Oshiomhole: Party man and limits of needless controversies
Imperfect as it has been described to be, Nigeria’s democracy has demonstrated some moments of resilience, which ensured the triumph of the votes of the electorate, and by extension the will of the people. This process started at a time when Nigeria’s democratic evolution felt the impact of an activist judiciary, which courageously corrected the wrongs perpetrated by those who engaged in acts of electoral impunity. Such infractions resulted in the rights of the electorate being trampled on. By striking down many irretrievably flawed elections, especially in the states, the judiciary sent out a clear message to those who deemed might to be right. With its fearless adjudication of electoral disputes with the goal of punishing lawlessness in the electoral system, the judiciary was able to put power in the hands of a number of politicians, who were by all means, outsiders in the power calculus of those times. In the election disputes involving the likes of Peter Obi of Anambra, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers, Adams Oshiomhole of Edo, Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti and Rauf Aregbesola of Osun among others, the judiciary slammed all forms of electoral anarchy, and insisted on the right of the people to freely choose their leaders through the ballot irrespective of the preferences of the party in power at the centre.
Many of those who benefited from those moments when the judiciary and the democratic system anchored the notion that votes must count, are still very much around, playing one role or the other as Nigeria’s democracy evolves. The fundamental questions for close watchers of the polity are; how have those individuals who benefited from the resilience of Nigeria’s democratic system contributed to the sustenance and the nurturing of that same system? Put another way, have those who benefited from the exertions, sweat, and blood of the Nigerian electorate and the activism of the judiciary returned the favour by committing themselves to becoming exemplars of democratic conduct? As the jury ruminates in order to come to terms with the contributions of these beneficiaries of the moments when democracy in Nigeria showed resilience to shame arbitrary rule, it will not be too early to interrogate the actions of one of them because he is a frontline actor in the current political process.
As the Chairman of Nigeria’s ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), Comrade Adams Oshiomhole is definitely an actor of interest given his roles, actions, and verbal pronouncements. As the helmsman of the party in power, his ideas and postulations would be closely followed to examine their effects on the health and sustenance of the nation’s democracy. The justification for this scrutiny comes from the fact that Oshiomhole’s name resonates in the discourse on Nigeria’s democracy on account of the way he transited from the labour movement into the arena of partisan politics. Contesting against the candidate of the ruling party at the time, Oshiomhole was the underdog, who put up a good fight to win the Edo State governorship election; when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on the watch of Maurice Iwu declared Oserheimen Osunbor of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) winner of the election, Oshiomhole proceeded to the courts.
The long and tortuous legal battle ended in the Court of Appeal, which gave the prize to the rightful owner. Oshiomhole was profuse with praises for the judiciary, describing it as the last hope of the common man. There is therefore no debating the fact the former labour leader, was given much by Nigeria’s democratic system. The logic therefore is that to whom much is given, much more is expected. In the context of Nigeria’s democratic evolution therefore, an Oshiomhole who got so much backing from the democratic system, despite being the underdog, should have a better compass and a higher responsibility in helping to navigate Nigeria’s democracy to great heights where it is driven by the rule of law, sound debate, sportsmanship, maturity and decorum.
Unfortunately, the APC national Chairman, going by his pronouncements and posturing comes across as someone who has suddenly forgotten that he was once a disadvantaged opposition politician before fortune reversed his situation. His approach and pronouncements in the course of his political engagements, come across as missiles aimed at muddying the waters, rather than building consensus. Part of the problem is Oshiomhole’s penchant for wanting to win every argument. Instead of deploying the listening ears of a statesman, he would rather take potshots and make wild statements, stir controversies and put the spotlight on himself. This character portrait was soon on display the moment he came on board as the chairman of the APC. His predecessor, John Odigie Oyegun had a calmer and more strategic approach to the complex art of political bargaining, but soon fell out of favour of his party big wigs, who had their eyes on how the sharing of party tickets would shape 2019.
