Democracy without Parties?

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The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe, Email: kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com. Tel: 0805 500 1974.

In the Second Republic if you wanted to know how “free education” was feasible you would pay attention to the statements from the secretariat of the opposition Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. If, instead, you were interested in why “qualitative education” was more suitable for the Nigerian condition at the time you would listen more carefully to the voices from the headquarters of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) that produced President Shehu Shagari. Officials of the two biggest political parties in the land were in contest of ideas which informed policies even outside the election season. You could readily identify an NPN partisan based on his defence of “green revolution”, the agricultural policy of the federal government, mass housing, preference of “qualitative education” over the “free education” of the UPN. The NPN even articulated a policy of “ethical revolution.” You knew a man was a UPN member by the way he defended the progressive package of the party – “free education;” “free health services;” “full employment” and “integrated rural development.” Officials and enthusiasts of the other parties – Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP), Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) and Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) also fiercely defended the policies and programmes of their respective parties. That was the nature of party politics in Nigeria more than three decades ago. However critical you could be of the politics of those days you could not deny that political parties had policies and programmes, which could be debated.

Can any politician today say that this tradition of party politics has endured? This non-rhetorical question goes to members of both the All Progressives Party (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Whatever the answer any politician may like to proffer for this question, it would be difficult to dispute the fact that there is a sharp decline in the quality of multi-party politics in Nigeria. It would be questionable to talk of political development when today’s parties are compared to the political parties of the old. Politicians are interested in seeking party tickets without bordering to subscribe to party’s policies and programmes; that is, of course, if the programmes exist. That is not an inspiring story to tell those aspiring to political leadership.

The PDP is writhing in the pains of self-inflicted organisational wounds. The soul of the party is being contested by three tendencies. There are two committees set up last Saturday at parallel conventions in Port Harcourt and Abuja. The committee put together in Port Harcourt is led former Kaduna State governor, Senator Ahmed Makarfi. The force behind the committee is mainly the club of the PDP governors. The committee that emerged from the Abuja meeting is led by Senator Ibrahim Mantu and it is backed mainly by former ministers and some PDP elders. Meanwhile, Senator Ali Modu Sheriff who was removed as national chairman by the Port Harcourt gathering still lays claim to the leadership of the party. In all the narratives of this intra-party crisis, no one has alluded to any disagreement on policies and programmes. In other words, the crisis is not provoked by differences of views on an alternative strategy of development for Nigeria. Two distinguished elders of PDP, Chief Ojo Madueke and Chief Ebenezer Babatope, were players in the Second Republic. Madueke was a federal legislator elected on the platform of NPN while Babatope was the Director of Organisation at the UPN secretariat. They know better than this reporter that in terms of programmatic party politics PDP is a far cry from the NPN. In many respects, NPN was a more qualitative party than PDP.

A year out of power, the PDP ought have pulled itself together to provide a formidable opposition. It is not enough for PDP members to talk of the PDP returning to power in 2019. The PDP should also be generating ideas about what it could do better than APC if it gets power back. Little surprise about what is happening to the party; the PDP has never been an organic party. It has always been a vehicle to board to power because of its national spread. Yet it is in the interest of liberal bourgeois democracy in Nigeria for PDP to be properly organised into a credible opposition. For now it is the only alternative party when talking seriously about political power.

The party and those aspiring to lead it have to learn what it takes to be a respectable opposition party. For instance, who among the contenders for the leadership of PDP could even aspire to the stature of Awolowo as an opposition leader? The sort of opposition leader that Nigeria’s brand of liberal democracy needs now should be close to the portraiture of Awolowo once given by Dr. Chidi Amuta in a reported reflection on party politics. Amuta said: “When Awolowo was alive, once the Federal Government released its budget, he would release his own. Awolowo would release its own budget based on facts and figures. In fact, he had superior facts than government. Today, we are doing APC versus PDP. When the immediate past administration was there, if Jonathan were to close his mouth, APC would not have anything to say because they only waited for the man to open his mouth and say something, then APC would now counter; there’s nothing else they were doing. But Awo had his own budget, school enrolment, even facts and figures from the Central Bank. He was the one who warned that at the rate Nigeria was borrowing we would get into trouble in the next 10 years, and it happened. That’s the type of opposition we are talking about.”

The APC did not demonstrate superiority of its strategy of development while in opposition. Its policies and programme were poorly articulated. Even now that it is in power the party is hardly defending the policies and programmes of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. Like PDP, the APC is not yet an organic party. It has not weaned itself from the circumstances of its birth. It is yet to transform itself from a rainbow coalition of politicians determined to get Jonathan voted out of power into a progressive party that articulates policies to tackle the problems of Nigeria. The APC is facing its own immense organisational challenge; this may soon prove debilitating for the party if efforts are not made to get over it. In 12 months of being in power at the centre, the APC has not been able to muster the strength to have a proper policy conference. It has not managed its electoral success well.

Make no mistake about it, there are critical areas were clear policies should be articulated. There is the foreboding of an energy crisis. While Boko Haram is being routed in the northeast, the huge humanitarian consequences of the war remain a policy challenge. The Niger Delta Question was never honestly answered by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan on the side of justice and development. So the “open sour “ of Nigeria continues to fester. The crisis in the region is snowballing with all the economic and security implications for the nation. At the substructure is the worsening poverty in the land that should compel smarter economic management. Millions of young people are jobless. Elements of infrastructure are decaying. The social sector has been virtually abandoned by the state. In response to all these and many other problem areas of national life both the party in power and those outside power all should be harvesting ideas that could be developed into workable strategies, policies and programmes.

On a cherry note, however, it is apposite to acknowledge one good example of what parties and their leaders should be doing at this time. In response to the increase in pump price of fuel, labour declared a strike last week. As part of the efforts to persuade labour leaders to end the strike, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu led other leaders of the APC to the national secretariat of the Nigeria labour Congress (NLC) for what turned out to be a meaningful engagement. Tinubu was there to defend the policy of the Buhari administration to put an end to the corrupt subsidy regime. His views would certainly not be popular in some quarters. It might not even be palatable to his hosts. The significant thing is that a party man defended and explained the policy of government that came to power on the platform of his party. He discharged his responsibility creditably. He told NLC’s president Ayuba Wabba and his colleagues: “ I have come to beg on behalf of my party.” He even vouched for the integrity of Buhari. He urged NLC to end the strike and return to the negotiations. According to Tinubu, the policy is not inconsistent with the progressive character of the party. He sold the Buhari social agenda to placate those who might point to the social consequences of the policy. The Tinubu example is commended for other political leaders.

It would be healthier if the struggles within the parties are about workability of policies or otherwise. That is what political parties should be doing in and outside power. It is always the duty of a party to defend and explain the policies of the government that comes to power in its name.

There is lot wisdom in the constitutional design that makes political parties institutions of democracy. In fact, governments can only emerge on the basis of party-based elections. Democracy would be enriched when parties in and out of power realise that policy articulation is among their crucial tasks. Without policy engagement the impact of political parties in a democracy would be minimal if not nil.