Opinion (25/11/16): The threat of a new political party, by Reuben Abati
When aggrieved politicians within the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) decided to join forces with members of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and the All Progressives Peoples Alliance (APGA) to form the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013, they had well-defined, if not so clearly stated, even if poorly conceived objectives: to send President Goodluck Jonathan out of power, displace the PDP which had clearly become a dominating hegemonic party, exert vengeance and offer the people an alternative.
The triumph of the APC in the 2015 elections resulting in victory at the Presidential level, in 23 states out of 36, and also in the legislature, state and federal, was propelled on the wings of the people’s embrace of this slogan of change. Change became the aphrodisiac of Nigeria’s search for democratic progress. The new party’s promises were delivered with so much certainty and cock-suredness. Those who were promised free meals were already salivating before casting the first vote.
The permanently opportunistic players in Nigeria’s private sector could be seen trading across the lines as they have always done. Everyone knew the PDP had too much internal baggage to deal with. The opposition exploited this to the fullest and they were helped in no small measure, not just by the party’s implosion, but also the offensiveness of the claims by certain elements within the PDP that their party will rule Nigeria forever. This arrogance had gone down the rank and file resulting in bitter conflicts among the various big men who dominated the party. The party failed from within, and even after losing the 2015 elections, it has further failed to recover from the effects of the factionalism that demystified it and drove it out of its hegemonic comfort zone. It took the PDP 16 years to get that hubristic moment. It is taking the APC a much shorter time to get to that same moment.
The displacement of the PDP gave the impression that Nigeria’s political space, hitherto dominated by one party, and a half, out of over 30 political parties with fears of a possible authoritarian one-party system, had become competitive. But the victory of a new party over a dominant political party in power such as occurred in 2015, has not delivered the much-expected positives: instead, questions have been raised about the depth of democratic change and the quality of Nigeria’s political development. The disappointment on both scores has been telling.
The ruling APC has not been able to live up to expectations. In less than two years in power, it has been behaving not like the PDP, but worse. Not a day passes without a pundit or a party member or a civil society activist suggesting that the only way forward is the formation of a new political party. There are over 30 registered political parties in Nigeria; no one is saying that these political parties should be reorganized and made more functional; the received opinion is that a new political party would have to replace the APC.
The implied message is the subject of political science. Many political parties in Africa, not just in Nigeria, lack substance. They reflect the problematic nature of party politics in the continent, even after the third wave of the continent’s democratic experience. Party organizations are weak, their organs are inchoate, their fortunes are mercurial. In Nigeria, this seems to be more of a post-military rule reality, for in the First and Second Republics, some of Nigeria’s political parties appeared to be more relatively people-based and socially-rooted. The military left behind an authoritarian streak at the heart of Nigeria’s party politics, producing political parties since 1999 that do not fully reflect or assimilate the people’s yearnings.
There isn’t therefore yet in place a mass-based, people-driven political party to replace the elite-based hegemonic parties we have, despite early efforts in the past in this direction by the likes of Aminu Kano and his People’s Redemption Party (PRP), Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s Movement of the People (MOP), Tunji Braithwaite’s Nigeria Advance Party (NAP), Gani Fawehinmi’s National Conscience Party (NCP) and Wole Soyinka’s Democratic Front for the People’s Federation. There was also the Labour Party, mentioned separately here, advisedly, because it ended up abandoning its social democratic base, and became like the regular parties, an elite cabal, with the initial progressives who championed it on the platform of the Nigeria Labour Congress, moving ideologically to the right in an attempt to align with the Nigerian mainstream and its ready benefits. A profile of this political party and its initial principal promoters would reveal just how alimentary Nigerian politics is.
Our immediate concern, however, is to argue that those who are raising the flag of a new political party as the answer to the emerging failure of the APC and the growth of factions among its members, and by extension, the spreading despair in the land, are missing the point. They are not promising any revolutionary change nor are they interested in deepening Nigeria’s democratic change. Permit me to quote Danjuma Gambo, of the Enugu Chapter of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) who reportedly said: “A new political party is what we need. A new party with new plan, (and an) ideology that will bring succor to the sufferings of Nigerians is the answer.”
Gambo deserves some credit: he phrases the matter delicately as a commentary on the incumbent dominating political party and government. His “what we need”, “new plan” “ideology” means change, another form of change to end, he tells us, “the sufferings (sic) of Nigerians”. We ask him, although he seems to have answered the question already: what happened to the change that happened in 2015? So we ask another question: if the formation of a new political party did not solve Nigeria’s problems since 2015, what is the guarantee that a new party would gain power and perform better than the ruling APC? Professional politicians don’t comment on the matter as carefully as Gambo attempted. They are brazen about it and they have been loud too. They make it sound like a threat and a given solution. When you hear them boasting that a new political party is on the way, you are left in no doubt that they are issuing a threat. But is a new political party the solution to Nigeria’s foreign exchange crisis or the people’s angst?
The conundrum is easy to resolve. It is easy for the political elite in Nigeria to change their garments, sans remorse, ideology or sentiment and that is how some of the most prominent political figures in Nigeria today have changed party membership cards more than five times in the last 17 years. The politics of elitism in Nigeria is simply about access to power, position and privileges. It has nothing to do with the people’s interests. The APC is in crisis for this reason, very much like the PDP, and even the smaller parties, because these are political parties of big men of influence. Conflict results when they are not allowed to exercise that influence by other competing big men, who are similarly if not equally driven by ego, religion and superior ethnic considerations.
The exercise of influence as a party big man follows a known pattern: after electoral victory, the big man wants the spoils of victory; he wants positions for his followers, contracts for wives and children and the freedom to have a say in the new government. Any attempt to shut him down, oppose him, or sideline him or her, immediately creates a crisis within the party. The greater the number of such big persons who feel short-changed and marginalized, the greater the chances of such factionalism that would trigger threats of a new political party. New groups can create new tendencies in society, but in Nigerian politics, new groups don’t really emerge, it is the same recycled set moving from one political party to a new or another one, looking for benefits.
Poverty, low literacy and the weakness of public institutions make the people vulnerable. The people embrace slogans and the dividends of what is now known in Nigeria as “stomach infrastructure.” They are deceived by the politicians’ display of affection and empathy. Because they are hungry, they accept money to attend rallies to help create an illusion of populism and acceptability. On election day, they sell their votes and sign off their freedom. After the election, they are too ashamed to speak up or they compensate for their psychological distress by subscribing to the politics of vengeance. A patrimonial and neo-patrimonial political system such as we run in Nigeria promotes nothing but difference, disappointment and distrust. Those who are plotting to create a new political party should be told that the harvest is predictable: more intense leadership competition, high level conflict among big men, greater deception, increased difference and tension within the polity. Political parties are governed by rules: the Nigerian political system operates above rules. It is possibly one of the most Machiavellian in Africa.
What do we need? Not recycled politicians posing as new party men and women. But this: effective party organizations, like the NCNC, the NEPU, the NPC, the AG, APGA, UPN, UMBC of old which belonged to the people and reflected their aspirations. The only difference should be a necessary disconnect with the politics of ethnicity at the heart of the party formation process in Africa which, as seen, defeats the objectives of true democracy and modernization. Institutionalization of the political party system will also ensure stability within the democratic order: after a bitter political contest in the United States in 2016, the two dominant political parties – The Republican and the Democratic have remained stable, and the country is being projected as supreme.
We should end this then where we started: leadership is the principal challenge. Until we sort that out, Nigeria’s politics will remain trapped in the throes of ethnicity, patrimonialism, authoritarian dominance, the threat of system volatility and fragmentation and the politics of revenge.
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