Oshiomhole was brought on board to calm frayed nerves, and reassure party faithful that there was space for everyone. But the former Edo State helmsman apparently got his brief wrong; he came in and began projecting the image of a new Sheriff who had come to whip everyone into line. He started projecting that message with his tongue-lashing of the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige over alleged non-compliance on a Presidential directive on the constitution of some boards within the purview of the Ministry. What came out of the spat with Ngige was the grotesque situation in which a party helmsman was carelessly upraiding a sitting administration official, when such matters could have been discussed and resolved far away from the public glare. That showmanship gave ammunition to the Buhari administration’s critics who were keen to portray it as uncoordinated and lacking the cohesion and collaboration required to effectively govern the country.
As if programmed to jump from one needless controversy to another, Oshiomhole soon dribbled himself into the unimaginable chaos that was the APC primaries. In place of painstaking and conscientious deliberation to iron out the differences of the various factions jostling for tickets, Oshiomhole resorted to barking out orders. Very little was done to accommodate the cries of those who felt aggrieved by the outcomes. In States like Rivers and Zamfara, the party structure at the national level seemed averse to dialogue and accommodation of the diverse political interests. In short, there was a replication of the “constituted authority” approach, which tended to alienate actors with different views and interests.
In Oshiomhole’s worldview, going by his exertions thus far, politics is hierarchical, not about compromise and the search for common ground. The result of this coarse and irreverent strategy is the big reversals the party is currently suffering across the polity. In Zamfara, an Appeal Court verdict is putting the candidacy of all APC contestants in danger of being of no effect. In Rivers, the APC is in a proxy struggle to prop up a fringe party to take the governorship. In Imo, the quarrel between Oshiomhole and the Governor Rochas Okorocha has virtually wiped APC out of existence in that space. Although Oshiomhole fought a principled fight in insisting the Governor could not be angling to give the party ticket to his son-in-law, the manner the point was made, left no room for some middle ground. The result is that the party has lost out completely.
With the reality of the limitation of his approach apparently staring him in the face, many would have expected Oshiomhole to adjust to the fact that he is now the helmsman of a ruling party at the federal level. He now has to demonstrate he is capable of being a calm, strategic and conciliatory leader. However, going by the tactless rhetoric after the re-election of President Buhari, Oshiomhole has shown it is near impossible to change. At a time, the President in a commendable show of statesmanship, called on his supporters not to gloat, or mock the opposition over his victory, Oshiomhole took a different path at the press conference he called days after. A moment, which would have been a time to de-escalate the tension in the land and call for unity, was a time the APC Chair chose to excoriate the opposition, further inflaming partisan tensions.
Consequently, chairman Oshiomhole’s headmaster approach in engaging the political process is on the verge of putting the fortunes of his party in the balance again. This time, the subject matter is the contest for the Senate Presidency; the APC has a comfortable majority to have its way by persuasion and negotiation. But Oshiohmole is insisting it has to be the party’s way or the highway. So what should have ordinarily been a stroll in the park for the ruling party is becoming unnecessarily difficult because the issuing of directives is not going down with many senators-elect, including those within the APC fold. The decision to announce Senator Ahmed Lawan as the preferred candidate of the APC, could direct antagonism the way of the candidate, thereby dooming his chances. Nonetheless, the APC chairman’s most alarming statement is his declaration that the APC would not share headship of legislative committees with the opposition PDP. In legislatures all over the world, one of the best practice, is to have bi-partisan committees to address knotty governance issues. Oshiomhole’s declaration therefore is antithetical to the proper mode a democratic system should run.
These ultra-partisan pronouncements once again bring to the fore the fundamental question about why someone who benefited so much from democracy’s inclusive character would be so steeped in the kind of thinking, words and actions, which debase democratic values. Nigeria’s democratic journey is replete with the stories of men and women who were propped up by the ideals of democracy and the rule of law. Such actors in the system have a higher responsibility to make the system work through their words and actions. As part of the push for proper accountability, such political actors should be held to those very high standard and ideals, which brought them far enough to the major actors in the system.
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