It is often a tempting fantasy to assume that our experiences as a nation are unique to us, and that we are the first to have these experiences. However, if we search far enough, wide enough and perhaps long enough into history, we will quickly dispel this uniqueness of experience to the realm it belongs – fantasy.
Our national adventure into democracy as a nation took an interesting turn recently with the announcement of the merger of the major opposition parties into one bigger opposition party, the APC. Foremost on the agenda of this new party is to wrest power from the PDP, come 2015. The reactions to this declaration of intent have been interesting, but as history has repeatedly shown, it is the way democratic politics evolves if it is to succeed. I do not intend to treat the morality or otherwise of any individuals in this piece, I merely intend to highlight the political precedence and implications with the hope to provide illumination to both the ordinary Nigerian, and the players in the terrain of politics.
Make no mistake, I do not write to support either of PDP or APC. I only intend to provide insights into the current state of things, drawn from my study of history.
The typical cycle of democracy at its start after a period of significant national turmoil usually has one dominant party and matures into two strong viable parties eventually. The classical example of this is with the United States. However, there are other examples – ANC is in the same boat we currently have PDP in, in South Africa. In the United Kingdom, there are two dominant parties. In Ghana today, they have morphed into the two dominant party stage, albeit early in that phase.
Right after the American War of Independence, the party that held sway was the Federalist Party. While the president was an independent, most of the leading men in government were Federalists. And so they dominated in the early years of the American democracy. And in those early years, as with the early years in Nigeria, politics was firmly based on patronage. Such is the way of nascent democracies. In this light, therefore, it is not surprising that PDP has dominated the Nigerian political landscape since 1999. And, as with the Nigerian opposition, the early American opposition was fragmented, even more unorganized than the Nigerian case, and centered around personalities. However, the common fear of the Federalist policy of usurping the power of the states in the American union motivated men like Thomas Jefferson to rally the diverse interests that opposed the Federalists into one party. The degree of diversity in this new party, and the infantile state of its ideology was demonstrated clearly in nothing else than its name – it was called the Democratic-Republican Party. The main motivating factor for this new opposition party was to take power from the Federalists and preserve the relative autonomy of the states in the United States. Hence, the APC being pulled together by the desire to wrestle power from the PDP is not altogether out of place, and without historical precedence. It is a normal step in the evolution of a viable democracy. The lack of a clear ideology is also not a problem; ideologies evolve, as democracies mature.
The fact that interests are diverse and the coalition that makes up a party is broad is sometimes seen as a weakness. Nothing can be further from the truth. One of the key strengths of the PDP in Nigeria has been the diversity of interests within the PDP. For since 1999, it has been the only party that no single individual can dominate. The various interest groups simply would not allow this. In fact, where one individual or group began to get too dominant, the others have effectively put aside their differences and come together to stop this. As a result of this, the PDP is well experienced in collaborating, negotiating and compromising to resolve its issues and take its decisions in the most democratic way amongst the Nigerian political parties. The bane of the opposition so far has been a lack of such a broad based coalition and a less than democratic manner of decision making and resolution of crises. To illustrate how this strength works as an advantage, I’ll again refer to history.
After the collapse of the Oyo Empire, the majority of its military fled south from Old Oyo and the war chiefs settled mainly in two locations. One was Ibadan, and its leader was Oluyole. The other was Ijaye and they were led by Kurunmi. The two leaders sought to establish dictatorial roles for themselves, but in the case of Ibadan, Oluyole died before he could fully accomplish this. What then happened in Ibadan was that it evolved into a sort of yeoman federalism, where anyone could aspire to leadership and governance was more broad based. Even someone who entered Ibadan as a slave could become a prominent war chief if their talents so permitted. In Ijaye however, Kurunmi held sway and established himself. The result was that Ijaye went into oblivion, while the more inclusive Ibadan attracted the best of talent, and grew into an empire which was only stopped by the Ekiti Parapo during the 16year Kiriji War, with the crucial assistance of the British. Even then, Ibadan was not defeated or crushed. They remained a formidable force. The diversity of the coalition that made up Ibadan attracted the best of the best and they built up Ibadan’s strength, because they could hope to become prominent. PDP attracted the best political talent (I am not talking morals here, just analyzing politics) that understood how to win elections in Nigeria in the same manner that Ibadan did. Now that the APC has emerged, there is such a broad based opposition, and two things are immediately clear. It will be difficult for one man to dominate the APC, and decision making will involve tough lessons in negotiating, compromise and collaboration internally, vital lesson they must learn well if they are to pose any challenge to the PDP. They must also follow the Ibadan way, of rewarding talent. It is the only way to attract real talent.
