What Do the Parties Stand For?

What Do the Parties Stand For?


“Ideologies are associated with power structures. Politicians seek power. Their ideology and the social, economic and political circumstances of the time influence what they do with that power when they have achieved it. Indeed, it is impossible to separate the two. This applies even to those who deny having an ideology. The use of power always takes place in a framework of ideology” — Kevin Harrison and Tony Boyd, University of Manchester

On its official website, in the ‘Who We Are’ section, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) introduces itself to the world as “a political party in Nigeria, formed on 6 February 2013 in anticipation of the 2015 elections”. It adds: “APC candidate Muhammadu Buhari won the presidential election by almost 2.6 million votes. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat on 31 March. This was the first time in Nigeria’s political history that an opposition political party unseated a governing party in a general election…”

The section goes further to explain that APC is “the result of a merger of Nigeria’s three biggest opposition parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) – and a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA)…”

On its own website, in the ‘About Us’ column, the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) declares that it “was launched at a colourful ceremony at the International Conference Centre Abuja on August 31, 1998”. It goes ahead to state that “The Party had Dr. Alex Ekwueme as Chairman of the Steering Committee while Professor Jerry Gana was the Secretary…”

PDP, like APC also indulges in some boasting about its glorious origin back in 1998: “In the Local Government Polls, the PDP won 471 out of the 774 LGAs and won in 28 of the 36 states and the FCT. Thus, the ground work for the emergence of the PDP as the most popular and largest political party in the history of Nigeria was achieved. The party not only had presence in every locality, it also was ahead of its competitors in the thrust of campaigns.”

It is interesting that Nigeria’s two most important political parties, based on information they have provided on their most critical public forum, define themselves in historical, almost bureaucratic terms rather than as platforms for mobilizing Nigerians along ideological lines in pursuit of specific national objectives. The omission is a Freudian slip of significant implications and reveals an important gap at the heart of Nigerian democracy. As Harrison and Boyd posited in the statement quoted in the introduction, an ideological framework is not a luxury; it is or should be at the heart of the vision and interventions of political parties. 

To be fair, the PDP says elsewhere on its website that it is committed to “the principle of participatory democracy that lays emphasis on the welfare of our people” and “the principles of social justice and the equality of opportunities for all citizens” as well as  “the principles of accountability and transparency in order to restore confidence in the institutions of government, discipline and leadership by example as basis for public life and personal integrity as an important moral value in the conduct of public affairs” etc. But the objectives are so woolly and generalized that they are far from distinct characteristics. For instance, is there any political party that is not in favour of “discipline and leadership by example as basis for public live and personal integrity…?” Which one is against accountability and transparency?”

The bottom line is that the APC and PDP websites unwittingly reveal a lack of an ideological anchor and compass in Nigerian democracy and politics. And this is not peculiar to the two main parties. Others are just as indistinguishable and banal in their efforts to define themselves in the midst of a motley of other parties which are, essentially, rickety contraptions hurriedly put together for the purpose of winning elections. Of course there is nothing wrong with the functional objective of chasing victory at the polls. Elections are, after all, all about seeking and acquiring power to take a country in a certain direction. But when the ideological underpinning of a political party is either non-existent or observed in the breach, directionless governance is inevitable. The state of the country speaks volumes.

The weak ideological foundation of our democracy is also responsible for the seasonal nature of politics in Nigeria. Our political parties in Nigeria, like small mammals in temperate climates, hibernate during winter, only to emerge when they are assured of food (resources) during electoral cycles. Outside that window, they are largely inert and unproductive and the negative consequences for the country are obvious. Unlike their predecessors especially during the First Republic, today’s political parties have not invested much time and effort to define distinct paths and animating visions that can serve as beacons to guide their policy choices, interventions and prescriptions in a way that would inspire and mobilize Nigerians.

Even though ethnic and regional politics were a major factor in First Republic parties, they also had strong ideological content, understandably because in the thick of the Cold War, politics, institutional and personal, was defined in robust ideological terms. Democratic socialism was the official ideology of the Action Group. NCNC was a centrist “big tent” nationalist party with a strong focus on social justice. The Northern People’s Congress did not define itself in distinct ideological terms but its regional and conservative pan-northern focus was very clear. The United Middle Belt Congress was the voice of northern minorities in the Northern Nigeria parliament. And so on. Cross regional alliances, like the AG-UMBC one, were based both on common interest.

