By Tonnie Iredia
Pioneer African nationalist leaders who fought for independence were no doubt gallant agitators but they certainly were not democrats. What they sought after was power not democracy.
Once in power they discouraged opposition and perpetuated themselves in office. Indeed, they created political monolithism and criminalised political dissent making it impossible for public accountability to be institutionalised in most African societies. Thus political parties on the continent have never been anchored on any philosophy, ideology, issue-oriented manifesto or other political ideals.
Instead, they serve simply as a platform for securing power- no more, no less. In Nigeria, it has been so since independence. During the First Republic, politics in the nation was based essentially on the charisma of individuals who led political parties which were in every respect ethnic militias. The Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) in the North, the Action Group (AG) in the West and the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) in the East, each held tight to its fiefdom with none hardly acceptable beyond its area.
Apart from AG which propagated a free education policy, no one actually knew the vision of our political parties. The absence of issues in their posture and disposition laid an unfortunate foundation for the nation’s political development.
In 1979, Nigeria adopted a new system of government-Presidential democracy- but the political parties which emerged were a re-incarnation of their predecessors. They were not issue-oriented. In 1990, two political parties – the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) were created by military decree.
They functioned like government parastatals and even their manifestos were written for them. They contested elections according to Professor Ben Nwabueze “not on the basis of issues but on mere trivialities-mudslinging between the parties and denigration of each other’s emblems and logos.”
The situation is yet to change till date. Just before the 2003 elections, one power- broker candidate of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) mounted the rostrum to address the crowd at a rally. After shouting the slogan of his party about half a dozen times, he began to dance. The crowd soon joined him. Nosy reporters waited anxiously for the party’s message till the tail end of the rally.
The man of the moment then cleared his throat severally and told everyone present to vote for his party because the opposition party, the Action Congress (AC) as it was then known, was an “A/C without compressor.” That ‘eloquent’ speaker was then carried shoulder high around the venue of the rally after which everyone dispersed except those rented to attend the rally that had to wait for the balance of their rental.
Those who were disappointed with that puerile show must have since realised that the ruling party is neither more bereft of ideas nor worse than the opposition in political fraud. A good example is the nomination of candidates for this year’s general elections in which party caucuses or political godfathers in every party nominated and ensured the victory of their anointed ones in sham primaries.
One reason why the poor show continues is that those of us in the media have not been able to make our leaders accountable to the people. Our news reports on electoral activities have remained more entertaining than informing and educating focusing more on gossip, scandals and violence. Indeed, political news are always about leaders instead of their ideologies. There are no serious debates to throw light on the vision of the candidates.
As a result, voters are left with propaganda and paid political statements which add up to heighten public cynicism about elections in the country. When will the nation’s media begin to play their agenda-setting role in society, especially in matters concerning politics?
In other parts of the world, the subject is satisfactorily handled by the media, particularly through political broadcasts. In the United States of America which has a long history of political broadcasts, the most popular type is the Presidential debate. The practice is that three days are set aside before any Presidential election for the candidates contesting the election to engage one another in a series of debates.
The debates are usually broadcast LIVE to the nation on Radio and Television. In 1960, candidate John F. Kennedy who won the American election of that year, achieved the feat because of what was generally believed to be his superior performance over his rival, Richard Nixon, during the debates. We can also not wish away the role which eloquence and articulation played in the success of Barrack Obama in the American election which brought him to power.
Political debates are expected to be narrowed down to the major topical national issues of the moment. In Germany, the economy was the issue in the 2005 elections because of the restructuring policy of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder which many believed caused the rise in unemployment in the country. Sometimes, the issue calling for a debate may not even be domestic, it could be international.
An example is the case of France where in April 2005, President Chirac had to undertake a LIVE political debate with the opposition to persuade his fellow citizens against voting negative on the issue of the European Union Constitution. Political broadcasts are more crucial when opinion polls indicate that the rival political parties are at par. In the May 2005 elections in Britain, the major parties participated in many broadcasts because they were reportedly “neck to neck.
Labour and Conservatives had 37 per cent each while Liberal Democrats had only 20 per cent in the poll” conducted by the Mail Newspapers for the election. Even when an election ends in a stalemate, a resort is usually made to political broadcast for the purpose of voter education on the development. In Ukraine, rival Presidential candidates had to undertake LIVE television debates for the re-run of the disputed election in the country in November 2004.
Prime Minister Yanukorych whose initial victory was declared illegal because of massive electoral fraud had to face opposition leader, Yushchenko, in the 100 minutes debate which was televised LIVE on Ukraine’ State television.
In Nigeria, the situation is a far cry from what happens in real democracies across the globe. In 1999, 2003 and 2007, the Presidential candidates of the ruling PDP shunned the political broadcasts organised by the Nigerian media probably to make the point that it is not necessary to persuade the people to vote for her- the party knows how best to secure landslide victories. It is thus not a surprise that commentaries on electioneering matters are hardly ever issue based.
Our political parties know how to leave substance for frivolities; they are also experts in how to blow cosmetic matters out of proportion; and most importantly they know how to create a controversy close to election time on a mundane subject like ‘zoning’ thereby keeping the people busy with its primordial nature. But one thing which is certain is that we are paying a high price for the absence of issue-oriented politics in the nation. Well, we may just be lucky in these days of Goodluck to get it.