Eclipse of the Big Issues

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The Horizon By Kayode Komolafe kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com 0805 500 1974

Barely a year to a defining presidential election the big issues are distressingly in eclipse. The political ferment in the land is hardly about a clash of strategies on economic and social development. Forces are aligning and re-aligning, but hardly is any grand vision being enunciated. A third force is said to be coming on stage. Will there be a distinctively third vision for the people to embrace? You hear of possible presidential candidates including the incumbent president, but nobody tells you about their ideas of development.

You don’t know about which strategy of development contenders for power are really passionate. Presidential aspirants are identified not by their ideas and policy preferences, but by their regions or religion. Within their regions or religions they are further differentiated by their ethnic groups. That is what even some experts call superb political analysis and electoral calculations in Nigeria. Some cynics go further to say that this is so in Nigeria because “ideology is dead” as if there is any nation making progress without a guiding ideology.

Even an external observer could feel the heat in the Nigerian polity. However there is little or no light on how to practically solve the burgeoning problems facing the poor people of this country. This trend should worry the elements currently in the saddle as well as their opponents aiming to take power from them.

To start with, there is a gross political underdevelopment in this country. It is the less-talked-about form of underdevelopment in Nigeria. Political parties should not exist only as electoral vehicles for those wishing to take a trip to political power. Political parties should also provide the platforms to articulate and debate the big issues so that voters would be making informed decisions.

Perhaps the decline in politics would become manifest if one compares the political development in Nigeria today with what obtained exactly 40 years ago in the prelude to the Second Republic. In March 1978, Nigeria was patently in a transitory mood politically; the Murtala/Obasanjo military government had promised democratic elections against 1979. Political parties were already undergoing incubation. By the end of 1978 parties had emerged among which five got registered to take part in the elections the following year.

Warts and all, the registered parties were emerging as relatively viable political institutions. That was long before it became fashionable for our western-oriented motivational speakers to preach mechanically the building of strong institutions including political parties. There is a problem with the proposition that the way out is to build “strong institutions and not strong leaders.” Such a proposition misses the crucial point of the dialectical interplay of forces between the essence of strong institutions on the one hand and the role of individuals (especially leaders) in history on the other. It is not a matter of either a strong institution or a strong leader; it is squarely a matter of both in order to make progress in any department of national life. There were strong leaders with remarkable strength of character leading the Second Republic parties, which held some promise of becoming very strong institutions before the military truncated the process at the end of 1983.

Any profile of the political parties of the Second Republic would show that they had credible and indisputable leaders. Alhaji Shehu Shagari emerged as the presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), but party chairman Chief Adisa Akinloye and the other national officers were not figureheads at the party leadership. The stature of Chief Obafemi Awolowo was conspicuous in the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The stamp of the goodwill and immense charisma of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was unmistakeable on the fortunes of the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP). The Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) was undoubtedly associated with the populist pedigree of Mallam Aminu. The great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) radiated the aura of Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim. Even Waziri’s slogan of “politics without bitterness” helped humanise the political process, albeit imperceptibly.

It may now be convenient for some historians to define the Second Republic parties in solely ethnic or regional terms because going by electoral performance, the fortunes of some of the parties were limited to the areas of origins of their respective leaders. However, that would not be giving a full picture of the dynamics of politics of that era. The spaces taken by the parties of the Second Republic in the political landscape could easily be delineated by some ideas, policies and even strategies of development. For instance, the NPN and the UPN fought vigorously on the basis of clear policy options.

Any one who was of voting age in 1979 would remember that NPN campaigned on the policy platform of “national unity, “qualitative education,” “green revolution,” “mass housing,” etc. The UPN would always be remembered for its “four cardinal programmes” of “free education,” “free health services,” “full employment” and “integrated rural development.” Yes, Awolowo’s party won overwhelmingly in Yorubaland. But if you asked the rural folks in the south-west they would also tell you that beyond Awolowo being Yoruba they were also voting for the education of their children, jobs and the development of their area.

A similar thing could be said of the voters in Kano and Kaduna who might be poor but were evidently imbued with high level of consciousness as they were convinced that a party led by Aminu Kano could implement socially beneficial programmes. In retrospect, it is a huge irony of Nigeria’s political history that the politics of that era was considered backward especially from the sharply critical perspectives of Left. What would the elements of Left say of the present politics especially those of them who have played active parts in this age of sharp political decline? What ideas will the political parties of this dispensation and their leaders be remembered for in 40 years time?

