The notion and politics of 'consensus candidacy
Since Atiku Abubakar was declared the 'consensus' candidate of the Northern presidential aspirants in the PDP, there has been a lot of aggressive exchange of ideas over the notion of 'consensus candidacy'. While some have condemned the exercise, which was carried out under the auspices of the Adamu Ciroma-led Northern Political Leadership Forum, as either undemocratic or an unwelcome ethnicisation of our politics, others believe the consensus arrangement is legitimate and laudable. The Vice President Namadi Sambo reportedly claimed recently that the process that threw up Atiku Abubakar as NPLF's consensus candidate was 'illegal'. He reportedly insisted that 'there is no consensus candidate,' in the PDP or the North, and if any exists for the North, it should be him.
Several issues are raised by the claims and counter claims over Atiku's 'consensus' candidacy.
One, in the controversy over whether Atiku Abubakar is the consensus candidate of the North or not, very little effort is made to define the notion of 'consensus candidate'. 'Consensus' simply means an opinion or position reached by a group as a whole. Following from this, a 'consensus candidate' is one selected or elected to represent a grouping, tendency or ideological belief. A resort to a 'consensus' candidacy is often predicated on a premise that if several candidates representing the same tendency or principle compete against another candidate who represents a different interest, the chances of electoral victory are diminished. Organisations that are not formally political can also come together to present a common or consensus front on issues. It can in fact be argued that the whole essence of such ethno-regional groupings as the Ohaneze, Afenifere and Arewa Consultative Forum is to articulate and present consensus positions on issues that affect them.
Two, because a political party is an agglomeration of various interests, it is quite normal for groupings and tendencies within a party to reach an agreement among themselves to present a common front on issues. In the defunct NCNC for instance, the Zikist movement represented an ideological tendency that was often at variance with the political inclinations of the party's leadership. Again in the Babangida-created SDP, Atiku Abubakar emerged as the 'consensus' candidate of the Musa Yaradua-led PF grouping, which later persuaded Atiku to step down for Abiola who then became the 'consensus candidate' of the PF and other groupings in the contest for SDP's presidential ticket against Babagana Kingibe, which Abiola won with a very slim margin. In the 2003 presidential election, the AD decided not to field a candidate and chose instead to adopt Olusegun Obasanjo as its 'consensus candidate'.
Three, it is possible for a grouping that represents a tendency within a political party to make generalisations about its consensus positions. For instance, when the Zikist movement decided on 'positive action', it was possible for it to claim that it was representing Nigerians dissatisfied with the relatively gradualist approach of the NCNC leadership on the question of independence for the country because its position certainly resonated well with the sentiments of some Nigerians across the country's ethnic, religious and political fault lines. Similarly, it is possible for Atiku's supporters to claim that the basis on which the consensus arrangement was negotiated was the PDP's zoning and that the principles this embodies for them such as respect for the party's rules, honour, integrity and protection of minority interests transcend the issue of North versus South, which on a face value, zoning seems to purvey. Based on this, they can argue that Atiku is the consensus candidate of all Nigerians who stand for those principles.
Jonathan has also been chosen as the 'consensus candidate' of a number of groupings - South West PDP, South East Governors and South East Houses of Assembly etc. It is possible to articulate the reasons for the adoption of Jonathan by these groupings and then frame the forthcoming PDP primaries as a direct contest between the principles represented by both zoning and anti-zoning arguments. In this sense, both Jonathan and Atiku could be said to be national 'consensus candidates', over a given set of conflicting principles.
Four, it is puerile to argue that consensus candidacy is undemocratic. It is not. In all political climes, it is not unusual for one or more candidates to step down for a person they feel will have better electoral chances. In terms of democratic value, there is no difference between one or more candidates stepping down for a candidate - as Dr Odili and others were 'forced' by Obasanjo to do for Umaru Yaradua in 2007 - and the Northern political Forum facilitating the process of three candidates stepping down for Atiku. A consensus arrangement also played out in 1999 when prominent Yoruba leaders facilitated the emergence of Olu Falae as their preferred presidential candidate against the late Bola Ige under the platform of the AD. Similarly in 2006, Edwin Clarke and others formed what they called the South South Political Leaders Forum to present a 'consensus candidate' from the South South in 2007. It is believed that pressures from the Edwin Clarke-led Forum partly influenced the choice of Goodluck Jonathan, who is from the South South, as the running mate of the late Umaru Yaradua in the 2007 presidential election.
Just as it is wrong to regard a consensus arrangement as undemocratic, it is a misuse of language to regard it as 'illegal'. If it is illegal, what law of the land does it contravene?
Five, if the other three candidates in the NPLF's consensus arrangement - Ibrahim Babangida, Gusau and Saraki - decide later to pursue their presidential ambitions under different political parties, that will not mean that the consensus deal has flopped because the essence of the arrangement was to pull together their resources to defeat Jonathan in the PDP primaries. The consensus arrangement will only be said to have flopped if at least one of the three candidates decides to re-enter the race as a PDP candidate or works against the interest of Atiku in the PDP primaries. If Atiku does not defeat Jonathan in the primaries and one or all of the three other candidates re-enter the race, it will not be a defeat of the consensus arrangement but a continuation of the candidates' struggle to defend the principles which the party's zoning arrangement represent to them. In this respect, newspaper headlines that the consensus arrangement is on the verge of collapsing based on speculations that the other candidates in the consensus deal could re-enter the race on the platform of other parties, is misplaced.
Jideofor Adibe (