How to create a viable third force party in Nigeria

May 07, 2019|Ugochukwu Iwuchukwu


That is the total number of votes won by the four main third force candidates at the 2019 Presidential elections: Kingsley Moghalu (YPP), Omoyele Sowore (AAC), Fela Durotoye (ANN) and Oby Ezekwesili (ACPN).

To put that into context, if the third force were on one ticket, they would have finished 6th, behind rejected votes, the PCP, and the ADC. Only Sowore makes it into the top 10 on his own. 

The third force are the political outsiders that claim they can do a better job than the PDP/APC duopoly; the fabric of their political existence hinges on the fact that they are untethered and independent. Their message to the Nigerian voter is that they are of substance and will make the hard choices to develop the country. Although they sell themselves on their substance, their appeal is tied to their existence outside the political establishment.

One thing to remember is that the Nigerian political system is exclusionary. Nigeria has only had a two-party system since the APC was created in 2013. Prior to that, the PDP was the only truly national party, and was flanked by regional powerhouses such as the ACN, ANPP, CPC and APGA. If you are not within the network of rich and powerful godfathers, your access to public offices is severely limited. The third force tried to jailbreak this system, and the results above suggest that they did not succeed in 2019.

What can we learn from all these on how to create a viable third party?


Money is Important

Nigerian elections are very expensive. Official audit reports showed that the APC and PDP spent a combined ₦7.7 billion in 2015; the APC spent ₦4.8 billion compared to the PDP’s ₦2.9 billion. While it isn’t always the case, the more money you spend, the greater your chance of winning an election. In the United States, the biggest spender on congressional elections wins 91% of the time.

The reality is that it is near impossible for a third party to raise those amounts. In 2019, Kingsley Moghalu and other candidates tried to raise money via crowdfunding, and the ex-Central Bank Deputy Governor also claimed to have spent ₦200m of his own money on the campaign trail.

A key difference between Nigeria and older democracies is the efficacy of campaign finance regulation. Sections 91(2) and 91(3) the Nigerian Electoral Act (2010) set the maximum spend on a presidential and gubernatorial election at ₦1 billion and ₦200 respectively. In addition, Section 92(3) mandates each political party to submit an audited revenue and expenditure report six months after the election.

Despite these rules, actual election spend is opaque and excessive. Furthermore, incumbents are able to frame sophisticated vote-buying schemes as welfare projects, a criticism the Buhari administration faced over the nature and timing of the TraderMoni scheme.

Third force candidates have struggled to compete in this environment. Part of this is their failure to tap the same godfather networks of the traditional parties. But, beyond the fact that Nigerian godfathers would probably not back outsiders, getting in bed with this clique could undermine the core ideals of being in the third force. Amid this constraint, third force candidates must apply all their political wiles to boost fundraising.

One approach would be a long-term strategy that places emphasis on their roles as agents of political socialisation in the years between elections. If they are able to create greater awareness of their cause, establish a track record of performance and involvement, and convince Nigeria’s apathetic middle class of the importance of a politically active citizenry, they may find more people coming to their cause come Election Day. Of course, as they do this, they must also lobby for better implementation of campaign finance laws, while stretching their party’s scope of influence across the country.


Strategic Campaigning

Would a third force coalition have done better?

The results indicate otherwise, at least in 2019. Then again, the APC was born via coalition, and a more collaborative approach would have reduced voter confusing, vote-splitting, and ensured that both finances and ideas are pooled together to achieve the best result.

Choice is not represented by having 73 different presidential candidates. Whoever wants to create a third force has to be good at political mergers and acquisitions. They must evaluate their weaknesses, appreciate the strength of others and be clear minded enough to find common grounds to build partnerships.

In his book, “Against The Run of Play, Olusegun Adeniyi, former presidential spokesman for the late President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, reveals internal disagreements around clinching party tickets meant the APC was formed in 2013, nearly three years after the idea was first floated.

Any coalition would also need to be strategic in its timing. The APC had 2 years to prepare for the 2015 elections and 3rd parties may require longer because they have less resources to cover ground. A coalition presents the issue of trust and a third force needs time to create a structure of checks and balances that will guarantee fairness and work out any compact issues that can have substantial consequences if left to fester.


Don’t Forget the Grassroots

If you want to win a significant Nigerian election, you must win at the grassroots level. Roughly 50% of Nigerians live in rural areas; critically under-developed regions with limited access to electricity and internet connectivity. Put simply, a candidate that relies primarily on national media or the internet to reach the polity is setting herself up for failure.   

Nigeria is also a low trust environment. It ranks 130 out of 137 in trust for its political class and that makes it all the more difficult for third force candidates to persuade voters at the grassroots level. Therefore, third force candidates must create structures that ensure their parties are able to engage and build relationships with local communities. They should speak the language and understand the culture and it is difficult to create these structures if third force parties only come around once every four years.

Larger parties have representatives and loyal supporters at ward level—their following is local, first and foremost. With much less resources, third force candidates must adopt a similar model—the only successful national parties are local champions. One way the third force can do this is by leaning on existing structures such as community groups and traditional rulers.


Ultimately it’s up to the Voters

Research suggests that voter apathy is good for incumbents. Thus, the third force must galvanise Nigerians to vote. They must continue retooling their message until they find one that resonates with a larger group of Nigerians. Whether it is the “Us against them” mentality President Trump encouraged among his base, or the message of hope spewed by President Macron of France in 2017, the message must connect. The catchiness of the slogan and the length of their manifesto notwithstanding, the substance of the third force must speak to Nigerians in a language that they understand, empower them to be intrinsically motivated and stimulate them to rise to the challenge and vote.

A gruelling challenge awaits anyone that wants to be the third force. While it will be good for Nigeria’s democracy if they step into the arena, any serious-minded gladiator must make sure they are ready for the fight.

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