Political Contestation in Nigeria: Challenges of Benchmarking Party Manifesto

By Salihu Moh. Lukman

Introduction – The Context

Let me thank the leadership of the APC Press Corp for this opportunity to present this Keynote Address, and through you, share some perspective with Nigerians, especially our party leaders and members on the subject of political contestation, which is the most important democratic value that should be guaranteed by every democracy. I have amended the theme to Political Contestation in Nigeria: Challenges of Benchmarking Party Manifesto, so that we can focus ourselves to the very issue of what should be the reference point of political contestation. Of course, as a member of APC, without even the prompting as contained in the letter of invitation, I will within my limited competence try to highlight our experiences, our challenges and what need to be done.

Often, many of us make the mistake of imagining that our responsibility is to rationalise decisions of our party and our leaders. Yes, we need to justify and defend decisions of our party and our leaders to the best of our ability. At every opportunity we must lead the advocacy to promote our party and our leaders. Beyond that however, we must be in a position to protect the electoral advantages of our party. This is largely because once we lose those advantages, all the public attention we enjoy today, will disappear. Therefore, as much as we should defend and promote decisions of our leaders, we must do so bearing in mind that in the end politics is about serving citizens. In any event, we must remember that like any human organisation, our party is not perfect, and our responsibility is to constantly work to improve on the capacity of the party to grow and effectively provide us with the platform to be able to engage in political contests. In other words, our party is work-in-progress.

The strong test of whether we are growing our party such that our leaders remain faithful to the commitment to service is whether we are taking all the necessary steps to respond to the demands of citizens. Inability to respond to the demands of citizens alienate leaders and erode electoral viability. Most times, we imagine that resort to propaganda can resolve our societal and national challenges. This is very wrong. We can do all the propaganda and take over all the media spaces in our constituencies and in the country, it will not change the reality facing citizens. This is mainly because propaganda that is not founded on strategic and concrete responses to our societal and national problems, will not improve the lives of citizens.

Thus, beyond propaganda, both as citizens and party members, we have a responsibility to get our leaders to apply themselves very effectively and honestly to resolve our societal and national challenges. Achieving this entail that our leaders should recognise they don’t have all the solutions. This is where as politicians, most times we fail because we engage citizens with the false claim that we have all the answers and anyone with contrary position is an opponent, if not enemy. Once this is the case, ab initio, political contestation is blocked. We should always remember that leadership come with some baseline capacity and competence to be able to organise responses to challenges. Capacity to access proposals and translate them into initiatives is integral part of leadership capacity and competence.

Beyond Electoral Contest

At another level, there is also the narrow perspective, limiting political contestation to only electoral contests. As much as this is the case, we restrict ourselves to appearances and claims of politicians. The true substance or content of politicians and how they will perform when elected, which will determine policy choices may only be speculated based on estimation of past experiences. The truth, however, is that the dynamic of public life is completely different and no matter the level of experiences, factors that would influence decisions of politicians when in office are far more complex than what their past suggest.

Part of the assumptions that democracy is founded on the logic that political parties should have manifestos, which should highlight ideological orientations and commitments of leaders and members, is just redundant in our context. Any close observer will recognise that although there is a document called party manifesto, party members, including leaders are hardly committed, in fact, many are hardly conversant with provisions of their party’s manifesto. To a large extent, this account for why initiating policies and programmes based on provisions of the manifesto is weak. How many party members, including leaders have actually gone through the party manifesto? How many party leaders are actually able to develop perspectives, which will highlight policy choices in lines with provisions of the party manifesto?

The consequence of all of these is that the only political contest that take place is electoral contest, which is just about personalities. To go beyond electoral contests means that debate on perspectives should highlight possible choices open to governments. Our party, APC, was able to debate, negotiate and agree on some baseline proposals as responses to our numerous national challenges during the merger negotiation and during the 2015 and 2019 campaigns. These are clearly contained in our manifesto. We should recall that once we won the election in 2015, our transition committee did a lot of work and prepared plans of action for implementation. In addition, we had a major policy conference, which further provided additional perspectives that guided the policy priorities of the APC government led by President Buhari.

While we have made progress in many areas, there are still formidable challenges. Somehow, the challenges have strengthened personality contest in the country largely because, as a party, we have allowed internal contests within our party to be conducted without reference to provisions of our party’s manifesto. This has weakened our capacity to implement provisions of our manifesto. Being personality contest, our opposition parties and many Nigerians, who legitimately had every reason to demand for more responses to our national challenges, are reducing political contest in the country to contest of personalities. As a result, everything is about dismissing the achievements of APC governments.

