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Tolu Ogunlesi: Pushing Democracy Forward, One Step At A Time



General election season dawns inexorably upon us. It’s in the air everywhere: the flood of posters and billboards; the endless chatter of radio and television jingles. The social media is as well abuzz with activities – every day we wake up to politicians and their campaign teams showing their faces on Twitter, and minions and “voltrons” circle the waters frantically, looking for whom to devour on behalf of their principals.

Regarding those principals, there are two camps: Those who are doing it because they stand a chance of triumphing, and those doing it because it is the best way to position yourself for the crumbs that will drop after the dust has settled. This second group are the ones who know that the best way to get considered for a commissionership post in Nigeria is to make loud noises about the governorship, get noticed, and then offer to drop your ambition in the spirit of sacrifice, and in exchange for some not-too-bad compensation. (You just have to love this country – nothing is ever what it seems!)

Elections will hold in 28 states; only in eight of these will incumbents be seeking re-election. The other 20 are coming to the end of their terms and will be seeking to anoint their successors, to the chagrin of other contestants. Several governors will be looking to become senators, and several senators, governors. Already about seven ministers have resigned, to aspire for the governorship in their various states. Not all of them will succeed. Those who don’t will be banking on the prospects of compensation when – or if – the Peoples Democratic Party retains control of the Federal Government. Some of them might return as ministers, others, ambassadors.

All of the politicking – amplified by news headlines and newspaper columns and the internet – makes you ask yourself, in quieter moments, to what end? Are we doing politics for the sake of politics, solely for the bitter battles and the control of the mechanisms of patronage, or is all of this happening for a larger purpose: to better the lives of millions of ordinary Nigerians.

Looking back at 15 years of democracy, is this where we should be? Should our generators still be this loud in their nightly crying? Should our First Lady or the governors still be rushing abroad for medical treatment?

Travelling around the country it is easy to be disappointed by how little distance we have covered, in terms of development, in 15 years. There are culprits at every level.

In the case of the Federal Government, its continuing neglect of important inter-state roads is tragic. (I’ll leave the electricity discussion for another day).

In the states, a good number of governors are, to say it the Nigerian way, “trying.” Standards of performance for the 2007/2011 set of governors appears to be somewhat higher than what we saw with their predecessors. But even then, we still have many governors for whom almost nothing good can be said. In Benue State, Governor Gabriel Suswam is confidently heading to the Senate on a rather dismal record: public primary schools in the state only recently reopened after eight months of strike, while there is a three-month backlog of civil servants’ salaries. But he seems assured his Senate seat is already waiting for him. There are others like him, confident even in their similarly mediocre performance.

The local governments are the worst. If they were scrapped today, the only difference would be in the relief to be enjoyed from citizens thankfully rid of their thug-enforced revenue collections (radio and TV licences, car towing fees etc).

Unfortunately, there is almost no partisan competition at local government level anywhere in the country. The party in power in the state automatically assumes control of the local government structure; opposition parties stand almost no chance of making a dent. Armed with their SIECs, our governors become mini-tyrants when it comes to local government matters, concerned only about political control, not service to the people.

One of the next milestones of our slow democratic journey should be the enthronement of real democracy at the local government level.

Sometimes, these things seem like wishful thinking, but I’m convinced that change is possible in our politics. It might be annoyingly slow, but things change. Already, we are getting used to the idea of having relatively free and fair elections, aided by the presence of technology in the form of mobile phones and social media.

Electoral victories are also no longer being taken for granted. I remember 1999, when the Alliance for Democracy, riding on the back of the Awolowo mystique, swept the South-West. The joke back then was that if the AD had fielded a goat or monkey, it would still have won. It seems like we have come a long way since those days.

Now, the electorate are becoming more sophisticated and discriminating, it would seem, and are more likely to give, in their decision-making, as much weight to individual candidates as to political party symbols.

While there are still some states that are virtual one-party states, like Enugu and Ebonyi (where I spent the weekend), which are firmly in the grip of the PDP – in these states, the PDP governorship primaries will be the real election; the polling in February 2015 will be no more than a formality – elsewhere things are changing.

Take the example of Rivers State, which, until last year was one of the biggest pieces of the PDP’s landslide-dispensing electoral juggernaut. Months ago, while on a visit to Port Harcourt, I was told by one resident that “the All Progressives Congress had no chance in the state. Rivers has always been a PDP State, bla bla”. It was easy to believe back then. But recent events seem to be casting a strong doubt on that anti-APC confidence, and now no one is sure anymore. The turnout at the recent Governor Chibuike Amaechi mega rally was for me a big surprise. Amaechi of course took advantage of this to taunt the President, saying: “The President says we exist only on posters and billboards. So, we brought a large billboard for him. If the President is not watching (the rally), they will give him security report.”

Scenarios like the one in Rivers are a welcome development for me because I believe that electoral uncertainty should be one of the cornerstones of any democracy. There’s no point to democracy if one side is always guaranteed a win, regardless of its levels of performance, or of the quality of the credentials of its candidates. And for too long, sadly, that is how Nigerian politics has been. The PDP has taken for granted its ability to win the Presidency, as the APC has its ability to win Lagos State.

Regular upsets would be more than welcome. While I continue to stick to my arguments that the APC and PDP are in the strict sense not (yet) real political parties, and are to a large extent easily interchangeable on account of an absence of true ideological foundations, it is still important to realise that they – whatever you might want to call them – are the building blocks of our democracy. If one of them was to vanish, we would be stuck with a one-party state, and no democracy. Give me two imperfect parties over a perfect monopolising one any day.

The fear of the loss of power is the beginning of political sensibleness, I believe. If a party realises that it can always be dumped by voters then it is more likely to seek to put its best foot forward. And in those conditions, a war for talent between our political camps – like the ones we see in the European football leagues – is likelier. That, as far as I see it, can only be a good thing for our burgeoning democracy. Going along with that argument, I think the most exciting electoral scenario of 2015 would be the APC losing Lagos, and the PDP losing Aso Rock.

Wishful thinking – or solid possibility?


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi and published with permission from the writer, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from PUNCH


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