Muhammed Adamu on Thursday

December 20, 2018

Revisiting the politics of realpolitik


By Mohammed Adamu

IT appears that opposition political parties in Nigeria are fast redefining the concept of ‘realpolitik’. Beyond its text book meaning as ‘practical realism’, or its street-wise interpretation as the ‘end justifying the means’, they are bent on proposing that to be ‘realpolitik’ is also to ‘frustrate or blackmail the opponent out of electoral contest’. They attempted it on PDP’s Obasanjo in 2003, insisting that he should emulate Mandela and forgo a second term. The argument was so ‘righteously’ made you’d almost think that it was constitutionally treasonable for an incumbent to seek a second term -or that it was an aberration to allow the electorate their constitutional prerogative to be the ones to decide the fate of candidates.

And they do this all the time. Rather than strategise to win a contest through the due democratic process, they prefer always, the default mode: questioning the propriety of candidates, especially when they are afraid to lock horns with them. And now anti-Buharis, having failed to ‘kill’ or get him killed by divine invocation, have resumed their desperate call that he should resign. Rather than capitalise on his shortcomings to endear themselves to the electorate, they clutch at every frailty and every foible of Mr. President to make no-contest calls. And you wonder, what happens to the ‘choice-driven’ attribute of democracy’? Or the right of the people to ‘freely’ and ‘willfully’ elect or remove those that they have willfully elected? They appear to know so much politics, but they know virtually nothing about realpolitik.


The term ‘realpolitik’ is Germanic for ‘realistic politics’. It was especially characteristic of 19 century German Chancellor Karl Otto Von Bismarck’s domestic and foreign policies. Risen from Prussian ‘junker’ to Prime Minister and first Chancellor of the German Reich, Bismarck was said to have weathered political storms the like of which many great political leaders had not. He fought wars on many fronts, faced at home a catholic opposition (the kulturkampf) and grappled with social reforms to “forestall the rise of socialism”.

Yet abroad Bismarck –in the midst of all these- was able to maintain peace with enemies, alliances with friends and trade and industry with the world. His ability to tend many red-hot irons in the political fireplace made Bismarck the quintessence of illustration in the definition of the term ‘realpolitik’. And so, politicians who are adept at grappling with all the lawfully permissible elements that politics is known for to get what they want, are said to be realpolitik. This will not include cheeky politicians who are only deft at avoiding contest. They become like cowardly lawyers who are celebrated not for winning cases fair and square, but merely for technically clogging the wheel of justice.

David Robertson’s ‘Dictionary of Politics’ defines realpolitik as “politics of realism” -not allowing “wishful thinking or sentimentality to cloud one’s judgment”. It is a practical, non-illusory kind of political thinking or action; or what the ‘Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language’ defines as “an attitude based on ‘facts’ and ‘reality’ as opposed to ‘emotions’”.

Philosophically, political realism as an underlay to the definition of ‘realpolitik’ is “fidelity to life” -not only “as perceived” but also as “experienced”. A ‘political realist’ is a ‘practical person’ who concerns himself “with facts as they are known to him rather than as they might be” or as he wants them to be. For example, since ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ are practical realities of politics, ‘democratic competition’ cannot be a risk-free enterprise. There are almost equal chances that you can win, or lose. It is realpolitik to know, to accept and to live with this reality. It is realpolitik also to figure out a pragmatic way of dealing with it.

It is not ‘realpolitik’ that a politician prays that his opponent dies before election, or that he resorts to blackmail and subterfuge in the hope securing an easy win or a walkover. It is not realpolitik to plot to pre-determine who should or should not be your opponent at the polls. It is as fraudulent as when selfish legislators resort to what the Americans call ‘gerrymandering’ –getting votes unfairly by passing legislation that redefines electoral boundaries.

From Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who first signed a bill in 1812 to commit this fraud. It is realpolitik only to be ‘practically realistic’ in political thoughts and actions; and to be open to all fair, reasonable and legitimate options that may lead to achieving a political end. To be realpolitik is to plan to achieve either by the modus operandi of ‘election’ or by the modus Vivendi of ‘consensus building’. Yes, it is no less permissible to ‘wish’, ‘hope’ or ‘pray’ that a strong opponent changes his mind and does not run; or that he is hamstrung by law not to. But it is better to assume that he will run and therefore to plan properly to defeat him -if and when he runs. To paraphrase Shakespeare ‘peace must not dull a kingdom; but that it should prepare the proportions of defense as though a war is anticipated.’

Faith and Fact

Better to rely on facts than on hope. Political illusionists ‘believe’ that things will not go ‘wrong’ merely because they ‘hope’ that things may go ‘right’. Thus, ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ –rather than ‘facts’ and ‘reality’- are the twin elements that rule the mind of the illusionist. But not the mind of the realpolitikal. Tinubu went a notch beyond faith and hope to put together a winning coalition. He did not hope that Jonathan died, or argued that Jonathan should not contest. It is realpolitik to plan and then hope; it is impolitic to hope and not plan. ‘Coalition theory’ said Robertson, developed from the concept of ‘game theory’. It is a “quasi-mathematical, rational choice-tradition in political science which attempts to construct predictive theories to explain political activity”.

It includes even “a coalition of school children (cooperating) against the playground bully” in a rational, realistic way to defeat a common enemy. It does not include the ‘hope’ that the bully dies; or that he suddenly changes his mind from being a bully. Coalition actors rationally and realistically prepare to face a defined challenge. They do not flounder in the hope or belief that there may not be a challenge. School children who coalesce to defeat the school bully are realpolitikal. They are like little biblical Davids: not fazed by the size or strength of a Goliath.

But beyond the traditional realist-perspective, the term ‘realpolitik’ also describes newer but even more proactive situations, such as “an over-cynical approach that allows little room even for human altruism”. Thus, it is realpolitik also to be ‘self-interestedly realistic’. The ability to consider all options “including those that would ordinarily be perceived as un-altruistic” (or selfish) in order to achieve a political end. ‘Self-interested realism’ includes the obligation to be ‘pragmatic’, not the luxury to wallow in ‘hope’; or to tarry in the extravagance of ‘faith’ without action. Realpolitik includes for example paradoxical scenarios like: the readiness to grapple with ‘dirt’ in order to achieve ‘purity’; or to grapple with the ‘amoral’ in order to establish ‘ethics’; or sometimes even to be a little Machiavellic. It legitimises the readiness to be ‘beastly’ when necessary in order to overcome the ‘beast’. Which was exactly what a ‘puritanical’ Buhari had at last to do –coalescing with the not-so-pure- in order to sink the amoral ship called ‘The Jonathan’.

But in its radical transmogrification ‘realpolitik’, although it may also mean Machiavelli’s ‘end-justifies-the-MEANS’ or Malcolm X’s ‘by any MEANS necessary’, yet any  political ‘MEANS’ must be ‘realistic’, ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’.