Nigeria: All Power, No Ideas

Chief Gani Fawehinmi
Chief Gani Fawehinmi admonishes the Nigerian Electoral Commission for failing to register his National Conscience Party, Aug. 14, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Two things have characterized the ongoing political campaigns for this year’s general election since politicians went on the hustings last year. One is mudslinging and the other is the naked quest for power. No politician is talking about ideas or programs to liberate the people from the current economic retrogression and social decay. As this newspaper once wrote in an editorial on party primaries, no party has been able to elevate political debate beyond “I will defeat that person,” or “I am more on-message than that aspirant.”

One had thought that one of the good things to come from the liberalization of political space through the registration of new political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would be the creation of political alternatives that enlarge choices beyond the original three parties—that is, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). These are parties whose constitutions were written by one man and that were created from the embryo of one another. They were created not out of any ideological conviction but out of political exigencies.

Out of this initiative emerged a rainbow establishment party called the PDP; an AD party that is ideologically empty in spite of its claim to a worthy antecedent; and the ANPP with its colorless conservatism.

In all honesty, none of these three parties can lay claim to being a genuine mass-based party. They are all, true to Nigeria’s political history, cadre parties. That is, caucus parties characterized by a lack of internal democracy, god-fatherism, a penchant for the highest bidder, nepotism, and statism. No matter how credible, genuinely intentioned or brilliant an aspirant is, if he does not fit into the caucus’s agenda he had better drop his ambition or he is likely to become too frustrated to proceed.

Stories have been told of some Nigerian professionals from the United States who had come home to offer themselves for the PDP’s legislative primaries. Two days before the date of the primaries, they were sitting in front of a television when they heard on network news the results of the primaries in which they were to take part.

Such stories, all too common, featured prominently in most of the primaries. It was this kind of scenario that made the agitation for more parties successful. Unfortunately, most of the promoters of the new parties were the same establishment men with no pedigree in terms of ideas and credible performance in their previous callings in governance.

With the exception of people like [human-rights lawyer and National Conscience Party presidential candidate] Chief Gani Fawehinmi, [former Minister of Internal Affairs and Movement for Democracy and Justice presidential candidate] Alhaji M.D. Yusuf, and [Second Republic Governor of Kaduna State and Peoples Redemption Party presidential candidate] Balarabe Musa, almost all of the new candidates are disgruntled individuals who lost out in the power struggle in the three parties.

This explains why the parties are so indistinguishable. The parties of Fawehinmi, Yusuf, and Musa are distinguishable only by the personalities of their leaders rather than their ideas. For instance, while Fawehinmi has a reputation of always being on the side of the people—a position he has stated in several interviews—not much can be discerned from his party in terms of ideological clarity and vision. Populism is one thing; providing the right direction for the manifestation of populist ideas is another.

As for most of the so-called new parties, most have, by the conduct of their leaders, shown that they have nothing to offer Nigerians except the bloody struggle for power by all means.

Nigeria has never been bereft of credible political parties in their true sense. In the First Republic [1960-66], the ruling party, the Nigerian People’s Congress (NPC), was known for its traditional conservatism and pro-capitalist bent, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) for its centrist inclination, the Action Group for its left-of-center makeup, and the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) for its far-left posture. With the exception of NEPU, most of the parties then were structured along the same lines as the present parties: They were cadre parties.

The Second Republic [1979-83] was a carry-over of the first. Following the lifting of the ban on politics, politicians simply went back to their old enclaves with only a change of party names. Those were serious politicians, politically predictable and honorable in terms of their inclinations; they helped to sharpen our politics. At least at that point, all the parties had programs, and the programs were well conceptualized and built around themes.

Today, if you ask an average Nigerian the content of PDP’s manifesto, he will respond with a blank look. The party has been so barren that it took President Obasanjo over a year to come out with a patched economic blueprint designed by Philip Asiodu that his government has not even followed. One then asks, what happened to his party’s program? The same goes for the AD and the ANPP. Neither of these two parties has been able to show the public a viable program. What they have are individual governor’s programs.