An interesting anecdote: Dynamic Party, founded by the late Professor Chike Obi, the famous mathematician and political activist, was inspired by Turkish nationalist icon, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Obi called his political philosophy Kemalism and named one of his sons, former AMCON MD Mustapha Chike-Obi after Ataturk.

There is a popular misconception that ideology is not important because we have been living in a post-ideological world since the fall of the Soviet Union and, by implication, the triumph of capitalism. But this is a simplistic and quite inaccurate conclusion. During the Cold War, ideological positions, literally and metaphorically, were defined in stark terms and most of the world was lined up behind the empires representing the two competing ideologies: the Soviet Union and the United States. But like Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” postulation, the post ideological world has turned out to be a figment in the imagination of ivory tower intellectuals.

Ideology did not die, it has only mutated into new forms and, as the rise of powerful socialists like Bernie Sanders in the United States has demonstrated, the contradictions and unresolved injustices in America have breathed new life into non capitalist ideological options. In other parts of the world, the rise of right-wing extremism (often linked with racism and white supremacy) and the ongoing process of mainstreaming feminism into policy in many countries are all expressions of the relevance of ideology in a changing world. As one of the most vital units of liberal democracy, a political party needs to be defined by a clearly defined ideology which will determine the priorities captured in its manifesto and the policy preferences it chooses to tackle in response to the many challenges that have turned Nigeria into a serially underperforming country.

In the light of the foregoing, the weak ideological foundation of Nigerian political parties is a hole in the heart of Nigerian democracy that requires urgent attention. The popular view that the problem is not absence of ideology but an unprincipled and bankrupt political class is only partly true. While character is definitely an issue in Nigerian politics, ideology exacerbates the challenge but without a clear philosophical blueprint as a guide, even the principled are placed in a difficult position.

Consider this scenario. You are a decent Nigerian who aspires to support your community by, say, championing building more schools with highly subsidized fees for indigent youths whose parents cannot afford the current schools. So you join a political party with this one objective at the top of your priorities. Your plan is to become a local government chairman so that you will have the opportunity to redirect funds which are largely wasted by the incumbent chairman, his godfather and cronies. You take all necessary steps to achieve your objectives but your efforts are frustrated by your rivals who deploy bribe, threats of violence and ethnic solidarity to ensure that your dreams for your people come to naught.

You explore remedial measures to no avail. Your dream of uplifting the youths in your community through education still burn fiercely in your heart. You are determined to give back, to transform lives and destinies. What are your options? Give up because you are a principled politician who does not believe in decamping to another platform like the many unprincipled politicians who jump from party to party like drunk hyperactive monkeys? Or do you consider the option of moving to another party because your dream to contribute is paramount?

In a political system anchored on ideology-driven parties, the option of decamping will be less attractive because you became a member of your current party out of conviction rather than convenience or because your brother is a big man in the party. As a result you are more likely to be patient to exploring all legitimate avenues to fight the negative forces on the path of your dream. Since you have bought into the party’s vision for achieving a better and more just society, you may not mind being in the political wilderness for a while in the company of those who share the same vision.

If on the hand, you have no ideological investment in the party, “principles” may not be enough to make you hang around at the expense of your passionate personal aspiration. This hypothetical but quite relatable scenario explains the practical implications of a political system with weak ideological foundations and the attendant profound negative consequences for our politics.

Ideology, whether defined broadly or in “heavy” doctrinaire terms, is a critical component of a viable political system. In retrospect, even Babangida’s shoehorned “a little to the left and a little to the right” prescription on which the historic June 12, 1993 election was conducted is much better than the current state of affairs. It provided clarity, albeit a forced one and Moshood Abiola’s populist Social Democratic Party won the election with the campaign theme “Goodbye to Poverty”.

Today, wake up a party “chieftain” at 2am and ask him to say what his “great party” stands for in clear ideological terms. Chances are that he would start sweating.

PAUL NWABUIKWU  A pioneer THISDAY Editorial Board member, Paul Nwabuikwu, who has also served on The Guardian’s Editorial Board, is a respected public intellectual with decades of experience in journalism, advertising, and public communication. A winner of the DAME Awards for Informed Commentary, Nwabuikwu served twice as Special Adviser to former Finance Minister and current DG, World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Nwabuikwu holds a first degree in Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and MBA from the University of Jos.  

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