The people are the bedrock of democracy. The supremacy of the people and the democratic institutions over and above individuals, no matter how well placed or wealthy, is at the core of democratic principles. Behind this democratic collectivism lies the individual’s inalienable rights and privileges that assume equality of all before the law, equality of all votes (one man, one vote) and equality of opportunity for all to seek elective positions of power in the country. In a true democracy, the struggle for power and the right to serve is not in the hands of the elite or the wealthy who can afford the election process. This anomaly goes against the principle of democracy and tends towards aristocracy.
In advanced democracies, all efforts are made to, structurally and procedurally, create an enabling environment and easy access for many, irrespective of their social and economic background, to aspire for power and to serve. Based on this principle, most countries limit the cost of electioneering campaigns and the electoral process. Although it has been challenging to implement such financial restrictions, there have been attempts to limit campaign costs in Nigeria.
Recently, parties in Nigeria put out information on the cost of expression of interests and nomination forms for various elective positions in the country, including that of presidential candidates. The figures mentioned have not followed the reality of economic conditions in the country nor the basic principles of financial restriction in elections. In the views of many, the figures are considered exorbitant and only affordable by the wealthy, thereby shutting out average Nigerians who have the capacity and ability to serve in various capacities but could not afford the party’s nomination form to participate in the primaries.
There is a moral panic regarding the outrageous cost of these party nomination forms, especially with the two major parties of APC and PDP. The PDP and APC pegged their presidential nomination forms at N40m and N100m respectively. The APC charge has resulted in a 370% increase from the cost in the 2019 elections. The APC publicity secretary, Felix Morka, on national television, have posited that though the cost of N100m may seem high, it is vital to charge that much to raise funds to cover party expenses for the forthcoming elections because the party has little or no funding sources. He further argued that capacity to raise funds, overall, is a critical measure of acceptability and viability of aspirants for office. As noble as this idea seems, N100m for nomination form has a psychological tipping edge for most Nigerians who see that amount as huge and outrageous, especially in a country where the minimum wage is N30,000 per month, and still people are not paid for months.
The costs of these nomination forms for APC and PDP, the two major political parties in Nigeria, are beyond the reach of more than 90% of Nigerians. This cost comes across as “party tickets for sale”. Over 90% of the electorate cannot afford these amounts, especially for the presidency and governorship nomination forms, which shuts them off the election process. Inadvertently, this cost bars the middle class and working-class people who have something to offer from participating in the electoral process to the best of their ability and interest.
Besides the cost of the nomination form, data on campaign expenditure in Nigeria is not available, and money spent on the electioneering process is top secret and just left for individuals to conjecture. What is known is that with each election cycle, the cost gets higher, and inversely the value office holders deliver in-service drops. The inference is a relationship between the prohibitive cost of running elections to get elected and the quality of governance. We may not capture the consequences of the excessive cost of securing a party ticket and getting elected in numbers, but citizens feel it.
The argument that aspirants from less privileged financial backgrounds should solicit funds from party members or family and friends to raise money to buy nomination forms and fund elections is not tenable and goes against the spirit of democratic service. Aspirants should not be indebted or beholding to anyone or persons to avoid problems of the rich and powerful hijacking the election process and, ultimately, political leaders that will emerge.
One of the significant reasons candidates compete for elective posts is that they want to serve. Sometimes, some candidates know that the financial reward for serving may be little compared to the rewards from their private ventures, and they often will be willing to bear a minimal cost for this privilege. Nevertheless, with the prohibitive cost of electioneering, from getting a party ticket to running a campaign, the venture becomes monetised and transactional. The more money it costs to win an election, the more candidates become Machiavellian in their approach to pursuing it—the prohibitive cost of securing party tickets and conducting election fuel corruption and undermines democratic values. Cerebral Felix Morka also countered this, that there is no direct correlation between cost of fees and tendency for corrupt enrichment.
