Politics Without Ideology?

03 Apr 2013

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The Indian sage, Mahatma Gandhi, warned mankind against seven “social sins”. One of them relevant to the present discussion is “Politics without Principle”. In his philosophically loaded admonition, Gandhi listed the other  “social sins” as “Wealth without Work; Pleasure without Conscience; Science without Humanity; Knowledge without Character; Commerce without Morality and Worship without Sacrifice”. Gandhi quoted this list in “Young India” in 1925, but it was as if the sage was being clairvoyant about humanity in 2013.

In a way, what Gandhi said about politics in the list of “social sins” encapsulates the issues in the debate that Professor Chukwuma Soludo seemed to be promoting when he wrote inter alia on this page two days ago as follows: “A political party without a consistent ideological predisposition is like an individual who does not believe in anything, and that is dangerous for the country”.

The former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria was actually responding briefly to a piece by Zainab Usman entitled “APC: The Game Changer?”  Usman, a doctoral candidate in International Development at the Oxford University, was herself responding to Soludo’s column entitled “Where is the Political Party for the Nigerian Economy?”  It is quite healthy for the public sphere that this debate is taking place at a time when politics is conducted as if it has no content more than the ambition of politicians.

It should interest those public intellectuals who erroneously posit that the issue of ideology in politics is only a socialist/Marxist preoccupation that it is Soludo who is making this vital point rigorously for the sake of political development of Nigeria.  After all, given his well-known neo-liberal preferences in matters of economic policy, no ideologically literate person can accuse Soludo of being left -wing. Some of us would rather readily plead guilty to the charges any day. But that is a different matter all together.

Now, some politicians seek power in the most ferocious way. But then power is not an end in itself; it is only a means to an end. For some, of course, the ends are their pocket and other oppressive and exploitative purposes. However, as Soludo aptly reminded us, Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution defines the end of politics as the “security and welfare of the people”.

How to achieve this constitutionally assigned “primary purpose” of government is what should distinguish Party A on the right from Party B at the centre or Party C on the left. No matter how you approach the debate, that is clearly and irrefutably an ideological matter.  Even parties on the same locus in the ideological spectrum may have different programmes and policies of achieving basically the same socio-economic strategy as it is now being played out by the Conservative and Liberal parties in the United Kingdom.

Similarly, the strategic goals of the Republicans and Democrats in the United States are fundamentally the same on security and foreign policy as both are parties of the right, but their policy approaches could be different.  The important thing is that there are programmes and policies in place.
It is doubtless a remarkable public service to focus public debate on the ideological content of politics in Nigeria today. A political party should have ideologically defined platforms about which its members are passionate. 

It is pretty premature to be discussing the 2015 election; it would be healthier for the polity if the attention of the public is concentrated at which programme and policies could work rather just the geo-political origin of who should be President. In the period between elections, political parties perform the other crucial function of mobilising people around the programmes in their strategy; they articulate their policy options whether as parties in power or in opposition. The parties outside power are supposed to offer alternatives strategies to what the party in power puts on display. Parties should be required to articulate their preferred strategies of development. They should tell the people what programmes are embodied in the strategy and what policy steps would be taken to carry out the programmes. Such activities by political parties would enhance the nation’s political development more than the present culture of organising parties as mere electoral vehicles to board on the route to power.

The decline of politics has its terrible repercussions on development. It is taking its toll on the management of the political economy. First, it has engendered public cynicism about politics and politicians. This is because the people cannot see the sense of public purpose on the part of many politicians. And this is grossly unfair to some personalities who are in politics primarily for service and who in fact make personal sacrifices (moral and material) to play politics

. It is very important to stress that despite the despair on the part of the people there are some politicians with a sense of public purpose; these are the oases in the desert of Nigerian polity. Secondly, it is because the ideology of development counts for nothing in politics that the vacuum so created is now filled with ethnic and religious ideologies. Instead of mobilising the people around issues of development on horizontal basis, the elite are busy manipulating the people vertically using regional, ethnic and religious prejudices. And this is utterly dangerous. Thirdly, the parties are not growing because of their programmatic emptiness. It is worse that some are even glorifying absence of ideology.  Parties don’t grow in an ideological vacuum.

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) prides itself as the “largest party in Africa”. When you ask party enthusiasts this basic question:  what does the party stand for? You are likely going to get some answers to the effect that the party will rule for the next 50 years or so.  Now, that is no programme. In the last 14 years of being in power at the federal level, there is hardly any programme or policy option that has consistently defined the party. Here we are not talking of empty slogans and acronyms. The structure of the party ought to be built to defend its strategy and programmes. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this utter lack of programmatic focus more than the way the PDP chairmanship changes like the weather. Every President elected on the platform of the party produces his own tailor-made chairman. And when the political size of the presidency fails to match that of the chairmanship, the chairman is swiftly replaced. So, instead of the chairman leading the party in making sure the President keep to the party’s philosophy in programme implementation, the President reshapes the party in his own image.  

Without programmes and policies attracting the passion of party leaders and members, the structure cannot be strengthened. Instead of uniting the party member in Sokoto with his compatriot in Calabar around the party’s programme on primary healthcare and basic education, the political elite would rather divide them on the geo-political calculation of which region or religion should produce the next President. The question should be this: what does the party stand for in economic policies, social issues and the place of Nigeria in the world? Parties should not just be built around the personality of their presidential candidates.

To talk of ideologically neutral politics is in itself a sort of ideological pretension. There is a point that the public intellectuals who purvey the shibboleths of the end of ideology seem not to realise in their postulation about politics.  Put in the simplest terms, when you say politics can be played without ideology you are more or less saying that you can play politics without ideas. The bitter consequence of this mindset of some intellectuals and those on the political field is the huge crisis of governance bedeviling this nation. The truth is that some ideas must rule the conduct of those in power.

The ideas could be backward and stale; they could also be progressive and fresh. But a vacuum of ideas cannot exist for long in a society. If the ideas promoting social security and poverty eradication are neither ruling the land nor competing to rule, then the ideas that fuel rent-seeking, looting of the public treasury, conspicuous consumption, social insensitivity and of course, Boko Haram, will occupy the ideological space as we are experiencing today. On a positive note, it is worth remarking that in the national climate of despair undeniable progress is being made in some states in the development of healthcare, education, infrastructure and value reorientation about governance in general terms.

This point will be later amplified on this page with examples. Meanwhile, the relevance of this point to the present discussion is that when you talk to the governors making progressive strides, you cannot but notice the social-democratic temperament in their perspective to governance. That is ideology. It is intriguing that these governors belong to different parties. The challenge is how to reorient the polity so that the President and governors would be implementing the well-articulated programmes of their respective parties. That is an ideological question for the left, right and centre.

The foregoing is merely a sketch to the context in which the debate which the emergence of the All Progressives Congress (APC) has reinvigorated. While the merger process to register the APC is under way, the sponsors of the proposed party should focus on programmatic content of the party. It should actually be a merger of programmes and not merely a merger of the ambitions of its leaders. The thinking about programme should be greater than the worry about the irritation caused by those manipulating the abbreviation, APC.

It is the huge expectation out there about the content of the party in terms of alternative strategy, programmes and policies that should worry the leading lights of APC such as General Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and Asiwaju Bola Tinubu of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). There is an urgent need for a progressive alternative in Nigeria that is nationally based and politically formidable. Such a party cannot afford to be without a programmatic content based on some ideas. So much for the end of ideology!

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