Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar
The ongoing merger talks amongst opposition parties may lead to the formation of a mega party by March, going by the plans of the participating parties. In this report, Shola Oyeyipo discusses the need for a major political re-engineering in the quest for a truly democratic system
Issues relating to the 2015 general election remain one of the outstanding contents that will dominate political discourse this year. Dominating such issues, however, is the ongoing discussion among opposition parties that is expected to herald the emergence of a coalition platform on which the parties will attempt to wrest power from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which has been Nigeria's ruling party since 1999.
The failure or success of the merger talks would define to a greater extent, the shape of the 2015 elections, especially the presidential stanza.
Ever before now, the opposition parties had nursed the urge to form a common front against the PDP. The attempt elicited uncommon excitement in the run up to the 2011 elections. However, like in previous attempts, it did not work; no thanks to inordinate ambitions of the individual parties itching to form alliance.
But not surprisingly, the parties are at it again. The need to give the nation a different focus, using the 2015 elections as the launch pad, is being canvassed for as the motivation for fresh merger talks. The move which had begun shortly after the 2011 elections had also led to the organisation of lectures, symposia, workshops and even seminars on how best to handle the next major election in which the opposition will not be a pushover in the contest for power.
The challenge of opposition parties in the clamour for a new Nigeria was the focus at the 2012 Leadership Newspaper Awards and lecture which held at Sheraton Hotels, Abuja. Entitled: “Is the Opposition a Serious Alternative in Nigeria”, the lecture and awards, attended by key figures in politics raised questions about the genuine intention of the political parties and challenged them on their roles in the quest for an enduring democracy.
Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar who set the ball rolling had advocated true federalism based on regional arrangement. He also made public, his worry about the powers of the president, which he said makes him the most powerful president in the world, adding that unless the constitution is amended; the Nigerian president remains the most powerful in the world.
“I also want to recall that during the 1994/95 Constitutional Conference, Dr Alex Ekwueme, Second Republic Vice-President of this federation introduced and canvassed for the concept of geo-political zones. I was among those who opposed it because I thought that Ekwueme, coming from the defunct Republic of Biafra, wanted to break up the country again.
“Now, I realise that I should have supported him because our current federal structure is clearly not working. Dr Ekwueme obviously saw what some of us, with our civil war mindset could not see at the time. There is indeed too much concentration of power and resources at the centre. And it is stifling our march to true greatness as a nation and threatening our unity because of all the abuses, inefficiencies, corruption and reactive tensions that it has been generating,” he said.
He therefore called for a review of the constitution to reflect the realities on ground. “There is need to review the structure of the Nigerian federation, preferably along the basis of the current six geo-political zones as regions and the states as provinces. The existing states structure may not suffice, as the states are too weak materially and politically to provide what is needed for good governance.”
Also, dwelling on the essence of true democracy in a federal system, former Minister of Defence, Lt-Gen. T.Y Danjuma, described state governors in the country as sole administrators and also the most powerful political bloc in Nigeria today. He said if powers of the governors were not whittled down, there would be no meaningful development. His main grouse was that the powers in the hands of the governors had made them absolute rulers in their states.
"There is nobody, including you (Atiku), that can emerge as PDP presidential candidate unless the governors want you. The governors are the most powerful group of people in the political system. Until you phase out that fact and find a solution to it, we are going nowhere," he said.
Keynote speaker, Professor Pat Utomi, who took time to dwell on the absence of ideology in the present political system described the parties as mere machines for winning. He, however, urged the parties to pursue strong institutions that would drive national growth.
As a prelude to the 2015 general election, he said progressive-minded Nigerians should build a movement that would push for social engineering, advising also that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should be an agent of positive change, to the extent that votes would translate to barometer used to gauge "regime legitimacy."
National Leader of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Senator Bola Tinubu, who also lamented the increasing cost of governance, called for the scrapping of the Senate, an arm of the National Assembly.
"We are complaining about the cost of governance but we have never considered the structure of the federation. Why do we need two Houses of National Assembly?"
Explaining that the House of Representatives is adequate as a single legislative arm by virtue of its wide membership and closeness to the people, the former Lagos State governor also wondered why INEC draws its finance on a first line charge and still lacks the powers to appoint its officers.
Tinubu said it would be ideal for INEC to appoint the Resident Electoral Commissioners so as to insulate the INEC officials from the influence of the ruling party.
The Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, who was represented by Secretary to the State Government, Ahmed Baba Jidda, blamed the bane of democracy and growth of the opposition parties on poverty.
"It’s the number one threat to any opposition becoming a serious challenger because it replaces ideologies with cash and places price tags."
He further identified lack of internal democracy as another reason why political parties have continued to face avoidable challenges in Nigeria. “It has only resulted in discontentment amongst members, thereby brewing crisis and failures as signified by loss of members and factionalisation of parties.”
Whilst the event ended with a general feeling that the opposition must come together to confront the menace the PDP is said to constitute, there was consensus on the need to restructure the political configuration of the country. But whether the politicians meant all that they said at the event was another thing altogether.
