A few days ago, I watched Prof. Okey Ikechukwu on national television decrying Nigeria’s current political situation as one where no opposition exists. He was particularly worried by the fact that an opposition that was so vibrant during the recent electioneering in the country has suddenly lost its voice.
I have made this same observation here in this column some weeks ago. It’s a situation that speaks volume about how bad our democratic journey has been so far. Since May 29, 1999, we seem to have been marking time, not appearing to have made any real progress on growing our democratic institutions to maturation, such that we can be at par, or at least, reasonably close to where advanced democracies are in terms of reaping the dividends of democracy.
What makes democracy is that power is checked so that people who govern will do so responsibly and with accountability. The nature of power is that it is intrinsically self-expanding and hegemonic, hence will continue to grow, tilting more and more to the direction of dictatorship, unless it is checked. And needless to say, the more power grows, the more it is likely to be abused. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Thus, power will continue to assert itself excessively and corruptly without restraint in Nigeria for as long as the current situation whereby the opposition loses its voice after every election persists. Ours has become an electoral opposition that is interested in fighting the re-election bid of the ruling party as against a democratic opposition that is interested in serving as an un-sleeping watchdog over the governance process from year to year, administration to administration.
Since the swearing-in of President Bola Tinubu, what we’ve seen are a few instances of statement from former presidential candidates (especially Obi) criticising actions of government. The political parties that sponsored the candidates have not been sufficiently vocal.
As correctly noted by Prof. Ikechukwu, opposition politics is not all about isolated statements of criticism, but ought to be an endeavour in ideological discourse. In other words, activities of the opposition must be ideologically driven, founded on philosophical alternatives to what those in power are offering. If Peter Obi, for instance, is speaking, he must be speaking based on the ideological conviction of his party. There should be a “Labour” identity to what he’s saying. The situation where he will be criticising government’s wastage in Nigeria’s participation in the COP 28 and his co-partymen in the National Assembly will be quietly participating in the N160m SUV bazar is not indicative of any ideological unity or consciousness in the party.
In climes where democracy has worked, party identity is not just for winning elections. It’s an ideological tag which every politician carries about, in and off election seasons. Thus, in America, a Democrat carries the tag of a liberal and a Republican carries that of a conservative. There may be nuances in terms of individuals’ conviction, hence tags like moderate republicans, radical left etc. are common – but the party remains the overarching ideological umbrella.
It therefore becomes easy to see that our problem has its root in the nature of our political parties. There is nothing ideological about their fraternity – they’re “rainbow coalitions of strange bed fellows” – apologies to Senator Ben Obi. They’re just platforms people jump on to win elections; they have no ideological content let alone presence. So, take it or leave it, APC, PDP, Labour Party and all others are the same. No difference!
This easily explains why our current National Assembly, the most diverse in terms of party composition since the advent of the present democratic experiment, has not lived up to the expectation. Instructively, this is notwithstanding the presence of “common” people by way of “okada riders”, “shuttle bus drivers” and “palm wine tappers” who broke the tradition to get elected to that elite institution. None of these persons rejected the luxury cars shared out to members and none rejected the “prayers” sent to their email boxes by the Clerk of the National Assembly on the instruction of Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, as they departed for recess earlier in the year. At least, this is what their supposed populist ideological leaning demands of them as members of a party founded on the ideals of the labour movement.
None of these legislators raised a voice in opposition when the executive presented to them for approval the appointment of well-known partisan individuals into the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, (these are the same persons that will cry of election rigging in near future). During the passage of the 2024 appropriation bill, we did not hear dissenting voices asking for reduction in the usually humongous budget of the National Assembly. It’s business as usual.
In fact, the only time we’ve seen any remarkable dissent in the National Assembly was the widely reported confrontation of the Senate President by Senator Tony Nwoye representing Anambra North. But then, typically, this was not on a matter of governance or ideology, but politics – who becomes the minority leader, the minority whip and all that. It’s not a disagreement based on governance principles.
It’s now a notorious fact that our politicians rarely disagree unless there’s a clash of interest. Matters of principles such as spending the people’s money on luxury cars and allocating stupendous amounts for running the National Assembly are rarely issues to disagree over.
When individuals elected to represent the people are bereft of any ideological disposition, anything goes because they lack basis to mount any meaningful opposition. It’s political parties that provide the platform and guide for such ideological disposition. When they are mere instruments of grabbing power, they lack the placement and potency to play this role. The result is that opposition gets missing, power becomes unchecked, and dictatorship occupies the space of democracy.
It should worry every thinking Nigerian that all this is happening almost a quarter of a century into our current democratic journey. Many years ago, I watched a guest on a television programme arguing that the excuse that we were still on the learning process (always invoked to explain our faltering democracy) was no longer tenable. As at then, our democratic experience was barely four or five years old and this speaker was of the view that we should have made some real progress on our supposed learning path. I agreed with him because a child who’s learning in school cannot be said to be indeed LEARNING when no improvement is being noticed in him. Being on a learning process means that we are growing and improving, no matter how slowly. When, from year to year, administration to administration, we continue to display same or even worse levels of weakness in organizing elections, respecting human rights, playing opposition politics etc., what then have we been learning? Hence, many years after, this TV guest has been proven indisputably right. Almost 20 years since he spoke, we still have not shown that we have learnt anything. Maybe, we have become irremediably unteachable.
As for the opposition, the question as to whether they have gone to sleep may not even be necessary because, in the first place, they have never been awake. We need to awaken them to get our democracy working!
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.