Reforming our dysfunctional political parties -By Ayo Olukotun

Filed under: Political Issues |

Ayo Olukotun

Less than three weeks into the new year, Nigerians remain very much in the wake of the sad and disempowering events which punctured optimistic hopes and wishes for happier, or at least less woeful year than 2017. The picturesque queues for fuel have reduced in size in most cities, although they linger in Abuja and a few other cities. Also, a raw upbeat mood persists in the aftermath of the mass killings of farmers and others by Fulani herdsmen presumably in the bid to assure what The Nation columnist, Gbenga Omotosho, recently termed “better life for cows”.

On the cheerful side, inflation, though in double digits, has dipped a little, while the price of oil in the world market has drifted upwards to $70 per barrel. Amidst all of these, preparations for the elections of 2018 and 2019 continue feverishly, necessitating a focus of the current state of our political parties. The zeroing in on the parties is even more warranted in the light of the registration in December by the Independent National Electoral Commission of 21 new parties, bringing the total number of political parties up to 67. INEC has assured Nigerians that there are prospects of registering 80 more parties, since it is considering a deluge of applications for new parties. Obviously, this follows a characteristic Nigerian pattern in which a noble idea is devalued or rendered virtually meaningless by being stretched to an illogical or absurd limit. For, while those who scale the INEC hurdle for registration may rejoice in the exercise of their fundamental rights, it is difficult to see how a plethora of groups or associations, lacking political identity and fronting as parties can bring anything more than comic relief to a political table cluttered with meaningless eccentricities as well as much style without substance. It is also possible that political parties are deliberately allowed to mushroom in order to increase the power of the ruling party in the first instance, and secondarily, the main opposition party.

The theatre of multiplying parties without platforms constitutes a parable of the shallowness and lack of credibility of our party system replete with party switching by politicians across board. Only a few weeks ago, the nation was treated to a comedy when on the floor of the upper legislative chamber, the Peoples Democratic Party physically prevented Senator Sunny Ogbuoji, representing Ebonyi South Senatorial District, from switching over to the ruling All Progressives Party. The resulting commotion is typical of the bedlam which accompanies frequent party switches back and forth by our politicians. The root problem is that party members, however new, are supposed to be bound together by a minimum charter of governance ideas, which define their political niches. In our situation, it is difficult to find this common thread, since the so-called manifestoes of our parties are written by consultants who espouse the same political clichés, which party members do not even bother to read.

So, the question that haunts our fragile parties is: Who is a party man in a context where politicians, including holders of high office, can jettison their parties at the slightest whiff of disagreement? This columnist does not intend to suggest that party switching is peculiar to the Nigerian polity. Even the United States harbours its share of famous party switchers, including Hillary Clinton, who crossed from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, and President Donald Trump, who has changed parties for not less than four times.

The point to note, however, is that while politicians the world over are basically opportunists, and power-mongers, the Nigerian political firmament is distinguished by the pervasive cynicism, the lack of gravitas and the crowding-out of time-honoured virtues by settling for slippery shortcuts. Before developing the narrative further, I crave the indulgence of the reader for the digression of a short take.

In the aftermath of the notorious and racist put-down of African countries by Trump, Nigeria can justifiably take pride in the achievements of some of its sons and daughters abroad. Every generation produces its own share of Nigerian professionals of world-class forte and stature. Among the most eminent, is Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, who turned 85 on Thursday. Anyaoku made a name for himself and for Nigeria during 30 eventful years at the Commonwealth, which included a two-term tenure of five years each as the Secretary General. Holder of 33 honorary doctorates of top universities across the globe, the diplomat will be remembered for his contribution to the transition in South Africa to a post-apartheid polity, and for such innovations as the Commonwealth Observer Group to elections in Commonwealth countries. Characteristic of a plethora of recognition is the institution by the University of London of an Emeka Anyaoku Professorial Chair at the university’s Institute for Commonwealth Studies. Although he appeared not to have been successful in brokering peace in Nigeria in the years following the June 12 debacle, he has continued to be a steadying voice and presence in Nigeria’s turbulent journey to democratic consolidation. It is appropriate that in his old age, he continues to intervene in public discourse, for example, by his tireless advocacy of restructuring, and he is easily the conscience of a nation adrift. This columnist wishes an elder statesman a Happy birthday.

To return to the initial discourse on our political parties, it is necessary to state that the evolution of our political parties into the support pillars and arteries of our democracy should include their reinvention to become centres of agenda-setting policy discourse, which can provide alternatives to those being currently implemented, serving as incubators for future political leaders, bridging the gap between the rulers and the ruled, as well as facilitating a culture of consensus and nation-building. What we have currently are a far cry from these projections, which constitute the cardinal attributes of credible political parties the world over.

As the case of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, shows, a newly formed political party, En-marche, can within a short time seize the nation’s imagination and capture political power. But, it cannot do so without a platform, a body of political ideas around which a movement or a political party, properly so-called, can coalesce. It would be important, therefore, both for the newly registered parties and the established ones, to spend time working on their agreed policy perspectives and beliefs. They should also ensure that party conventions, as happens, in the United Kingdom, are dedicated, at least once a year, to fleshing out the enduring principles and points of departure around which the party is built. The present situation where parties hold conventions only to decide positions based on zoning or federal character is encouraging mediocrity, ethnicity and money politics.

The other point to consider is how to make the parties inclusive, participatory and genuinely democratic, as opposed to what obtains currently, where parties are dominated by cabals and barons who have access to state resources. Obviously, parties lacking in internal democracy cannot be the laboratory or the pilot test site for diffusing democratic values.

Finally, a law is required following the example of Russia outlawing, with a few exceptions, the switching of parties, which signals in its pervasiveness the ill-health of our political parties.

 

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