Forward to Politics of Ideas


The Horizon

By KAYODE KOMOLAFE;; 0805 500 1974

In response to the advocacy for the politics of issues in this column, a respected technocrat who pays close attention to the political landscape made a very valid critique.  This should be readily admitted on a self-critical note. His position could be summarised as follows: it is not enough to accuse politicians on the field of not focussing on issues; the media should take up the task of interrogating the practical men seeking power on policies and programmes.  According to the gentleman, the politicians should be challenged on the basis of ideas so that the public could make informed choices.

Nigeria aspires to be a developed liberal democracy. In the advanced liberal democratic countries politicians are often defined by their political traditions.  They could be easily located on the ideological spectrum. They are associated with definite ideas – big government or the supreme reign of the market; taxes or tax cuts; huge investment in the social sector or allowing the logic of market to sort out things for the poor, environment etc.

It is, of course, easier to abuse and insult a politician than to engage him or her on the basis of ideas or query the lack of ideas in solving practical problems.

Emptiness of ideas is not only a trait of some politicians; it is also a disease of the public sphere.  After all, away from the state free discussions are expected to take place at the societal arena. The German thinker of the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, calls this arena  “the public sphere.”  The arena is meant to influence political action significantly. The public sphere should, therefore, nudge politicians towards politics of ideas and not just massage their ego even when their comprehension of policy is doubtful. Here, our politicians are often indulged in just insulting or spewing hate about their opponents; they are hardly interrogated on their understanding of the Nigerian political economy which they seek power to manage.  Questions are seldom asked if by orientation and practice a politician has compassion for the poor?

It should be quickly added that putting the matter this way is far from being uncharitable to the politicians. This is because some of them do not seem to realise that part of their qualifications for the job (albeit not so stated in the Electoral Act) is to be policy-literate. You may probably say that this is not within the remit of Professor Mahmood Yakubu’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Nevertheless, the point should be made that electoral politics should be more than the stories of the huge egos and legitimate ambitions of politicians hitting the headlines.  Politicians are reported on their political smartness and dexterity for “winning” elections. Political analysis is typically binary- north or south; Christian or Muslim.  Deftness in geo-political calculation is the beginning of wisdom. The policy agendas of the candidates for elections hardly hit the headlines. Interestingly, the foreign media and think tanks and other self-appointed authorities on Nigeria parrot this highly superficial appreciation of the nation’s complex problem.  

Candidates are presented as the Messiah by their supporters and portrayed as Lucifer by their opponents. Yet, the truth remains that there is neither a saint nor a demon among those legitimately seeking power in this country. They are simply human beings with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of the society. 

Ahead of 2019, the combative publicists and sympathisers of   the two main parties – the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – should be admonished as they go about their business to avoid a repeat of what happened in the vicious days of 2015.      

Thank goodness, the nominations of President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as flag bearers of APC and PDP respectively may temper the divisive tone of the campaigns. If you want Atiku to be president you cannot be spreading hate speech against the north, the Fulani and Islam. This   formidable opponent of Buhari is a northerner, a Fulani and a Muslim just like Buhari himself.  So you would have to sell or oppose Buhari and Atiku on the basis of policy, record of service and, of course, character.  All these are matters of ideas and not hate speech. Ethnic jingoists and religious propagandists may not have much job to do in the scenario that may emerge in the next few months. And that would be immensely healthy for democratic development

Beside Buhari and Atiku there are notably some men and women that if studiously challenged to toe the path of politics of ideas could actually redefine politics in this country. For the sake of political development in this land, the significance of this phenomenon should not be ignored.

Take a sample. How can any serious public sphere ignore the candidacies of Donald Duke of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Oby Ekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Olusegun Mimiko of the Zenith Labour Party (ZLP), Kingsley Moghalu of the Young Progressive Party (YPP), Obadiah Mailafia of the African Democratic Party (ADP), Omoyele Sowore of the African Action Party (ACP) and other audacious Nigerians, who on the platforms of their respective   parties, have commendably resolved to go beyond lamentation in pondering the Nigerian condition? The candidates of the smaller parties should be upfront about their ideas so as to enrich debates as they seek power. In any case, the only weapon available to them is the potency of their ideas

A new political culture should be developed in which politics would be more than periodic mobilisation of people to vote. There is a worthwhile campaign to make the votes count. This campaign should be expanded to include making the voters know exactly why they are voting for the candidates of their choice. For once, politics should transcend the north-south and Christian-Muslim calculus.  

