By Dr.Muiz Banire SAN
Few days ago when I read about the imminent defection of the Governor of Zamfara State, Bello Muhammad Matawalle, from the People’s Democratic Party ( PDP), the platform on which he was elected, to the All Progressives Congress (APC), my exasperation attained the peak. This is because, over time, this issue has been agitating my mind but with no opportunity to vent it. The act of defecting is not new in Nigeria, as it is already a pattern in the political firmament of the nation. Right from the inception of civilian rule, otherwise disguised as democracy in Nigeria in 1999, several defections or, if you like, call it cross-carpeting, have taken place. It started with the ruling party then, the PDP, when some elected officials of other parties, particularly the smaller ones, moved into PDP.
Now with the APC as the ruling party, the trend has continued. Although the Nigerian Constitution will seem not to forbid such decamping in case of the elected executive members, in the case of the legislators, however, it forbids defection, except where there is crisis in the leadership of the party in which the defecting elected officer belongs. Thus, executive cross-carpeting has been the order of the day in Nigeria without restraint. With respect to the legislators, those defecting in those days always looked for one excuse or the other, bordering on fractionalization of the political party, in order to defect, but, in recent times, no such caution exists. This is done with impunity now and without regard for the constitutional dictate. They now defect with reckless abandon.
The reason for this trend is not difficult to decipher. It is simply because of the delay and frustration in the administration of justice in Nigeria. I am sure that practically all of them rely on the fact that, by the time such cases travel between the court of first instance and the apex court for determination, their tenure would have expired. Hence, they safely embark on such gamble.
The question, however, is, should this act of reckless defection be encouraged or accepted by the society, including the political actors? Me think not. The reason for my conviction lies in the need to grow and strengthen the country’s democracy. Political party, as globally recognized in democracies, is a vital, if not fundamental, component of a democratic evolution and good governance. This is underscored by the fact of the Nigerian Constitution making specific provisions for its existence and operation. In fact, as the Nigerian Constitution stands today, no person/aspirant can vie for an elected political position without being a member of a political party.
Unfortunately, however, as paramount as political parties are in the election of the political leaders of the country, one cannot safely say, in the strict sense, that there exist political parties in Nigeria. This realization stems from the fact that all the political associations in Nigeria today are mere platforms for grabbing power. They are political entities without any clear-cut political ideology with their constitutions being largely ‘cut and paste’ aside from the fact that they lack consideration for fair play or playing by the rules. They are all virtually identical in their provisions to the extent that one can hardly differentiate them. They are regurgitations of the provisions of one another. Where are the distinct manifestoes? Lost in transit. Little wonder, therefore, that the politicians operate with ease in defecting from one political party to the other.
They have no core value that attaches them to any political party. But, be that as it is, this is not my destination. My challenge lies in the fraud being perpetrated on the electorate by the defecting elected officials in such instances described above. Like it is known, several political parties do contest each election with the electorate allegedly choosing by way of exercise of franchise of which political party they prefer. Where such choice is made by the electorate based on whatever parameter they relied upon, leadership of the party, purported manifesto or some other parochial reasons they believe, it becomes an article of faith with the party and the elected official. In other words, the presumption is that the trust in the political party informed the electorate’s choice and as such the mandate donated must be respected. It is in my view a sacred trust that must be cherished. The implication of this, therefore, is that the votes cast for the political party are premised on the conviction of the electorate. This is a trust that is morally binding, to say the least. Consequently, where such elected official decides to leave the political party, which grounded his election, it behooves him morally to leave behind the mandate of the political party he is defecting from.