Elevating Political Contest – Role of Political Appointees

We need to wake up and truly begin to elevate political contest in Nigeria to the level of objective assessments of performance of our governments. Part of our failing is that appointees of government responsible for initiating specific service delivery actions based on provisions of our manifesto just layback, either wait for directives and instructions or simply behave as if they are observers in the politics of promoting and defending initiatives of government. Why should this be so? Why are our political appointees unable to engage the current debate questioning the performance of APC government based on capacity to highlight both APC scorecard as well as mobilise new perspectives which could shape and strengthen new responses to the challenges we face.

Politics will be meaningless without contestation of policy choices. The role of political appointees in leading political contestation cannot be overemphasised. The party is expected to ensure that both elected and appointed functionaries discharge their responsibilities based on the provisions of the party manifesto. The logic is that even electoral contest should ultimately be about policy choices, which citizens are expected to decide.

What is very clear is that as a party, APC, we are our own adversaries with respect to political contest in Nigeria. We have set the standard in 2015, but we have also decided to take for granted the task of setting agenda for political contestation based on capacity to promote our policy choices in national political debate. Instead, we allowed a wide gap to emerge between public debate on challenges facing our nation and the initiatives of our governments. Most times, we allow public debate to project us as if our party and leaders are unable to make policy decision. Where it is acknowledged that we have made a decision and our leaders are implementing the decisions, we allow opposition propaganda to control the narrative such that our policy choices are condemned as wrong or ineffective. Our political opponents are feeding on our weaknesses to effectively communicate our policy choices in ways that should win the support of Nigerians. This is most unfortunate.

On account of our many self-inflicted problems of not being able to effectively communicate our policy choices, our political opponents are gradually succeeding in projecting the problems of the country as simply one that can be resolved based on the choice of a leader from their rank in the next general election. We must pose the question, if APC and our current leaders have failed, as is being claimed, why have we failed? To what extent, does the political opposition present any hope that they have solutions to the problems facing the nation? If they do, what are they proposing?

Part of the challenge is that our opposition, led by the PDP are taking advantage of our internal leadership challenges to reduce political contest to just electoral contest. We must never allow our internal leadership challenges to be the defining attribute and therefore confirming that political contest is all about electoral contest. No doubt, we have big challenges that require urgent resolutions. But it is also clear that both our party and our governments recognise the challenges. Unlike the case between 1999 and 2015, when under the PDP, their leaders and governments they controlled at all levels lived in denial and reduced political contest to considerations of sponsored propaganda, our party, our leaders and our governments are engaged in open debate to address all the challenges facing Nigeria. Just check, especially with reference to the monstrous security challenge facing the country, the different positions being canvassed by many of our leaders. Our leaders are not in denial that there are problems.

Does the existence of the problem mean our APC government is not working? Probably, more than any government at least since 1999, our APC government is making good progress in the areas of infrastructural development and social investment. Unfortunately, rising insecurity in the country is diminishing these achievements. There is therefore a big public contest of whether the performance of our government is below what we offered Nigerians in 2015. Sadly, many of us are allowing the opposition to set the terms of the debate. We need to be more assertive and able to present a strong political contest that is able to make Nigerians see beyond the façade of the shadow electoral contest, which is designed to promote the opposition to APC.

We need to remind ourselves that the attraction of Nigerians to our party and our leaders in 2015 was our sincere disposition to finding solutions to all our governance challenges. We should retain that honest disposition based on clear and unequivocal appreciation of the challenges. So far, one can gladly say that many of our leaders are doing that. For instance, on the same issue of insecurity in the country, which, both as a party and as a nation, we must succeed in addressing, it is to the credit of many of our leaders that they are not taking a partisan position. Unlike what we had under the PDP before 2015 whereby PDP leaders were unable to risk taking any public position that may pitch them against a PDP controlled presidency under President Goodluck Jonathan, today in APC many leaders are coming out to canvass for different positions other than the preferences of President Muhammadu Buhari.

From our Governors, to leaders and members of the National Assembly and other party leaders, many APC leaders and members are critical of what is going on. This was hardly the case under PDP between 1999 and 2015. If anything, PDP criminalised internal debate and even go to the extent of using security agencies against fellow PDP leaders for expressing critical opinions. Recall the case of the seven PDP governors and all the attacks on Rivers Government House in 2013. It is very easy and convenient to forget all of these. We must be able to remind Nigerians where we are coming from. I am not sure we can recall any resolution of any chamber of the National Assembly under PDP leadership before 2015 contesting the position of President Jonathan. Assuming there were such resolutions, they hardly received much recognition from President Jonathan.

