The Poor Health of Our Parties
Jibrin Ibrahim, Deepening Democracy, Daily Trust, 28th April 2017
Last week, the ruling All Progressives Congress, (APC), once again postponed the meeting of its National Caucus and National Executive Committee, (NEC), earlier scheduled for April 24 and 25, 2017 respectively. The serious rifts within the ruling party have become so deep that the party leadership has the double fear of being thrown out of office and bringing into the public domain the antagonism between the Buhari, Tinubu, Saraki and El-Rufai/Amaechi factions of the party. The last NEC "meeting" of the party was on July 3rd, 2015 in which the fear of factionalism forced them not to discuss anything and all they did was smile, take photographs and disperse. The former ruling party, the PDP has been completely crippled as it has been divided right down the middle by the factional fight to finish between the Makarfi and Sheriff groups. This fight has in a sense been a great opportunity for the APC that has been saved from a coherent onslaught by the main opposition party. This might be good for the APC but its certainly bad for our democracy. We need an operational party system that can anchor our democracy. The Nigerian party system has been transformed from a one-party dominant political system into a two-party dominant system but when both parties are seriously sick; it's democracy that suffers.
The other concern about are party system is that the ideology question and the left/right divide have largely disappeared from Nigerian political parties. The implication is that conflicts that arise are focused on the issue of personalities, ethnic groups, geopolitical zones and the control of power. And yet, I believe that ideology matters in Nigeria. Most Nigerians are profoundly opposed to the liberal economic policy articulated and imposed on the country by the Bretton Woods institutions over the past three decades. Political parties can therefore articulate the vision of Nigerians but they don't. The Constitution requires that all political parties draw their manifestoes from Chapter Two of the Constitution on Directive Principles of State Policy. That section of the Constitution places a lot of obligation on the state to provide for the welfare of citizens. It is virtually a social democratic manifesto. Party manifestos however elicit little interest or debate because the parties simply prepare them to satisfy a constitutional obligation. The key challenge for political party development is therefore to bring issue based politics back to the agenda. During the Second Republic for example, the UPN was known for its commitment to free education, the NPN for its housing policy and the PRP for its opposition to taxing the peasantry. It is difficult today to associate any issue with any political party. The motivation for engagement in party activities in Nigeria today is simple – power and money. The motivation for political contest is dominance and control not ideology of issues.
Civility is one quality that is largely absent in political party life. The most important aspect of the internal functioning of political parties in Nigeria since 1978 is that they have a persistent tendency to factionalise and fractionalise. As people go into politics to seek power and money, the battle for access is very intense and destructive. Thugs, violence and betrayal are often the currency for political party engagement. Indeed, the period leading to each election is marked by the assassination of party leaders and contestants for various offices. The reality in the political field is that political 'godfathers' who use money and violence to control the political process essentially operate many political parties. They decide on party nominations and campaign outcomes and when candidates try to steer an independent course, violence becomes an instrument to deal with them. The result is that they raise the level of electoral violence and make free and fair elections difficult. Although parties have formal procedures for the election of their leaders, these procedures are often disregarded; when they are adhered to, the godfathers have means of determining the outcomes. The level of violence, thuggery, and monetization of Nigerian politics provides a significant disincentive for women and people who respect themselves to take part as candidates. The monetization aspect of the political process also makes young people less likely to influence politics in an effective way due to their lower level of access to resources.
These problems are not new. Indeed, given the general lack of civility in party politics and the prevailing culture of violence and invective, the Babalakin Commission of Inquiry into the 1983 elections stated in clear terms that:
"The nature of politics and political parties in the country is such that many men and women of ability and character simply keep out of national politics. For the most part, political parties are dominated by men of influence who see funding of political parties as an investment that must yield rich dividends."
This assessment made by Justice Babalakin 32 years ago remains largely true. The fundamental objective of political party development should be to reverse this trend and get more people with ideas and vision to integrate the leadership of political parties but it has simply not been easy as party barons have retained the capacity to shut down doors.
This week, the International Republic Institute held a workshop to reflect on another serious handicap of our party system, the lack of internal party democracy. While there are rules on primaries and internal party elections enshrined the Electoral Act, parties often ignore, twist or otherwise subvert the law to arrive at candidates through processes of selection, negotiation, or manipulation. The principle of zoning, in terms of providing equal opportunities by geographical area, sometimes serves to disenfranchise candidates who might otherwise contest. At the level of the party system, several key challenges continue to restrict democratic party competition, including lack of consensus on the legal framework regulating political parties, poor relationships between parties and INEC, lack of civility and inter-party dialogue, lack of cohesion in political parties leading to frequent "cross carpeting" between parties, a lack of ideological and policy orientation in the contest for power between parties, significant barriers to the participation of women and the youth in leadership and decision-making processes within political parties.
The workshop reviewed the root causes of the lack of internal party democracy and the central argument that I made in my presentation was that essentially, Nigerian parties do not have members. Party bosses and barons share member's cards among themselves and when the time for conventions and primaries arrive, they simply bus in people captured by their so-called political structures. Structures in the Nigerian political lexicon refers to patron client relations in which the barons retain clients who they pay for to come to conventions and vote in particular ways that they have been directed to do. Outcomes of conventions are therefore not determined by the popularity of candidates but by who is able to obtain the "right" to deliver delegates. This absence of democratic practices within political parties impacts of the wider political system because people who do not emerge democratically within their parties are unlikely to engage in democratic practices in the wider political field.
Historically, political parties got into the bad habit of refusing to practice internal party democracy because of the prevalence of the culture of electoral fraud in our history. Precisely because so many parties routinely plan to bribe, shoot and rig themselves into power, the "popularity principle" that encourages parties to play internal democracy is largely absent. Since 2011 however, the integrity of our elections have been improving steadily and as the culture of free, fair and credible elections consolidates, parties that impose unpopular candidates would increasingly pay the price of losing in elections. It is important therefore for parties to start imbibing the culture of internal party democracy not just because that is the norm imposed by the Electoral Act but also because it is good for them.
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