PDP: Politics of Survival and Bad Manners

ENGAGEMENTS: With Chidi Amuta

ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi  Amuta

Nigeria’s troubled main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has scored a pre-election own goal. It has forced its presidential aspirants to retreat  into factional enclaves. These are roughly:  the Northern, Gubernatorial and Igbo formations.

How to engineer a consensus out of these conflicting interests has become the defining burden of a party that has neither federal incumbency nor the quantum of cash required to wage the imminent presidential battle. Yet the struggle for a consensus has become desperate and urgent. It has also become existential because the party has only this election season to survive or dissipate into irrelevance and inevitable death. But it is approaching its battle for survival through ancient bad manners.

Easily the most consequential outcome of the PDP’s untidy house keeping is its handling of the bid for a president of Igbo extraction on its ticket. The tacit rebuff of this identity political pressure is telling on its cohesion. The Igbo presidential aspirants in its fold have gone into an unusual protest trade union mode. As a result, when  the PDP special committee on zoning rejected the extant principle of rotating the presidency between north and south, the Igbo aspirants in the party felt betrayed.

They have staged a curious trade union -like protest in Abuja. At a joint press briefing, the gathering of red cap politicians decided to pose for a group photo opportunity with all of them holding hands in political solidarity. My good friends Anyim Pius Anyim, Peter Obi, Sam Ohuabunwa and the others came clad in befitting red caps and national tunics. We were witnessing a symbolic descent from national partisan politics to glorified ethnic trade unionism. That was a first in recent Nigerian politics. If care is not taken, that photo may go down in record as the beginning of the end of the PDP which used to be Africa’s largest political party.

The PDP was once a great vibrant party. It still retains the institutional memory and residual grassroots support of an ageing population of political followers. It’s current followership is mostly a fellowship of discontent. But time used to be when the PDP under President Olusegun Obasanjo proudly waved its kindergarten colourful umbrella as next  to the ANC of South Africa as Africa’s most consequential party. Obasanjo had dreams as big as his ego for the party. He envisaged a political behemoth that would dominate the leadership of Nigeria for far in excess of 24 years. In his retirement, he schemed a far reaching amendment to the party’s constitution in which he would  be the life chairman of the party’s Board of Trustees and an honorary life ‘father of the party’ and invariably of the nation. This was an autocratic prescription for an otherwise Democratic Party. But Obasanjo was hardly out of the exit door of Aso Rock Villa when his adolescent potentially authoritarian  scheme was toppled and thrashed. His telephone calls to the Villa were soon limited. His all too frequent unsolicited counsels to the new president became less in demand.

By the time the leadership of the PDP went into the hands of Goodluck Jonathan as president and Bamanga Tukur as party Chairman, Obasanjo could hardly recognise his political edifice as it came crumbling, one step at a time. He shredded his party card in televised public view. 

The incremental meltdown continued unchecked. By the eve of the 2015 elections, the PDP had degenerated into a political contraption, a machinery of corruption and vast enabler of disastrous governance. Before then, it had midwifed its own systematic and irreversible disintegration. The classic visual was unmistakable. The demise of the great party was televised.

In full view of a sitting president in the televised splendor of Eagle Square and a well attended party event, a powerful faction of five governors and many influential party faithful walked out on a sitting president and mainstream party faithful. The rebels trooped out to the Shehu Yar’Adua Centre to found what became the New PDP (nPDP), a powerful breakaway faction of the ruling party. Mr. Atiku Abubakar was present and in the forefront of this rebellious birthing which led him into the then fledgling opposition APC. He is now a leading contender for the 2023 presidential ticket in his original PDP!

From then on, the end of PDP’s hegemony was a foretold crash landing. It went from friction to factions, from division to decline and, more disastrously, from unbridled corruption to wholesale organized and licensed evacuation of the commonwealth. Under Mr. Jonathan’s effete watch, government degenerated  into a badly organised crime syndicate. A surviving memento to this infamous era is perhaps Diezani Madueke’s trove of underpants, braziers and Imelda Marcos sized jewelry box now on display auction by the EFCC.

By a combination of crass incompetence and political naïveté, the PDP ended up scoring an African record at the 2015 election. It became one of the few major African parties to lose power from an incumbent position. A couple of years prior, Kenya’s KANU (Kenya African National Union) had been chased away by an opposition coalition led by Kibaki.

Thus routed from power, the PDP has spent the last seven years plus in an arid political zone, learning how to be an opposition party and also learning how to survive and be relevant without federal incumbency and the patronage and power that goes with it.

As an opposition platform since 2015, the PDP has divided its time between remaining electorally relevant and protecting its leading lights from Buhari’s skewed and selective anti corruption sniper operation. Somehow, the PDP has been more alive in times of general elections than in times of normal governance. In the 2019 elections, for instance, the PDP acquitted itself well as a credible threat to the emergent APC oligarchy of Buhari’s vicious sectional hegemony. It won a total of 15 governorships as against the APC’s 20.