Today, not only there were resolutions, on account of these resolutions, the leadership of the National Assembly is having active engagements with President Buhari. The frustration of not getting the desired outcome expected by Nigerians, is the challenge. It is one challenge that should be uncompromisingly prioritised by all APC leaders, especially President Buhari. Inability to demonstrate that the desired outcome will be produced immediately, is making it appear as if our party and our leaders have failed and President Buhari is not committed to serving Nigerians. This is certainly not correct and as party members, we need to join our leaders, especially President Buhari, to take all the necessary steps to correct this wrong perception.

Issue-Based Political Contestation – The Case of National Security Challenge

As a party, APC provide all the liberal space for issue-based political contestation. Debates within our party is stronger in the public because, across board, everyone, leaders and members, acknowledges the challenge, and we are all engaging the issues. Unlike the case of PDP leadership who are in perpetual denial, including alleging that the unfortunate kidnap of over 200 Chibok girls in April 2014 was a political conspiracy against President Jonathan, in our case in APC, we are not politicising our security challenge.

Like every Nigerian, we are pained by our horrible security situation. Being members and leaders of APC does not confer any special privilege, which can protect our lives more than that of other Nigerians. Just about three weeks ago, our Nasarawa State Chairman, Mr. Philip Shekwo, was kidnapped and murdered. The over 500 abducted school children of GSSS, Kankara, Katsina State are children of Nigerians, some of them members and leaders of our party in Katsina State. Noting that Katsina is the home state of President Buhari, we should recognise that the President is not likely to be dealing with distant situation represented by statistics of school children that were abducted by bandits and terrorists. To allege insensitivity on the part of the President will simply be taking politics too far.

Happily, last night, all the abducted GSSS Kankara students were released and were received back to Katsina State by His Excellency, Aminu Bello Masari, Governor of Katsina. The report indicated that their release was the outcome of the efforts of Katsina, Zamfara State governments and the security agencies. Noting that Zamfara State is a PDP government, this highlights the point that to successfully resolve our security challenge in the country, we must not politicise insecurity. We therefore must commend our two state governments and the security agencies for rescuing our abducted children. In the case of our security agencies, while acknowledging their role, we must be able to assert that the abduction would have been averted if they acted promptly. Be that as it may, as Nigerians, we must insist, moving forward, stiffer sanctions should be introduced against our security personnel, traditional and community leaders when similar horrid incidences of abduction or kidnapping happened.

At another level, there was a purported statement credited to Mr. Yekini Nabena, our former Deputy National Publicity Secretary, calling on security agencies to investigate a North West Governor allegedly linked to “banditry, abduction and other violent crimes in the zone.” I hope that such a statement is a fabrication. It certainly wouldn’t have represented the position of our party’s Caretaker Committee, our leaders or even our members. It was embarrassing and we must appeal to all our leaders and members not to join the PDP attempt to politicise our national security challenge. These are some of the wrong steps that give political oxygen to the PDP. As a governing party, rather than coming with claims that are just cheap political propaganda, we should be more focused in strengthening the capacity of our governments to effectively respond to challenges.

No doubt, our security challenge requires some drastic measures. Part of the drastic measures should include that everywhere we have problem of banditry and kidnapping for instance, security personnel, traditional and community leaders should be held responsible unless they are able to produce the bandits and kidnappers. We need to take all the necessary steps to resolve the speculated problem of collaboration with bandits and kidnappers by our security personnel, traditional and community leaders.

It is important to continue to use the issue of insecurity as a reference point in the discussion of political contest in Nigeria. To what extent have we taken steps to implement provisions of our manifesto on issues of security? No question, our elected leaders and representatives have remarkably taken some initiatives. Are those initiatives consistent with provisions of our manifesto? Closer scrutiny will show that a major gap exists in the area of accountability and delivery by our respective security services. This is an area that our party manifesto was very clear, and we need to begin to initiate and speed up implementation. It may be worth recalling the six proposals contained in the section Keeping Nigeria Safe, especially regarding commitment on Accountability & delivery in page 19 of our manifesto as follows:

Create a Federal Anti-Terrorism Agency (FATA), with properly trained and professional staff combining elements of both Police and the State Security Service, which would be fully accountable to the National Assembly to conduct anti-terrorism and counter insurgency operations.

Develop, promote and implement a public accountability framework to enhance the operational autonomy and efficiency of the military, police and other security agencies in the discharge of their constitutional mandates.

Devolve the oversight of local policing, including the nomination of the State Police Commissioner and management of the prison service to the state.

Establish a Federal Police Complaints Authority and Ombudsman to provide a transparent process for ordinary Nigerians to raise complaints over police conduct.

Promote peaceful and harmonious coexistence by ensuring that Nigerians are free to live, work and worship in any part of the country without let or hinderance and introduce legislation to outlaw inflammatory hate speech.