But if the parties at the corporate level are barren of ideas, how about individual power seekers? Given that the supreme law of the land demands that you can seek power only from a platform, what does the typical aspirant seek to do with the power he might acquire? Nothing. Just to add to his CV and make money. That is all there is to it. Each day, when one opens a paper and sees an aspirant declaring for a party and saying that he declared for the party because it is the only one that can salvage the country, one knows that it is all lies. The truth is that this is the way he will get his next appointment or contract.

Nothing demonstrates the shallowness of the present political actors more than the most recent party primaries. While most of the incumbents kept telling Nigerians of the need for continuity and consolidation, the challengers were campaigning on the grounds of lack of performance of the incumbents. So what are the incumbents consolidating? Collapse of public infrastructure, unemployment, and economic downturn.

Yet, their challengers failed to articulate properly their lack of performance. And if you ask them what they will do to change the situation, they offer no opinions in a coherent form. Their program is what comes to mind at any particular time.
For instance, [former Vice President] Dr. Alex Ekwueme, [former governor of Kano state] Alhaji Abubakar Rimi and [former PDP Chairman] Chief Barnabas Gemade, despite their political pedigrees, went into the PDP convention without elevating the debate about Nigeria’s future. At the state level, it is worse. [Ogun state gubernatorial candidate] Gbenga Daniel of the PDP has not been able to tell Ogun indigenes how he would do better than Gov. Segun Osoba. [Lagos state gubernatorial candidate] Funsho “Bitumen” Williams has been so colorless that no Lagosian can actually say what he stands for and why he is better than [incumbent Gov. Bola Ahmed] Tinubu. It is all power, no ideas. Naked and raw power, and no prospect of what to use it for.

This is why there have been so many examples of mudslinging. Since many of the candidates cannot elevate the debate about governance, it is better to take the battle to the gutter. Which is why almost every incumbent has a case with the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission [Nigeria’s controversial anticorruption commission, the ICPC, appointed soon after President Obasanjo’s 1999 election], most of them frivolous. And if that does not work, an example of criminal misconduct from the past is quickly manufactured. It is all sleaze, no debate.

The so-called new political parties are even worse, with their legion of philandering candidates. The most tragic case is that of [Justice Party presidential candidate] Pastor Chris Okotie, who has been philandering politically using God’s name. He claims to represent Nigerian youth, yet has no mandate from them. He claimed God promised him the presidency, only to cross to another party when he lost a party election.

Today, the nation is at a crossroads. As we move into the general election in two months’ time, Nigerian politics remains estranged from the aspiration of the people. There is nothing new, No politician is offering Nigerians a credible alternative that they can follow. It is more of the same. All motion, no movement. The future remains bleak. The prospect of good governance may remain a mirage.

Ideas have refused to define our politics because the barrack mentality injected into the polity since 1989 by the military regime has not been exorcized. The quest for power has become more bloody, cutthroat, and intense all because the control of the state remains the only means of livelihood.

Everybody, in both the private and the public sectors, has proven incapable of surviving without state money. In the area of the economy, no investment is taking place, while production and economic planning have become impossible. The only profitable venture left is the quest for access to state money. This is why political power has become overpriced.

In 1999, the major challenges facing the incoming democratic government were: How to revive the nation’s economy, uplift public infrastructure, reduce unemployment, boost food production, fight insecurity, restore the nation’s image abroad, and attain civilian control of the military. Today these challenges remain largely unfulfilled.

One had expected the new aspirants and candidates to propose these as the main issues that should determine the course of the coming elections. Alas, none did, and we are thus worse off than we were four years ago. The nation is once again back on a rudderless plain as hope diminishes. Unless those of us in civil society begin to pose these challenges now, we may as well be preparing the ground for fascism.