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Nigeria: Reforming ‘Electoral Reform’


By Kola Ibrahim

One of the issues generated by the so-called liberalisation of party formation in recent years is the proliferation of political parties on the one hand and centralisation of political posts and governance around handful of political parties on the other. As a result of this, the nation’s electoral body, INEC, banking on a clearly undemocratic electoral law provision, recently planned to deregister some political parties, which it considers unviable. This has received a muted response from many so-called civil society practitioners and entrepreneurs and self-acclaimed opposition (or its progressive) political parties, many of which were quick to shout on top of their voices about the need for electoral reform, especially when their interests are in jeopardy. Indeed, before the undemocratic attempt at curtailing electoral rights, the much-trumpeted electoral reform committee set up by the Yar’Adua/Jonathan government had made some funny recommendations, including setting up of a political party registration organ that will ‘supervise’ political parties. This organ is expected to play the role of disciplinarian to the political parties, so that they can ‘compete’ vigorously, with rewards given to the best, in the form of recognition, etc. Therefore, the mute indifference of many of those hitherto calling for electoral reform is not accidental; many have had their interests protected. It is also noteworthy that some of the recommendations of the electoral reform committee, especially the undemocratic ones, were easily implemented by the pro-rich legislature, as contained in the 2010 Electoral Law and the ‘revised’ constitution.

Agreed: There are so many frivolous political parties within the system, but does this confer the right on INEC to limit people’s choices? In the first instance, that some political parties are not functional electorally does not imply that those that are winning elections represent the true wishes of the people. In the real sense, all the ruling political parties in the country are several sides of the same dice in terms of programmes, policies and even politics. Tell me which of the ruling political parties has openly rejected the official looting of the nation’s treasury through extravagant and criminal emoluments of political office holders. Which of the ruling political parties, with member(s) in the legislative assemblies, has ever called on such member(s) to openly reject the outrageous salaries and collect workers’ salary? Which political office holder from any of these ruling parties is having his child or children in public educational institutions? Which of the political parties is opposed to privatisation, commercialisation, deregulation, etc, all of which are meant to divert public resources and wealth into the private accounts of politicians and big business people (many of whom have collapse public enterprises and institutions in the first place)? It is no accident that there is hardly a Rubicon stopping any politicians from flirting across political parties – the latest being Nuhu Ribadu’s (PDP – ACN – PDP).

That these ruling parties are winning elections is itself a product of the corrupt and monetised electoral process systematised into the electoral laws and the constitution. For instance, according to the 2010 Electoral Laws (and indeed those before it), candidates are allowed to spend billions for campaigns and electioneering. This is nothing but legalisation of corruption as, glaringly, only looters and big business people, whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the oppressed people, will flood the electoral process with their looted money. With the generalised poverty (with over 70 percent of the population living in penury), it is easy for the corrupt politicians and big businessmen (and women of course) to still commit part of their looted wealth and ill-gotten profits to procuring favours, by pretending to be undertaking philanthropic activities. This is aside from their control of the instruments of propaganda including the media. Therefore, the electoral law is clearly made in favour of the rich. It is not strange then that there are no provisions in the electoral system that compel public scrutiny of the wealth of the contestants including publication of their list of assets and wealth. The only thing you have is a funny provision that a convict cannot contest, in an era where politicians easily purchase ‘justice’ on the counter; where the watchdogs themselves are part of the gamut of racket that is bleeding the country white.

This is aided by the pro-rich constitutional provisions that made participation in the political process by the poor and working people nearly impossible. For instance, the constitution, which makes election a popular activity, allows the looters and bankrupt politicians to get away with their horrible acts, with its stringent conditions for recall of politicians. Also is the provisions in the constitution that mandate workers to resign from their work, if they are to contest elections while big business people on the contrary are only required to put the running of their businesses in ‘blind trust’; and not to discontinue with such businesses. Rather than prevent corruption, this provision is actually meant help the big business people; otherwise, why are workers not allowed to take a leave from work to contest and return to their duty post after election, as being witnessed in the academic community? The constitution, with this provision, aside from tilting towards the rich and big business people against the workers, is making a profession out of holding public office. Also, the 2006 Trade Union Act undemocratically prevents workers’ unions from using their union funds for political purposes, even if workers democratically agree to this. This is an attempt to prevent workers and the working people, seeing their political strength from contending power with the power business. In fact, until it was combated at the law court, workers were previously prevented from participating in elections as contestants. It is not uncommon today to hear some politicians in power ‘warning’ workers not to engage in partisan politics, as if politics is only the prerogative of the looters’ class.

