The main function of a political party is to spur members to contest elections. Apart from contesting election, political parties canvass various policies and programmes for the people as a pressure group. They play an important role in decision-making to help legislation and execution of policies. These political parties, when successful in elections, form and run the government.
So, the function of a political party is not limited to winning elections. Be that as it may, Nigeria has witnessed a proliferation of political parties since the return to democratic rule in the Fourth Republic.
Three parties: The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alliance for Democracy (AD) and the All Peoples Party (APP) were registered by the military government for the elections in 1999. But in the 2019 general election (20 years later), a record number of 91 political parties fielded over 23,000 candidates.
This was absurd and the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Prof. Mahmood Yakubu in explaining how the decision to delist none performing parties said that the commission reached the conclusion after the 2019 general election, including court-ordered re-run elections arising from litigations, saying, the Commission was able to determine the performance of political parties in the elections.
He added that the political parties were also assessed on the basis of their performance in the Area Council elections in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), which coincided with the 2019 general election to arrive at the decision.
He further rationalized the action, saying, “Prior to the Fourth Alteration, the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) had provided for deregistration of political parties. Based on this provision, the Commission, between 2011 and 2013, deregistered 39 political parties
As a regulatory body, the 1999 constitution as amended in section 225A empowers INEC to carry out its regulatory duties.
The section provides that INEC shall have power to deregister a political party for (a) breach of any of the requirements for registration (b) failure to win at least 25 per cent of votes cast in (i) on state of the federation in a presidential election or (ii) one local government of the state in a governorship election (c) failure to win at least (i) one ward in the chairmanship election (ii) one seat in the national or state House of Assembly election or (iii) one seat in the councillorship election.
With the action, only 16 political parties now exist in the country as against 92. They are Accord Party (AP), Action Alliance (AA), African Action Congress (AAC), African Democratic Congress (ADC), African Democratic Party (ADP), All Progressives Congress (APC), All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and Allied Peoples Movement (APM).
Others are Labour Party (LP), New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), National Rescue Movement (NRM), Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), Social Democratic Party (SDP), Young Progressives Party (YPP) and Zenith Labour Party (ZLP).
But some political parties went to court to challenge the decision of INEC to de-register them. There were conflicting judgments, one in favour of the de-registration and the other against the exercise. This forced INEC to seek the Supreme Court decision.
The hopes of the 74 political parties that were deregistered by INEC in February 2020 for failure to win in any contest after the 2019 general election to be re-listed on the ballot box has been permanently dented by the Supreme Court.
The commission had said its decision followed a comparative review and court-ordered re-run elections arising from litigations on political parties in the last elections.
It further said the political parties performed poorly and failed to win at least one seat in the last general election. 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.
Reacting to the judgment, the President of the Inter Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Dr. Leonard Nzenwa hailed the judgment and said the judgment had ended all speculations and as it will aid INEC to now focus on critical issues in preparation for delivering credible, free and fair 2023 general election.
He explained that the judgment of the apex court will help INEC in planning. He wondered how the commission fared with 23,000 candidates that contested the 2019 general election.
Also speaking, the Council of Nigerian Ethnic Youth Leaders called on the National Assembly to quickly amend the Constitution and Electoral Act to stop further registration of more political parties saying the 18 remaining parties should be enough to satisfy all political tendencies in the country.
But some of the affected parties kicked against INEC’s action, insisting that it acted against them 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 part, KOWA Party, Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), and the Socialist Party of Nigeria criticized the judgment wondering why the Supreme Court should stop Nigerians from associating with one another.
A legal practitioner, Emeka Udeh wondered how the apex court could rule against freedom of association as enshrined in the constitution. He opened that political parties are not necessarily meant to win elections but to also canvass opinions on policies of government.
Though, he said, “as the court pleases, I can’t fault the Supreme Court but I hold the opinion that it is against the spirit of association by individuals to freely meet and hold opinions.”
Taking a stance, the Youths Alliance for Democratic Advancement also supported the decision of the Supreme. Court. The organization issued a statement advancing reasons for standing with the apex court. “The country’s electioneering process would continue to suffer retrogression with the long list of political parties on the ballot, which constitutes confusion and accounts for a high number of void votes, was allowed to remain.
The Ekiti State Coordinator of the NGO, Michael Ogungbemi, had said, “the idea that 91 parties participated in the general election was not good,” adding that registering 91 political parties in a developing country like Nigeria with high level of illiteracy would not help the electoral system.
“Instead, INEC should tentatively register most of these parties for local governments and state houses of assembly elections with performance benchmarks or criteria that if they score certain percentage of votes, they would qualify to participate in the governorship and National Assembly elections and up to the Presidential election.
“If not checked and controlled, INEC may register up to 300 political parties before 2023. Apart from these, INEC would not be able to manage this number of political parties in the future,” he added.
Prior to INEC decision that was ratified by the apex court, many Nigerians had at various times called for the whittling down of the number of parties in the country.
For instance, former Senate President in the aborted Third Republic, Chief Ameh Ebute, expressed concerns over the existence of 68 registered political parties in the political terrain, saying they were unwieldy for the nation’s democracy to make any meaningful development.
Ebute had argued that registration of multiple political parties without firm ideology was counter-productive to flourishing partisan politics.
He explained, “On the issue of political parties, it is my view that there is no political ideology for politicians to consider before jumping from one party to the other. The only ideology for now is fighting for access to the national cake so as to have a share of it. I am in support of a two-party system. This will enable politicians choose whether to be a progressive or a conservative.”
Also last year, the Director-General, National Institute for Legislative and Democratic Studies (NILDS), an arm of the National Assembly, Prof. Abubakar Sulaiman, said 91 registered political parties were too unwieldy for the country.
Sulaiman, who served as National Planning Minister under former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, argued that Nigeria requires just three functional political parties to deepen democratic culture among the citizenry.
He said that “Some political parties today don’t even have offices in various states across the country, but then, they occupy space on the ballot paper, thereby causing confusion. When you talk about the inconclusive election, over-voting, some Nigerians in the rural areas could not differentiate between certain symbols because we have a ballot paper that is as long as one kilometre. So, the earlier we have a ‘guided democracy’ the better for us,” he said.
What many Nigerians say for now is the abuse of every process, explaining that the Supreme Court judgement was an extreme to curb the abuse by Nigerians. Though, they accepted that there could be further roles that political parties could play in a democracy.
Along this line of thought, some Nigerians have called for a halt to further registration of political parties to enable INEC adequate time for the 2023 general elections.
An INEC official told THISDAY that the Supreme Court judgment may not stop the commission from registering more political parties as at the last count there are more than 100 request from groups seeking for registration as political parties.
He said, “the only thing that could stop INEC from registering more political parties is a legislation and amendment of the constitution, less the commission would be accused of blocking the political space where politicians can ventilate their views, when they are choked.”
On their part, KOWA Party, Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), and the Socialist Party of Nigeria criticized the judgment wondering why the Supreme Court should stop Nigerians from associating with one another. A legal practitioner, Emeka Udeh wondered how the apex court could rule against freedom of association as enshrined in the constitution. He opened that political parties are not necessarily meant to win elections but to also canvass opinions on policies of government. Though, he said, “as the court pleases, I can’t fault the Supreme Court but I hold the opinion that it is against the spirit of association by individuals to freely meet and hold opinions.