by the court is that more political associations would file applications to be recognized as parties. Over the years, this has led to the emergence of mushroom parties in the political space.
Interestingly, many of the parties emerge for different reasons, one of disaffections that follows after some big parties are thrown into crisis.
Sadly, such parties hardly win elections but only remain in the briefcase of the leaders.
How system works in other countries
Aside from communist countries like China and North Korea, many democratic countries in the world have a multi-party system in place.
Nigeria’s constitution was patterned after that of the United States of America. Although the latter’s federalism has spanned several decades, Nigeria’s democratic experiment is still developing and has barely survived five transitional elections.
South Africa is a democratic but one-party dominant state with the African National Congress in power. It has over 14 parties represented in parliament but many more registered but unrepresented in parliament.
The ANC party has dominated elections since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Statistics on the last general elections held on May 8, 2019, showed that the South African ‘third force’ also performed poorly. The elections had a record of 48 parties with three major parties, the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Another country that practices a multi-party system, is Ghana. It has two dominant political parties, the National Democratic Congress, the New Patriotic Party and others.
As of 2018, there were 24 political parties listed on the website of the Electoral Commission of Ghana.
In the last general elections in 2016, seven candidates ran for president. the two major parties got 98.25 per cent of the 15 million total vote cast.
The incumbent President Nana Akufo-Addo under the NP party won the election with 5 million votes defeating former president John Mahama.
Need for ‘third force’
With Nigeria having an estimated population of about 200 million and about 250 ethnic groups, there is a need for a third force to challenge the trend of politicking, an analyst said.
”Nigeria probably needs more parties (not just a third one) because of the diverse range of ethnic, religious and economic views that need to be represented in the parliament,” Cheta Nwanze, lead analyst at SBM Intelligence told PREMIUM TIMES.
”However, to be a party, you need to be able to show that you’re not just a portfolio contraption as most of our so-called third force parties have turned out to be, but a true grassroots movement. This means, given our recent history, being able to win a position in a local government, and run that LGA for a bit,” Mr Nwanze said.