Opposition Politics versus the Abuse of Incumbency, By Jibrin Ibrahim



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Last week, Salihu Lukman, one of the leading ideologues and tactician of the ACN launched his book – “2015 Manifesto of Nigerian Opposition Politics” at the Yar’adua Center in Abuja. It was well attended by key opposition figures. This is not surprising given the context of the on-going attempts to unite the opposition against the PDP behemoth, which we all recall has threatened to rule Nigeria for sixty continuous years. Lukman and his colleagues are determining to stop them. It is possible but it is very difficult task. In the book, Lukman makes a passionate plea for opposition parties to distinguish themselves from the ruling party by embarking on the path of issue-based politics so that they can persuade voters that they are placing a better alternative on the table.

In his comments for the occasion, one of the opposition leaders, Bola Tinubu argued correctly that “we must begin to draw a clear distinction between the conservative elitism of the current government the progressive reform we offer to the people. We must do more than criticize the PDP failings… What the people need from us is the assurance that we have an intelligent, attainable vision for reforming our political economy.”

It is extremely difficult for opposition parties to win presidential elections in Africa. They have to confront the external challenge by incumbent parties that make it difficult for them to operate. They also face the internal challenge of forging unity among the various leaders of the opposition, most of who believe unity should only happen under their individual tutelage. When opposition parties effectively address the two challenges, their chances of defeating an incumbent ruling party is usually high.

The external challenge of the abuse of incumbency powers is very strong. All over Africa, there have been widespread cases of abuses of the power of incumbency following the demise of authoritarian rule and the institution of democracy. It is clear that despite the signs of general acceptance of political pluralism and the conduct of electoral processes, there are many signs that show continuity with the preceding post-colonial period of one-man and one-party rule. In many instances, presidents and their political parties tend to have a disproportionate influence on the operations of the judiciary, the legislature and election management bodies. In particular, there are many cases of electoral malpractices that have been perpetrated by the incumbent government with the assistance of various governmental agencies and security agencies. Wherever strict presidential limits have been established, the incumbent presidents have often sought the option of making constitutional changes that enable them to stay in power beyond the expiration of their tenure. Financial resources are unlawfully used to maintain the dominant party in power. Opposition is usually not allowed to flourish, thereby undermining the important element of stable political competition in a democratic system.


In extreme cases, security and military forces are used to quell political dissent and establish an overt monopolization of power by those in the incumbent administration. The African Union (AU) held a summit of presidents and important government figures in Durban in 2002 that brought into effect the Memorandum of Understanding on Security, Stability, Development and Co-operation in Africa that features a code of conduct placing limitations on presidential term limits. However, what becomes evident in the African process of democratization is that, despite the presence of such binding regional agreements and domestic policies aimed at deepening democracy, the formal commitment to democratic rules does not usually translate itself into political practice.

Similarly, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance that was adopted during the AU Assembly in Addis Ababa in 2007 had thirty signatories, but only three of whom ratified the document. One study had concluded that despite the ‘theoretical possibility’ of a loss of elections by an incumbent president, the statistical possibility of it occurring is around 14%. In the course of 2010/2011, six of the nine presidential elections in Africa were won by the incumbent. In another study, 18 African presidents who had completed their constitutional two terms in power were examined. Half of them chose to alter the constitution for the purpose of tenure elongation and six of those were successful. It is clear that the abuse of the power of incumbency remains a central challenge to African democracy in this era. The military dictatorships and single-party governments of the immediate post-colonial past have been transformed into dominant party systems that do not allow meaningful electoral contestation, political inclusion and democratic consolidation through the use of the abuse of the powers of incumbency.

In Nigeria, we have had an extensive history of incumbents using security agencies and anti corruption organs to harass opposition members considered a threat The most serious threat that incumbent leaders have placed on the opposition is that of engaging in extensive election rigging practices and voter intimidation through the participation of different segments of society, particularly those who could be bribed through financial means, including security personnel involving in overseeing the conduct of elections. Political pressure has been placed on the electoral commission to manipulate the electoral process and alter the results of elections. Finally, the monopolization of various media platforms and control of information by the ruling party and the accompanying limitation of access of the opposition parties’ access to state-owned media platforms is another factor.

The extensive abuse of incumbency power in dealing with opposition parties is a sign of weakness rather than strength of a ruling party. Parties in power are often corrupt and very poor in delivering the dividends of democracy to the people. They tend to have very limited legitimacy due to underhand ways they have used to get to power and therefore feel vulnerable to the threat posed by the opposition. Their strong arm tactics against the opposition is therefore a sign of weakness. The opposition parties however are often unable to take advantage of their chance to takeover power because they get embroiled in internal bickering that demobilises their capacity to unite and confront the incumbent effectively.

The book by Lukman draws attention to the personal ambitions of Mohammadu Buhari of the CPC and Bola Tinubu of the ACN which might become a stumbling block to the unity of the opposition against the PDP. This is indeed true. It is in the DNA of virtually every politician to believe he or she is the very best leader available and that therefore others should stand down for him or her. The merger of the opposition parties is likely to happen with each of the leaders thinking they could use the new enlarged platform to carry forward their personal ambition. Such attitudes have bedevilled opposition politics in countries such as Togo, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Nigeria. Sometimes however, opposition parties have successfully united and won elections in Malawi, Zambia, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger. It will be interesting to see if Lumen’s arguments and counsel in his book “Manifesto of Nigerian Opposition Parties” will provide sufficient reasons to opposition leaders to refocus on issue-based politics and go beyond the interest of persons as they prepare for the 2015 election.


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