The trouble with our political parties
Nigeria’s 18 political parties are the pre-eminent and foremost stakeholders in the electoral process. They are the chief beneficiaries of elections in that they field candidates and contest for elective offices.
Nigeria’s political parties, to some extent, meet the classical definition of political parties. They are organised largely by people who think alike. They contest elections and field candidates. They approximate to special purpose vehicles and platforms for recruiting leaders who then proceed to contest elections. They canvass certain platforms and programmes. And they provide the voter with a number of candidates from which to choose.
To some extent, they abide by Maurice Duverger’s iron law: apart from the synthesis or nexus between a party system and electoral system, we have also, in our clime, witnessed a party system in which two parties, namely, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have thus far emerged as the hegemons in the political sphere.
Apart from playing the above pedestrian roles, and most of the time in the breach, our political parties have come short. And their failings are so legion that Duverger, the uber theorist who authored the classic, The Political Parties, in 1951, would rue his intellectual exertions, if not turn in his grave.
Our political parties are so ideologically vacuous and directionless that someone once referred to them disparagingly as rallies. Perhaps with the exception of the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), which has trodden a consistent pro-people ideological trajectory, virtually all our parties are sadly not predicated on some sublime or uplifting idea.
A seasoned lawyer reportedly authored the constitutions and manifestos of three major political parties in 1989 as he migrated from one to the others in discontent. It did not matter to the leaders of the three parties that the constitutions and manifestos appeared similar! Little wonder, a disgruntled politician could move from one party to the other without any qualms or the feeling that he was committing what amounted to political apostasy.
Though Nigeria’s political parties write and bequeath unto themselves their constitutions and manifestos, they hardly respect them.
The letters and spirits of these otherwise hallowed documents are observed, at best, in the breach. When it suits the parties, these documents are jettisoned outright. This explains why valid primaries are hardly conducted. Or if a semblance of one is conducted, the highest bidder or deepest pocket is favoured with the ticket. Occasionally, candidates are arrogantly foisted by the party machinery.
If candidates are foisted, roughshod, by political parties, scant regard is given to the delivery of good governance or democratic dividends.
The welfare of the political office older trumps that of the voter. Consequently, the well-being of the people is seldom considered. Infrastructure is hardly provided and the preoccupations of office holders are those of self-enrichment and the reckless pillage of the public till.
The upshot of this insensitivity and unresponsiveness to peoples’ plight is the sorry pass we have arrived at. Nigeria today is not only on the verge of state failure, it is keeping the rear in each department of national development.
Whereas in other climes political parties engage robustly with, and educate voters, particularly in respect of the functioning of the political and electoral systems, these vital tasks have since been left to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to undertake.
True, the Electoral Act mandates INEC to conduct voter and civic education and to “promote knowledge of sound democratic election processes.” But in other jurisdictions, this onerous task is not left to the Election Management Body (EMB) and its other partners.
The political parties have a crucial role to play here. In the last American presidential election, we saw how the Democrats and Republicans outdid themselves in galvanizing and mobilizing voters. In addition to suffusing the media with messages exhorting voters to vote for their respective candidates, they, for good measure, conveyed voters to Polling Units!
It would have sufficed if our political parties were merely derelict and lukewarm about voter education. Unfortunately, we have seen situations where the political parties worked assiduously, and in concert, to undermine the EMB.
Shortly after the enactment of the Electoral Act 2022 and the issuance of the Timetable and Schedule of Activities for the 2023 General Elections, which were literally set in stone (by virtue of their being undergirded by salient provisions of the Act and the Constitution), the political parties were unanimous in canvassing for the extension/adjustment of timelines as they concerned the conduct of primaries!
Apart from deliberately making INEC’s tasks even more daunting, we have also witnessed an escalation in the ugly phenomenon of vote buying perpetrated by the political parties and their candidates. Compounding this unbecoming conduct, which undermines the integrity of our elections, is that the political parties scarcely provide avenues for their members or followers either to be briefed about the implementation of party programmes/policies or to make further inputs into them.
Once candidates assume office, the voter and members of political parties are left to their devices. The result of this is a chasm created between leaders and followers. Also, a consequence of this is a huge disconnect between leadership and followership.
The former is unable to gauge correctly the feelings of the latter. Besides, because the followers and voters are haughtily ignored, the party cannot seek financial support or succour from its members, hence their reliance on deep pockets and godfathers.
The many dysfunctions and peccadilloes of the political parties are deeply concerning. They also have serious implications for good governance, carrying the people along and the sustenance of the democracy project itself.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies(NIPSS), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES), the International IDEA and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems(IFES) have been forthcoming in imbuing the political parties with some modicum of content. They have also been nudging them through a series of capacity-building workshops to play their traditional roles in voter education and mobilization and in interest articulation and aggregation.
But a lot of work remains to be done. The political parties must reform themselves in concert with international best practices. It is not a road they will travel willingly or take their cue from INEC. Therefore, for the political parties to reform, pressure must be brought to bear on them. They must be persuaded, in their best-enlightened interest and in the strongest terms, to deliver on good governance and democracy dividends. They should be prompted and encouraged to acquire ennobling attributes.
Politics should be service-driven and not lucre-driven. And political parties should make their platforms available only to persons of character, exalting vision and competence.
It is concerted pressure, which was mounted by the Media and Civil Society on INEC since 2008, and the prolific reforms in the electoral process, which it effected, that have resulted in the kind of stellar elections that the Commission has conducted in recent times.
Civil Society, the Media and indeed our intellectuals must bring similar pressure to bear on our political parties. The parties must reform – and in earnest. Otherwise, we will continue to witness shell organisations masquerading as parties.
Otherwise, also, we will witness political parties, which rather than jockey for power on the bases of uplifting and progressive ideas, will be content merely either with horse trading or queuing behind the bigger parties for filthy lucre on Election Day.
We deserve more than this.
Dazang is the immediate past Director of Media and Public Enlightenment of INEC.