- The upcoming Edo State election reveals increasing factionalism within the ruling party vis-à-vis the 2023 presidential nomination.
- A timely resolution of the all-important question of which regional faction may lay claim to succeed President Muhamadu Buhari remains unlikely.
- The internal tug-of-war is therefore likely to intensify and could result in a major party-political realignment ahead of the next presidential election.
A smoldering crisis within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) burst into the open this week when an Abuja High Court upheld the suspension of party chairman Adams Oshiomole. On the surface, the affair is linked to the upcoming Edo State election. However, it provides an early indication of the deep fractures within the APC, even though an official decision on who should be the party’s next presidential candidate is still more than two years out. President Muhammadu Buhari, who is to stand down after two terms, remains disinterested in his party’s affairs and has not groomed an heir apparent. As such, the centrifugal forces at display this week could well see the APC disintegrate along regional lines and trigger a major party-political realignment in the run-up to 2023.
Among the six states of the so-called south-south region, which encompasses most of the oil-producing states of the Niger Delta, Edo is the only state currently governed by the APC. Otherwise, the region is a stronghold of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). As such, the Edo state election slated for 19 September is of strategic importance for the APC if it wants to maintain a bridgehead in this region vis-à-vis 2023 (see map below).
However, rather than fostering unity among the party, the upcoming election has laid bare its deep-running divisions. Oshiomole, who hails from Edo State, became APC chairman in 2018 at the behest of Bola Tinubu, who controls most of the APC’s south-western chapter. Tinubu played a key role in securing key states such as Lagos for Buhari in 2015 and 2019, and is widely suspected of eyeing the party’s 2023 presidential ticket as a reward for his loyalty.
Yet in November 2019, Edo State’s popular APC Governor Godwin Obaseki tried to sack Oshiomole, his erstwhile political godfather, by revoking his party membership. In doing so, he secured the open support of 12 other party state chapters. While Oshiomole was the imminent target, the move was clearly aimed at Tinubu, Oshiomole’s sponsor. In fact, there are at least two factions trying to scupper Tinubu’s presidential ambitions: on the one hand, there is the northern establishment of the party which openly entertains the idea of retaining the presidential ticket in the north. This stance disregards the unwritten foundational rule of Nigerian politics according to which the presidency should rotate among the political elites of the north and south every two terms. On the other hand, opposition against Tinubu has also emerged in his own backyard as several south-western governors and ministers in Buhari’s cabinet have turned on him.
As long as the crucial question of which regional faction may claim the presidency, a practice locally known as ‘zoning’, remains unresolved, the divisions could deepen to a breaking point. Buhari is highly unlikely to provide authoritative guidance on this issue. In fact, with his messianic following guaranteeing huge majorities across the north, combined with a profound disinterest in party affairs, Buhari was arguably the ideal consensus candidate for a party which can be characterized as a disparate cluster of power-seeking regional factions.
As such, history may well repeat itself in the run-up to 2023. Much like Obaseki, who now contemplates defecting to the PDP after Oshiomole removed him from the APC governorship nomination in revenge for his disobedience, a much larger party-political realignment may unfold ahead of the presidential election. The irony, of course, would be that a similar meltdown within the PDP was what brought Buhari and his APC into power in 2015.