Ordinarily, we should be reflecting on the twists and turns of our democratic experience since 1999. That is the issue of the moment. And, as should be expected, commentators are falling over one another to find space for their commentaries. I have decided not to be a part of this madding crowd for obvious reasons. Our democracy is in reverse gear. The story is that of regrets and missteps. The bad news has been accentuated by the misrule of the last three years. I do not, therefore, want to join the jeremiad that is tearing through the landscape. Rather, I prefer to reflect on deeper issues that have the potentialities of moving our democracy away from its present anaemic state.
While many are busy worrying about how President Muhammadu Buhari has set the hands of our democracy back, former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, chose to reflect on what could be done to give our democracy a new face and a new meaning. His preference remains the two-party system, which he introduced in Nigeria during the Third Republic. This time, Babangida is worried that our democracy lacks character because political parties have no distinct ideologies that define them. This situation, in his view, encourages cross-carpeting and internal squabbles within the parties. He is also worried that the structure of our parties has polarirsed governance along ethnic and religious lines. He, therefore, would want Nigeria to look once more towards building a unique two-party structure at this critical period of electioneering.
Let us go back in time. Between 1990 and 1993, Babangida decreed into place a two-party system in Nigeria. He gave us the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention ( NRC). In terms of ideology, one party was a little bit to the left and the other a little bit to the right of the centre. The Babangida arrangement derived from the practice in the United States, where two political parties dominate the political scene, namely, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
Like most things Nigerian, Babangida’s two-party arrangement was short-lived. It died with his aborted transition programme. But the SDP and the NRC, for as long as they operated, made some useful impact on the polity. The local government elections that held under the arrangement was keenly contested. There was a mass mobilisation of the voting populace. Each of the political parties had something going for it in that election. While SDP won more local government seats, the NRC scored more votes. Each boasted about its capacity. It was a healthy competition.
But it was the presidential election of 1993 that brought out the full import of the arrangement. Two Muslim presidential candidates emerged. One from the South. The other from the North. The election did not produce any official winner. But it was presumed that Chief MKO Abiola of the SDP won the election, going by the vote tally before the then chairman of the National Electoral Commission, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, was ordered to stop further announcement of the results. If we proceed on the assumption that Abiola won the election, we would be saying that Nigerians voted across ethnic lines. Abiola won fairly in the north and south of the country. He won in the east and the west. We did not see the kind of voting pattern that we are used to where the east and the west are usually differently aligned. This being the case, it could be safely said that the 1993 elections blurred the north-south or east-west divide that we are used to. What we had was a pan-Nigerian mandate.
In the same vein, Nigerians did not think about religion during the elections. They did not mind the fact that the two presidential candidates were Muslims. They also did not mind the fact that majority of them voted for the party that featured a Muslim-Muslim ticket. Both the presidential candidate of the SDP and his vice were Muslims. These considerations did not matter then. It was probably on the strength of that that Babangida, the architect of the arrangement, is being nostalgic about what happened then. He wants Nigeria to go back to the two-party order.
But first, let us look at the problem of ideology that the former military leader is worried about.
The NRC and SDP, even though they were set up on the basis of centre right and centre left ideologies, never really had any ideological underpinning. None of the parties had any known ideology. Whatever they professed, if any, were mere pretensions. The political parties were not really different from those we have known in the past. What then did the parties offer us? We have acknowledged that they relegated ethnic politics to the backwaters. We also noted that Nigerians did not bother about religion then. Part of the reason was that Abiola, the SDP candidate, had a pan-Nigerian disposition. Also, he was from the West. And western Muslims are believed by Nigerians to be less fanatical about matters of religion. These may have helped to sell Abiola’s candidature.
However, all these considerations belong to the past. Present-day realities do not bear Babangida’s optimism out. Nigerians are more divided today than they were 20 or more years ago. Today, ethnicity and religion have become very strong weapons with which politics is fought in Nigeria. When we had the Babangida arrangement, nobody worried about ethnic cleansing in Nigeria. Today, that has become a factor. To choose their leader, Nigerians must pay attention to what that leader would likely do to other ethnic groups. That is the greatest legacy, positive or negative, that the Buhari presidency has bequeathed to Nigeria.
What about religion? This is a bigger issue. Nigeria, unlike what obtained in 1993, can no longer have a situation where two dominant political parties will feature people of the same religion except in a situation of zoning such as the forthcoming 2019 presidential election. Even at that, both the presidential and vice presidential candidates cannot be of the same religion as was the case in 1993. What this means is that those factors that made the two-party arrangement to work in 1993 have changed. We must, therefore, romanticise about the past with caution lest we run into a blind alley.
As we noted earlier, ideology has never been a part of our political culture. And it is not yet about to be. In recent years, we have only had two dominant political parties. Yet, none of them is known for any ideology. In 2014, the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was deserted by many of its members. They found accommodation in the All Progressives Congress (APC). It was easy for them to change parties because there were no ideological barriers. Now, many of the PDP defectors who strengthened the APC are planning to leave the ruling party. The marriage has been one of convenience. It has no ideological basis. What dictates the movement is the interest of individuals.
The two-party arrangement, under our present circumstance, will not help our situation. Rather, it will polarise Nigerians the more, especially in the area of religion.