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Why we have weak, unstable political parties

It is not exactly new but since it came from one of them – the politicians, that is –  It is important we listen to…

It is not exactly new but since it came from one of them – the politicians, that is – 

It is important we listen to this. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, delivered a keynote address at the retreat organised by the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, in Abuja, on January 29. The egg heads met to think aloud on the “Dynamics of Managing Political Parties.” 

In its issue of January 30, Daily Trust of January 30 reported Dogara as having said that our “political parties, including the ruling party, APC, the main opposition PDP and others are weak, unstable, lacking functional party apparatus, and also suffering from low organisational capacity and internal democracy.”

He touched on what I regard as the unsightly worms in the apple of our national politics. Every word, all the acerbic words, ring true, disturbingly true. I do not think anyone can reasonably dispute these points. Dogara has correctly diagnosed the ruinous afflictions in our political parties. Take my advice: don’t hope for change. 

The parties are what they have become because none of them was built on the essential foundation of modern political parties: ideology. Ideology drives political parties. It is the essential marketing tool they use to win members and supporters. If a political party has no ideology, it is only an association of men who use its constitutional instrumentality to seek political power. As we have seen in the past 19 years or so in our country, when such an association baptised as a political party wins, or more correctly captures, power, it has problems with how to exercise it for the greatest good of the majority of the people. 

It seems to me that his personal frustration with the ways of our political parties must have so irked the speaker so much that he felt compelled to lay it so strongly on the back of our political parties. Believe me, I am grateful to him for putting it so starkly and so brutally. When governance is in the hands of such a loose association of men, each with a different agenda and a different political outlook, it is impossible to forge a sustainable common national programme that benefits the many, not the few. 

 It is sometimes unhelpful to rhapsodise the past because doing so tends to suggest that all the good things seem to have happened in the past. Since it is beyond human beings to bring back the past, rhapsodising the past would seem like one was engaging in the unproductive enterprise of crying over a broken pot of okra soup. Still, the past must follow us because without it, we cannot measure our rate or level of progress. It is always assumed that the present is an improvement on the past. Not in everything, of course. In our present party politics, the present derogates from the past in very critical ways.

This country has not had real political parties since the demise of the first republic. The military intervention fundamentally changed the architecture of our party politics in more ways than one. In the first republic, the politicians came together to form political parties based on their shared ideological leanings. We heard of such high-sound ideologies as democratic socialism and pragmatic socialism. The parties wooed new members through the skilful marketing of their ideologies. You supported a particular party because you found something appealing in its ideology. Now, you support a party without knowing or even caring what it stands for. You only know, without consulting the babalawo, that the party promise to serve pounded yam or Jebu gari irresistible.

In broad terms, some of the parties of the past leaned left of centre. The Action Group was the leading light in this ideological bent. It packed into its ideological orbit, Mallam Aminu Kano’s NEPU and J.S. Tarka’s Middle Belt Congress, among others. 

Other parties leaned right of centre with the NPC leading that flank. This was what President Ibrahim Babangida, in later years during his transition to civil rule programme, characterised as ‘a little to the right and a little to the left.’

By their ideologies we knew what the political parties stood for. AG, for instance, cast in the democratic socialist ideological mould, offered and implemented free education in the Western Region. Its successor political party, UPN, continued with the same ideology and the same sense of public service. Its soul mate, NEPU, resurrected as PRP in the second republic, championed the cause of the talakawa, the poor, and was decidedly a thorn in the ribs of royalty. NCNC and its affiliates played it both ways: leaning left or right as the political circumstances dictated. 

The NPC had an inchoate ideology derived from the conservative right of centre leaning. When it resurrected as NPN in the second republic, the party offered us qualitative education as the anchor of its ideological sense of public service. It was not grounded in an articulated ideology of development but a mere reaction to what the UPN stood for. I recall the late Professor Ayodele Awojobi of the University of Lagos who went about with a small black board around parts of Lagos and used it to demonstrate the mathematical possibility of free education at all levels in the country.

What we have now are political parties formed essentially in pursuit of political power, not on the ideology of service. Blame the generals. In 1978/79 they decreed the conditions that political associations must meet to be registered as political parties. Chief among the conditions was evidence of national spread to discourage sectional or regional parties regarded, in their view, as the bane of our national unity and cohesiveness. The politicians simply did as the generals decreed. In the end we had four of the five political parties of strange bedfellows without shared ideologies or common cause. Oh well, they were united by a common ambition – the greed for the levers of political power. The exception was the UPN led by the old political war horse, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was founded on the resurrected ideology of the defunct Action Group that he also formed and led in the first republic. 

The generals destroyed the principles of political formation under Babangida when the government registered two parties and ordered everyone to join the party of their choice as a ‘co-founder and a co-joiner.’ The politicians were not even allowed to make inputs into their party manifestoes.  

Four times, the generals decreed political parties. And four times the politicians complied, if only to benefit from the change of batons. But each time, a nation weary of political party formation, watched as our political parties progressively lost the attributes of political parties and became mere associations of power seekers. Former President Obasanjo, now the new national voice in the wilderness, did more harm to party politics than anyone else in our contemporary history. His assumption of national leadership of PDP as president, made the party structure headed by a national chairman, useless and consequently ineffective. The state governors also followed the president’s unworthy example.  Normally, the party chairman was the boss. By separating the party leadership from the executive, party chairman was able to police the implementation of the party manifesto, enforce discipline and enhance internal democracy. 

The parties haemorrhage with mass movements of members from one party to another in search of loaves of bread fully buttered. If parties do not stand on ideologies, they are bound to be “weak, unstable, lacking functional party apparatus, and also suffering from low organisational capacity and internal democracy.”

As my good friend Dr Haroun Adamu would say, let the struggle continue.

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