By Patrick Dele Cole
Making our political parties accountable
POLITICAL parties are the bedrock of democratic institutions. They provide the umbrella under which political activity takes place. If these parties are broken, then the system within which they operate will be broken.
I fundamentally believe that the concept of the political party does not exist in Nigeria. Instead we have political vehicles that serve the interests of narrow elite. They are funded by individuals not members; they do not identify with particular ideological positions and their party members exploit a loophole in the constitution which allows too much fluidity between political parties, resulting in our yoyo effect and encouragement of instability.
If we want to strengthen our democracy then we have to strengthen the governance and accountability of our political parties. We must have paying members of parties, who earn the right to vote in party elections and participate in the convention. Members must be paying and active for at least six months before being allowed to vote, or contest positions. We have to close the loopholes that enable the fluidity and opportunism in the system, and make it harder for career politicians to maintain control or relevance.
Our parties should be required to produce manifestoes that are properly binding. They must make pledges that they can be held accountable for, and with which a more educated, enlightened and empowered party membership and population can make choices. We must also raise the bar for the creation and operation of political parties. We had over 70 candidates for president in the 2019 elections, and perhaps over 90 registered parties. This is too many. It is too easy for people to create factions within a party as a vehicle that enables fluidity.
This problem is easy to solve through measures such as more stringent conditions for registration, including performance bonds and minimum number of members and sufficient national level representation. If we can have fewer parties, we can increase the competition for relevance and increase the quality of debate in our political system, rather than just the volume. Look at the big political parties in the UK and the US. They have sophisticated policy development units.
The British Labour Party and the Labour Unions, for example, have well-funded capacity development programmes. The Labour unions have colleges at Oxford University! They fund an ecosystem that adds value, and which creates future leaders. Where are these institutions in our own parties? Where is the inclusion for the youth? Where is the policy creativity and innovation? Where is the ideological hub?
The sad reality is that they do not exist, and they are an essential part of proper democratic systems. Our parties need to get serious, and if they do, they will quickly become better at governing. Tony Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne are products of the Labour and Conservative Political Research Institutes. They had been grounded in how to shape and maintain party policies that can be translated into government policies. Both the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States have research institutes in their parties, namely: Democratic National Institute, DNI, and Independent Republican Institute, IRI.
They operate in the US and throughout the world. Both bodies are in Abuja. Moreover the US political party system is shored up by hundreds of research institutes – some very famous – for the study and propagation of each party’s ideologies and policies to back them, e.g. The Hoover institution. These are institutions set up to push Democratic Party doctrines and ideology as well as those to push and support Republican interest.
Political parties should not be allowed to be vague about what they are going to do to address Nigeria’s problems. They must be specific and accountable. This, in turn, affects the budgeting process, because without clear policy and direction, it is difficult to cost initiatives.
Parties must be the engine that prepares people for government, so that when they arrive, they are ready, they are prepared and they are empowered. The impact of this alone on the effectiveness of governance (and so, by consequence, the likelihood of re-election) could be hugely significant.
Party reforms can only come from our experience. What have we experienced up till now? Extreme volatility within the elected party among governors, ministers, legislators and party members was what the Constitution was aware of and tried to stop by requesting that if an elected member wanted to join a party different from the one which elected him, he should resign and seek a fresh mandate. This has now been undone because elected governors, legislators exploit a loophole in the constitutional provision which allows elected officials to stay hold their offices, resigning if there are factions within a party.
Consequently, legislators and other elected officials first foment intra-party factions and then leave to join another party. The courts have been lenient in accepting on the face of it a statement of factionalism instead of being strict in interpreting what is a faction in the party. The intendment of that clause is patently obvious. You want to leave the party on whose back you rode to the legislature or Government House; you resign and seek a new mandate.
The existence of a faction in the party cannot exhaust the original legitimacy given to elected officials in the first place. If the official has confidence he should seek a new mandate from the voters for his new party. Moreover, it is morally unfair for a party to suddenly lose their member to the party they had beaten in the election.
If the party is that factionalised, then the Electoral Commission should suspend all its members, set up an arbitration process; if that fails then all should resign and seek new mandates. If Mr. Raji, a rabid leftist from a rabid leftist party, beats Mr. Sule, an ultraconservative, in the election, how can Mr. Raji cross-carpet over to those he had beaten?
What happens to the supporters in the Raji party who voted for him? They have lost their voice and franchise.