Parties Without Roles?

Parties Without Roles?



0805 500 1974                    

As part of his  homily, a pastor told his congregation recently not vote on the basis of party loyalty in the next year’s presidential election. He asked his church members to vote for their preferred  candidates. Yet no independent candidate will contest the elections. All candidates will be contesting on the platforms of their parties.  And no candidate will have his portrait emblazoned  on the ballot paper. Voters will thumb-print spaces on the ballot paper adjacent to the  emblems of  political parties of their choice  on the day of election.

The pastor spoke as if he was ignorant of the fact that  the Nigerian political system  is  constitutionally defined as a multi-party democracy. To be charitable to the pastor, however,  he might be conscious of the obvious fact. Perhaps, he only admonished his congregation to focus on candidates and not parties within the context of an extremely fluid political landscape.

One of the huge deficits of the political process is that  political parties have been cynically marginalised. Powerful politicians have reduced the roles  of political parties to merely submitting the names of candidates periodically  to the Independent Electoral Commission.

To be sure, the roles of political party include mobilisation within the polity, voter education, defence of democratic values and the training cadres for political leadership. Parties also have  the crucial  role of policy formulation and articulation. A fortnight ago, the 110-year old African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa  held a policy conference in which at all strata of the great party vigorously debated policy options. Nigerian political parties only  hold congresses to elect candidates or party officials. Hardly are policy conferences held by the parties. That is why the disagreements within the parties are not based on divergent perspectives on policies on tax, education, health or security. The acrimony is often on who controls the “party machine” that would make tickets available to aspirants  to contest elections.

The PDP is the only political party that has essentially maintained its original identity in the last 23 years of this civil dispensation without any threat of de-registration by INEC.  A number of parties have been deregistered  by INEC based on the commission’s yardstick which is somewhat undemocratic.

Although the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) could be said to be relatively younger, it was born eight years ago as a fusion of some older parties. The other parties are newer; but they are hardly different in terms of the marginal locations  into which political parties have been  consigned in the polity.

The trend identified in the foregoing raises a  wider historical question of political underdevelopment afflicting the whole polity.

Pundits, who are not attuned to the political economy approach to the Nigerian condition, often  comment a lot about the socio-economic underdevelopment of the country, but less attention is paid to the development of the polity.

It is, of course obvious, that there exists an  interplay of forces between political development on the one hand and development in the socio-economic realm on the other hand. It takes strong and well-organised parties to present credible candidates armed with well-articulated programmes to provide solutions to myriad socio-economic problems.

In an earlier reflection on this subject of the gross distortion of the multiparty system, the following observations were made: “As a result of this political defect and structural deformities, political parties have been unable to play their roles as central institutions of democracy.

“In the process, the political parties are organisationally ailing with the implication that the polity remains stunted.

“This decline in the quality of parties has been variously explained. The role of the chief executive officers of state who got into power on the party platforms in the distortion of the party system should be critically examined. As aspirants and later as candidates these chief executive officers of state -president and governors – are members of the party, in the first place. In some cases they are among the senior members of the party. As soon as they get elected into office, they assume the powers of the proprietors  of the party.

“The tendency has been on  since 1999.

“A president or governor might not have been part of the formation of the party. He might not even have engaged in partisan politics. With the support of some political forces he could get elected as president or governor. After the election,  the president or governor begins to take a grip on the party. The chief executive brooks no alterative views on how the party should be organised. The president or governor determines who should be party chairman and when he should be removed.

“The story is often told how a president made a party chairman to quit office in an action that was akin to a  political commando attack. After a good meal of pounded yam, the party chairman was given a draft letter of resignation to sign . The chairman signed the letter as directed only for the president to discover later that  it was not properly dated. So the letter was taken back to the hapless party chairman for  the proper date.

“The same political spectacles are so staged at the state levels where the governors treat the parties as mere political parastatals. Some of the governors assume absolute control over the parties.

“It is intriguing that a president or a governor could fail to reckon with the obvious fact that one day he would be out of office and he might not have the same control over the party. After all, a president or governor who had his party in his pocket 10 or 20 years ago might not wield the same influence in the party today as another man is now in the saddle.

“Party supremacy has been replaced with the supremacy of the president or governor in party affairs.

“The trend of emasculation of the party in this dispensation is in contradistinction with what obtained in the Second Republic. In terms of the provisions on political parties, there is virtually no difference between the 1979 Constitution which was operated in the Second republic and that of the subsisting 1999.

“Yet the supremacy of the party was asserted in varying degrees. The presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) in the 1979 election, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was also the leader of the party. The party’s constitution stated so clearly. Other parties, however, made a distinction between the presidential candidates and the party chairmen. A clear example of the separation of the structure of the party from that of the government was demonstrated by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The party formed a government after the 1979 presidential election in “accord” with one of the opposition parties, the Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP). President Shehu Shagari, as a leader of the NPN, attended the party caucus meeting in which party chairman Chief Adisa Akinloye presided. Senate President Joseph Wayas would also be in attendance as well as Senate Majority Leader Dr. Olusola Saraki among other senior party members. The Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time was Chief Edwin Ume-Ezeoke. He was a member of the NPP, and so could not be part of the NPN caucus.

“The caucus under the leadership of the party chairman (and not the president) decided on the party line to be pursued in the National Assembly and the executive council alike. The NPN secretariat with stalwarts such as Alhaji Uba Ahmed, Alhaji Suleiman Takuma and others vigorously defended the party programmes of qualitative education, green revolution, mass housing and, of course, national unity, which the party proclaimed as a programme. A similar structure and method were adopted at the state levels. A state chairman of NPN was certainly  more than an errand boy of any governor, unlike what obtains today.

“You might disagree ideologically with the NPN, but you could not deny its organisational character. The party was certainly not amorphous.”

Today, party discipline is anathema to most politicians. The party system is deliberately made  formlessness by politicians. Hence, within an electoral cycle, a politician could traverse three parties, all in search of party tickets to contest elections.

This trend persists simply because  there are  no ideological boundaries separating  parties which  are hardly distinguishable from one another  in terms of programmes and policies.

Politicians are wont to  dismiss glibly  the call for a better organisation of political parties as sheer idealism. For them, the real thing  is ”winning” on the platform of any party available.

Political parties elsewhere which have existed for decades were not erected on a foundation of this winning formular that is bereft of principle.

Unfortunately, while  this cynicism reigns supreme in the political landscape the polity is not developing.

In rethinking the role of political parties as vital institutions liberal democracy, a lot of weight should  be accorded to the ideological content of politics. It is  the ideological divide that could define the character of parties. The common pursuit of certain ideas on governance by  party leaders and members alike will determine the shape of the parties.

Nigeria’s aspiration to deepen liberal democracy will not be achieved if political parties are reduced to playing marginal roles.

Political parties should be run in such a manner that that they could perform central roles in democratic development.

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