By Kayode Komolafe
0805 500 1974
As the chairman of the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) in the Second Republic, Justice Victor Ovie-Whiskey attracted so much attention to his office by his response to an unproved allegation that he received a bribe of one million naira to rig elections. Ovie-Whiskey told his accusers that he would “faint” at the sight of one million naira in cash!
Not a few people at the time might have been in-credulous about the claim that one million naira was actually offered in cash as a bribe. Some even de-scribed the story as a myth in defence of the former Chief Justice of the old Bendel State (comprising the present Edo and Delta states), who died 10 years ago.
In those days politicians spent money in hundreds and thousands of naira. It was rare to mention hundreds of thousands, much less millions. It is not so anymore. No one, perhaps, would faint today at the sight of 10 billion naira cash!
The Ovie-Whiskey story is recalled here to demonstrate the degree of monetisation of the political process that has taken place in the last 40 years. It was the experience of one of the eminent predecessors of Professor Yakubu Mahmood, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC), as a regulator of electoral affairs. Today, it is normal in Nigeria for political parties to ask political aspirants seeking party tickets to pay tens of million of naira as fees. It is as if the role of money in politics is being dramatised.
The most outrageous fees have been announced by the All Progressives Congress (APC), which makes its presidential aspirants to pay N100 million. This is an utter negation of the idea of progressivism expected of party that should be espousing social democratic values. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has pegged the fees for its presidential aspirants at N47 million. In particular, the two largest parties are making their members wishing to contest various categories of elections to pay fees which are not reflective of the income structure and indeed the socio-economic reality of the country. Imagine a party asking an aspirant to public office to pay N100 million in a country where state governors are resisting the payment of N30,000 monthly minimum wage to workers. Senior Advocate of Nigeria Femi Falana encapsulates the public feelings about these fees in his statement by saying that the fees “are illegal, immoral and insensitive.”
Meanwhile, some “political strategists” would suggest that in order not to appear frivolous a typical governorship candidate should be working on a budget of five billion naira while a presidential candidate should be planning to raise as much as N20 billion. Candidates for federal legislative seats are expected to spend hundreds of millions too in this incredible race for power. In the estimation of the pundits, these expenses, of course, include legitimate and illegitimate ones. In some cases, candidates pursuing their mandates at the tribunals could even spend more money than was actually spent during the elections as legal fees and other items.
Politicians wave off the deep issues raised by this trend by merely saying that “it costs money to run for elections anywhere.” They may be right at least in one respect. After all, the dominant role of money is consistent with the nature of bourgeois politics. For instance, the postures of the biggest political parties in the build-up to the 2023 election in Nigeria is reminiscent of the monetising roles of political parties in the 2000 presidential elections in the United States. This is well reported by the ace investigative journalist, Greg Palast, in his book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Some experts have asserted that the 2000 presidential in America was the first in history in which political parties spent more money on advertising than the candidates themselves despite the prevailing regulatory regime at the time. Put together, the expenses on television adverts by both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were estimated to be $79.9 million while the respective candidates themselves – George W. Bush and Al Gore- spent about $67.1 million. The money reportedly came largely from what was described as “soft money” from corporations, wealthy individuals and unions. The candidates spent the public money provided for them according to the law. But regulatory questions were raised about the expenditures of the political parties.
What happened in 2000 in the United States should, however, be contrasted with the Nigerian situation in some respects. For instance, it is not case that the bulk of the “expenses” that candidates and their political parties make in Nigeria could be said to be on media adverts. What would be revealed could be stupefying if a thorough scientific study of what hap-pens is embarked upon with accurate data.
The deeper theoretical and practical questions raised by the high fees charged by APC and PDP in particular relate ultimately to the content of democracy being practised. The huge bills for elections certainly exclude otherwise suitable party members from even contemplating running for elections. Elections are being turned into investments by the parties and in-deed by the system for candidates. The consequence of the huge democratic deficits is undeniable in the system. The democratic space is not widened when the factor of money automatically excludes otherwise qualified party members from contesting.
You cannot be talking of a level playing ground in a contest in which most prospective participants can-not even afford the application fees. The practical implication of the exclusionary rule, of course, is that a candidate will have to find the money or be sponsored by those who can afford to do so.
That is not the way to deepen democracy.
In retrospect now, the role of money in elections could not be said to be as dominant in the Second as it today. After all, if money was all that mattered the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) led by Mallam Aminu Kano could not have defeated the more endowed National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in the old Kaduna State (now Kaduna and Katsina) and old Kano state (now Kano and Jigawa) states. Balarabe Musa who emerged as Kaduna governor and Abubakar Rimi who was elected as governor in Kano could not be described as rich men before they contested the election. They were only armed with solid ideas for the liberation of the talakawa (the poor masses) from the shackles of poverty and underdevelopment. The ideology of PRP resonated well with the people on the streets. There was no way the PRP could have asked Balarabe and Rimi to pay prohibitive fees as a condition to bid for the party ticket.
Yet, the politics of the Second Republic was severely criticised for the role money played in elections in some other quarters.
So, during the long-drawn transition programme of the military government of President Ibrahim Babangida there was a deliberate attempt to de-monetise the political process. The intellectuals who produced the ideas for the unique transition to democracy from the late 1980s to early 1990s actually aimed at a complete recast of the political economy of Nigeria. In fact, there was strident campaign against the place of “moneybags” in politics as the regime sought to create a “new breed” of politicians not with money. As a result, the Babangida regime built party secretariats all over the country and the government was responsible for financing the respective organisations of the two registered parties – the National Republic Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – among other responsibilities. The experiment, however, collapsed with the tragic annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Bashorun Moshood Abiola. Looking back now, the monetisation of politics in the past was a child’s play compared with what obtains today.
Enthusiasts of liberal democracy often ignore the limitation of the system imposed by the role of money. In theory, every citizen has the right to vote and be voted for as provided in the constitution. But many liberal democrats do not acknowledge the fact that for most citizens these are mere formal rights (especially contesting elections) with no practical effect.
The participatory range of liberal democracy is severely limited in an underdeveloped setting like Nigeria.
That is why the struggle for popular democracy should be intensified because it is more participatory in the long run.
Interestingly, despite all the heat generated in the agitation for constitutional reforms, restructuring of the federation or the making of a fresh constitution this conspicuous limitation in Nigeria’s experiment with liberal democracy is hardly a topic of discussion. The constitution specifies the qualification for con-testing for elective offices. But having sufficient money to run for office is not stated as one of the conditions. This is so in order to give a veneer of equal rights and universality of participation. The truth, however, is that the system is rigged against the majority. Some qualified party members may actually be too poor to run for elective offices. But those who control the system pretend that they are not aware that many interested party members have no means to run and do not have ready sponsors.
Party leaders should be wary of the institutional implications of the exclusive political culture they are unwittingly nurturing with exorbitant application fees. Otherwise, APC’s Chairman Abdulahi Adamu, PDP’s Chairman Iyorchia Ayu and leaders of the other parties might soon be confronted with the emergence of a Not-too-Poor-to-Run movement. The battle cry of such a movement will simply be this: the increasing monetisation of the political process depletes its democratic content. This in turn worsens the alienation of the people as manifested in voter apathy.
It is grossly unfortunate that the biggest political parties appear to be promoting this negative trend.