The Next Chairman of ‘Our Great Party’ By Adagbo Onoja


‘Our Great Party’, the People’s Democratic Party, (PDP), the biggest of them all South of the Sahara and North of the Limpopo, (not a laughing matter!) is in search of a new Chairperson, come later this month. Even in the best of times, that is a big deal for any political party at all, more so the ruling party in Nigeria, the country with “the largest concentration of Black people under one government in the history of the world”. Under normal circumstances, the ruling party is the heart, soul and eyes of a nation. It is the agency which has the national roadmap and, therefore, the hub of strategic thinking in the management of contradictions. Power, authority, the president and the presidency as well as a nomenclatura acting as guardians of orthodoxy are a ruling party’s instruments for hegemony. ‘Our Great Party’ did have all these until something happened to it shortly after take-off in 1999. It has not recovered from that turbulence, which is why it is not anything like the ANC of South Africa which our President appears to admire.

Of course, the PDP is not anything like the ANC of South Africa because ANC is a national liberation party in power whereas the PDP did not come from that history. That is not to say that it is good historiography to ignore the profound social democratic and pan-Nigerian impulse that informed the formation of the PDP by actors from diverse traditions of politics who came together to do so in 1998.

But that’s not the issue in question now. The issue now is that Nigeria is comprehensively on a sick bed under the weight of elite fragmentation and attendant schisms about power. Ordinarily, the reconciliation of such breakdown of elite consensus is what politics is all about. Except that the struggle for control of oil rents in all rentier states like Nigeria can make electoral politics to be a truly quinquenial warfare as late Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone said. Who will lead Africa’s largest party to transform politics in Africa’s heartbeat from a war fought every four years, (quinquenial warfare)?

That challenge makes the chairmanship of the ruling party a big issue in terms of the informed dreamer, thinker, mobilizer and, above all, the ultimate humanist whose tenure as chairperson will complement the Presidency and the other layers of power in the country in favour of a powerful era of developmentalism once again in Nigeria. In other words, the imperative for a party chairperson who is as adequate in himself as to be a critique of the street wise, money chasing and transactional elite today should be self-evident.

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In case I am speaking in parables, let me illustrate the argumentation with the Nyerere example. That is to say that I am totally in agreement with people like Professor Okello Oculi that in African politics, Nyerere remains the reference point in party building, over and above any other member of that generation.

Nyerere, an obvious beneficiary of the protest politics against the recklessness of allied forces in their pursuit of German Generals in Tanganyika during the Second World War was no stranger to spell bounding electioneering campaign when he stormed into politics. Speaking to the people in their own tongue, Swahili, he could strike at the popular cord so powerfully. As thus a persuasive mobilizer, Nyerere had gone round and so effectively popularized the Tanganyika African National Union, (TANU) that all the candidates on the platform of the party won their independence elections in 1960.

But it was that victory that sent fear into him. His fear was that these gentlemen who won the elections on the honour and integrity of the party could think things were always that easy. If the trend continued, time would come when these new breed could begin to take the country for granted and reduce politics to parliamentarians drinking whiskey in Dar es Salaam. They would have forgotten the people because they never really stood before these voters to ask for their votes. He said the situation was not acceptable because the people had voted for the party but had actually not elected the parliamentarians. The voters were voting for TANU without really knowing the candidates. He did not want such a situation to develop.

This was when Nyerere struck, taking a sabbatical after one year in office to devote time to re-molding the party. He handed over the job to his second in command and hit the road on a mission of party building.  To date, he is the only African leader to have done such a positive and extra-ordinary thing. So, he hit the road, asking the voters whether their representatives were coming home and consulting them; whether they feel it is right for them to be electing their representatives on the technicality of the party but not their individual merit.

On the basis of his findings, Nyerere said, yes, it is true I am opposed to politics as football match, a contest in which one team must win and another must lose. But that competitive politics can be integrated into African Village Square approach to resolving problems by communally talking it out.

He then came up with the idea that, hence, every seat or position must be contested by multiple candidates. All must face the constituency in question in an open affair. There was to be no private campaign of going to anyone or group by any of the candidates to say, vote for me because I speak your language or I am from your family or kindred or ethnic group or same religion or race, (since Tanzania has people of Indian extraction). Instead, the community of voters will listen to each candidate in the open square, ask him or her why s/he thinks s/he is the ‘correct’ candidate, etc. In this way, the conflictual dimension of electoral politics is blunted by the community dimension of the electoral family talking together.

That is the Nyerere legacy of party building. Nyerere was responding in his own way to the problem of party politics in the African setting at his own time. The world has since moved on but the creativity and seriousness with which Nyerere approached party rooting cannot be said to be dated. It is such creativity and seriousness that is called for in the next chairperson of ‘our great party’, who can be a referent actor in the politics of Nigeria’s re-birth from its present soullessness.

A second crucial issue that “our great party” might need to look again at is that of advancing the gender debate in Nigerian politics beyond the sterile feminism of the sexist or womenist type dominant at the moment. A party is as strong as its mandarins, the youth and the women wings. Here, we don’t see the kind of women wing filled with the educational and cultural preparation for political leadership, the technocratic experience, administrative exposure and excellent background knowledge of Nigeria from any concrete pedigree.

Members with such stature would have been the symbol around whom “our great party” would frame gender politics as a deliberate manner of supplanting ethno-religious militancy with win-win gender consciousness in Nigerian body politics. This is the way forward for all multi-ethnic societies bedeviled by deadly ethnic politics.

This strategy fits very well with the key issues on the agenda of democratic consolidation in our country today and I list them to include the transformation agenda, deepening of party supremacy, national healing and genuine reconciliation. These are very lofty enough aims around which to build the New Nigeria and the New Nigerian. They are tasks for which men and women, not Igbos or Hausas or Yorubas or Urhobo or Kanuris or Ijaws should be mobilized by a party like the PDP to come together.

In a more strategic sense, when we take care of the women, we have taken care of 75% of the population since women and children go together. That guarantees a wholesome motherhood, healthy children and happy fathers, husbands and virile bachelors. Everyone is a winner in contrast to when we slug it out as Northerners versus Southerners, Christians versus Muslims, Yoruba versus Fulanis, Igbos versus Hausas, Urhobo versus Itsekiri and what have you!

Onoja wrote from UI


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