This is the least that is expected of an honourable person. He certainly must vacate the seat to enable the electorate make their choice again. In other words, he needs to revalidate his mandate through another election in which he will test his popularity and acceptability among the electorate. Doing otherwise amounts to breach of trust and act of immorality. Regrettably, the trend has been to elope with the mandate of the victim political party. This is not surprising in the country, as values and virtues have completely vanished. So many aberrations are committed daily by our political leaders with impunity, as there is moral collapse in the nation. There is no minimum content of national ethics again as everything, in our sense of right and wrong, has suddenly become relative. Just last week, the Secretary of Health in Great Britain, Matt Hancock, resigned his position simply because he violated social distancing rule.
There was also the case of the Home Secretary that resigned simply because he spoke to an official of his department on an application before the Home Office. Several other instances abound in the UK and other civilized and progressive nations. I can replicate them to no end. Regrettably, however, it is not in the character of Nigerian public officials to exhibit such integrity in office. The refusal of these defecting officials to vacate their seats or offices is, in my view, not only immoral but despicable. Nigerians need to rise up against such elected officials, particularly those in their constituencies who are victims of the electoral daylight robbery Failure to right this wrong will lend credence to the allegation that the electorate’s votes do not count and are valueless in the determination of the elected leaders of the people in Nigeria. The electorate that refuses to act on such profanity will also be equally guilty. No doubt, it will continue to enlarge or widen the electoral apathy in the nation. Now, beyond the immorality of political defection, the legal position is equally not favorable to the defecting elected officials.
As indicated earlier, while the illegality in the defection of the executive may not be clear, that involving legislators is obvious where there is no crisis in the political party from which the elected official is moving. It is important in this regard to note such crisis recognizable must in law be at the national level of the political party. Most importantly, however, if the decisions of the apex court are something to go by, it is purely illegal for the elected officials to cross-carpet without losing their seats. This arises from the fact that, by the law, as variously interpreted by the Supreme Court of Nigeria, it is the political parties that contest elections in Nigeria and, by implication, it is only the political parties that own the votes cast for them. In other words, the standard-bearers are mere beneficiaries of the grace of the political parties. The import of this is simply that where the candidate that is the ultimate beneficiary of the mandate given to the political party defects, he must leave behind such mandate.
He cannot elope with it to the new political party. This is the net effect of the apex court’s decisions in several cases. Ordinarily, by that logic, such victim political party is the one that can replace the elected official defecting. If this is, however, not to be embraced and seen as extreme, the least that is capable of happening is the conduct of a new election by the electoral umpire to either revalidate the choice of the erstwhile official or the confirmation of the mandate of a new winner. This is the only justice for the electorate in the circumstances. The electorate’s will must be allowed to prevail at all times. The courts and the people must not allow the people’s mandate to be fraudulently stolen in such circumstances. This is also the only way to grow our political parties and strengthen our democracy. This act of brigandage is stultifying the growth of the political parties and, by extension, the democratic process.
This issue has not been sufficiently interrogated by the victim political parties for two main reasons. Firstly, because they all engage and benefit from the illegality from time to time, they remain silent in the face of this immorality and illegality. Secondly, as said earlier, the time it takes to ventilate this cause and the expense associated with it, discourage embarking on it. Thus, as all the politicians and by extension, the political parties benefit from this wrong, they remain silent in the face of the wrong. It is simply pathetic as this is the selfishness of the political class who has refused to see the bigger picture. All they see and are interested in, is the increase in their ranks than the growth of the political system.
Most of those elected officials decamping are equally doing so for selfish reasons in terms of self-preservation (prosecutorial immunity) or personal aggrandizement. The duty is now incumbent on the electorate and the people at large to compel adherence to this simple principle of morality and conscience. The obduracy in the system must be deprecated by all Nigerians. For the victim political parties also, the time is ripe to start challenging the immoral and illegal acts. The political class must see beyond its nose and join hands in building an enduring political institution. Enough of this scavenging and mercantile politics. On the part of the Courts, we plead that matters of this nature that border on the mandate of the people must be given priority going forward. The court needs to assist in strengthening our democracy and building an enduring legacy as it has been doing in recent times. Decamping whittles down the Country’s democracy.
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