The practice in Nigeria is that political barons and godfathers take decisions on behalf of party members who have no say in the running of party affairs. It is actually an aberration to talk of party members in Nigeria. Membership cards are given to barons and godfathers who keep them until the need to use them arises, usually for a party convention.
This week, I was at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies in Kuru attending a retreat on strengthening internal party democracy in Nigeria. The basis for the theme is due to the fact that political parties are the key actors in the democratic game but our parties refuse to practice democracy within themselves, and this trait weakens their capacity to engage in democratic practices with other parties and with citizens. Internal party democracy refers to the inclusiveness of members in the decision-making processes and deliberations of political parties. The processes include the development of party programmes and manifestos, the election of party leaders and, the most contentious, the nomination of candidates to contest for elective posts.
The practice in Nigeria is that political barons and godfathers take decisions on behalf of party members who have no say in the running of party affairs. It is actually an aberration to talk of party members in Nigeria. Membership cards are given to barons and godfathers who keep them until the need to use them arises, usually for a party convention. At that point, the godfathers would bus their “members” to the venue and give them the cards with instructions on who to vote for, while paying them for their services. It is therefore a straightforward patron-client relationship in which the patron pays for the services of his clients. Precisely for this reason, almost no party convention since 1998 has been a democratic opportunity for party members to take decisions and to make free choices. The fraction of the party machine with the most control simply produces the outcome they desire and the other fraction or fractions are disenfranchised and go to court or jump to another party. This process means parties are not sites of democratic action but are simply arenas where the said barons use the resources at their disposal – money, thugs, control of security agencies etc – to impose their will. This practice makes parties not only undemocratic but also weakens them because they lack legitimacy and the respect of their so-called members.
In 2012, the former National Chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur warned that: “It is an illusion for the party’s members to think that the PDP will rule Nigeria forever, if there are no reforms that will enable the party to deliver good governance to the Nigerian people” (Daily Trust, 29/7/12). The party, he said, was engaging in a major drive to recruit new members. Of course it never happened. The party neither sought for members nor delivered good governance and it was roundly defeated in 2015 by the APC. The crisis that occurred in the Ondo APC gubernatorial primaries recently was a clear indication that the APC has no lessons to give to the PDP on the matter. In 2013, I was involved in a comparative assessment of political party capacity in the country and one major finding we had was that no political party in Nigeria had any idea, not even a rough idea, of how many members it had. The notion of a party member is a non-existent category in Nigerian politics.
In democracies, parties are reliant on members and supporters to elect them and for that reason alone respect their members and allow them to decide on candidates for elections. Democracy, after all, is about the popularity principle, so parties know that if they do not accept the most popular candidate chosen by members, then they are likely to lose elections.
As is well known in the literature, the search for party members and supporters is the motive force of democratic politics. How then do we understand the Nigerian situation? In democracies, parties are reliant on members and supporters to elect them and for that reason alone respect their members and allow them to decide on candidates for elections. Democracy, after all, is about the popularity principle, so parties know that if they do not accept the most popular candidate chosen by members, then they are likely to lose elections. Francois Holland was the powerful general secretary of the French Socialist Party when his wife, Segolene Royal contested against him and won in the 2007 Convention for presidential candidate. He was bitter but he led the campaign to support her in the election, even if his bitterness made him ultimately walk out of the marriage. She lost the election, lost her marriage but Holland stayed back in the party and was able to secure the next nomination and win the election. In Nigeria, leaders who lose walk out of the party to join another because they have lost. The real problem however is that in most cases, the winner also did not win, so no one can take the moral high ground.
One of the challenges of Nigerian politics is the penchant for everybody to seek to be part of ruling parties. In the 18-years since parties emerged in the Forth Republic, most of Nigeria’s political class have been in and out of the PDP. Their current destination is the APC. At the height of PDP power, the party dismissed all of its members. As the then Chairman, Col. Ahmadu Ali explained: “The PDP is full of members who fraudulently obtained their party membership” (Tribune, 23/11/2005). As they all obtained their membership fraudulently, he dismissed all of them and asked then to reapply. For weeks, the PDP enjoyed the distinction of being the only ruling political party in world history without a single member. After a “thorough process of screening” suitable members were recruited to organise the rigging of the 2007 elections.
Nigerian parties have been groomed into the culture of not having members because for much of our history, elections were rigged, not won or lost. Nigerian parties can afford to sack members because they are not about democracy and elections. Nigerian elections were occasions in which the outcome has been the subversion of the democratic process, rather than its consolidation. Especially during the 2003 and 2007 elections, the polls were not opportunities in which party members and supporters expressed political choices through voting who they wanted to rule them. The elections were massively rigged and the ruling party could not have been in need of members because it could deliver votes without having party members.
Nigerian parties must take up the challenge of democracy. Parties must begin to actively recruit members and above all respect them. In a democracy, parties must be owned, financed and controlled by members, rather than godfathers. The godfather syndrome makes it impossible for true accountability to members to be practiced in parties.
The political terrain has however been changing significantly. For the first time in 2011, the elections were better than the preceding ones. The 2015 elections were even better, and for the first time in our history, an opposition party won the elections. When elections are free and fair, political parties need members and supporters, as that is the basis on which they can win elections. The popularity principle then comes into play. One of the key issues that emerged in the Kuru retreat is that the parties have not realised that the situation has changed and that henceforth, there is the need to have members, to respect members, and allow freely chosen delegates determine the outcomes of conventions. The ruling APC might be working fast towards its destruction and defeat in the next general elections if it does not edify the principle of internal party democracy.
Nigerian parties must take up the challenge of democracy. Parties must begin to actively recruit members and above all respect them. In a democracy, parties must be owned, financed and controlled by members, rather than godfathers. The godfather syndrome makes it impossible for true accountability to members to be practiced in parties. The fact that one or two individuals bear the cost of running campaigns and the funding of other party activities lead to a privatisation of both party and state machinery because government officials would naturally owe allegiance to the political godfather who “put” them in office rather than to the ordinary citizen. Our parties must learn to change. One of the most frustrating aspects of the Kuru retreat was that while all parties were invited, the APC and PDP did not attend. In a sense, they are the two parties that have the most need to change their ways even if they are too arrogant to realise it.