Most of the primaries are over and as I argued last week, they exposed the depth of aversion to internal party democracy in most of our parties. The simple principle enunciated in the Electoral Act that all illegible party members wishing to contest in the primaries have a right to and that during the nomination process, the person who receives the highest votes cast is the valid candidate was widely violated. My fervent prayer now is that in spite of the lapses, we can now move into a phase of vigorous issue-based politics. We need to do that because we have never had so many issues troubling the lives of Nigerians as we do today.
The ideology question and the left/right divide have largely disappeared from Nigerian political parties and their discourse. The parties have therefore been focused on the issue of personalities, religious, ethnicity and which geopolitical zone should “control” power. I believe however that ideology matters in Nigeria. Nigerians are and have been profoundly opposed to the liberal economic policies articulated by and imposed on the country by the Bretton Woods institutions and sustained by successive regimes. The regime of austerity, privatisation and state abdication of its responsibilities for education, health and social welfare are of vital importance to Nigerians. Political parties, if they speak to the issues of concern to Nigerians, have responsibility to speak to these issues but they don’t. The Constitution requires that all political parties draw their manifestoes from Chapter Two of the Constitution on the 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 produce them to satisfy a constitutional obligation that they must have manifestoes.
The key challenge for political party development and deepening democracy is therefore to bring issue-based politics back to the political 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 and nomads. 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 or issues. This needs to change.
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, as we are witnessing currently, is marked by violence and even 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. The fact that parties refuse to follow their formal procedures for the election of their leaders and candidates means that the currency with which politics is played remains manipulation, violence, thuggery, and money.
As we approach the 2015 elections, we find ourselves in a situation in which our existence as a nation is under threat, and for once, those seeking political office need to engage us as citizens on how they plan to save Nigeria. The insurrection in the North East has been intensifying and for the first time since the Biafran civil war, Nigerian territory is being conquered and kept by secessionists. The Goodluck Jonathan Administration has told Nigerians a zillion times that that they will defeat the insurgency with no discussion on how and no critique of the persistent failure that has been displayed over the past five years. The other parties seeking to replace the current Administration should engage Nigerians on the specifics of how they plan to defeat the insurgency. In choosing our next president in particular, we need to know their security strategy not only on Boko Haram but also on the massive theft of petroleum resources in the Niger Delta, the growing crisis of rural banditry and cattle rustling in the North West, growing inter-communal conflicts in the North Central and kidnapping in the South.
Political parties and candidates also need to engage Nigerians on their programmes for dealing with the economic crisis provoked by the dramatic collapse of the price of petroleum. Over the coming years, political leaders at all levels, federal, state and local government will find that they can no longer sustain current levels of public expenditure and two things need to happen. The first is that of a serious combat against public corruption so that public funds can be used for the public goods. The second is the macro-economic framework they propose to address serious shortfalls already occurring in public revenue. The question of the Sovereign Wealth Fund and Excess Crude Account are on top of the agenda and we need to hear what is on offer.
Finally, Nigeria is today facing an unprecedented degradation of its health, sanitation and educational systems and those seeking to exercise power over us need to engage with us on how we can return to the policy ideals enunciated in Chapter Two of our Constitution. Nigeria is also facing dramatic population dynamics in which the fertility and growth rates in the North is over double what it is in the South posing structural shifts that are bound to continue to strongly influence development and conflict dynamics in the country. Our prospective leaders need to start a conversation on the future of our children and grandchildren rather than focusing only on what they can steal today. Yes indeed, the time for issue-based politics is here and we would like to hear what candidates are proposing so that we can make wise choices.