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Political parties by fiat

By Tony Momoh
I knew that one day the question of political parties would be addressed, but I least expected that it would come via a route that is undemocratic- the pronouncement by legislative  fiat that Two (or Five)  Political Parties should emerge and bang, they appeared! In fact, the number is not the point or the issue.  That the number can be decreed by a lawmaking body is. 

That suggestion that we bring political parties into being defines where we are on the democracy ladder. I will look at this at the end of this presentation. But let us see how what the House of Representatives of the National Assembly was doing was, maybe inadvertently, conceding that Gen Ibrahim Babangida saw far ahead of his time when he included in the 1989 Constitution the establishment of two parties, the National Republican Convention and the Social Democratic Party.

The decision to establish two parties seemed to have been arrived at when 13 associations that seemed to have been qualified to be registered to be political parties that could contest elections could, in the wisdom of the advisers, be grouped into two.

There seemed to have been a push for the political parties to be ideologically focused.  Consistent with the terms in use at the time, you were either conservative or progressive.  And history showed that in our political experiencing, we had always gravitated to two groups although we had three dominant tribes in the then three regions that controlled the three major political parties – the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in the Eastern Region, the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in the North, and the Action Group (AG) in the West.

When General Babangida packaged his political programme after national debates, the outcome was to reflect what we seemed to have gravitated to in our political life in the number of parties we formed.  So, two parties were decreed into existence – the SDP and the NRC.  Because of previous experiences of people owning parties and providing accommodation which was seized when there was any disagreement,, the government designed and built countrywide three prototype housing units  – one type in all the local government areas, one  in all the state capitals, and one at Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.

The SDP and the NRC thus had offices all over the federation, offices no single individual could claim belonged to them.  These political parties, with one a little to the right and the other a little to the left, to reflect how progressive or conservative they were, conducted nominations from the ward level to the national level, and it was the openness of these procedures that gave birth to the four options – Option A1 for ward elections;  Option A2 for local councils; Option A3 for the States, and Option A4 for the national.

All it involved was for you to stand behind your candidate or his representative or his picture.   Of course there were lots of criticisms against the formation by government of two political parties.  They were referred to as government parastatals, but no one can deny that those who embraced the parties gradually grew to claim them to be their own.   If we had nourished those parties, with their presences at the three levels of government, we would have been ahead of many other countries in African today in travelling in our democracy train.

But Gen Abacha came in 1993 and dynamited all the political structures and all the gains that a two-party arrangement had given us.

In 2002 when there was a discussion on what we should do with political restructuring of the country, we had recourse to the Constitution and liberally interpreted the provisions for  formation of political parties.  It was as well because the Constitution is clear that the power of INEC in regard to the registration of political parties is like the power the Corporate Affairs Commission has under the Companies and Allied Matters Act on incorporation of companies.

The anger in certain quarters generated by Gani Fawehinmi’s audacity in calling INEC to question on the registration of political parties, led to the letting loose on the polity the many parties that derailed our management of the political process.

As at the last count, we have almost 60 registered political parties.  With the result that politics is big business in Nigeria and it will continue to be cash and carry until we attend to a restructuring that will make politics a service and not the most paying business we have made it, we will continue to grope in the political wilderness.  Solutions being sought, understandably, underscore the concern of many at the drift in the management of political parties, but, you see, you cannot do it outside due process.

The due process is not the military fiat procedure of 1989 when we packaged the 1989 Constitution under which we elected councillors, state houses of assembly, the national assembly, state governors, and even the president, the last having been annulled.

We can change the constitution and settle for strict conditions for setting up political parties,  but having  done that, and having truly opted for and entrenched a workable working federal arrangement,  we would have started again the journey on evolving a democratic culture. But to sit down at the National Assembly and vote to have two parties or five parties in the polity, we are bringing back the memories of governance by military fiat.

Let the two parties evolve.  With time, they will, they must.  Democracy is democracy when it flows from the activities of those practising it.  There is a difference between this outcome and one in which democracy is forced through channels born of autocracy.  Another way of saying it is that democracy has meaning when its tenets are imbibed, and those claiming to practise it reflect their actions in what they do.

They accept that they themselves are products of the law, concede the primacy of the law in the system, endorse its enforcement without fear or favour, and celebrate its binding effect.   I doubt that we accept that we are products of the law, with the attendant consequences of that declaration.

What we celebrate is the negative impact the law has on those distant from us, those we do not know, that we have not gained material benefits from; or that are opposed to what we do.  No, we are not yet democrats.  On May 29 (yesterday) we were 11 years old walking this road.  I wish us journey mercies.


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