It is difficult to watch the recently concluded political party conventions in the United States (US), particularly the Democratic National Convention (DNC) that took place in Charlotte without wishing that was Nigeria. There is no doubt that each party saw the need to front-load its best in order to be considered serious by the American public. Placed side by side with Nigeria, the US conventions exposed the stark reality of Nigeria’s claim to democracy as nothing more than a bold-face attempt to pass off the notorious Mucuna pruriens as an everyday edible bean. The naked fact of our pseudo democracy is at the heart of what is wrong with Nigeria because real democracy is a key element to attaining leadership accountability or the institutional framework for propping up leadership whose emergence depends upon its ability to convince the people of its capacity to address issues that are of primary importance to them. Consequently, even though many Nigerians continue to desire leaders like Barack Hussein Obama, the incumbent president of the US or a Bill Clinton, the chances of such leaders in Nigeria are very slim. When such do emerge in Nigeria, he would be a statistical outlier, a product of accident. He also stands the risk of being encumbered by the system, which in this case is the norm.
I identified two major differences in the Nigerian democracy when compared with the US or United Kingdom (UK) democracies. These are: (1) ownership of political parties, and; (2) mode of determining party representations in government. The first affects the party as an institution while the second affects party’s involvement in government.
In both US and UK democracies, the political parties are owned by the masses (citizens who freely elect to become members of such parties) and anyone who decides to join a political party can rise to the pinnacle of leadership in that party simply by being very active, very capable, very educated, very committed and by maintaining high moral standards and not simply by who they know. This is why on the average, a leader of any of the major parties in the US and UK is likely to be very knowledgeable about the economy, foreign policy and other issues that are of importance to the average American or Briton unlike in Nigeria where anybody irrespective of his ability can become anything simply by kowtowing to well connected god-fathers. It should be noted that there are ‘god-fathers’ in both the US and UK democracies as well, the difference however is that since actual representative selection shall be decided by “every member of the local” party, those ‘god-fathers’ are themselves forced by circumstance to scout for the best and most marketable people who can be promoted with their resources for the purpose of securing the approval of ordinary members of their parties and not by simply imposing them upon those members. They have no such power. The US Tea Party movement’s relative success at positioning its preferred aspirants for GOP tickets over a short period of time is a typical example of how ordinary folks can dynamically alter power equation in real democracies. It is inconceivable to expect such external youth led putsch to faze the power brokers of Nigeria’s major political parties.
The Vanguard newspaper of 20th January 2011 credited a national leader of the ACN with saying that his party ‘elders’ have the supreme right to decide and impose candidates on the rest of the party. He even erroneously cited British model to justify his argument. He called the process consensus. Usually, other aspirants except the one that has been so favoured would describe that same process as an imposition. Yes, both great democracies (UK and USA) have room for consensus, but the consensus must also be decided by the members of the party and not a few ‘elders’. This is the core ingredient that makes real democracy such an appealing system of government.
The selection of party candidates by the general house via a system akin to a Direct Primary protocol as practiced in the US and to some degree in the UK is the present missing link in our democratic experiment. It is the core ingredient that gives absolute power to select a candidate to the people of the constituency to be so represented. It is the restraint that prevents Mafia-like syndicates from taking over the party systems in those places. It is also the key to the emergence of supposed underdogs as champions. Examples of such people include the much celebrated Barack Obama’s victory over Hilary Clinton in 2008. Had the decision to select the US Democratic presidential flag-bearer in 2008 been solely in the hands of Democratic Party leaders, Obama would undoubtedly never have had a fighting chance. Also in the UK, if the decision to elect a new leader for the Labour Party in 2010 had been solely ‘in the hands’ of the party leadership, Ed Miliband would never have emerged. Ditto for David Cameron’s rapid rise to Tory leadership in 2005 as his party sought a brilliant (he made first class), youthful, moderate candidate who would appeal to voters.
The Direct Primary System empowers all members (not delegates) of a particular political party to ultimately vote in the election of candidates that will represent such a political party. Essentially, every member of the political party gets to have a say in the selection process. A direct implication of this is that it takes the power to pre-determine the outcome of party primaries away from a few people – a tiny rank of godfathers. This directly promotes high leadership turn over, ensures a political party belongs to the people rather than to a small group of privileged men, eliminates capacity to stifle dissenters and enhances the ability of ordinary folks to get involved in party processes.
