Revisiting Nigeria’s political trajectory

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By Ben Tomoloju
NIGERIA is at the dawn of a new political era. The events of the last couple of weeks boldly reflect the dynamics of it. Political power has just changed hands in the last sixteen years from a dominant party to a vibrant opposition. The refrain of change is in the air. The reality of change for the better is eagerly awaited.
In the past one hundred years, the country has undergone an avalanche of vicissitudes; from the colonial through post-colonial experiences. Lessons are learnt and unlearnt.
It’s time again for reflection. Some months back, a book landed on the shelf titled Nigerian Political Parties And Politicians: Winding Road From Country to Nation, authored by a young enterprising intellectual, Bolaji Samson Aregbeshola. The book is not a mere digest.
It is a 504-page affair, a compendium with every mark of distinction, which traces the country’s political evolution from the early 20th century through the botched Third Republic. It opens with a background to Nigeria’s political history, positing that ‘Nigerian politicians are more concerned with how to maintain, if not improve their private economy, thereby making the policy process become a secondary issue.’
This may not apply in all cases, but fact supporting the contention are too overwhelming to ignore even in our recent experiences.
The history of political parties is traced by the author from the formation of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) in 1922, through that of the Lagos Youth Movement (later Nigerian Youth Movement) in 1934 and the decimation of political organizations along ethnic lines from the immediate pre-independence years to the First Republic. At this time, ‘the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)’, according to the author, ‘was in control of the Eastern Nigeria, the Action Group (AG) controlled Western Nigeria, and the Northern People’s Congress controlled Northern Nigeria.’
The book also provides, in the opening chapter, an account of the efforts by the colonial powers at fashioning one constitution or the other for the country. The Richards Constitution, for instance, was adopted in 1946. Nigerian political leaders faulted the document because it was deemed unitarist, hence the Macpherson Constitution was established in 1951.
The latter was only a shade better than the former. In the words of the author, ‘Nigeria still continued to operate a unitarist system.’ Nationalists in the AG and NCNC were dissatisfied with the new document and this, in part, led to the historic motion moved by Chief Anthony Enahoro in the Central Legislature in 1953,’calling for independence in 1956’.
Chapter Two, titled ‘Pre-independence and First Republic Parties (1906-1966), dwells on issues pertaining to the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in1914, the ambiguities of colonial policies on the status of Lagos, as well as ethno-political boundaries in the West and the East. Today, the status of Lagos is resolved. It is a state in the South-west.
But that of the Yoruba communities of Offa, Igbomina and Kabba, carved out as part of the North, is still simmering with controversies. Beyond these, the chapter outlines in details the formation of political parties within its headlined period.
And what is particularly interesting, in this connection, is that the fracturing of pan-Nigerian political solidarity, during the struggle for independence, as earlier enumerated, also found its way into individual political parties through intra-party schisms among vested interests, power-tussle among rivals, covert and overt anti-party moves and outright dissemblance.
For instance, in the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was villified and placed on trial in 1957 in a lawsuit orchestrated by his party-members. Aminu Kano’s populist Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), broke away from the mainstream Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in 1950.
That was strictly an ideological matter. Action Group (AG), the party that was rated as the most cohesive up till the independence in 1960, began to develop cracks in 1962, leading to the parting of ways between its leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and his deputy, Chief S. L. Akintola, who later formed a new Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP).
The author recalls how this unfortunate development led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western Region, the trial and imprisonment of Chief Awolowo, the mayhem that attended the 1965 election in the region, culminating in the January 15, 1966 and, ultimately, the ‘full-scale civil war’ of 1967 to 1970.
Cushioning these narratives in Chapter Two are insightful analyses of certain anti-democratic traits that have been part of the country’s ambivalent political reality right up to the present day.
Controversial census exercise, corruption, political prostitution and carpet-crossing, election-rigging, anarchy and a general culture of impunity had reared their ugly heads since the nascent days of self-rule. The military interregnum of 1966 to 1979 notwithstanding, party politics in Nigeria evinces the attribute of a leopard that does not change its spots.
The second chapter of the book, titled ‘Political Parties in the Second Republic (1979-1983)’ leads the reader through another vicious cycle.
The 1979 Constitution moved the polity from the Westminster Parliamentary System of the First Republic to the United States-type Presidential System. Parties, namely the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP), the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) emerged on the scene. There were other smaller parties.
The author outlines the manifestoes of individual parties, their internal workings and quest for power at the centre while holding on to their respective leaders’ spheres of influence.
The NPN, for intance, operated a zoning policy where the ‘founders’ were of the core north while members from other zones were referred to as ‘joiners’. The strength of the GNPP was ‘in the north-east, among the Kanuris and some northern minorities’.
Despite its national outlook,the NPP later came to be seen as ‘an Eastern Nigeria Party’. The UPN was ‘dominant in Western Nigeria’. The PRP was reputed for its leftist ideology, but had its stronghold in the cosmopolitan north-western states of Kano and Kaduna.
Despite the leanings on traditional loyalties, the UPN and PRP are, however, rated as parties presenting ‘the most coherent plans of action during the campaign of 1979’.
