By Chukwuma Charles Soludo
In a multi-party democracy, political parties are the vehicles for acquiring power, and for governance and development. For any democracy to endure, the parties must deliver prosperity to the citizens. A seminal article by Prezeworsk and his colleagues in 1996 concluded that “Once a country has a democratic regime, its level of economic development has a very strong effect on the probability that democracy will survive… Democracy can be expected to last an average of about 8.5 years in a country with per capita income under $1000 per annum; 16 years in one with an average income between $1000 and $2000; 33 years between $2000 and $4000, and 100 years between $4000 and $6000… Above $6000 democracies are impregnable and can be expected to live forever. No democratic system has fallen in a country where per capita income exceeds $6055”.
While the quote is not a prediction, the message is strong for Nigeria with per capita income of less than $1,500. If we are lucky and the oil boom continues, then the economy will continue to ‘grow’. The structure of the economy is such that any sustained collapse of oil prices in the medium term will lead to a catastrophic implosion of the economy. Here lies the challenge. Do we have any political party with a credible plan for the emergence of a new economy? Can such a party emerge from the current rentier, consumption-oriented political economy?
Currently, the party system in Nigeria is going through an important evolution. The ruling PDP is fighting for survival and will either fundamentally reform its machinery or risk implosion. Major opposition parties are ‘merging’ into the APC-- to provide a strong challenge to the dominance of the PDP. Are these posturing merely to strengthen the platform to retain or grab power? Will any of the two parties – APC and PDP—for the first time since 1999 provide a platform for mobilising the masses around alternative visions and credible, means-tested plans for a better future?
So far, political parties in Nigeria since 1999 have functioned purely as platforms to grab power, and not as platforms for national transformation or development. There are many reasons for this, but I will focus on one which most analysts ignore. It is the oil resource curse: the easy money from oil which has created a culture of helpless dependence on manna from the Delta, and the consequent political economy based on sharing and consumption rather than baking the cake or wealth creation. Under such a system, production-oriented politics is an anathema. This is not peculiar to Nigeria. As evidence, I posit that there are very few (if any) countries in the world where more than 50 per cent of government revenue comes from such natural resource rents as oil and the political parties and national politics are ‘developmental’ in terms of their ideology and plans. If there are such countries, they constitute the useful case studies for Nigeria. The question is: are there useful examples of how democratic governments have been able to escape the indolent culture or the lottery effects of easy money from oil to create competitive economies and sustainable prosperity? This is a huge research agenda and a subject for another day.
In the first republic, politics and political parties were largely developmental. The regional governments and the political parties that controlled them were concerned mostly about wealth creation because that was the only way they could derive their revenue and survive. Oil money was only beginning to permeate our national body politics when the second republic emerged. The five political parties – NPN, UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP had distinct ideologies and manifestoes. Most people knew the four cardinal programmes of the UPN. Once elected into office, every UPN state implemented the free education and free medical care. There was rigorous debate. I recall Obafemi Awolowo being questioned as to how he would finance the ‘free’ education/health at all levels. He showed a detailed grasp of government finances to a point of telling Nigerians how much it cost to serve tea and coffee in government offices. He outlined all the areas of waste he would cut, and the new revenues he would develop in order to fund his programmes. The point is that they thought it all through.
Even the NPN (largely believed to be a conservative party) had its key programmes summarised on its logo (a house, with two corns by the side (agriculture), and a crown (governance). The NPN-controlled Federal Government launched its green revolution, a national housing programme, and insisted that it would offer good governance. The NPP’s neo-welfarist ideology/manifesto was symbolised in its logo (the people). Each party had its core intellectual ideologues and powerhouse. Dr. Chuba Okadigbo published a book on “The Mission of NPN”. Chief Ebenezer Babatope and co led the UPN’s scientific socialism (?); Chief Chris Offodile was the brainbox of PRP’s democratic humanism, etc. Each political party contested the elections with a clear manifesto which was its contract with the people, and once elected, it sought to implement it to the letter. Every state controlled by a political party implemented the party’s programmes to the letter. As students in those days, we relished in the intellectual debates on the alternatives offered by different parties. Regular campus symposia involved high ranking members of different political parties explaining and defending their party manifestoes. As students and lecturers, we interrogated them to explain HOW each of those programmes would be funded/implemented, and what impacts were expected. Not anymore!