In the US for instance, the primary election is for all aspirants while the process takes place under the supervision of the government agency in charge thereby being chiefly outside the control of the party organization. The government also ensures that the person who won the primary election is the one who will be on the ballot paper representing that party. The slight variation in the UK example has to do with the power of the party to appoint a committee for the purpose of screening, interviewing and vetting the credentials of aspirants before putting them on a central list. Nigeria’s PDP does activate similar committees every four years. The difference though is that in the UK, all party members in that constituency would eventually get the chance to democratically elect a candidate from the list while the PDP and others in Nigeria would simply delegate that power to a carefully selected group of people which ultimately defeats the entire purpose as the ‘highest bidder’ can compromise these special delegates. It is only in rare instances of emergency candidate requirement (e.g., death, retirement etc) or where the party is relatively weak and needs to deliberately position a strong candidate with mass appeal that the central executive of most UK parties would vote to select a candidate. This way, the UK or US aspirant takes his message directly to the party’s public since all members in that constituency would be casting votes. Because many party members are often inactive, a good aspirant would then make it his duty to fire up the base by rousing the zeal of these often inactive sleeping giants like Obama did.
Why is this one of the most important issues in a democracy such as ours? This is primarily because of Nigeria’s diversity and low level of political sophistication which makes any model that can be choreographed by a few sure disasters for the Nigerian masses. The few would hold on to power at all cost and escalate corrupt activities because they require unfettered access to public money to sustain their grip. The nation therefore needs a political model that embodies merit and fairness and that gives an assurance that the people in truth control their destiny with the hire and fire power right in their palms. A direct primary system for the determination of candidates of a political party is very fundamental to the quality and worth of that democracy as well as the quality and capability of the men and women that would be produced as leaders in that particular democracy.
True democracy must frontally recognize the people as the owners of political parties – and by extension, owners of that democracy – and not a fiefdom of a few privileged individuals. If a few individuals own our political parties, we would be deluding ourselves to say the people of Nigeria own that democracy. Once a few people control a democracy, the few would also inadvertently control economic means and ultimately operate the economic system “in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals” that are their favorites, stooges or those who share their political, religious or social orientation at the expense of others – a scenario that recklessly violates a fundamental stipulate in the Nigerian constitution [Section 16(2)(c)].
Also, a direct primary system (especially as practiced in the US) will reduce incidence of violence that has perennially plagued our democracy because of the quality of candidates that would emerge. Even the trajectory of god-fathers’ desperation and their modus operandi would change as they are likely to divert their effort to activities that can endear their candidates to the electorates rather than recourse to brigandage or electoral violence. Another twin benefit is that it would reduce the role of money and eliminate its direct use in buying delegates’ votes since it would be virtually impossible to buy the votes of all members of a political party in a particular constituency. It is to be particularly noted that more people will show interest and join political parties if they know they have the power to determine the outcome of who gets what in that party and who gets to lead and solve their problems which is the core essence of membership of political parties.
I concede that political parties in other countries depend on variety of other methods in choosing their candidates and party leadership. I am however a major advocate of the US and UK models for obvious reasons – the success and quality of both democracies and the ease with which politicians could be punished or rewarded by the electorates in election cycles. Is it not sheer insanity to learn by trial and error when you have successful development role models? Consequently, as another round of constitutional change is being debated, civil society organizations and opinion molders owe it a duty to Nigerians to mount pressure on the National Assembly to delete the obnoxious clause inserted in the 2010 Electoral Act amendment which allowed political parties to opt out of direct primary system for the selection of party flag-bearers. Pressure must also be mounted upon lawmakers to restore section 87(9) of the original Electoral Act 2010 which states that “where a political party fails to comply with the provisions of this Act in the conduct of its primaries, its candidate for election shall not be included in the election for the particular position in issue”. This provision was expunged in a move that was clearly selfish and self-serving as it was a complete u-turn from the well intentioned amendment originally carried out by the same lawmakers. Finally, if we truly want to get it right, this must also be extended to congresses for the selection of party officers. Only then can Nigerian political parties truly belong to Nigerians thereby bringing to a conclusive end the era of parties being the sole proprietorship of powerful individuals or empires of few well positioned strong men.
Tunji Ariyomo is a Policy Chair of the National Development Initiative NDi (an independent think-tank). NDi project can be accessed at www.nd-i.org.
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