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Akin Osuntokun: The Winner Takes All Election

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Politics is inherently conflict-ridden with a dual and contradictory potential to either serve as a conflict resolution mechanism or generate a momentum for the escalation of conflict to crisis and ultimately to catastrophe.

The election of Barack Obama, the first African-American, to the office of the President of the United States of America (USA) is unique and indicative in several respects. It was a veritable indication of how far America has gone in functional socio-political integration and positive adaptation of social diversity. Yet it equally brought in its wake the manifestation of the negative potential of politics to serve as a predictor and harbinger of conflict and crisis.

By any standard, Obama is a distinguished political leader – a distinction made more enhanced by the manifest resilience he has been able to muster to grapple with the self-destructive disposition of the Republican Party leadership towards his presidency.

Repeatedly the point was made by the Republicans that they were prepared to ground the American economy to a halt, if that is what it takes to ensure the failure of Obama. And the bad news is that it is a disposition shared by a large swathe of the Western Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) Establishment.

A valid interpretation of this tendency is that the election of Obama harbours a higher potential of zero sum definition of American politics than previous presidential elections; and explanations for this tendency will be found in those features that make Obama uniquely intolerable and unacceptable to his political opponents. And contrary to the postulations of modernisation theory, the peculiar revelation that emerged therefrom is that tribalism (racism) dies hard in the advanced American democracy.

Such zero sum (winner takes all) political situations are generally marked by the indisposition of the winners and losers towards compromise and consensus building. The higher the degree of this negative tendency the greater the vulnerability to conflict and crisis. The ominous clouds of crisis gather in direct proportion to the accentuation of cleavages and divisions (cultural, religious, ideological and ethno regional) operative within the polity under consideration.

The countervailing balance of terror threats issued by rival regional claimants to Aso Rock villa in the 2015 elections (the Niger Delta warlords and the up North protagonists of rendering Nigeria ungovernable) is an expression of a mentality that is unable to contemplate and accept the possibility of losing the election.

Such a loss is perceived in unbearable absolute terms and provokes the nihilistic despair of having no stake in the preservation and stability of the political system. To illustrate, I call to witness the lesson of Nigerian elections since 1959 and the extent to which they individually lend themselves to the applicability of the zero sum interpretation.

The 1959 elections were characterised by four mitigating factors. First is the shared nationalist aspiration for political independence from Britain – never mind the quibbling over the appropriate time the independence would take effect. Second is the supervision and guidance of the process by the colonial masters and the concomitant consciousness of bearing responsibility for its success or failure. Third was the Africa-wide ‘revolution of rising expectations’.

Fourth was the utility of the prescribed federalism and parliamentary system of governance. The federal constitution was designed in such a manner as to minimise the attraction of the centre and thereby preclude desperation in the bid to attain power at the federal government level.

The supremacist factional crisis within the governing party, Action Group (AG), in the Western Region that ensued in 1962, set the tone for the desperation that characterised the regional and federal elections of 1964/65. The political situation in the Western Region had attained the tipping point proportions of winner takes all and loser loses all between the federal government-backed Akintola faction and the Obafemi Awolowo faction – hence the culmination of the crisis in the catastrophe of the coup and counter coup of 1966, and ultimately the civil war.

The 1979 elections and the transition of power from military rule to civil democratic dispensation generally followed the pattern of the 1959 precedent – save the presence of the safety valves of meaningful federalism and parliamentary system of government. The consequential area of overlap was the similar exercise of superintending authority and guidance over the process; and the (dictatorship) latitude to enforce compliance.

In the womb of the military rule prescribed presidential system of government and attenuated federalism was sown the seed of a zero sum degeneration of the political system. Whatever its merits, the inherent winner takes all connotation of the presidential system of government renders it singularly vulnerable to the zero sum dysfunction. And the argument was succinctly captured in the remarks of President Goodluck Jonathan at the occasion of the peace accord ceremony in Abuja the other day.