Protect the country against external aggression and enhance our national security through stricter control of our borders while maintaining strong, close and beneficial relationship with our neighbours and other countries.

Without claiming to be a security expert, these proposals would appear to be very much needed. It is possible that both the Minister of Defence, Minister of Police Affairs and Minister of Interior, may not have reviewed provisions of this section of our party’s manifesto in developing initiatives being implemented. Or, if they did, they may have step down implementation of initiatives bordering on this, which may require strengthened legal and institutional frameworks.

We need to appeal to our Ministers to revisit this provision of our manifesto and develop complementary initiatives. Without any contemplation, any discerning mind would appreciate that FATA and Federal Police Complaints Authority and Ombudsman are still very much needed. In fact, Federal Police Complaint Authority and Ombudsman would have effectively pre-empted any EndSARS protest in this country with all the attendant loss of lives and property. The issue of improving on our intelligence services would have been addressed and safe schools’ initiatives would have been more effectively implemented.

Oversighting Implementation of Provisions of Party Manifesto

Simple review of our challenges as a party suggest that we need to appeal to our leaders to take provisions of our party’s manifesto much more seriously when designing policies. As much as we can hold our elected and appointed leaders in government responsible, the ineffectiveness of our party leaders, especially the NWC is perhaps the biggest problem. What is the operative relationship between the party, on the one hand, and elected and appointed officials, on the other? Do party leaders, even bother to follow through initiatives of governments controlled by the party?

As we work to resolve the challenges facing our party, APC, the issue of leadership and membership mentoring, coaching and orientation based on the strategy of developing the consciousness of every party leader and member in line with provisions of the manifesto should be provided. In the context of that, the question of relationship framework between the party and officials (elected and appointed) should include activities to popularise provisions of the manifesto and initiatives of governments produced by the party to implement provisions of the manifesto.

I cite the section on security just to illustrate that, as a party, we have very good responses, which require that we initiate public policies based on those proposals. The fact is, our leaders are more than competent, but most times the distractions of trying to access appointive and elective positions become our undoing. The only way to minimise these distractions is by mainstreaming the function of oversighting implementation of provisions of the party’s manifesto as part of the core functions of the National Working Committee (NWC). Inability to mainstream the function of oversighting implementation of provisions of the party manifesto will continue to cheapen politics to merely personality contest.

Conclusion: Strengthening Internal Party Contest

The foundational contest in politics is the one that take place within political parties. Citizens can only develop confidence in a party and its candidates if they are able to see that internal dynamics within the party recognise and appreciate the challenges they face. Above all, citizens should be able to have the confidence that proposals coming from the party and their candidates would be able to resolve their challenges. It is not about claims being made by parties and their candidates.

Our leaders and all of us in APC must remember that between 2012 and 2015, from the merger negotiations, to the processes of preparing for the 2015 election, internal debate within the APC aggregates public debate. There were even cases where our internal debates were much stronger than public debates. Those were times when respect was high across board. We need to return to that. We must never allow a situation where political contestation is reduced to mere electoral contest in which all that matters is the need to choose any leader simply based on claims that are not backed by superior commitment to proposals and recommendations contained in manifesto of his/her party.

For instance, if the narrative is that APC has failed, what is the alternative being offered by PDP or any party opposed to the APC. As part of the introspection required to strengthen the capacity of our party, our leaders and governments controlled by APC, we need to engage the debate based on assessment of what we must do to rebuild confidence of Nigerians and regained their trust. In doing that, we need to restrategise and more effectively present the comprehensive scorecards of our APC governments at all levels since 2015 in ways that can truly demonstrate to Nigerians what has been achieved, and why in spite of what has been achieved we are having the challenges facing us as a nation?

As a party, we invested a lot to develop our manifesto. The gap that emerged since 2015 whereby elected and appointed leaders of governments controlled by our party took our manifesto for granted should be corrected. The Caretaker Committee should circulate the manifesto to all functionaries of governments at all levels. Perhaps through the APC tripartite consultative committee, chaired by the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo with both the party Chairman, HE Mai Mala Buni, Senate President, HE Ahmed Lawan, Speaker, House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiala and PGF Chairman, HE Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, serving as members, as a party we can begin the process of restrategising so as to strengthen the capacity of our governments to effectively resolve all our challenges as a nation and win back public trust and confidence.

For political contestation to meet the expectations of citizens, it must go beyond electoral contest. In fact, for electoral contest to provide choices to citizens in terms of responding to societal and national problems, it must be issue-based with manifestos of political parties as the benchmark.

*Being  excerpts  of the keynote presentation by Salihu Moh. Lukman,  DG Progressive Governors Forum at the 2020 Annual General Meeting of APC Press Corps, held December 18, 2020 at Valencia Hotel, Abuja