The way we run our affairs in this nation never fails to amuse me some times. I am sure that like me, many Nigerians are now used to the scenario where we leave serious matters for the unserious. Few weeks ago Nigerians woke up to hear our national electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), say it has approved de-registration of 28 political parties and later an additional three parties, bringing the total to 31.
What reasons did the electoral body give? At first, there was no reason, just announcement; sequel to the interest the action generated, INEC belatedly came up with some reasons, among them that the parties did not win any seat either in State or National Assembly elections as provided in the Electoral Act, that any party that fails to win seat in any of the two should be de-registered. Secondly, that the affected parties have no identifiable offices and/or that their national executive council does not represent national character or were not properly constituted in terms of the process. Since that pronouncement some sections of the populace have reacted in a limited manner.
Majority have kept quiet, giving the impression that what has happened, and may continue to happen, is of no major consequence to the entire democratic process and practice. Unfortunately, only those affected have been left to do the “crying” in very loud voice. Trust Nigerians, we have looked the other way, thinking that it served “them” right, since they are into it all to make cheap money, as well as muddle up the political process and make it difficult to manage. I am a bit disturbed that some media organizations have endorsed the action without giving deep thought to it or allowing the debates to unfold in detail. For me, the issues are far greater than efficient management of the electoral process and the existence of a law, the atmosphere under which it came to be and the intention should be well known to close watchers of our national politics.
The development hits directly at the heart of democratic practice and its growth, particularly in a setting like ours. The question of de-registering political parties that have been given official recognition is both a fundamental move with wide implications: and posses a challenge to mass participation in a nation’s democratic process in many ways. Let me begin from the little and safe angle, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the development. Is the move legal? It is legal; to the extent that it is provided for in the Electoral Act. Yet, a vital point must be noted. This is not a constitutional provision. It is a question of a national law. The constitution expressly guarantees right of association and to form political parties: it did not say if such parties are registered they should be de-listed.
This should be an issue for concern. The other issue would be if any proper democratic legislation would have the spirit that seeks to limit mass participation. That certainly won’t be if intentions are noble. So, to this extent, this provision often referred to appears to me to be highly limited, if not out-rightly defective. Must all laws be implemented just because they are found in the statutes? Legally speaking, the answer is yes; but in reality, the answer is no! This no comes with emphasis, if in our own case we appreciate the peculiar circumstances that have always led leaders here to do things they do. In real life there are things that may be necessary but not expedient. It is in this instance that sages came up with the saying that discretion is the better part of valour. It is the application of discretion more than legalism that has enabled most developed nations progress into the highest levels of civilization.
There is also the other angle. If you consider the way we handle elections here, would it then be right and sensible to say that a political party should be de-listed because it did not win a seat? Somebody said even a councilor, and my response was to ask if such a commentator live in the moon? Are we all not witnesses to what each state government does with the election it conducts? Would it be right under this atmosphere to hinge de-listing of parties on account of inability to win seat(s)? Given this and other things we know about our polity, which I cannot for want of space say here, can existence of such a law be said to be good and beneficial? Then, there is the question of rightness and relevance.
This is very important, because in a democracy cardinal moves must carry the ingredients of rightness and relevance. The attempt to de-register parties may from the realm of thought and vision be right, just like some talk about the law, but given the time, this move has no currency of relevance in it. What we should be hearing from INEC at this time should be what it intends to do with the elections in 2014 and the most crucial, the one in 2015. The 2015 poll carries high stakes, higher than what we have had since independence. It is for this reason that I strongly believe the most important issue that should bother INEC now are issues like credible voters register and whether we shall have electronic voting or not. Certainly, de-listing parties is not one of them and should not be if what I know of real political engineering is anything to go bye. I will talk more on this later.
