Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, writing in the Young India newspaper on October 22, 1925, espoused the theory of the seven social sins. It has lessons on economics, politics, science and religion and spoke to our common destiny and humanity around the world. While the seven social sins are subject to various interpretations, the first of these lessons –the sin of politics without principles – is certainly relevant here in Nigeria where politicians are current engaged in a macabre display of defections and crass politicking within the country’s two major political parties, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Nigeria’s current political situation also brings to mind English author and politician, Jeffrey Archer’s book, Honour Amongst Thieves. The sad reality here, however, is that there isn’t even honour amongst our political parties, let alone its thieves. In Archer’s book, even the most debased of human endeavors follows certain basic rules. But in Nigeria this is far from the case. The politicians’ power grab – through whatever means possible – continues to undermine the country’s quality of governance and could be a major trigger for instability.
There does however exist some amount of “reasonable competition” between the two major political parties, and each one have – at least on paper – the potential to win the general elections. Sadly for Nigerians though, the quality of choice between these less-than-honorable political parties leaves much to be desired. Some people argue that there is no choice at all, seeing the APC as little more than a mutant version of the PDP with little ideological difference or operational distinction. As it currently stands, the only difference one sees in the two major political parties is only of nomenclatural relevance. The same characters that where in the PDP are now finding a home in the APC. The common denominator? Interest in power – and through whatever means necessary.
Great countries are not built on an ideologically-retarded political class. Most of our politicians stand for nothing, which means they are effectually “open to everything”. It is therefore premature for Nigerians to celebrate our political ‘choices’. What we have right now is not only a contaminated pool of parties, but also a structurally-debased political culture that relegates the need of the people behind the greed of the few. The reality is that all our politicians are currently tarred with the same brush. The compromises they have made, the characters they have welcomed, and the inconsistencies they have shown underscore the value-free nature of our politics.
How do we explain a situation where lawmakers defect from one party to another and then defect back to their original party in the space of only one month and under circumstances that celebrate disregard for principles? Party leaders in Party A suddenly move to Party B and begin to contradict everything they had done in Party A. How do we explain the claim that political office holders are paid to remain in their party? How do we explain that negotiations for party allegiance is premised on automatic ticket and pre-determined political posts? In all these types of horse-trading and deal-making, nobody is talking about the people or securing obligations or commitments on infrastructural development. Nobody is raising the issue of free education or healthcare, let alone anything remotely representative of the needs of the people. What manner of politics in Nigeria are we playing exactly?
The failure of political parties has dire consequences for the quality of governance in Nigeria. In Anambra elections, the fact that political parties could not rally their members to review the voter’s register disenfranchised many people. Their inability to even mobilize citizens to vote produced a record low turn-out in governorship elections. If political parties cannot even rally their own members or provide them with basic civic education, how do they expect to run a country?
Interestingly, the current disenchantment with political parties also provides huge opportunities for them to remake themselves. It cannot be business as usual. Moving towards the 2015 elections, the PDP and APC need to prove to Nigerians that there are differences between them, aside from name. Simply being known as the opposition party does not guarantee votes, unless you can actually distinguish yourself from the ruling party. Internal party politics – especially going forward to the primaries – must be taken seriously, and democracy must begin from intraparty levels. Nigerian’ voices must count. Aggressive citizen’s mobilization, based on discernible political promises must be pursued.
Parties cannot promise free education in 2015, as example, when governors from such parties are not currently pursuing such policies. We need to be clear on the policy direction of each political party – not just as election propaganda, but actually seen to be at the centre of their currently-pursued activities. If political parties focus their energy on policy issues and spend less energy on hurling abuses at each other, our governance narrative will undergo seismic change. The APC’s current membership registration has shown how progressive mobilization can improve the fortunes of a political party. Other political parties are watching and a response is no doubt in the works. This is the kind of competition Nigerians want and need to see.
However, we cannot wait forever for our failed political class to remake themselves. Increasingly, we’ll have to pursue a third way – a new wave of politically-conscious Nigerians uniting to build a political union that is built on the values of accountability, responsiveness to people’s needs, and a clear strategy on changing the political fortunes of this country. It doesn’t have to be a political party, but it must be a political force. And it must be one that commands attention and defines issues. Those progressives exist in the virtual chat rooms. They exist in the drinking bars. They exist in our schools and churches. They even exist in our political parties. But we need to provide a different avenue to ventilate these values and draw out these progressives. Nigeria is too precious to be left in the hands of men without honor or leaders without principles.
Udo writes from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). Interact with him on twitter via @udoilo