Perhaps out of ignorance of the British political party system, many Nigerians chose to see the resignation of Liz Truss as British prime minister last week as her personal failure. She was in office for only 45 days as prime minister. In a negative sense, she set a record. None had had as short a time at the most famous street address in the British capital, 10 Downing Street.
It seems to me however, that we miss the fundamental point about the manner she came into office and the manner she left it. Her decision to resign was an act of personal courage consistent with her country’s political party system. She inherited a chaotic system that simply overwhelmed her.
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But she acted for a more fundamental reason, to wit, to protect the integrity of her political party. In her country, the supremacy of the parties is absolute. As prime minister, Truss was a servant of her party, the Conservative party, that put her in office. Although she proclaimed herself “a fighter, not a quitter,” she could not survive in office by challenging the supremacy of the party. When the party said she had to leave office because she had failed to deliver on the mandate for which she was elected the prime minister on its platform, she saw reason with the party. In her resignation, she admitted that she could no longer deliver on the mandate for which she was elected prime minister by the party.
She could have remained in office to fight enemies within and without her party, but she knew her country did not need that stress in the system. Truss would rather protect the system than stress it in her own interest. She threw the responsibility back to the party to find a more capable man or woman to lead it as leader and prime minister. No sweat, said the party. It took just a few days to settle on Rishi Sunak as its new leader. He has since moved into! Downing St as the new prime. The system has survived the apparent chaos that gripped the Conservative party.
In a positive sense, Truss did an honourable thing. The president or prime minister who recognises his inability to discharge the duties of his public office and quits rather than hangs on as a pugilist, either because he insists he has a constitutional tenure cast in stone or because he is deafened by the insensate applause of sycophants, is an honourable man. The dishonourable man is he who refuses to admit his lack of capacity and continues to inflict his incompetent and indifferent leadership on his country.
The smooth transition from Truss to Sunak within one week owes to the integrity of their party system. The party is the pillar of democracy as well as the driver of development in that beloved but difficult form of government, hence the imperatives of protecting its integrity. Where the party system breaks down, democracy is forced to catch at a straw to maintain the semblance of power and control. Where the system works, everything else follows smoothly along the rail tracks of good governance. Where the system is bastardized or rendered ineffective, nothing works well. As the musician Edris put it, a democratic country in which a leader treats the nuances of democracy as an irritating inconvenience is jaga-jaga.
Comparisons between a settled political system and a struggling one may be misleading for obvious reasons, but still, making such comparisons help to put issues in perspective and could provide lessons worth learning by a country anxious to invest its public offices with honour and integrity. Britain, certainly, is not the only country that protects its political party system from cynical abuse. Protecting the system at the expense of individual men and women of power is what makes for a settled democracy and the rule of law.
Africa would seem to be the most unlikely place where presidents and state governors would choose to put honour before naked ambition. But in 2008, the South Africans showed that not every African country is a serial abuser of a system intended to protect democracy and hold rulers to their honour, integrity and account. The ANC, the party on whose platform Thabo Mbeki was elected the second president of a multi-racial South Africa, forced him to resign after nine years as president for alleged abuse of office that year.
Mbeki was not found wanting in the discharge of the mandate for which he was elected president. His problem was that a judge hearing a criminal case involving Mbeki’s friend said the president showed undue interest in it. For that, the party felt he had rubbished his own integrity and that this had implications for the party itself. Voters have a long memory too. He was sacrificed to protect the party system and the party supremacy.
His successor in office and arch political rival, Jacob Zuma, suffered the same fate when the party accused him of alleged corruption. He was forced out in 2018 and thrown at the mercy of the law for his alleged transgressions. In both instances, both men could have reacted to their traducers in the African way and clung to power with their minions and sycophants engaged in verbal battles with the enemies within and without. But they chose the path of honour to preserve the integrity of the supremacy of their political party.
I have drawn attention to this to make what has become more or less my pet argument in support of righting the wrongs in our political party system and administration. If we do not get the party system right, our democracy will continue to wobble, unable to drive national development and development at the state levels. I knew that Chief Adisa Akinloye, national chairman of NPN, could call President Shehu Shagari to order when he felt the president was acting against the interest of the party and of the nation. He could do that because in the second republic the parties were supreme and superior to those elected on its platform.
This is no longer the case. The political parties are no longer supreme. Indeed, once elections are over, the parties become irrelevant because they are treated nothing more than constitutional platforms for putting varieties of characters in public offices. The result is a strange form of democracy that is partly dictatorial and partly made for patronage. And you still wonder why we are behaving like crabs trying to free themselves inside a jar? Sorry.
The parties lost their supremacy when President Obasanjo made himself the national leader of PDP. The state governors happily followed their leader by anointing themselves too party leaders in their various states. The party chairmen were stripped of control of their parties. Without the party chairmen looking over their shoulders, the state governors do as they please. Democracy is a policed form of government. Ours is not policed.
Ah, yes, Nigeria jaga-jaga.