In contradistinction to the policy-based politics of the second Republic, the trend since 1999 has been for presidents to begin articulating their policies long after their elections. In essence, they actually promised the people nothing. The Obasanjo administration began to put the National Empowerment and Economic Development (NEEDS) together in the second term of the President.

In fact, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) that produced Obasanjo in the first place was listed merely as one of the “stakeholders” to be “consulted” while the “technocrats” drafted the agenda. This probably explains why some of the reforms initiated by President Olusegun Obasanjo could not be consummated during his tenure as they arrived almost at the twilight of his administration. President Umaru Yar’Adua enunciated his “Seven-Point Agenda” in his inaugural address. The agenda was never coherently articulated by his party, the PDP, during the campaign for his election. Similarly, President Goodluck Jonathan gave the first hint of his “transformation agenda” in his inaugural address on May 29, 2011. The PDP never sold such an agenda coherently while presenting Jonathan to the electorate for the election.

In the same vein, the party now in power, the All Progressives Congress (APC), cannot also be accused of selling any clear agenda to the electorate before the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. The proof of this is not far to fetch. The party has no programmatic link with its governments at the centre and in the states. The APC had to set up a committee only last year to articulate its policy on restructuring even when it claimed it had the quest for “true federalism” in some manifesto somewhere. In fact, after 33 months in power the Buhari administration is just launching the “laboratory” for its Economic Recovery Programme duly approved by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Indeed, the expertise for the “laboratory” was outsourced to some Malaysian brains at a not-so-cheap cost of N430 million. It is not clear if the APC has any input of ideas into all this drama of governance in a country that has produced first class economists and scholars of various ideological hues, some of who once served the IMF and the World Bank. How can the APC be part of policy articulation, as parties are universally supposed to be, when it cannot even muster the strength to hold a national convention 36 months after winning the presidential election? Yet on the day of election it was the APC logo that appeared on the ballot paper.

The progressive eclipse of the big issues in electioneering since 1999 is at the root of the nation’s underdevelopment. The condition is so bad that it now takes even the IMF to draw the attention of the nation’s economic managers to the worsening poverty in the land. Ironically, at the onset of their ruinous Structural Adjustment Programme in the mid 1980s, the IMF and the World conveniently lived in denial of the huge “social costs” of adjustment, which the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in contrast, made a battle cry.

Now, the big question is this: is there any party in the land poised to wage a battle against mass poverty, inequality and social injustice? Is there any political aspirant articulating coherent and workable strategy against the plague of joblessness, hunger, illiteracy and homelessness? A symptom of the decline of politics is that the increasing polarisation in the country is not on the policy and strategic preferences to tackle these big issues. There is an obvious contempt for politics of ideas. Economic planning has become an obsolete governance practice in the eyes of our economic managers.

Yet the days of economic development plans were the days of thinking big in Nigeria especially in the immediate post-independence period. Nigeria has since moved from planning for massive water projects that could service millions to commissioning boreholes even in cities. Welcome to the age of limited vision! The modern politicians and their technocrats are content with getting foreign experts to draft some short-term programme for the masters in Washington to approve in the name of economic management. In fact, it has become an economic abomination to suggest that the state should drive the process with strategic investment in some areas for infrastructural and industrial progress.

While our neo-liberals keep announcing the obituary of ideology, they don’t stop looking towards China for loans and investments. Some of the Chinese organisations they brand as private foreign investors in Nigeria are largely publicly owned in their home country. It takes serious economic planning, and not ad-hoc recovery programmes, for China to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. Yet the Chinese economic reform is still a work in progress. Only late last year, the thought of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” was enshrined into constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. The neo-liberals whose views dominate policy here should always remember that ideas constitute a motive force in history especially in the management of an economy. Politics of development cannot be conducted in a vacuum of ideas.

Above all, there must be first a nation before any one can seek political power to govern or rule it as it has been in most cases. So national integration is a big issue of our time. Leadership is, therefore, sorely needed in this respect. The style and substance of Buhari’s politics must convince the people that he is a unifier. The task of preserving national unity is that of leadership and followers alike. Buhari should unite this nation with the pronouncements issuing from Aso Rock. His response to the increasing clamour for political restructuring should be better structured. Buhari and all those who want his job have the responsibility of making the next electoral season that of the big issues of the Nigerian condition.