Inter alia he said: “The winner takes all syndrome is a problem. Based on our laws, we should come up with a concept that will work. We should make it that when a party wins at the state or national level, in forming the cabinet, parties that performed very well should by law and not by privilege, be made part of that government. If politicians know they will still be part of the government, when they are campaigning, they will be mindful of their utterances.”

What the president was canvassing here is the antidote utility of the concept of proportional representation – ‘an electoral system in which seats in a legislature are awarded to each party on the basis of its share of the popular vote’. The self-evident utility of proportional representation is the capacity to foster among all contending parties a vested interest in the survival and stability of the political system.

Four years into the Second Republic, the general election of 1983 was marred by the trademark desire of ruling political parties in the Third World to muzzle and flagellate rival political parties.
This was no less the case with the interaction between the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and the vocal opposition parties, particularly the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The pursuit of the winner takes all ambition correspondingly resulted in the escalation of the crisis that culminated in the subsequent opportunistic intervention of the military.

In terms of the potential to attain to successful conclusion, the 1993 presidential election was guaranteed to follow suit the 1959 and the 1979 precedent. In other words, the military mentor was similarly placed and positioned to ensure success and compliance if he were that disposed.

The presidential election of 1999 was deliberately and specifically designed to be consensual and preclude any zero sum colouration. It was contrived as a national reconciliation mechanism – with the appeasement of the South-west as the core element. For the South-west and Nigeria in general, it was a unique instance of heads you win, tails you do not lose. There was the intriguing spectacle of reducing the presidential election to a Yoruba particularistic contest – between Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae of the PDP and APP respectively.

The introduction and tacit acceptance of the zoning and rotation of power principle was a specific response to the need to foster and sustain the political consensus formula that ushered in the Fourth Republic. Predicated on a time specific rotation of the presidency among the six geo-political zones, it represented the semblance of an assurance that within a specific time frame, all the zones would be winners. Former Vice-President Alex Ekwueme proposed the clincher of six incumbent vice-presidents corresponding to the six zones and he was proven prescient.

The zoning formula did not anticipate the non-completion of two terms tenure for any incumbent president – either by reason of being defeated at the bid for re-election or exit by reason of incapacitation and death. At the root of the present crisis of political succession is this error of omission.

The probability is that if the late President Umaru Mus Yar’Adua had survived his illness and recovered his health, he would have been re-elected and fulfilled the zoning allotment for the North-west zone; and there would have be no zoning disruptive transfer of power to the South-south zone. There is now no denying the desperation that hovers over the forthcoming presidential election – complete with all the trappings of the winner takes all and loser loses all syndrome.

The two presidential candidates, Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP and Muhammadu Buhari of the APC respectively, have conducted themselves with decorum and decency on the rostrums and may not be held liable for the inevitable recourse to negative campaigns of their supporters – the degree may vary but it is a worldwide sub culture. Yet the two candidates have failed in the correct identification and prioritisation of the task ahead.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the foremost challenge that faces whoever is elected president is not fighting corruption or winning the war on Boko Haram – important as they are. It is going to be the challenge of draining the poison of divisiveness and incipient fratricidal bloodletting (on industrial scale) from the system.

It is going to be the challenge of sustaining Nigeria as a corporate entity. It is going to be the challenge of reconciling the Niger Delta militants and the Northern warlords (of rendering Nigeria ungovernable) with one another and with the rest of Nigeria. You have got to have a nation first before you can hope to successfully fight corruption and Boko Haram.

If we have not learnt any lesson from the seeming intractability of the Boko Haram insurgency, we should at least know that divisions and suspicions within the Nigerian military is a crucial factor in the elusiveness of victory over the terrorist army. A house divided against itself cannot stand. It is of little consolation getting wise after the event but it was true then as it is now that the Fourth Republic should have been predicated on a foundational national conference as proposed by the NADECO opposition consortium.

If the idea of restructuring – generating national conference – was crucial before the elections, it is certain to become of urgent imperative after the 14th of February election. To avoid this response is to live in denial and opt for the strategy of postponing the evil day; see no evil, hear no evil. May the good Lord give us the president who can heal the land.

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Akin Osuntokun is the CEO of Interconsult, a public relations and communication agency.

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