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HomeUmahi/Ayade: Victory for democracy? Well, partially

Umahi/Ayade: Victory for democracy? Well, partially

Let us be absolutely clear. The Court of Appeal’s restoration of Governor David Umahi’s mandate on Thursday, March 31, 2022 was sound jurisprudence.  It has since been followed by the Federal High Court on Thursday, April 7, 2022 in the case of the Governor of Cross River State, Professor Ben Ayade.  The judgement in the Umahi case was as emphatic as it comes; unanimous. The lower court’s creative attempt at circumventing a previous Supreme Court’s ruling on this matter was disingenuous and has rightly been stamped on. Remember, this column made a dispassionate analysis of where the gavel should fall: Umahi: Individuals have mandates, not parties (PUNCH, March 15 2022). It was stated: “A mandate is a public trust given by the electorate to a public servant for a period.” Political parties in Nigeria do not (thankfully) run a ‘list’ system, whereby parties put forward a list of their candidates to the electorate in order of preference, the votes cast are then allocated by them based on the candidate’s rank on the list. This type of system has no universal appeal. The few countries using it do so for historical reasons peculiar to their local realities.

To hand over an electoral mandate to a political party in Nigeria would translate into a ransom on the head of every elected executive in the country. The beneficial party would be at liberty to pull the rug under the feet of any executive they are unhappy with, anytime of the day or night. Governors would effectively be governing at the behest of their political parties. Their own individual consciences can go hang, pronto! No ifs, no buts. What is more, they would effectively become ventriloquist dummies for their parties.

The governor would forever be in office but not in power. The write up concluded by saying that the lower court’s ruling was: “an affront to democracy. It must (and will) be quashed”. And, so it has. But is it really a victory for democracy as Umahi, Ayade, APC and many others have proclaimed? Yes, one might say, in some sense. But, on a more careful analysis, it is more a rallying cry for democracy. Let me explain.

A mandate is a trust given to a political leader by the electorate to act on their behalf, using his knowledge, experience and wisdom for the benefit of his compatriots. In an ideal world, the candidate would have gone through a rigorous selection process before being picked as a candidate for the party. The party is in the business of governing based on a manifesto and a set of policies to which its candidates (or standard bearers) must be subscribed. It is thus a bit tricky to totally dissociate the electoral mandate from either the individual or his party. In many ways, it is a joint enterprise. There are as many people who would vote for a candidate solely based on their party affiliation, as there are those who would do likewise for a party solely based on the personality and stature of its candidate.

It is akin to the position of the director of a major, ‘blue-chip’ company and its shareholders. Investors are drawn to public companies based on their record of performance and future growth projections. The personal attributes and credentials of the director of such companies also play a big part in whether or not the investors become shareholders. But, ultimately, the director is the one who has the mandate to direct the affairs of the company and is held to account for his stewardship at the Annual General Meeting of the company, where he may be voted out of his position.

In the political realm, the governor, for instance, has the mandate to govern in the interest of all. The electorate are the shareholders who may choose to renew the mandate at the end of the politician’s term in office. The analogy becomes intriguing where a company director moves to join a rival company. Should he lose his privileged access to the market because he has abandoned the company that made him? Absolutely not. A company may indeed have ‘made’ and given somebody prominence but it does not translate into ‘owning’ them. Similarly, a governor may have shot to fame (and in some cases, fortune) on the back of a political party, it should not translate into the party ‘owning’ him or his mandate. A governor must never be shackled by party exigencies in the performance of his public duty. To do so would be a betrayal of public trust. That said, there is a huge moral question thrown up by this. Political parties tend to invest heavily in their candidates and rightly expect to reap dividends by their association with a winner. If there is a sacred trust between the politician and the electorate, is there not also such a trust between the candidate and his party? Does society want politicians with no moral scruples, who would cross-carpet and abandon his party on the flimsiest of excuses and for no reason than his own inordinate ambition?

The answer to the question is emphatically no. So, where should the line be drawn? What is the right balance in all this? In many Western democracies, political parties do get ‘high jacked,’ sometimes by extreme elements. And, for the elected leader, this creates a dilemma. To stay inside and fight or to exercise the courage of their conviction and leave? Many see this as a case of damn if you do, and damn if you do not.

So, Nigeria is not dealing with anything particularly strange to politics with defections from one party to another. The main difference, though, is that this is happening with an alarming regularity than anything seen or known in the West.  The solution, therefore, is this. When a governor or anyone else chooses to follow their gut instinct, or their conscience, and abandon the party on whose platform they rode into power, they ought to have their mandate revalidated.

The point here is not one of losing mandates upon a defection, it is one of ‘revalidation’ and that is not, and should not be a matter for the judiciary. Consequently, there ought to be a mechanism for allowing the electorate to have a say. The best and fairest way of achieving that would be an amendment to the Electoral Act 2021 to include a ‘recall’ clause. Once there is a defection and a petition of at least one-third of the electorate in the constituency of the defector has been collated, it will automatically trigger the ‘recall’ of the elected official, in this case, Governors Umahi and Ayade.

They would have had to face the electorate in a recall vote on the platform of their new party, the APC. That way, they have the opportunity to renew trust with their electorate. Conversely, the aggrieved party, the PDP, also has the chance to field different candidates in both cases, and argue passionately and convincingly for voters to turf out the “disloyal” governors. If, however, they win the recall vote, their defection would have been vindicated. If not, the electorate would have rectified the wrong by kicking them out.  A recall vote is the nuclear button in the trusty hands of the electorate. It emboldens a conviction politician, while it punishes the selfish and opportunistic. Casual, overnight defections would become a rarity as democracy is strengthened.

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