One would even go on to add that, following up on their First Republic antecedents in AG and NEPU, the UPN and PRP were parties with clear-cut ideologies. Otherwise, more often than not, Nigerian politics is largely ideologically barren. Aregbeshola cites two prominent scholars in this connection.
Quoting Billy Dudley, he writes: ‘Generally, political beliefs are characterised more by their fluidity than by any consistency with which they are adhered to and certainly for the political leadership, political beliefs are more a matter of convenience than one of commitment’.
He also supports this with Martin Dent’s observation that the ‘Nigerian party system has usually sought for an ideological orientation but has so far failed to achieve it.’
In spite of the models in political vision, perspicacity and commitment exhibited by the likes of Obafemi Awolowo and Aminu Kano as party-leaders, they are in the minority, which accounts for the valid generalusation that ideological barrenness is the bane of Nigerian politics.
Coupled with the self-serving disposition of members of the political class in an ethos putrefied by corruption, the fortune of the country inevitably plummeted in the Second Republic. The vicious cycle in the first four years reached a gridlock after the 1983 elections.
The Nigerian masses were, to use the words of T. S. Eliot, ‘living and partly living’. And this provided an excuse for the military, under the leadership of Major General Muhammadu Buhari, to seize power on December 31, 1983.
One other reason for the take-over was the fraudulent election that returned NPN to power that same year. Less than two years later, Buhari’s government was also toppled by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Thus began another transition to civil-rule under the capricious, self-declared messianicism of a Military President.
Chapter Four is devoted to the aborted Third Republic superviarecalls the setting up of a Political Bureau, the isolation of civil societies, the Structural Adjustment Policy and its attendant riots, the failed Orkar coup and the formation of two government-sponsored parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC), among other developments in the IBB era. Despite all the assurances and self-glorification by the regime, the author’s analytical aside indicated that ‘the beautyful ones’ were not yet born, to use the words of Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah.
Aregbeshola states unequivocally that the two parties ‘failed to introduce anything new to the Nigerian political process’, and that ‘ competitive politics was seen as a political enterprise in which contestants invest only with the intention of controlling patronage and a system of economic reward’. He makes a supportive quip with Femi Falana’s sardonic reference to members of the new political class as ‘casino politicians’.
Successive passages in the chapter takes readers from one stage of Babangida’s eight-year-long transition to civil nothing to another, climaxing in the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election won by Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola. A relay of political protests followed the annulment. Babangida stepped aside and installed a weak, spineless Interim National Government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan to take over.
The ING was booted out by Gen. Sanni Abacha. That further tightened the military’s grip on power, but on a more ferocious, tyrannical and murderous scale than was ever witnessed in Nigeria’s history.
A powerful opposition to Abacha’s dictatorship by the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), Campaign for Democracy (CD) and trade unions are profusely chronicled.
Upon Abacha’s death and a similar, but mysterious fate which befell the winner of the June 12, 1993 election, Chief M.K.O. Abiola, the bumpy road to the Fourth Republic (1999 till date) was opened, granting the book a good measure of merit in topicality and timelessness.
The author in his concluding chapter about politics and politicking in Nigeria today provide full doses of expository and narrative details. And, bringing the book to anchor, he offers some panacea to the problems besetting the country in the arduous task of nation building.
His words: “the way forward is to address the problems emanating from dishonesty, corruption and intolerance among the political class of this country which has adversely affected the prospects of a Nigerian nation.
The political parties and politicians have the key to the unification of Nigerians so that this country can become stable and viable in the long run.” There are, of course, other stakeholders whose hands must operate this key, the civil societies not the least.
On the whole, Bolaji Aregbeshola’s Nigerian Political Parties And Politicians: Winding Road From Country To Nation should be a companion to politicians, political scientists, activists, students and the enlightened members of the public in whatever capacity. It is exhaustively researched, highly intelligible and objective. At certain peaks also, his free-flowing prose is quite titillating.
Let us take the liberty to run this passage about Chief Awolowo: ‘Chief Obafemi Awolowo would, in his old age, perhaps not remember May 30 or June 19 or July 2 – the dates on which he was restricted to Ikenne, then Lekki and back to Ikenne – but he would surely remember July 22, 1962, as the one Sunday morning he tasted both the wormwood of martyrdom and the heady wine of mass adulation.’
There are a lot more of such powerful expressions serving as the reader’s tonic to internalise the hard facts of history being rolled out by this young, erudite, self-effacing, but profoundly gifted author.
Finally, one would like to conclude in a dramatic fashion with comments by famous Nigerian opinion leaders on this book, published on Page 4 as well as a short excerpt from the preface written by Professor Akinjide Osuntokun. Anthony Cardinal Olubunmi Okojie: “If you want to stay abreast of trends in Nigerian democracy and politics… get a copy of this book.”
Professor Akin Oyebode: “This insightful debut by a young Nigerian is a ‘must read’. It brings a fresh insight into one of Nigeria’s most enduring dilemmas.” Yinka Odumakin: “This ‘Wikipedia’ on party politics and politicians in Nigeria from a fresh mind is a must collection for any shelf where knowledge is valued.” Professor Akinjide Osuntokun: “We should learn from disappearing… states like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo… Nigeria is too big to court this fate because whatever happens to Nigeria will have reverberation all over Africa. “This is why reading this book is a must for all of us.”
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