It was his first baptism of fire in politics. In 1955, Abraham Adesanya, a fresh law graduate and a household name in Ijebu-Igbo, unfolded his ambition. As a member of the defunct Action Group (AG), led by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he sought the House of Assembly ticket to represent the old Ijebu Igbo Constituency. Party elders asked him to hold on, promising to give it to him in 1959. Adesanya refused, saying that he was popular.
He hurriedly left the AG and contested as an independent candidate. Despite his popularity among the electorate, he lost his deposit at the poll. He retraced his steps to the party and he was later elected on its platform in 1959. Twenty years later, Adesanya became a Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) senator from Ogun East.
The same scenario played out in Akure, the headquarter of the old Ondo Province. Akinola Aguda, the first indigene of Akure to become a lawyer, wanted to represent the constituency in the Western Regional House of Assembly. He decided to run as an independent candidate against the AG and National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) candidates, contrary to the advice of his friend and colleague at the bar, Ayotunde Rosiji. The people of the constituency rejected him at the poll.
In Ijebu East Constituency, Oluwole Awokoya, the former Minister of Education in the defunct Western Region, sought re-election into the House of Assembly in 1955. The AG, having rejected his ambition, drafted Solanke Onasanya into the race. When Awokoya lost the ticket to Onasanya, he decided to contest as an independent candidate. He lost at the poll.
But, at Ibadan, it was a different ball game. A prominent chief, Samuel Odulana, contested for the House of Representatives as an independent candidate in the early sixties. Then, the AG and NCNC)/Nigeria National Democratic Party (NNDP) were locked in a battle of supremacy in Ibadan. Lana, as he was fondly called, won. He became the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, the late Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Many years after, Odulana became the Olubadan of Ibadanland.
Independent candidacy is not new. There was room for it under the parliamentary system in the First Republic. Across the constituencies, there were some independent candidates who either won or lost during the regional and federal parliamentary elections. However, majority of them were aggrieved defectors from major parties who wanted to ride to power on the strength of their individual popularity within their constituencies.
Following the adoption of the presidential system, independent candidacy was abolished in 1979. In the Second Republic, the ill-fated Third Republic and since 1999, the practice has become old-fashioned. To be an elected councillor, member of the House of Assembly, Representatives, Senate, governor and president, membership of a political party is compulsory.
Opinion is divided on the agitation for independent candidacy. What has motivated critics to clamour for the restoration of independent candidacy is the perceived politics of exclusion by party leaders and elders in major parties. Internal democracy in the political parties has been a major bone of contention. In their view, if there is room for independent candidacy, the fate of certain aspirants and candidates will have to be determined directly on poll day by the electorate.
Party leaders have often sought to defend the alleged discriminatory approach, pointing out that party guidelines are meant to prevent the hijack of the parties by money bags who invade the platform, without any history of ideological affinity and belief in party ethos.
The Constitutional and Electoral Reform Committee, led by former Senate President Ken Nnamani, had recommended independent candidacy in its report. Senator Stella Oduah, who is one of its advocates in the National Assembly, said it will halt the imposition of candidates by party leaders and pave the way for the emergence of leaders trusted by the people. “It has worked in the United States. It is a global best practice. It will give the electorate to choose who they want,” he added.
Second Republic governor of old Kaduna State Alhaji Balarabe Musa supported the proposal, saying that it will give room for a wider choice for voters. “It widens the choice of electorates and democracy is strengthened. If the electorate don’t like the candidates presented by the political parties, they can support an independent candidate they like,” he added. The elder statesman said while an independent candidate may not win the presidency because money plays a great role at that level, he can win elections at the lower level.
In the United States, former President George Washington was elected as an independent candidate. In 2007, Bernie Sanders was elected into the Congress in the US as an independent.
In Australia, Andrew Wilkie from Denison in Tasmania and Cathy McGowan from Indi in Victoria became legislators as independent candidates in the House of Representatives. Senator John Madigan became an independent senator in September 2014 while Senator Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus became independent senators in November 2014 and March 2015 respectively.
In Canada, Chuck Cadman from British Columbia of Surrey North was elected to the federal parliament as an independent in 2004.
