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Tolu Ogunlesi: Party Politics In Nigeria, Time For A Reset

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What is a political party? One simple definition would be this: A group of individuals assembled around a common belief or set of beliefs, for the purpose of acquiring political power. The power is of course meant to be a means to an end, not an end by itself – it is supposed to be deployed to achieve a series of specific objectives that align with the larger organising belief(s) of the group.

On that basis, can we consider what we have in Nigeria as true political parties? While a number of important things are in place, one crucial element is missing – the organising belief or set of beliefs, which can be summed up as “ideology.”

Shorn of that ideological framework (every now and then it appears to exist in name, of course, but never in practice), what have we got?

Influence Appropriation Mechanisms is my name for what we have until now called “political parties.”

An Influence Appropriation Mechanism temporarily and flexibly brings together individuals and organises them not around a set of beliefs but instead around their ambitions for appropriating political power. It comes with no assumptions of ideology, and any notions of loyalty are tied to individuals (godfathers and chieftains), never to ideas or principles.

If it turns out that an individual’s ambition cannot be fulfilled within that Mechanism, the individual is allowed, within the context of Nigerian politics, to seek out another IAM of his or her choice, and to negotiate hopefully better conditions of operation. There is no limit to how many times an individual can exchange one IAM for another.

And in return for victory upon the platform of an IAM, the Mechanism gets generously funded by the victorious individual/group, but only in such a manner as to guarantee the protection of the funder’s interests. When the interests of two or more funders collide, one or more of them is allowed to again head out in search of an alternative IAM.

Sometimes, the affected individuals do not quit, but stay within the IAM to undermine it. There is therefore no Nigerian politician who is above working against his or IAM, if by so doing he can create for himself a scenario in which he is not the only – or biggest – loser.

Seen this way, Nigerian politics begins to make a bit more sense.

Let’s consider Nuhu Ribadu’s decision to defect to the Peoples Democratic Party. A lot of this has been interpreted along the lines of shock and anger – How could he, of all people, go to the PDP, of all parties? A growing number of prophets are predicting that he will be betrayed by his new IAM.

Here’s how I see it: Ribadu probably doesn’t think there’s any betrayal he’s going to suffer in the PDP that’ll be worse than what the All Progressives Congress (the Action Congress of Nigeria, at that time) put him through during the 2011 elections, when he was its presidential candidate. If the APC had a distinct ideology that set it apart from the PDP, then one might be forgiven for expecting Ribadu to demonstrate some loyalty to the APC.

In the absence of that ideological framework, however, on what basis does one pin loyalty? What, within the APC, is he expected to be loyal to?

It has also occurred to me that Ribadu’s defection provides an opportunity for us to recalibrate our thinking around “good” vs “evil” platforms. The free flow of individuals between the two IAMs goes a long way to prove that from a morality point of view both are the same.

There are inspiring and uninspiring elements within both platforms, and each one has got its strengths and weaknesses. It makes no sense to insist that any one of the platforms has got a monopoly on vision/corruption/good/evil.

If we are going to distinguish between both parties, it makes little sense to try to do that on the basis of morality. The assertion that the APC is an Islamist or Janjaweed platform, or one defined by uncommon vision or rectitude, is not any more true than a belief that the PDP is a corrupt or inept – or Christian – one.

The ideal outcome of countering these false modes of thinking and perception would be the emergence of a generation of platform-agnostic voters, who – realising that it makes little sense to accept a party-loyalty mode of politics in the absence of ideology and ideological differences – will pay greater attention to individual ability, at the expense of previously guaranteed blind loyalty to a logo and a soapbox chant.

Individual ability needs to gain greater influence amid the range of factors that determine electoral outcomes in Nigeria. A war for talent might even break out amongst our IAMs, as they seek to create conducive internal environments, and attract the best and most visionary Nigerians.

Shortly after the 2011 elections, I wrote a piece in which I, drawing from the interesting results of governorship and legislative elections in Lagos, said:

“There is evidence of a growing sophistication amongst the Nigerian electorate; more people voting for – or against – candidate(s) fielded, as opposed to blind commitments to party symbols. This was clear in the South-West where people voted overwhelmingly for the presidential candidate of the PDP seemingly because they liked and wanted him, but wasted no time in turning against the governorship candidates.”

I went on to suggest that perhaps we might be witnessing the stirrings of a new phase of Nigerian politics; one that has more in common with competitive league football in Europe, than with the past. I suggested that “what this means is that Nigeria’s parties will soon begin to compete for ‘talent’ the way Europe’s football clubs do; knowing that the future of Nigerian politics is one in which competence, not godfathers, not financial inducement, will make the difference between winning and losing elections.”

That sounds somewhat utopian, I agree. But it’s a possibility worth anticipating. In any case, we’re already seeing evidence of it in the South-West, where every state except Lagos has on more than one occasion legitimately switched loyalties from one IAM to another.

We’re already seeing, from recent happenings in Adamawa and Lagos states, that the PDP seems to be paying a bit more attention to its choice of candidates. We’re also seeing that the APC is starting to realise that it needs to shed the reputation that it lacks internal democracy. That’s what happens when you start to realise that blind loyalty to an Umbrella or Broom is fast becoming an obsolete political principle.

The Nigerian electorate urgently need to demonstrate that real power lies in the hands of the people, not in opaque party structures and godfathering tendencies.

There’s no better antidote for politicians’ bad habit of taking the people for granted than the realisation that there are no territories that can’t be contested; no blind loyalties that can’t be obliterated.

It’s the reason why a PDP governorship win in Lagos, and an APC presidential win, can’t happen soon enough.

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Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.

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