For a country obsessed with the constitution, given its frequent amendments, as the supreme organic law of the land, we have a pretty remarkable record of treating it like an inconvenient piece of trash. There are too many cases of such breaches and thus too many for us to deal with here. Impossible. So, let us take just one instance in which breaching the constitution has done some serious damages to our democracy, the rule of law and a political party system that can find neither rhyme nor rhythm as a credible platform on which other nations build their democracy and make a leap in their economic and social development.
In 1953 or 1954, my memory plays a trick on me, Professor Chinua Achebe was a young undergraduate at the University College, Ibadan. He had his first political baptism when, out of youthful curiosity, he went to watch the politicians at their game in the Western Nigeria House of Assembly, Ibadan, perhaps to learn something about the independence struggle being waged by our redoubtable nationalists. But he came away with a shock and ashes in his mouth. He saw what he did not expect to see. He watched as the NCNC majority in the house thinned out in favour of AG. It was called, gratuitously, carpet crossing.
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Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe watched with equal bewilderment as his opportunity to become the first premier of the Western Region evaporated. He thought this was in the bag. It wasn’t. His party lost its majority; AG gained and went on to form the government with Chief Obafemi Awolowo as premier of the region. Achebe remembered it to his dying day as the beginning of tribal politics in the country. But it was much more than that. It marked the beginning of aimless drifts in our national politics in which the straw has managed to prevent our politicians from drowning.
The Obasanjo military regime provided what it thought would be a cure to tribal politics by outlawing regional-based political parties. In his transition to civil rule programme, he decreed that all political associations that wanted to be registered as political parties must have a national spread with offices in at least two-thirds of the then 19 states. That was easy. What was not so easy and remains so to this day is the endless drift from one political party to another and back again in an expansive political vacuum.
Still, the general tried to either end it or at least minimise it. His objective was not merely to stop carpet crossing but more importantly to plant the seeds of political principles that would bind a party member to his party, come rain, come shine. Under section 64 1 (g) and section 103 1 (g) of the 1979 constitution minted by the military government, it became unconstitutional for a senator or a member of the House of Representatives or a member of a state house of assembly to cross the carpet. If he does, he loses his seat in the legislature. These provisions were reproduced in the current 1999 constitution in section 68 1(g) and section 109 1 (g) respectively.
The sections of the constitution under reference provide that a senator, a member of the house of representatives and a member of a state house of assembly, “shall vacate his seat in the house of which he is a member if – being a person whose election to the house was sponsored by a political party, he becomes a member of another political party before the expiration of the period for which that house was elected; provided that his membership of the latter political party is not as a result of a division in the political party of which he was previously a member of a merger of 2 or more political parties….”
These constitutional provisions have been abused, mocked and trashed by our politicians, honourable men that they are, with the cynical exploitation of a loophole made possible by the latter part of the provisions quoted above. From 1979 to date, politicians who want to cross the carpet just induce a crisis in their parties and using that as an excuse, move to another political party, usually the ruling party where he is sure to be protected by the might of that party.
They were once nice about it. They now do it with shameless brazenness. They don’t just cross the carpet; they roll off the carpet and walk across it to where the light of new political opportunity beckons. No legislator has lost his seat by crossing the carpet. Whereas the constitution forbids a legislator from crossing the carpet, it is silent on what happens to a state governor who does the same. For instance when the then governor Shinkafi of Zamfara State defected from ANPP with all his commissioners and special advisers to PDP, the court ruled that what he did was immoral but not illegal.
It is worse than immoral for a man who has been a major beneficiary of his party as a two-term governor to ditch it for another party. The same goes for legislators at federal and state levels. It is the worst form of selfishness. He has a moral responsibility to stay in the party as a mark of gratitude. If his party has problems, he is duty bound to assist in solving them towards building it into a strong political party.
The aimless drift by politicians in search of a berth to be power players in government continues. No one watching the current goings-on in the political parties should fear that we are rapidly moving to a one-party state, an anachronism since discarded as anathema to the principles of political pluralism so beloved in a democracy. We are not. These are hollow rituals in all our election seasons with all roads, as they say, now leading to APC. There is nothing attractive in the party itself but the belief that despite the scrappy performances of the president elected on its platform in 2015 and 2019, and given its advantages of incumbency, it is still the party to beat in 2023 ensures the haemorrhaging of PDP in its favour.
As I have repeatedly said here and elsewhere, in the absence of ideologies, our political parties are hollow contraptions, mere vehicles of convenience for power play. And that is why a party leader or member has an obligation to his party only for as long as it satisfies his personal needs and ambitions as a power player. Take PDP, the older of the two major parties and see how many of its original members from 1999 are still in it. I can only number President Goodluck Jonathan and Senator David Mark, former senate president, among the few who have remained faithful to the party. Some of its former state governors and legislators who ditched it in 2014 to birth APC, have since found themselves in an aimless drift and tempted to jump on the straw as a lifebuoy.
The hordes of politicians falling over themselves to become recognisable faces in the APC have no permanent commitment to it. They drift there and will drift out again soon unless they are anointed by the dispensers of political favours in the party. After all, like PDP, APC has no political ideology to which anyone who wants to join it can subscribe. All it offers is some accommodation for those hankering after elective and appointive offices in the executive and the legislative branches of government. Their aimless drift is unhealthy for our democracy and national development.