By Tonnie Iredia
The leadership of the next National Assembly, NASS (particularly, the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives) has in the last two months remained the matter of the moment in Nigerian political circles. The vocal members of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC, are all saying the same thing, which is that their legislators must elect those they describe as anointed candidates of the party to occupy the leadership positions in both chambers.
Last week, an APC adherent in Lagos explained vigorously on national television how the party leadership like a father was consulting, consolidating etc. on how to arrive at a consensus for party members to follow. His position showed that in the APC, party supremacy is a subjective concept, which each member embraces at his convenience. As a viewer, I found it difficult to easily comprehend what the APC was reportedly consulting upon, many weeks after the party leadership had read the riot act to the members on what must be done. Perhaps the canvassed position of the party on the subject was indeed not a generally agreed one, but the preference of party godfathers. Is that what party supremacy entails?
Of course, it would be an ordeal for a political party to enforce a policy that is neither persuasive nor rational. Dialogue, not dictation, is the official business of democracy and it is expedient that a political party is democratic all the time. In my days as NTA’s chief executive, I recall attending a meeting on public accounts at the NASS chaired by Senator Ahmed Lawan. His composure and diction portrayed him to be a man with visionary leadership qualities which he can leverage upon to become senate president. The same is true of Femi Gbajabiamila that is being projected for the position of speaker of the House of Representatives. Both candidates are thus easily sellable without party leadership behaving like senior prefects in presenting them to their colleagues. In fact, unknown to the party and the particular candidates, threats through the media by party leadership that Ahmed and Femi must be elected may have since derogated substantially from their otherwise perceptible credentials. In my opinion, the aspirants would have projected themselves in better light. I just hope it is not too late for them to do so.
The truth is that apart from personal conscience, legislators have more than their political parties to satisfy while in office. Indeed, they also need to be sensitive not only to the aspirations of their constituents which may not always tally with party positions but also with societal disposition. In other words, party supremacy may not always work as legislators are not likely to vote against their own personal and community interests. What is necessary is dialogue which will hopefully make legislators see overriding public interest in certain matters. It would be hard for instance, to use party supremacy to convince or coerce any Nigerian legislator to agree to vote against constituency projects.
Another issue which makes it tedious for party supremacy to be sustained in Nigeria is the trend which emerged only after 1999 of subordinating party executives to elected party members. A situation in which a state governorship candidate supersedes his erstwhile party chairman as soon as he wins an election, only shows clearly that the party is not as important as some people would want us to believe. Can the APC foist any minister on President Buhari? Compare today with 1979-1983, which witnessed the beauty of a robust relationship between a majority political party and government. During that period, President Shehu Shagari wholeheartedly and publicly accepted his part chairman, Adisa Akinloye as his boss. But in 2010-2011, Vincent Ogbulafor national chairman of the PDP was virtually put away when Goodluck Jonathan assumed office as President. What was Ogbulafor’s offence? He was honest enough to reiterate the zoning directive of the party that it was the turn of the North to which Jonathan did not belong, to produce the president. If that was the zoning agreement, who was against party supremacy-Ogbulafor or his tormentors?
So, party supremacy can occasionally be dysfunctional. Here, we recall how the Southwest governors lost their elections in 2003, as their party directed them to allow their indigene, President Olusegun Obasanjo though of another party, easy return to office. It was only Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Lagos who rejected the party directive that was able to win his re-election. Put differently, party supremacy cannot be cast in irons as political parties and indeed democracy are flexible concepts Those who often cite what happens in the developed world, should know that in the UK, many Labour and Tory legislators voted against the directive of their parties to support the infamous Iraqi war. The trend has remained so with the recent Brexit controversy in which Prime Minister Theresa May was chairing a fractious cabinet of feuding members. And this happens in the UK where the difference between Labour and Conservatives is crystal clear. In the USA, legislators are also often independent not withstanding that what the Republicans and Democrats stand for is easily distinguishable.
In Nigeria, where no one knows the difference between any of our parties especially the APC and the PDP whose members intermittently move or return to whichever fold, why are people making so much noise about an ephemeral concept such as party supremacy? Did members of our ruling party honour the party position during their last primaries – was the party policy for direct or indirect primaries? Were the primaries conducted everywhere by officials sent from Abuja as determined by the party? Were those who interpreted the party position differently penalized uniformly? Did Minister Chris Ngige who had a shouting bout with the national chairman of the party know about party supremacy? If the truth must be told, an unjust party hardly stimulates membership respect?
While we have no objections to cordiality between the legislature and the executive, we must not forget that both arms are expected to be a check on one another. The disharmony between the outgoing legislature and the presidency, was not a party supremacy issue; instead it was more of a governance style in which everyone acted at will. For example, was it not the leadership of one security agency that provided the fuel for the senate to sustain its refusal to clear Ibrahim Magu as chair of our foremost anti-corruption agency? Where was party supremacy then?
Cordiality between the arms of government must not be used to procure a timid legislature, as that would completely kill the purpose of oversight functions. Our NASS has never been alone in budget delays, the executive hardly did a good job with budget proposals as evidenced during televised defence sessions. Painfully, party supremacy advocates are pursuing shadows; the real issues today concern unending insecurity in the nation. Let us reduce the bogus incomes of legislators without turning them into house-boys in the system.