In Germany, Joachim Gauck became president in 2012.
The Legislative Council in Hong Kong is dominated by independents.
In Iceland, President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was an independent. Also, the ninth Prime Minister of Iceland, Bjorn Poroarson, was an independent.
After the 2011 elections in Ireland, there were 16 independents in the lower parliament and12 independent senators in the Upper House.
In Italy, Prime Ministers Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (1993-1994), Lamberto Dini (1995-1996), Giuliano Amato (2000 -2001) and Mario Monti (2011-2013) were independent candidates.
In Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga was elected the first female and independent President, not only for Kosovo, but the entire Balkans.
In Malaysia, there are more than four independent legislators in the parliament.
An independent candidate, Jaime Heliodoro Rodriguez Calderon, was elected governor of Nuevo Leon. He made history as the first independent candidate to win election in the country.
In the Philippines, Noli de Castro, former Vice President, ran as senator in 2001 with no political affiliation and he had the highest votes in history.
In Russia, former President Dimitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin became presidents as independents. Although Putin became the head of the United Russia Party, he is not a member of the party.
In United Kingdom, a journalist, Marthin Bell, was elected at Tatton into the House of Commons 1997 on an anti-corruption platform. He was the first independent to be elected to the Commons since 1951.
But, how popular is the clamour for independent candidacy in Nigeria? In its report, the All Progressives Congress (APC) Committee on Restructuring, led by Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai, stated that 67 per cent of respondents were opposed to independent candidacy. “There is support for independent candidacy from the Northcentral, Northeast, Southwest, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and online respondents. However, opposition to independent candidacy is stronger than support for it among respondents from the three northern zones,” it added.
Despite the seeming popular opposition to independent candidacy, the committee recommended that the APC should support its restoration, saying that the practice will widen the political space. According to the report, “the party should note that this is popular among members of the National Assembly who have already approved it as part of their constitution amendment and awaiting adoption by the Houses of Assembly.”
If independent candidacy becomes inevitable, the panel suggested that it will be necessary to introduce strong eligibility criteria and process checks to prevent abuse, especially by attention-seeking candidates who will demand their inclusion on the ballot papers and thereafter use it to create crises for the electoral process. “It is necessary and important to ensure that INEC is not inundated and overwhelmed by a large number of independent candidates, some of whom may be unserious,” the report added.
For constitutional guarantee, the panel recommended the amendment of Sections 65(2), 106 (d), 131 (c), 176 (c) and 187 of the 1999 Constitution and Section 87 of the Electoral Act, 2010. The committee pointed out that the amendment of the Electoral Act will provide strong eligibility criteria, which must be met by the independent candidates.
The committee recommended four criteria: the independent candidate should not be a member of a registered political party for at least six months before the date set for the election in which he intends to contest; his nominators must not be members of any registered party; he must pay a deposit to INEC in the same range as the non-refundable deposit fee payable by candidates sponsored by political parties, which amount shall be determined by an Act of the National Assembly; and the candidate must also meet other qualification requirements provided for by the constitution or any other law.
Former Information Minister Prince Tony Momoh said independent candidacy should not be a priority, stressing that aspirants are free to join any of the 45 political parties to realise their ambition. He said while independent candidacy may be plausible during councillorship election, an independent candidate may not make any impression at the governorship and presidential elections.
There is no shadow poll for an independent candidate. The hurdle of primary is removed. A lawyer, Henry Kelechukwu, said although the proposal is good, the bill on the independent candidacy, if it becomes law, is capable of denying the electorate the chance to vet the candidate through the primary. He said the peculiarity in Nigeria and its level of socio-political development may affect its implementation. “Our level of political development already set a faulty foundation that is going to make the bill, if passed to law, to be susceptible to abuse by politicians,” Kelechukwu added.
A two-time member of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Hon. Saka Fafunmi said independent candidacy may keep candidates running on platforms of political parties on their toes. However, he doubted the success of the option. The lawmaker from Ifako-Ijaye Constituency said: “Do you think an independent candidate can win election by having so much money? You do so by coming through a party. It is just going to be an exercise in futility.”