The APC should be under no illusions of a quick win. This is going to be a long hard fought political war, with many different battles. The Democratic-Republican Party did not defeat the Federalists in their first attempt. They simply kept trying until they did. Hence, it will be interesting to watch what the APC will do if it fails to win the presidency in 2015. They would do well to follow the American example, where the battles for the National Assembly majority were even more important than the presidency in the early days. It will be interesting to see a PDP presidency with an APC dominated National Assembly. With each loss, the Democratic-Republicans went back and built a stronger grassroot following for themselves, while the Federalists held sway amongst the elite, ignoring the grassroots, secure, I believe, in their own strength. They were eventually kicked out. The PDP would do well to learn from the mistake of the Federalists. Politics is a game of numbers, and while the elite are important, the numbers are in the grassroots. There is already a strong sense of disconnect between the PDP elite and the rest of the country which the APC can exploit effectively. If PDP win and they retain the presidency in 2015 and hence become confident in the perpetuity of their power, the APC would be wise to go back and continue building a strong grassroot support base, building strength towards the next election. They also need to eschew the current opposition practice where they are only active in locations where the opposition is in power. PDP today is operational everywhere, whether they are in power in that state or not. The APC will be wise to learn this crucial lesson. The interregnum between elections is for building strength and support.
After the Democratic-Republicans kicked the Federalists out of the Whitehouse, the expected happened. The cracks in the coalition began to widen and the party split up. Two parties ultimately emerged from it, the two parties we are now familiar with when we think American politics – The Democrats and The Republicans. These two have provided a viable alternative to each other everytime (with the Democrats having more presidents than the Republicans) creating a culture of perform or get booted out. It was in this competitive clime that patronage was reduced to the barest minimum in American politics and funding rules for campaigns enforced. It was also in this environment that the ideologies of the emergent parties were formed properly. It is noteworthy to point out that these ideologies have not been cast in stone ever since. The Democrats started out as the more conservative of the two parties, but are the more liberal today.
I therefore will not be surprised, if the APC splits up after getting power. History has shown this to be a plausible outcome. However, what I am certain would have been shown by their victory is the possibility of an incumbent party getting booted out of Aso Rock. It will cause votes to increasingly count in elections. It will also cause the political class to begin to perform better in office, as there is always a viable opposition waiting in the wings to kick them out. As an illustration, it is very possible that one of the key factors that geared Fashola to perform well in his first term was the very present threat of PDP winning Lagos in 2011. And while the PDP did not win Lagos, the gains they made in areas where the ACN government didn’t perform well like Ikorodu clearly shows what can happen when there is a viable opposition available as an alternative to the people.
It is also expected that the parties will seek to differentiate themselves better ideologically in this clime of competition.
The APC will need money and politician who understand the political space, hence there will be people coming in that we might not all like, but who we will be unable to deny meet the two criteria above. Again, remember that early politics in the U.S was patronage driven also, it was during its evolution that it outgrew these things. I expect that as time goes on, our politics will also outgrow patronage.
The conclusion of my thoughts is that the democracy in Nigeria is evolving. The PDP’s early dominance, the fragmented and often individualistic opposition, the patronage system in politics, the more formidable opposition that is emerging and the events that will unfold as this plays out are part of this evolution. We will do well to play our parts. Writers should write. Critics should critique and the media should be relentless. All in all, 2015 and the years beyond will be interesting for Nigerian politics, and I am positive that we will emerge a stronger, working democracy.