By Reuben Abati
One of the major issues begging for consideration as Nigeria and other stakeholders review the aftermath of the country’s 2023 general elections would definitely be the health of Nigeria’s political party system. It is a matter of fact that by the 90s, in an attempt to stem the tide of communism, one party states, and dictatorships around the world, the West recommended and supported multi-party democracy as the way forward, to ensure participation, inclusion, and fairness. This was packaged as a pill to address the menace of one-party states and authoritarianism and indeed many African countries, including Nigeria bought into it, and even went a step further to fashion our democracy after the American model.
For Nigeria, this was particularly instructive: in the First Republic, Nigeria had multiple political parties with strong, cultural, ethnic, and ideological identities, serving as major forces for social and political action, mobilising the people on ideological grounds, and promoting democratic participation. The political system in Nigeria at that period may not have guaranteed stability, but it served as an intermediary with the people, and as a major force between the state and society.
This came abruptly to an end in January 1966, with the intervention of the military and the emergence of Decree No 1 of 1966 which summarily imposed a unitary system on the country and abolished all existing political and cultural groups. The onset of military rule subsequently merely served the purpose of further truncating the growth of the country’s political system as a mechanism for social bonding, political choice and competition. The Murtala/Obasanjo administration of 1975-76, -1979 eventually completed the tortuous course of a military to civilian transition.
It was Obasanjo’s lot to see that through in 1979, amidst a cloud of arguments and litigation. The military had spent up to 12/13 years in power. They could not exactly be trusted. The politicians themselves could not be trusted. The emergent political parties had retained the ideological persona of old. It was possible to link the NPN, the NPP, the GNPP, the PRP and the Action Group to specific identities and ideologies. But something had also been omitted. The political parties became platforms for self-aggrandizement, and a play-ground for big men, with large egos.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the then ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The chairman of the party, AMA Akinloye, had his name embossed on bottles of champagne. One minister at the time in charge of transportation and head of the Presidential Task Force on Rice, Umaru Dikko, also an NPN party chieftain, said Nigerians were lucky because nobody was eating from the dustbin. It didn’t take long before the dust bin would become the dinner table for many Nigerians and Dikko himself ran away and had to be intercepted and put in a crate to be summarily smuggled back to Nigeria as “diplomatic baggage.” He was lucky he escaped!
In 1983, the return to democracy failed and for another 16 years (Generals M. Buhari to I. Babangida, to S. Abacha to Abdusalami Abukakar), Nigeria was in the grips of military rule, with the soldiers dictating their own version of democracy. They chose everything, including the number of political parties, their logos, party chairmen and for how long they could be in power. Between 1983 and 1993, and thereafter, the military’s disdain for civilian rule was writ large, but they had civilian collaborators throughout that ugly season being the stomach-driven characters in every nook and cranny of Nigeria who would do anything for a mess of porridge. Political parties, party members and their chairmen became puppets in the hands of the military. This was in part what gave the Nigerian military the courage to annul the democratic elections of 1993. It was their underestimation of the people’s will, the determination of some of the political actors led by Chief MKO Abiola and the resolve of the international community that propelled Nigeria back to civilian rule in 1999.
Over the years, something had died along the line: the integrity of political parties as major building blocks in the process of democratic consolidation. Our political parties had become caricatures, and tools for the promotion of authoritarianism, thus emerging as regressive political parties that could be hijacked or compromised by particular interest formations. The failure to have a stable democratic party system has foregrounded the need to rethink the nature of the political party systems not just in Nigeria however, but also in other African countries where multi-party system democracy has not checked the appetite for dictatorship. Truly, in many African countries, inter and intra-party crises have been the bane of political instability, creating a situation whereby questions are now being raised about democracy in a number of African countries: Mali, Niger, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau. Nigeria is a bit more resilient than other African countries, given its size, and complexity, but it is time we began to worry about the fragility of our political party system beyond the centrifugal elements implanted therein by the military and which have remained enduring.
