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Democracy – Parties + Regional Blocs x Youth Groups = Trouble

Why is it that in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, which is 18 years old, political parties are marginalised and political contest is dominated by geo-ethnic groups…

Why is it that in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, which is 18 years old, political parties are marginalised and political contest is dominated by geo-ethnic groups and their surrogate youth groups which together have brought the Republic to the brink of ruin?

At this time the Fourth Republic has neither a vibrant ruling party nor an opposition party worth the name. As soon as the Buhari Administration was inaugurated, the rainbow APC coalition that brought it to power fell into disuse and the elected Administration kept the party at arm’s length. This is turning out to be a mistake of historic proportions. APC has not held a NEC meeting in over a year. It serially fixed dates for its convention only to postpone it on each occasion. Unlike PDP in its heydays when its Wadata Plaza national secretariat was a beehive of activities, APC’s national secretariat is silent as a graveyard. The ruling party’s national secretariat can neither pay its power bills nor fuel its generators nor even pay its staff salaries.

For a party that controls the Presidency, both chambers of the National Assembly and 24 state governments, APC moves more slowly than a sloth. Its mouth-watering program, which promised Nigerians a lot of goodies in the first 100 days and helped to attract millions of votes, was promptly disowned by its own Administration. Ministers and ambassadors were nominated without the party’s knowledge. Despite party members’ loud clamour for posts, hundreds of federal board chairmanships and memberships have not been filled after two years. In fact, of the 15 Special Advisers approved for the President in June 2015, only a few have been appointed and the President has no Political Adviser. There is no viable opposition party either in the Fourth Republic. There are 33 registered political parties in Nigeria today but only three of them control at least one state government or have members in the National and State Assemblies. The significant one, PDP, is in complete disarray with two bitterly feuding national leaderships fighting it out at the Supreme Court. 

Nature abhors vacuum. With political parties in disorderly retreat, geo-ethnic interest blocs grabbed Nigerian democracy by the throat. Instead of planning to win elections, they throw tantrums, whip up emotions, hurl insults, engage in inter-regional brinkmanship and blackmail, demand an ill-defined “restructuring” of the country and surreptitiously sponsor nasty youth groups and militias to do what the regional chieftains themselves cannot do. Now, democracy is meant to operate through a contest for power between political parties, each with an ideological leaning, a clear program, a basket of promises, regular election of its leaders and constant strategising and alliance building in order to win elections. 

The geo-ethnic groups build enemies rather than alliances. Some of them are highly gerentocratic, with all the members in their 80s. Afenifere for example changes its leaders only when they die. It makes no pretension to democracy and it is indistinguishable from a secret cult. Remember how, in 1998, 23 Afenifere chieftains met at D’Rovans Hotel, Ibadan and chose AD’s presidential candidate. They “elected” Chief Olu Falae over Chief Bola Ige. I was reading an interview recently with an 88 year old Afenifere chieftain, who said he must continue to fight for restructuring. I muttered to myself: if I ever reach 88, why should I worry about the structure of anything? I think it is highly presumptuous for a man born early last century to claim absolute knowledge of the solution to contemporary problems. 

Compare the current political climate in Nigeria to that of the Second Republic. The five political parties of that era were roundly accused of over mobilising Nigerians. In those days almost no one was aloof from politics. Even though each of those parties had an identifiable regional stronghold, each one went out of its way to seek membership and alliances all over the country because of the imperatives of the newly adopted presidential system. General Murtala Mohammed’s gamble paid off handsomely. He cajoled the adoption of a presidential system in order to force parties to seek nation-wide mandates, rather than regional ones as was the case in the First Republic. The 1979 Constitution and its successors also forbade political parties that are based on ethnic group, region or religion. That forced Second Republic politicians to realign at historic levels. 

Within weeks of FEDECO registering five parties in 1978, landlords were ejecting tenants, husbands were divorcing wives, in-laws were reclaiming their daughters, neighbours were not on speaking terms, churches and mosques were politically split while social clubs, labour unions, town and student associations all faltered due to party differences. In my hometown many mosques were either identifiably NPN or GNPP. Throughout the four years of the Second Republic there was no Afenifere, Ohanaeze, Arewa Consultative Forum, Middle Belt Forum, Ijaw National Congress or Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta. It was impossible for Yoruba members of UPN to have any meeting point with their NPN counterparts. In the North, there was no way NPN folks could come together with PRP folks in a social club. In the South East too, the bitter feud between NPP and NPN was such that no one could form an Ohanaeze. When I first visited Maiduguri in July 1982, I was surprised by the very warm reception I got from a wealthy transporter even though he never knew me. My friend later explained to me that the man was an NPN chieftain and it was because he saw my car’s number plate-Sokoto-and he assumed that I must be an NPN supporter. In truth I wasn’t. 

Many young newspaper readers probably took scant notice of what Labour Minister Dr. Chris Ngige said last week, that by joining APC despite its unpopularity in Igboland he was only borrowing a leaf from Eze Igbo Gburugburu, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu. I sympathise with Ngige’s analogy. I arrived in Onitsha one day in 1982 and bought a copy of the Anambra State government-owned Nigerian Statesman. Its screaming headline that day was, “Ikemba greets Zik again!” I wondered why that should be a newspaper’s lead story, until I realised that NPP was desperate to get Ojukwu, who just returned from exile, to join the party. When he eventually joined NPN, I personally witnessed several clashes on the highway between members of Ojukwu’s Ikemba Front and the governor’s Nwobodo Vanguard. Radio stations in Enugu too were bitterly partisan. While the state radio endlessly played NPP’s song [Ebeka nge biaka? Ebe seren nmadu!], FRCN Enugu was unabashedly pro-NPN. NPP and NPN left no space for a Nnamdi Kanu or IPOB. 

In the Second Republic no one wanted to be identified as a regional or ethnic champion. Whenever one’s political opponents accused him of being one, he went out of his way to strenuously deny it. In fact politicians routinely labelled their opponents as tribalists because it was a major political minus in those days, unlike today, when a man will stand outside political parties and gain much attention as a “defender” of nebulous regional interests. In short, the quickest way to stabilise this Republic and restore contest for power based on issues, programs and colourful personalities is to revive and strengthen political parties. So long as ACF, Afenifere, Ohanaeze and their youth groups are more prominent than political parties, this Republic will blunder from one geo-ethnic crisis to another.

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