Two days ago, a planning meeting of Prof. Charles Soludo, an aspirant for the forthcoming November Anambra governorship election was attacked, three policemen guarding him were killed and some of his close collaborators abducted. It is often the case that candidates considered to be popular are regularly attacked, killed or frightened off from the contest. Mainstream politicians remain convinced that their money, thugs and connections can get them “elected” as soon as they clear out popular candidates from the arena. This mentality, that it remains possible to rig oneself into office, is very corrosive of democratic culture and must be combatted.
Indeed, one of the greatest problems for Nigeria’s democracy is that honest, competent and sincere people are often afraid of going into politics, leaving the arena to their opposites. Some people of goodwill, who have been persuaded to go into politics to make their contribution to developing their communities, on most occasions get a nasty experience and run away from politics forever.
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I like my friend Oby Ezekwesili, she is totally crazy. She went into politics, had a terrible experience and what does she do, rather than run away forever, she sets up a School of Politics to Fix Nigerian Politics. Her logic is simple, since she is convinced that there is nothing wrong with her, there must be something wrong with our politics she decides to fix it. One of the things I will be telling students of the school, which opens this month is that our political parties, almost all of them, are rotten and it is not possible to operate multi-party democracy without functional democratic political parties.
The 2011 elections were a turning point in the history of Nigeria’s democratic development. That was the first time in our post-colonial history when an election organised under the auspices of a hegemonic party in power was considered freer and fairer than the previous election. There was a change in the trend as while 2003 was worse than 1999 and 2007 was worse than the 2003 elections, 2011 election was better than the previous one. The emergence of Professor Attahiru Jega as INEC Chairman was a critical factor in changing the trend. Significant improvement to the electoral list and the introduction of a biometric card were key elements that induced change. The subsequent introduction of the verification machine was another element.
Meanwhile, citizen’s experience of mandate protection measures and their deployment of civic action to protect their votes had been growing since the 2007 elections. President Goodluck Jonathan, who appointed Jega was also less willing to engage in brazen manipulation of votes. All these combined to provide the outcome of improved elections. Once the integrity of elections began to improve, the expectation was that the trend would have an impact on the nature of political parties. Specifically, the popularity principle was supposed to return and parties with more popular candidates should begin to win in response to the stimuli.
There was, however, no clear indication that parties had started to change their character because the nature of elections was changing. Nonetheless, the evidence from the field should have provided clear guidance to the parties. The party of the leading opposition party in the 2011 election – Congress for Progressive Change led by Muhammadu Buhari provides a good example. Buhari had left his previous party, the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), which he considered was being manipulated by dishonest godfathers. He, therefore, established the CPC as a different type of party where justice and fair play would reign and rules would be followed. Buhari was massively popular in the North East and North West of Nigeria and his supporters considered him to be a man of integrity.
Political pundits expected that the popularity of Buhari in the two zones would create a political tsunami that would lead his party to win at least six gubernatorial seats in the North East and North West. The CPC ran primaries that were hotly contested and many good gubernatorial aspirants contested in the primaries, with the popular ones believing they would succeed because this was a party that was really committed to justice and fair play. Following the elections, analysts were surprised that the CPC did not win gubernatorial seats in the North East and North West. They produced only one governor, in Nasarawa State, which was not considered to be a stronghold of the party.
The CPC ran into a serious crisis because there were widespread accusations that their primaries were conducted and winners emerged undemocratically. In many of the states in the zones in which the party was most popular, the names of those who had emerged as victors in the primaries were apparently substituted by other names that were alleged to have bribed CPC party barons. It is difficult to determine whether these allegations were true. What is known, however, is that in many states such as Bauchi, Kano and Katsina, there were litigations on alleged substitution of names of winners and losers in primaries and it affected the CPC because in many cases, voters did not know the name of the real candidate until a day or two before the election. The most important issue however was that supporters of Buhari believed that party officials had betrayed “Mai Gaskiya” – the truthful Buhari, received bribes and imposed unpopular candidates.
Voters in the zones, therefore, voted for the CPC in the presidential election and voted for other parties in the gubernatorial elections. In other words, party supporters punished their party by refusing to vote for their candidates at all levels except the presidential one because they believed that the CPC, like the other parties, had nothing but disdain for its members. The lesson was not learnt, that parties gain by obeying the rule and standing by popular candidates their members had voted for.
In the decade that followed the 2011 election, there is little evidence that political parties have learnt any lessons. In the 2015 primaries and the subsequent primaries for gubernatorial and legislative elections that have taken place since 2015, it remained business as usual. Godfathers continue to manipulate the process and impose their candidate at will. What this tells us is that those who control the political parties are not convinced that political culture has changed and that therefore the improvements that have occurred in terms of elections becoming freer and fairer would be reversed. The only pathway to change is increased consciousness of voters’ who must organise to ensure only candidates genuinely popular with the people get elected into office.a