The foregoing reflection is inspired as you may now imagine by the travails of the Chairman and National Secretary of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), namely Senator Abdullahi Adamu, and Senator Iyiola Omisore who reportedly had to resign from their positions on the orders of President Bola Tinubu, 24 hours to the party’s scheduled meetings of the National caucus and National Working Committee (NWC). To many observers of the Nigerian political scene, this probably did not come as a surprise. Senator Adamu had used his own mouth to crucify himself the other week, when he came out publicly to claim credit for the victory of the APC and President Bola Tinubu, albeit still a matter of litigation, in the 2023 General Elections. He said he did not support President Tinubu during the APC party’s primaries in 2022, but that he was at liberty to support Senator Ahmad Lawan or anyone else. However, Tinubu having emerged, he mobilized the party under his watch to deliver victory for the party. He asked to be praised, not vilified.
The Presidential order that he and his National Secretary should hand in their resignation letters and stand down is “the praise” he has now received. With due respect, Senator Adamu made himself a target, he fell upon the sword of his own indiscretion. Now, he is being accused of mismanaging party funds. He even made the additional mistake of being seen to have complained about the President’s choice of party leaders in the National Assembly. He had to be given a soft landing by Tinubu’s allies who asked him to resign or taste disgrace at the party’s scheduled meetings. But nonetheless, this is a battle for the soul of the APC, for a control of the party by the new power brokers in town, a further indication of the “emilokan ideology of power.”
When the APC emerged in 2014, it was an amalgam of unusual bedfellows – the CPC, the old ANPP (that is the Buhari wing), the Action for National Congress (ANC), that is the Tinubu wing, the new PDP (led by Bukola Saraki and a number of other fringe, come-and join smaller coalitions). Bola Tinubu was the arrow-head of that entire process, which is why he could boast that he made Buhari President.
As events unfolded in the last eight years, the Bukola Saraki wing of the coalition was the first to fall aside. The Buhari wing that was in charge used the power that had been thrown into their laps with almost primordial obsession. At a point, even Tinubu, the kingmaker, began to look like a spectator. His resolve to take back what he made available to others marks a strictly Machiavellian chapter in contemporary Nigerian politics. Certainly, there were bound to be casualties. The Chairman of the Party, Adamu tilted towards the CPC wing as did others: it would be naive for them to think they would survive. The worse part of it is that Tinubu’s allies are also even accusing Adamu of being a tyrant and they are asking him to account for some party funds that are allegedly missing. Tinubu and his allies are bent on house-cleaning! There would be more casualties. By the time they are done, the APC would be a version of the ACN, not CPC. Buhari’s people would probably end up begging. It is called party politics, the worst variety that we have seen since the first political party, Herbert Macaulay’s NNDP, emerged in this country in 1923.
But it is not only the ruling APC that confronts us with the crisis in Nigeria’s political system. Before now, the rival People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had to deal with its own version of chaos. In March, Dr Iyorchia Ayu, then PDP Chairman, was barred from parading himself any further as National Chairman of the party on the basis of an ex parte, interim injunction granted by Judge M. I. Ikpochi of Benue State High Court, ruling in favour of a prayer to that effect brought by members of the Igorov ward in Benue State. Members of Ayu’s ward at home said he had not been paying his membership dues hence they were expelling him as a member of the party. Dr Ayu confidently said he would obey the court and pursue the matter in court. And so he did.
But in the first week of June, his case was worsened when the Chief Judge of Benue State, Maurice Ikpanbese, upheld the earlier ruling and annulled Ayu’s membership of the PDP. Effectively, Dr Ayu, former Chairman of the PDP is today no longer a member of the party, except he goes on appeal, and hopes to secure victory.
Anyone that is familiar with recent politics within that party would easily connect the dots and surmise that Dr Ayu is paying a price for not supporting former Governor Nyesom Wike’s ambition to be the flagbearer of the PDP in 2022. He even had the temerity of openly supporting Atiku Abubakar and going to visit former Governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal, the day after the convention to declare him a messiah.