But their positions bore similarities with the submission of Julius Kiiza of the Makerere University, Uganda, who noted that viable opposition is a critical component of good governance, the rule of law and rights protection in advanced democracies that is almost taken for granted.
For him, illiberal democracies typically suffocate competitive party politics, but that what is debatable is the role of opposition parties in not just expanding the political space but ensuring strict adherence to the rule of law, respect for rights of citizens and good governance in developing a democracy.
In a clearly defined political system, opposition parties are believed to play an inexcusably critical role in shaping policy agenda, conducting civic education and checkmating corruption, often times in collaboration with the media. By their roles, they are faced with the need to correct such moves that constrain the democratisation of the nation building process.
Indeed, ruling parties at every level bully other parties, using state resources. Sometimes, members of the opposition are victims of legal and political restrictions, deliberately created by the incumbent regimes to limit the effectiveness on the political space. Even then, it is expected that opposition parties find a way to stay with the people by constantly canvassing their interest.
Unfortunately, the problem faced by opposition parties seems prevalent in virtually all African democracies. Williams Gumede, a South African, while commenting on some of the problems facing the country’s democracy, wrote that: “The Achilles heel of South African democracy is the lack of relevant, effective and credible opposition party that talks to the country’s long-suffering black majority. This void had led to extraordinary complacency in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and is one of the main reasons for the country’s deepening political crisis.”
Back home in Nigeria, politics of ideology is generally lacking as evident in the demeanour of the players. Even those who profess the style of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, amongst others, had fallen short of his ideals in the true sense of it.
As a result, the present crop of opposition parties in Nigeria is believed to be ineffective and not the kind of watchdog that could facilitate observable change in the policies of the ruling parties, either at the state or national level.
A major case in point is the aftermath of the 2011 presidential election won by President Goodluck Jonathan. His victory was particularly pronounced in the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) dominated South-west states, except Osun where the ACN government in the state worked against the PDP's interest in continuation of the power tussle between the two parties.
The outcome of the election was yet a manifestation of the failed alliance talks at the time. Some even described it as a betrayal by the ACN which allegedly played along with Jonathan’s PDP at the expense of its own candidate, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu.
It was no wonder, therefore, that after the presidential election, there were attempts to lay claim to Jonathan’s victory in the South-west. At the forefront of such claims and counter-claims in Ondo State, for instance, were former Labour Party Chairman, Chief Olaiya Oni and former Minister of Defence, Adetokunbo Kayode, as well as the PDP leadership in the state.
Shortly after the election results were made public, Oni had told journalists that his party mobilised the state for the president. Therefore, the credit for the PDP presidential candidate's victory in the state should be given to his party and not the president’s party men in Ondo. Indeed, the LP did not field a candidate for the presidential poll and had adopted Jonathan for the exercise.
In Lagos State too, then PDP chairman, Mr. Setonji Koshedo, said it was wrong for the ACN in the state to claim credit for the success Jonathan recorded during the presidential election. Koshedo was reacting to ACN’s state publicity secretary, Mr. Joe Igbokwe, who had claimed on a television programme that his party mobilised the state for Jonathan. Besides, the ACN leadership had also maintained that the Lagos electorate voted for Jonathan and not the PDP, subtly denying sell-out.
But the PDP boss insisted that the ACN couldn’t have mobilised the state for the PDP, especially that it had its own candidate for the election. Koshedo, therefore, held that his party earned the victory based on the support mobilisation it did for the president and the maturity of Lagos voters to decipher who they really wanted.
Indication that some of these parties actually relaxed their political tentacles for the PDP-led central government was manifest because about a week earlier, the ACN had won virtually all the elections held before the presidential election, more so that the Jonathan election had also been preceded by a meeting between the ACN leaders and the president in Lagos. It therefore went to show that a deal had been struck.
Many were convinced that the ACN-PDP parley was a proof that the national leaders of the party led by Tinubu, had sold out. Ironically, a similar but badly navigated alliance had then cost the progressives in the South-west on the platform of Alliance for Democracy (AD) their governorship seats in the 2003, except Lagos.
Ineffective opposition is however not limited to politics at the national level. What goes on at the state level is as debilitating as it is worrisome. Opposition in many of the states is practically non-existent.
In Lagos, for instance, the PDP appears to be in disarray to offer any concrete criticisms to the policies and programmes of ACN's Governor Babatunde Fashola. Much as the PDP tries to fight and politicise such policies like the traffic law, which has restricted the activities of commercial motorcyclists popularly known as ‘Okada riders’ on major roads in the state, its efforts remain ineffective on account of internal divisions.
Obviously, the ban on Okada is not the only issue that the PDP can rely on to put the ACN–led government on the spot, but its inability to put its house in order has remained its undoing.