Today, the political parties are a patchwork of unholy alliances, hurriedly put together to grab power and ease the military out. The PDP chairman, Bamanga Tukur, aptly described the PDP in 2011 as an amalgam of diverse groups united only by one purpose — to grab power— but had not yet fused into a functional political party for development. It is the same story for other parties. Don’t ask the members what their parties represent: they don’t know, and probably don’t care to know. I have always joked that if you take five governors of either PDP or ACN and lock them in a room, bring them out one by one to address a live TV programme on what their respective party’s manifesto and cardinal programmes are, as well as HOW their party intends to fund/implement such programmes, you would have the comic relief of the decade.
At the party level and in government, parties largely operate “as the spirit directs”—to borrow that famous phrase by Remi Babalola. The major opposition to every government in power are usually members of its own political party. When election approaches, each party hires consultants to write up a glossy ‘blueprint’ or ‘manifesto’--- with everything in it, except telling Nigerians HOW they will implement/finance them. In content, they all promise the same thing. Politicians talk about what to ‘give’ the people, but hardly anyone addresses the question of ‘HOW”. Elections therefore come down to choosing between ‘Mr. A’ or ‘Mr. B’ and largely based on some primordial considerations and not because of what they represent. This is the classic politics in a society dominated by natural resource rents. Because development financing does not come largely from the people’s pockets, their demand for accountability is low. Politics is about ‘giving’ or ‘sharing’, and since you don’t require any skills to do either of these, just about anyone can be ‘there’. In today’s Nigeria, how will you know a PDP state if you see one? How will you know an ACN state if you see one? It just depends on ‘who’ is there, not about which party is in power. That is the tragedy.
The political party system is the foundation for policy and programme coherence, coordination, implementation and sustainability. Without political parties with clearly thought-through national plans for prosperity — not just in terms of a horde of platitudes but one in which the ‘how questions’ are credibly addressed, Nigeria’s march to prosperity will continue to be a haphazard, ad hoc process, depending on the whims of any combinations of ‘technocrats’ at any point in time: not rooted in any systematic, coherent plan agreed to by the party and on the basis of which the citizens periodically give them a mandate. Imagine for a moment that our political parties were purpose-driven like those of the second republic, and imagine how far Nigeria would have moved if all PDP states implemented clearly defined ‘party manifesto and programmes’ as well as by the Federal Government. The reality is that hardly any PDP state sustained the programmes of its predecessor – even when most of the successors were part of the previous government — think about it! Abandoned projects and policy reversals even when the same party maintains power is a clear proof that we don’t have a party system, and yet we want our democracy to endure.
In a democracy, the choice of a political party is a choice among alternative plans for the future. Will the APC provide the alternative plan (assuming PDP had one)? It remains to be seen. Nigerians are waiting to see what is ‘progressive’ about the new alliance. During the second republic when parties had clearly differentiated ideologies/manifestoes, the PPA (Progressive People’s Alliance) of the UPN, NPP, PRP, and GNPP could in some sense merit that name. Is the APC truly made up of ‘progressives’? Seriously? Many earnestly hope that it will not end up as another PDP — in the sense of being just an amalgam of diverse groups united only by one purpose — to grab power from PDP. It will be tragic if the major slogan of APC is that it is not PDP. What is its soul made of?
Yes, Nigeria needs two strong parties. That will be an important first step. But what Nigeria does not need are two parties whose only differences are their names. If anyone loses party nomination in either of the two, he quickly defects with his ‘numerous supporters’ to the rival party in the quest for power. Nigeria and its democracy will never move forward this way.
Natural resource curse is not destiny. The political economy of cake sharing that has emerged since oil money dominated our national consciousness is also man-made. As the new merger takes root, and PDP struggles to re-invent itself into a true political party, perhaps this is the opportunity to think long and deep and give souls to these contraptions for power and transform them into conscious engines of development. Which party is the true Federalist Party? Where do they stand on fiscal federalism and fiscal policy? Where do they stand on state creation? What is their strategy to eradicate poverty and over what time frame? What is their job plan? What is the health/education plan? How do they intend to secure the nation better — eradicate kidnapping and Boko Haram? What is their plan to industrialise Nigeria, and provide affordable housing? What is their strategy to create a sustainable new Nigerian economy without oil over the next 15 years? The questions are many, and unless we can see HOW they differ on these matters fundamentally, Nigerians will be right in asking (borrowing the biblical metaphor) whether these political parties are the ones to come or should we still wait for another!