The fall-out was that a group of five Governors led by Nyesom Wike, who became known as the G-5 swore that Ayu must be removed as PDP Chairman. They soon found other allies and they swore that they would block the chosen Presidential candidate of the party, Atiku Abubakar, from winning in their states or becoming President of Nigeria. Their conscientious objection was clad in the garb of a preference for power rotation, the rule of law, and the alleged immorality of having the Chairman of the Party and the Presidential candidate coming from the same zone or a Northerner succeeding another Northerner as President of Nigeria.
The G5, or the Integrity Group as the expanded body became known took their pound of flesh. The PDP lost the Presidential election. Ayu was politicked out of office. In many ways, his story is similar to that of Senator Abdullahi Adamu of the APC. Party Chairmen may talk as they wish about party supremacy but in Nigeria’s political parties, supremacy belongs to powerful individuals and forces within the party. Senator Abdullahi Adamu’s problems began earlier when the party’s National Vice Chairman (North-West) began to complain that he was running a one-man show. In 2015, Adamu Muazu lost his Chairmanship position in the PDP and was even accused of helping the opposition to win!
The other political parties are not immune either. Shortly after the general elections, the Chairman of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNNP) tendered his letter of resignation, saying he wanted to give room for “fresh hands” to take over. Professor Alkali didn’t say more than that, but in a country where nobody wants any “fresh hands” to touch anything; that was quite loaded. He said clearly though, that the NNPP needed to be re-organized. But consider also the crisis in the Labour Party, the same party that everyone had praised and supported for putting up a remarkable performance in the elections. It didn’t take long before an intra-party crisis engulfed the party at both national and state levels, leading to litigations, name-calling, conspiracy theories, threats and abuses. The same party that was generally described as a “Third Force” in Nigerian politics splintered into factions. Rival Chairmen of the party and their supporters even fought in court premises.
It seems to me that the biggest threat to Nigerian democracy is how our political parties have not been able to extricate themselves from the stranglehold of the damage done to them by the military elite. This is partly why they are prostrate, redundant, and have failed as intermediaries. Every political party is driven by the ambition of an individual or a cartel. The individuals turn the parties into Special Purpose Vehicles for their own ambitions. They select those who run the parties, and they make the funds available. In the past, the parties existed on an “equal founder, equal joiner basis”. Members had membership cards and paid membership dues. These days, members wait for a rich individual to fund the party. The man with the deep pocket who funds the party appoints and disappoints as Nyesom Wike did to Prince Uche Secundus, former Chairman of the PDP and Iyorchia Ayu after him, and as Tinubu has done to Senator Adamu who got so bold as to question his ambition at a point. The men who emerge as party leaders are themselves driven by personal ambition. They want to be big men and hug the limelight. Who knows the Chairman of the Republican Party in the United States? I don’t see the American press discussing the Chairman of the Democratic Party either as an all-year round celebrity. Here, party officials are busy seeking relevance. When their sponsors win elections or see that they are beginning to develop a mind of their own, they drop them quickly. Parties are useful platforms for winning elections as defined in Section 221 of the 1999 Constitution, but after the party wins, nobody takes party supremacy seriously anymore here, especially in the absence of independent candidacy. It is assumed that the party Chairman and his allies have been paid for their services.
The dilemma of political parties could not have been better illustrated than the shabby treatment of party Chairmen across board since the return to democracy in 1999. Because the parties are weak, many of them come and go. After the 2019 general elections, the Electoral Commission, INEC, deregistered as many as 74 political parties for not winning a seat anywhere. In 2023, we had 17 registered political parties in the election, only 10 got a seat here and there, with the APC and the PDP being the more dominant parties. Our political party system is in urgent need of reform to prevent the prospect of a one-party state, in the hands of dictators whose personal will may be imposed on the entire state. In the meantime, let no one shed any tears for the fallen party bosses.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.