It is necessary to look at the other reasons INEC gave for its action. It says the affected parties have no offices in Abuja and possibly in the states and many have no properly constituted national executives. These, on the surface, may appear like strong reasons. Yet, the truth is, they remain within the purveyor of administrative matters. The missing link in INEC’s statement, that is, if one is to agree without conceding to INEC’s position, is that we were not told whether INEC did undertake its supervisory roles and how many times. Besides, things would have been better handled if long before now the public had evidences of constructive engagements and previous warnings.
I am of the strong view that in building a virile democratic culture, you don’t legislate against political participation even though you can legislate against some aspects of political behaviour, which may include attempts at non-participation. Mass participation is at the heart of real democratic practice. One of the vehicles of realizing this is the formation of political parties by like minds. I have seen people say a political party cannot be owned by individuals and I ask why not? What matters is whether the individuals so gathered share the same principles, and have agreed to form a party with a view to seeking power for actualization of their vision of the state, and if they are able to meet the requirements stipulated for becoming a political party.
So, group of individuals can form and run a party. The same way the fear we place on religious or tribal parties is misplaced. Ethnic, religious, environmental activists and the like can form political parties and seek registration if they meet the stipulations. What should be of concern would be the manifest agreement to contest for power within the bounds allowed by the law(s) of the land. It is these contending interests that aggregate to the real needs of a nation? Peace, justice and deep sense of belongingness are achieved by the degree of response an incumbent government gives to these issues or demands. We must know the objective for forming a party must not begin and end with winning elections. A party may be in existence just to ensure that a particular viewpoint is not overlooked or down-played.
Within this context therefore, there is nothing politically wrong in parties seeking alliances or extracting concessions to work with another. Nothing is wrong with that, except that nation building efforts would be helped a great deal if emphasis were on policies and programmes. In the early part of this essay I did say INEC’s intention may be right, but not relevant now. I hold that position because though it is appropriate the nation narrows down to two or three party state to make for healthy, rich and rewarding political competition; this wish, good as it is at this point, cannot come by way of legislation; it can only come by evolution. The evolutionary process can gain speed if the political players get better understanding as to see the reasons and benefits to so do. That is the issue.
The task of getting us into a two-party or at best three-party state is not the responsibility of INEC, but that of the political class. This is the truth, which I am sure Jega knows as a political scientist. In a true democracy parties should be allowed to come and to die from their relevance or lack of it. There is nothing unwieldy about printing long ballot papers. The responsibility to enlighten the people is that of INEC and, of course, the political parties. If subvention to parties is a problem, it should be stopped. Let those who form parties worry about funding. Today, developed democracies have two dominant political parties, but the fact is that they did not start with two parties and still don’t have only two parties. America, our democratic model, passed through the same experience like ours. For eight years at the beginning they ran the nation without parties.
The outcome was what they called “effect of baneful fractions”. When parties were to come, they emerged through political interplays of individuals just like what we have on our hands currently. At some points, even the ruling party, while still controlling power broke into two. It got to a point a particular incumbent, President Theodore Roosevelt, had to leave the ruling party to form what was known as Moore Party in 1912. Even till the present, there are many parties in various parts of America, who jostle for power at other levels, or which just stay there and wait for a party that will incorporate some of their core desires and demands. So, our trouble now is not the number of parties. Let them remain and even display their foolishness, if we were a nation of brain men; it is out of such foolishness that we ought to know how to tighten and fix things.
The problem now is realizing credible electoral process – beginning from internal democracy in the parties to the general elections. I am one of those who believe we would have less need for the law if we have men with vision, passion and discretion, who will focus on doing only the good and sensible things most of the time. Asking INEC to axe political parties is to kill participation and pave the way for a possible one party state. After all, one “mad man” can come and on the basis of this obviously anti-democratic platform, do the unthinkable and dare the people to do their worst. If you ask me, this is a chance we should not give anybody. After all, it has been said that prevention is better than cure. It is more so in a case like the one under review. It is good the parties have come, let their relevance determine their continuous existence. This is the way I see it.