The hollow rituals of democracy, By Dan Agbese

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Sometime in 1996, my good friend, the late Abidina Coomassie, published a book, Political Opportunism, in which he primarily excoriated the political enemies of the late head of state, General Sani Abacha. He saw them as men lacking in principles and floating in the wind and being blown wherever political opportunities beckoned; men who were willing to eat leaves, mud or dust, if that was what it took for them to get at the opportunities pleading to be exploited. 

To be fair to those impaled on the spike of Coomassie’s criticism, his judgement was not entirely unbiased, seeing as he was laying the cane across the back of Abacha’s enemies. Still, perhaps we should assess the growth or lack thereof of our democracy in the context of political opportunism. To begin with, if you peel off the high-sounding promises of politics, you are left with the bare fact that politics is all about personal interests expanded to group interests in order for one man to realise his personal ambitions. Opportunism is all in the game.

We do admit too that all of life is about opportunities and the ambition to exploit them. We spend our time from sun up to sun down looking for opportunities we can individually exploit to make the leap in personal fortunes. So, what is so wrong about political opportunism indulged in by some or all our politicians if it serves their individual interests? 

It is not about right and wrong; it is more about the mission of politics as a potent instrument in nation-building. Its misuse is an enduring and complicated human problem. Its exploitation for the wrong reasons is a divisive instrument wherever two or three are gathered to share the anticipated or the real spoils of politics.

The mission of politics is human management and societal progress. Certain principles drive other principles towards the recruitment of a political leader able to build a more perfect union through the effective management of societal diversities in tribes, tongues and religions. The manifestoes of political parties are based on this core principle of the mission of politics in our lives. 

Politics is the only human institution that affects the lives of all citizens; politicians are the only group of citizens supposedly in the service of the nation and its citizens; therefore, political opportunism as an article of faith is deleterious to the health of good governance; it cheats the country, it cheats the people and destroys political parties as credible platforms for human development and progress. 

Coomassie’s argument makes eminent sense at one critical level. Our political parties have no ideologies. Membership of political parties is not based on the attraction of what a political party stands for in national development. This is a new development in the digital age of our national politics. Both in the first and the second republics, political parties stood for something and marketed themselves on competing ideological philosophies and theories of development. 

In the second republic, UPN stood for free education while NPN stood for qualitative education. But the principal ideological development theory of NPN was food, as in green revolution. The absence of political ideologies has reduced our political parties to a collection of men and women held together by their quest for power. When opportunities in one party are narrowed by a combination of forces, the politicians split and spread out in different directions in search of other opportunities to remain relevant. 

Ideologies are the driving forces of party politics. Absent of that, we are left with political parties that stand on nothing and offer the people nothing, hence the elevation of political opportunism as the driving force of individual political ambitions. It has become the bane of our national politics. This, then, is the reason political opportunism is, and ought to be, frowned upon. It is not wrong; it is immoral.

As our politicians splash about in the cool pools of political opportunism, our democracy is suffering. We are not growing our democracy; we are stifling it. If political parties stand on nothing, the government instituted through them cannot stand on anything. We are merely going through the motions and the hollow rituals of democracy without commitment to its best practices. 

            In 21 years of democracy, warts and all, few things have changed or improved for the better in party politics. Politics is still a war waged by other means, as witness the recent congresses of APC and PDP that turned violent in many of the states and exposed the unsightly innards of a party system that survives on strong arm tactics and sheer duplicity; as witness the decision of the police authorities to deploy 34,587 policemen and women to the Anambra State governorship election scheduled for November 6. Election is a civic duty freely carried out by the electorate. The presence of such a huge force says we are not free to choose; we are coerced to choose. 

 I see two trends at the core of our hollow democratic rituals. One is trust deficit in and among ourselves. The conduct of our national affairs reflects this; it is partly the reason tribal and religious interests run along parallel lines. Trust deficit makes it difficult for members of a political party to pull together in one direction. Party members do not trust their party leaders to be fair and just in offering every member a fair chance to pursue their legitimate political ambitions. The godfathers own the parties and lay claims to their right to anoint their godsons and goddaughters; other members become political orphans and thus, deprived men and women.

The result, of course, is the frequent and sickening defections that now define the opportunistic conduct of our politicians. While it is legitimate for a man to ditch his party when it can no longer accommodate his ambitions, it is crass immorality for those who have benefitted from their parties to ditch them, as witness what David Umahi and Ben Ayade, governors of Ebonyi and Cross River respectively did. Every defection injures, not just the deserted political party but our political system. Political opportunism as a creed, blinds the defectors to the immorality of their action.

I cannot say it too often: if our political party system continues to sway in the wind, we cannot grow our democracy. Democracy thrives on ground, not in the air. Because every election season witnesses these defections, we begin again when the elections are concluded one way or the other, either at the polling stations or in the law courts. Our politicians are not ignorant of the implications of their defections but so long as the defections serve the political ambition of the ruling party in its drive for an anachronistic one-party state, they are accepted as legitimate acts of patriotism; warped patriotism at that.

But as often happens in human affairs, change might be in the air. Two critical amendments to the Electoral Acts were passed in the national assembly last week. One, the law-makers now accept that the electronic transmission of election results is feasible and the way to go in modern elections. So, they gave the thumbs up to it. 

Two, our election rigging does not begin and end at the polls. They usually happen before the first ballot paper finds its way into the ballot box. One sure method is the conduct of party primaries for the nomination of candidates for elective offices. The Electoral Act provides for direct and indirect primaries and leaves it to the parties to choose one of the two. They have always opted for indirect primaries. This, too, is about to become history. 

Clause 87(1) of the amendment to the Electoral Acts provides that “a political party seeking to nominate candidates for elections under this bill shall hold direct primaries for aspirants to all elective positions, which shall be monitored by the commission.”

I am pleased to see that with these amendments, the legislators have partially restored the power of the electoral commission to it. It can now have a say, as indeed, it must, in how the parties conduct their primaries and make them satisfy extent laws; this, in turn would rub off on the integrity of our elections. The ball is now in President Muhammadu Buhari’s court. I hold my breath. I know that these amendments do not enjoy the support of the party leaders. They lobby the president to reject the bill and let things remain as they are. We must invoke holy ghost fire on them. Keep your fingers crossed.