Little wonder to some candidates, winning is a do or die affair and must be done at all costs. After running huge costs, they become corrupt to recover their “investment and make a profit” when they eventually win. This problem makes many politicians loot the treasury with impunity when in power. If they borrowed the funds or their “godfathers” sponsored them, they would become puppets in the hands of these financiers or special interest groups.
Even with the candidates’ noble intentions of serving the people, the financiers force them to compromise in situations where the candidates’ values and that of their financial sponsor conflict. He who pays the piper dictates the tune is a famous saying that readily comes to mind in this regard. In the recent past, we saw political actors in massive conflicts with their financiers and godfathers over how to handle state activities or even how to share allocations of funds. We can still remember how a governor was kidnapped by his sponsors and forced to compromise on financial and appointment decisions he must make in the state.
The state was held captive by these unscrupulous power mongers and money bags who wanted to control the state apparatus of power and money. Often, this degenerates into moral decadence and even to the loss of lives in the pursuit of power. Our elections witnessed a wanton display of money (in bullion vans} and shameful buying of votes and bribing of electoral officers as a continuation of overspending that started with buying party nomination forms for the elective position. During party primaries and elections in Nigeria, the amount of money awash in the system is mindboggling. Elections become a game of who has more resources to outspend the others to win party tickets or elections.
Besides, how many middle-class people with integrity and competence can afford the sum for APC and PDP Presidential nomination forms? By the cost of party nomination forms, many working-class people and middle-class politicians cum technocrats who cannot afford these party nomination forms are shut out of the process. Also, young people are discouraged from participating since they may not afford even the 50% reduced rate for nomination form for the APC. Effectively it makes meaningless the “not too young to run“ affirmative action.
This issue may cause a total lack of interest in seeking political office by middle-class and working-class people in Nigeria. Compared with developed democracies, Nigeria fares poorly in middle-class and working-class participation in elective positions. For similar positions, for example, in the US, the cost of party nomination forms for primaries is less than that of Nigeria, especially when factors like per capita income and other economic variables are considered.
The cost of a party nomination form (filing fee) for primaries for state governors and US Senators ranges around $5,000 and $3,500, respectively, and that of an APC governorship ticket is about $85,000, which is about sixteen times more, whilst the per capita income in the US is more than twenty times that of Nigeria. An average middle-class American who earns about $3,000 will have to save his two months’ salary to pay for the party nomination fees, whilst an average middle-class Nigerian that earns about N500,000 will have to save about one hundred months’ salary (almost ten years) from raising N50m to buy a governorship party nomination form. The contrast is shocking.
The exorbitant cost of our elections, from the party nomination to primaries through to the elections proper, forces a mercantilist ideology on our political actors. It becomes a quid pro quo situation where financiers, whether candidates themselves or external people, change officeholders’ priorities to suit those who funded their elections. In situations like this, special interest groups and other external power players shift focus from governance and leadership to achieving and accomplishing their pecuniary interests and often hold the system hostage for their distinct advantage. The people, Nigerians, lose on all fronts.
Nigeria is at a crossroads. Only a credible general election in 2023 that ushers in the people’s choice as leaders in all true democratic sense will push the country in the right direction. All should jettison anything that will inhibit popular participation. Structural hindrances to popular participation across all social strata and groups will be a desideratum to our collective political loss.
Every political party in Nigeria should open itself up to allow for more democratisation of the system by allowing for popular participation by reducing the cost of participating in the electoral process. It is time parties operationalise the idea of membership dues and contributions by members. The current huge nomination fee structure distinguishes between party members and party owners. I hope that, even if not the 2023 elections, subsequent elections must benefit from lowering the cost of buying the party nomination forms for interested candidates. We need to keep deepening our democracy and stabilising core democratic values that all players must abide by. The party institutions in Nigeria are the microcosm of the more extensive Nigerian State. Any disempowering impunities and structural boundaries, whether intentionally or unintentionally, create confusion and discord, and these must be uprooted and replaced with better democratic core values and ethos.