The duty to bring this about is not that of the politicians alone. It is also squarely that of the media, public intellectuals, technocrats, civil society activists and others who yearn for a more qualitative political culture.  It is more helpful for these social   forces, which are equipped with the skills to understand issues, to do this than for them to be purveyors of hate speech and libels in this electoral season.

The media should be self-critical. There is the imperative of giving   more space and airtime to   those shedding light on issues also and not just the gladiators who merely generate heat.

For clarity, the influence of ideas could hardly be avoided in matters of policy and politics. In fact, President Olusegun Obasanjo reportedly said only yesterday that the president Nigeria needs now is one who “understands economics.” Obasanjo should know what he is talking about in this respect. He is, of course, not a professional economist himself; but his policies while in power were definitely influenced by some economic thoughts. For now, it should be left for future economic historians to assess the success or otherwise of those policies.

Meanwhile, it is indubitable that where serious economic thinking is unavailable, the huge deficit in governance that would be created as a result would be so obvious that experts and non-experts alike would see it.  

For as the influential British economist of the 20th Century, Maynard Keynes, put it:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, little else rules the world. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

In many ways, Keynes’ position speaks to the Nigerian situation.

As the nation gears up to the 2019 elections, some think tanks have branded Nigeria as the  “poverty capital of the world.” Anti-poverty strategies informed by credible data and clear thinking should, therefore, be competing on the national horizon.

In fact, the 2019 politics ought to be anti-poverty politics. Strategists of candidates and their parties should be promoting what concrete policies to adopt to put more children into schools for quality education, promote universal healthcare, institutionalise social housing, revamp infrastructure and ease the movement of the people by boosting mass transit.  This time round, it should be obvious to those seeking power that to solve the crisis in the education and health sectors, for instance, you would need more than the neo-liberal shibboleths of privatisation and liberalisation and the other poisonous   recipes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund  (IMF).

The important thing is that the electoral season should be an opportunity for rigorous debates of the options available to improve the Nigerian condition.

Sadly, nothing in the public sphere suggests that the current politics could be described as anti-poverty.  Defenders of some candidates claim they have agendas. Pray, why are the anti-poverty specifics to fund education, healthcare, housing, food security, water supply, sanitation, energy etc. of these agendas (beyond phrase mongering) not popularised? Virtually other issues of Nigerian politics have poverty as the substructure.  Physical security cannot be ultimately ensured without the institution of social security. Vertical restructuring of the federation will not guarantee stability in the long run without tackling the horizontal social inequality plaguing the land.  Of course, the convinced   restructuring commentariat would hardly agree that restructuring alone would not resolve the Poverty Question, which is at the base of the National Question.   

President Muhammadu Buhari failed to take opportunity of his October 1 broadcast to provoke debates on the alternative anti-poverty strategies. Similarly, Buhari’s political opponents are not coming up with critical and informed   discussions on the social investments and other anti-poverty programme of the administration.  Alternatives should be well articulated.

The President said on another occasion that he wondered how state governors could sleep well conscious of the fact that they owe arrears of workers’ salaries. The distributive justice in matters of incomes is central to any worthwhile anti-poverty strategy in the Nigerian circumstance. So the President’s instinctive and compassionate   statement should have been properly framed for robust discussions.  To start with, as Buhari spoke governors of some states controlled by APC and PDP alike owed workers’ salaries.  It is scandalous that recently, a national strike was called on minimum wage and the political parties and their plethora of aspirants and candidates never saw any topic of debate in the proletarian protest.

In the same vein, the voices of political parties were hardly heard on the havoc wreaked recently by floods in parts of the countries.  The deep environment policy issues thrown up by the disasters should also be of interest to politicians.   .

As political publicists and other actors in the public sphere begin to do what they know how best to do in the electoral season, it would not be a surprise if the advocacy for the politics of ideas is glibly dismissed as utopian. To some publicists what matters between now and February 2019 is how to get their preferred candidates elected as president, governors   or senators   whether or not issues are discussed. For them, depicting the ideas that could nourish policies and programmes should be matters that may be brought up, perhaps, months after the elections.

Even in the frenzy of campaigns, political parties and their candidates should be reminded that   politics of ideas is a necessary utopia if Nigeria is to be politically developed.

As the Uruguayan journalist and writer, Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015), aptly put it: “Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.”