Tonye Princewill

December 23, 2011

Politics without principles

By Tonye Princewill
A STRIKING feature of the Nigerian political landscape is the low visibility of ideas and principles in the conduct of party activity—particularly in the selection of candidates for public office.

This will continue to be a major contributing factor to instability and recurring crisis within the body politic, until parties become much more ideological and issue-oriented than they presently are. What is your party’s stand on health, education, the minimum wage, removal of subsidy? Chances are even the leadership of the party cannot answer this.

Most political parties have a manifesto. But its formulation is mainly a procedural matter. The manifesto is adopted, largely because that’s what a political party is supposed to have.

Rarely ever do party creeds crystallise into anything close to an ideology or doctrine whose influence is reflected in the political orientation of its leaders.

In industrialised countries like Britain, the U.S.A., Canada and even Japan, for instance, you can just about predict the position any leader will take on a particular issue, by virtue of his party affiliation. The Conservatives in the UK are more likely to be Euro skeptic than Labour while the Republicans in the US will put business ahead of people by instinct when compared with their Democratic rivals.

Not so in Nigeria. Here, two leaders, in the same party, on the same ticket or succeeding to the same office, can be radically different in their political orientation and personal outlook.

Take, for example, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and his predecessor, the late Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua—both of whom won the presidential primaries of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Yar’ Adua was a wealthy Fulani Aristocrat, with a history of left wing politics, while Jonathan to all intents and purposes came from a very humble background with no clear political ideology of his own. Even though they were on the same ticket, in the same party their policies are significantly different.

Still within PDP, one could equally cite the differences in outlook and style between Dr. Peter Odili, governor of Rivers State from 1999 to 2007, and Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, a populist leader who is now in his second term as chief administrator.

Bolting from one party to another, or the creation of “designer parties” to suit one’s own purpose, is a veritable convention in Nigerian politics. It is pertinent to note, that these schisms and defections are invariably the result of power plays and personality clashes, rather than doctrinal or ideological disputes.

When I resigned as leader of the Rivers State Action Congress (AC), for instance, I first formed Princewill Political Associates and then returned to the PDP. Prompting my decision, were continuing intrigue within the AC, combined with the changed power alignment following Alhaji Abubakar Atiku’s departure.

Muhammadu Buhari likewise formed the Congress for Progressive Change when, after his defeat in the 2007 Presidential elections, the All Nigeria People’s Party opted to participate in Umaru Musa Yar’ Adua’s Government of National Unity—even though Buhari was appealing against the election results.

Far more important than principles or ideology in Nigerian politics, therefore, are factors such as personality traits, public appeal (charisma), religion, wealth, social status and affiliations and the organising ability of the party.

Perhaps though, for the sake of honesty and accuracy, I should make a few qualifying observations. One is that there are currently in excess of 50 political parties registered with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

Among these, would naturally be some exceptions to this rule. Leaders of the left-leaning groups, in particular, must at least pay lip-service to populist principles or Marxist-Leninist doctrines.

Secondly, the difference between Nigeria and other nations is one of degree, rather than of kind. Social, cultural, psychological and financial factors influence elections everywhere. A candidate without money, for instance, stands no better chance of winning in Europe or the U.S.A. than he does in Nigeria.

Participants in the current series of Republican debates in the U.S.A. are being judged by their demeanor and appearance on camera as well as their knowledge and grasp of the issues.

American analysts have known this, ever since the very first televised presidential debate; in which Republican Richard Nixon’s famous “five o’clock shadow” cost him crucial votes. It made him appear less responsible than John F. Kennedy–his clean-shaven Democratic opponent.

The problem in Nigeria though, is that electioneering involves too much show and not enough substance. Party manifestos tend to be padded with platitudinous catch-phrases and unrealisable promises with no clear evidence of how they will be paid for, while the speeches of candidates often are little more than hollow harangues.

Once again, there are exceptions.  Many manifestos do address strategic concerns, such as industrialisation, agriculture and education—even if not in a systemic manner, that could give rise to a binding doctrine or ideology to guide their candidates.

But quantity comes before quality. The important thing is that there is a proliferation of political parties, which have begun to incubate and hatch a new breed of politician.

Just as film-making began with blood and gore and has now graduated to African Magic, the political process will, you can be certain, follow the same course. Those interested in standing when the political dust settles need to recognise this evolution. The world is going digital, Nigerian politicians can no longer remain in analog.