But as a credible and sustainable  opposition party in normal governance time, the PDP has been a woeful nuisance. It has not been able to challenge the APC on policy issues, basic competence and simple political ethics. Of course it has been a rather predictable and noisy ensemble of discordant voices of disjointed criticism . Its critique of the failings of the incumbent APC government has been routine, run of the mill and hardly superior to street corner jive. It has never displayed any superiority of strategy let alone tactics compared to its equally bumbling opponent. The PDP has never confronted the incumbent party with superior data on public matters nor advanced alternative approaches to the many headaches tormenting the nation.

Some have observed that in the absence of any ideological identity for almost all Nigerian parties, it would be asking for too much to expect the PDP to be different from its APC rival. They are ultimately one and the same party with different acronyms and battle colours. A free movement of members including governors, across party divides, has become a normal feature of a free for all jamboree of inter party migrations largely condoned by a pliant and mercantile judiciary.

Yet, by their respective acronyms, Nigeria’s two dominant parties ought to represent the main strands in the nation’s tendencies. The APC should ordinarily be the progressive left of center party while the PDP should represent a nationalist right of center strand. This distinction is only academic. Neither the leaders nor the faithful of both parties understand or attach meaning to either acronyms or ideology.

This is the effective backdrop to the PDP’s current logjam. In the run up to the 2023 presidential scramble, the party is caught between playing politics and playing pranks. It had a ready made answer to the contest if only it could manage to obey the rules it made on its own. Its extant zoning formula could have placed it in a competitive position. It could have retained that principle and used it to match the APC. But the party has allowed itself to be blackmailed by a combination of gubernatorial authoritarians and geo ethnic myth makers. While a handful of wealthy state governors are intent on imposing themselves on the party as presidential candidates, a masked squad of northern dark knights and political marksmen are marketing the ancient script that there exists a northern majority of voters that will dutifully vote PDP once the party shows up with a northern Muslim presidential candidate.

Moreover, since the incumbent APC has zoned its 2023 presidency to the broad south, the lazy logic in the PDP is that a north-south presidential contest between both major parties will inevitably produce a northern Muslim president. No thoughts on the mood of the nation after eight years of Buhari’s divisive sectarian hegemony. No thought about the sectarian undertones of the industrial killings in some parts of the north. No consideration of the geo  politics of the nuisance of killer herdsmen and Miyetti Allah. No consideration of the drift of current significant northern political opinion that agrees that northern rule under Mr. Buhari has been a disaster that requires a pause and an intervening rescue period under southern leadership.

Under its prevailing  illusion, the PDP’s zoning committee has foolishly jettisoned its zoning formula. The naive recourse seems to be to a Middle Belt or North Central consensus candidate with a make belief Igbo Vice President. The consequences of either an outright northern presidential candidate or hybrid northern Muslim one are the same. A humiliating defeat in 2023.

Waiting in ambush is the direct tragic consequence of ignoring the Igbo question. The PDP will self-destruct if it buys into the current fallacy among some of its strategists that the Igbos will be content with yet another number two slot. The consequences are predictable. Apathy or outright voter revolt against the PDP in the South-west, South-south and South-east zones are in the horizon.

The presumptive northern demographic majority is a myth  of the past. It is simply no longer there. It is the perpetuation of a tradition of lazy politics and fraudulent strategising. 

Courtesy of Mr. Buhari’s divisive politics and legacy of political nativism, the north today is splintered along all kinds of lines: Fulanis, Hausas, Kanuris, Christians, Shiites, Wahhabis, Sunnis have all come into political reckoning. Among the so-called Muslim north, pro Buhari cultists remain the strongest faction going by the results of both the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections. That followership is not automatically transferable to just any ‘northern’ presidential salesman that shows up.

Unfortunately, the PDP has merely activated and animated existing divides both in the north and in the nation at large. Both areas are vastly consequential for the party in 2023. If the party insists on a northern presidential candidate, it will alienate the major southern zones to the advantage of the APC who have zoned wisely and is likely to sweep the south and possibly inherit the Buhari northern cultic followership.

Therefore, a new political consequence is staring the PDP in the face. The party has for long remained the political reserve bank of the South-east. The matter of Igbo presidency has now come to the fore in the 2023 presidential race. The Igbo expect a draw down from its PDP political bank. In addition, the Igbos want to harvest the national moral burden of an Igbo alternative in our national political leadership. Incidentally, the  proposition of Igbo presidency will not quietly go away any time soon. How it is resolved will have huge political implications and consequences especially for the PDP. Justifiably, the Igbo political elite in the PDP has developed a higher sense of political entitlement than in the APC. To that extent, the success or failure of the Igbo presidency bid will help determine the future of the PDP. If that project founders on the altar of the PDP’s  internal dysfunctions, that may be the end of the party.

The Igbo presidential project has become an albatross around the neck of the PDP. It is one which the APC will easily mine by nominating a hybrid Igbo presidential candidate. That will still be a superior strategy than the PDP’s impending outright rebuff of the Igbo question. The Igbos will prefer a hybrid Igbo president and commander-in-chief than a pure breed vice president.

For the opposition PDP, then, this imminent  election season may be one of endless insomnia and a struggle to fend off  imminent suicide. If the PDP out of its own narrow vision loses the 2023 presidential election, that might be the party’s last presidential election. If on the other hand it miraculously manages to oust the APC, the day after will be the political equivalent of resurrection morning.

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