Nigeria’s ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) party will hold its national convention this Saturday, July 23, at perhaps its most fragmented state since it was formed in 2013.
At its inception, it was already clear that the APC was an alliance of strange bedfellows united primarily by the common purpose of unseating incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2015 election. Yet the speed at which deep rifts became evident once the party took power surprised even its doubters.
An early row, barely months after President Buhari’s inauguration, over the leadership of Nigeria’s National Assembly revealed festering strife between the President and an influential group of former governors (known as the ‘new PDP’) who left Jonathan’s then ruling party for the APC shortly after the opposition coalition was formed. The result of this early disagreement was the election as Senate President of Bukola Saraki, one of the most influential figures within the nPDP faction, marking Buhari’s loss of control over a National Assembly in which his party has held the majority.
This arrangement, resulting in repeated battles between the legislature and the executive, has had a clear impact on Buhari’s agenda since early on in his tenure; from the two full years it took to complete most of his ministerial appointments to recurrent controversy over the passing of the government’s yearly budget and disputes over the schedule of the upcoming election. In turn, the government has lamented the National Assembly’s attempts to sabotage its budgetary agenda. The executive is, till date, also still pursing various legal cases against Saraki and his allies in the legislature.
Beyond the National Assembly, perhaps a more significant consequence of the discord between Buhari and the nPDP was the decision of factional heavyweight and former vice-president Atiku Abubaker to abandon the APC for his former party, declaring his intentions to contest for the PDP presidential ticket in the 2019 election. Atiku might be the opponent best placed to unseat Buhari in the upcoming polls.
Another crucial axis of division within the party appeared to run all the way through
Buhari’s own home. In 2016, First Lady Aisha Buhari took to the media to criticize the president for failing to accommodate the interests of important but unnamed members of the coalition. The interests in question soon turned out to be those of former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu, a crucial figure in the coalition that brought Buhari to power, who soon thereafter publicly lamented his marginalization within the party, and criticized its national leaders. As the 2019 elections loom, President Buhari has made strides to rebuild strained ties with Tinubu, somewhat ironically appointing him to head a committee to reconcile aggrieved party stalwarts. Yet it is clear that the relationship between these two important camps remains frosty.
These wider schisms culminated in an all-out battle over the weekend of the 18 – 20 of May, 2018 during which nation-wide ward and state-level congresses were challenged by rival ‘parallel’ congresses in at least nine states. Various skirmishes were reported in several of these states; for instance, a national assembly member and commissioner of a neighboring state were beat up in Ondo while an APC member was stabbed to death in Delta state.
It is no surprise then, given this sharply divisive context, that the upcoming national convention is being greeted with high levels of apprehension. Though close to 7,000 delegates from across the country will vote over 65 key positions in an election to be held in Nigeria’s capital, the party leadership has been forced to rebuff fears that the winners have already been hand-picked in a pre-prepared ‘unity list’ of candidates.
The most important position up for grabs is that of the national chairman, for which former Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomole has already received an endorsement from President Buhari. Yet, optimistically for the party’s prospects at cohesion, Oshiomole was also warmly welcomed in a recent meeting with party members in the national assembly, though its leaders stopped short of an outright endorsement.
If Saturday’s national convention is managed in a manner that is viewed to be largely transparent and accountable, then it is possible that we may see a more united party in the lead up to the 2019 polls, a prospect that would be a boon for Buhari’s second term ambitions. More generally, both party factionalism and the importance of the upcoming convention reveal the growing influence of party leadership positions and the legislature, as they become independent sources of power capable of checking the influence of an incumbent president.