The scenario in Kogi is worse. The PDP administration in the state is constantly accused of not showing required commitment to tackle the growing rate of poverty, unemployment, insecurity, infrastructural decay and yet, the leading opposition party in the state, the ACN, has not stepped up its game to the extent that the governor, Captain Idris Wada, who recently survived a fatal accident, acts in ways that opposition parties seem helpless.
The Kogi government, for example, has received several billions of naira as monthly allocation from the Federation Account in the past 11 months but the people say there is no tangible development to show for it. Even then, the ACN through its State Chairman, Alhaji Haddy Ametuo, would issue tardy press statements on one or two minor issues but without a bite as an opposition party.
In Nasarawa State where the opposition (mainly the PDP) is threatening to impeach Governor Umaru Tanko Almakura over allegations of incompetence predicated on violence and insecurity in the state, the move is deemed more vindictive than a genuine intention at checking government.
It was more of a political attack since the state House of Assembly is populated by members of the PDP who were spearheading the plot. There has not been any alternative presented to show how better the oppositin could have managed the state, rather, it is the plot to oust the administration.
The situation in Ekiti State presents an even interesting scenario. While the opposition PDP is still battling self rediscovery in the countdown to next election, the ruling ACN has begun to undo itself in what observers have described as self-destruct all in the bid to determine who holds the ace in the election due next year.
Factionalisation and litigation remain the lot of Ogun PDP while the Senator Ibikunle Amosun contends with politics of cynicism and sabotage. The case of Oyo PDP, as it were, appears seemingly irredeemable owing to lack of coordination and deep seated distrust that seems to be reigning supreme.
The pattern is the same across the states. The truth, however, is that opposition parties in Nigeria are weakened, both in terms of concept and operation by lack of internal democracy, the absence of an ideology, factional bickering over succession, as well as personality cultism built around some of the founding fathers. Some members of the opposition even go as far as seeking political appointments with the winning parties at the expense of their parties, either for survival or sheer relevance.
This is why the ongoing merger talks are deemed crucial in the light of the emerging political situation ahead of 2015. Despite previous failed attempts, former Head of State and three-time presidential candidate, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, has expressed optimism that the proposed merger amongst the ACN, All Nigerian Peoples’ Party (ANPP) and his Congress for Political Change (CPC) is capable of ousting the PDP-led Federal Government.
Buhari who spoke recently with newsmen at his Kaduna home, said merger plans were on course and that the proposed merger would defeat the PDP in 2015.
“Now, the time is on our side. The ACN, the CPC and the ANPP have realised now that to defeat PDP, opposition parties must come together. The merger is on course,” he said.
He attributed the growing insecurity in the country to injustice and the rigging that often characterise elections. “The type of rigging pattern perfected by the PDP must be stopped. People must be allowed to vote for candidates of their choice. If our election processes are free, fair and credible, there will be no problem in Nigeria. But the PDP government is making the country very difficult with its rigging pattern.”
In similar tone, the ACN, through it National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the PDP was “suffering from deep paranoia over the ongoing merger talks,” claiming that the PDP through its spokesperson, Mr. Olisa Metuh, had resorted to downright lies and abuse of the opposition parties just to derail the ongoing talks.
But in spite of optimism that had greeted the alliance talks by the prospective merging political parties, the PDP has said that it is not bothered by the planned merger of the leading opposition.
According to Metuh, “we are not bothered or afraid of the planned merger talks or merger of some opposition political parties; we are expectant and will continue to wish them well for the overall interest of the growth and development of democracy in Nigeria, hoping and wishing that the merger will lead to the growth of democracy in Nigeria.”
While noting that what Nigeria needs is not a political party or merger of political parties that is based on religious, tribal or ethnic sentiment, the PDP admitted that the nation needed issue-based and strong opposition, which it said is capable of advancing democracy.
“We need a virile opposition political party and not a political party that will be promoting region or the propagation of religious sentiments. For now, the PDP remains the only national party that is promoting issues of national unity and development. We certainly cannot be against the merger talks because we are already on ground.”
Against this background, while advising his party to provide a stronger opposition that would take over from the PDP, the National Youth Leader, ACN, South Africa Chapter, Mr. Rotimi Oyelowo, observed that: "The onus is on us in the opposition to provide alternative government. There are so many things that can be done better than how they are being done. In fact, a party like the ACN is better positioned to provide Nigerians, both home and abroad, with quality opposition especially with the exemplary governance styles of the party's governors."
He suggested that scholarly-experts with relevant knowledge in areas where Nigeria is obviously having setbacks should be contacted to provide a workable blueprint that could help move the nation forward.
"Where this advice is not taken, they form some of the easiest basis to outdo any government during elections because by showing the weaknesses of any serving government through constructive criticisms, such government is bound to do well. If they don’t, it is from there that the people will determine which of the parties we have is better," he said.
Certainly, the need for a virile opposition within the framework of good governance and resounding party politics cannot be over-emphasised. However, the sincerity of the political leadership to drive through the process with a view to building not just a sustainable political system but earn the trust of the public in the collective but onerous task is fundamental.