More importantly is the constitutional provision that disallows independent candidature and smaller, issue-based and community (and even ethnic) political parties. So terrible is the provision that made political parties to have their headquarters at the federal capital, while their leadership must have a federal character. It is worth stating that this federal character principle is a fraud. By federal character, it means you must have a presence in all the geo-political regions, when it is a fact that major ethnic groups dominate these regions. Meanwhile there are over 260 ethnic groups in the country. Thus, the idea of federal character is faulty from the start. The framers of the constitution, in a show of fake nationalism, wanted political parties to have a presence in two-thirds of the states of the federation and avoid sectional slogans, etc. However, they did not recognise that nationalism is not a denial of different cultures and diversity, and suppression of their political expressions, but indeed their recognition and right of expression with voluntary willingness of the various ethnic groups to collaborate with a common purpose through a democratic process. This fake nationalism has not, however, prevented ethnic politics but rather made it more aggravated with various moneybag politicians using the ethnic card to hold a stake in the distribution of ‘national cake’. At least we are familiar with ‘it is the turn of our zone, tribe, etc to rule’!

The provision has prevented working people from building their own political future, from the grassroots to the national level. More than this, it is easy for moneybag politicians to unite across ethnic lines when their interests of maintaining extravagant lifestyles and introduction of anti-poor policies are at stake as shown on the issue of the fuel price hike. For the poor people, it is a case of lack of alternative political platforms to challenge the power of the ruling elite. Indeed, most of the so-called non-functional portfolio parties are set up by various sections of the moneyed class at state, regional and national level, which use them as a substitute whenever they fall out of favour with their colleagues. Many of these parties cannot contest governorship elections in most states, while local government elections are mere disguised appointments by the ruling parties at the state levels. However, some of these obscure parties will suddenly resurge to prominence whenever any of the disgruntled moneybag politicians put their looted wealth into these parties. Therefore, the current arrangement of party proliferation is only in the service of the rich few. Of course, there are genuine political parties, especially those of the Left. However, the undemocratic constitutional provisions that prevent independent candidacy and smaller, community and issue-based parties, have made it difficult for these parties to operate effectively and be able to combat these anti-poor politicians.

Allowance for these local, community and single-issue parties and independent candidature can make the working, oppressed people to start to organise clean politics, as campaigns will be less monetised, and issues concerning communities will be easily discernible. It will be possible to pull little resources together and mobilise people on issues and programmes concerning communities, and different classes of oppressed people. For instance, a local party that campaigns for popular education at communities, or one that campaigns against privatisation and other neo-liberal policies can come up and gain echo. It can also be easy to mobilise people on their strength at local, state and regional levels to combat corruption. It will be possible to have local parties that campaign against huge salaries for politicians while also demanding that public officials should have their children in public schools as a way of showing their commitment to revamping public education. In summary, politics will be brought to the people’s doorstep. While this will give plurality to the people, it will reduce the charade of portfolio parties. For the working people, this will be a huge relief, as it will allow them to start to organise from grassroots while making efforts at building a pan-national political platform, to combat the anti-poor moneyed class politicians.

However, for the various ruling capitalist politicians, it will be the beginning of their doom, as it will signal the effort of the working and oppressed people to break from the stranglehold of the moneyed class. While, of course, this simple democratic etiquette is guaranteed in other capitalist economies, the failure of Nigeria’s capitalist political class to allow this is a reflection of their parasitic and clearly weak nature. Although, at periods of serious revolutionary ferment, where the working and oppressed people have been radicalized by politics (for instance, if the Occupy Movement in US and Europe should develop into a radical, left-wing political platform), the major capitalist political structures will mobilize all their resources to reverse all the democratic gains won. At such a situation, the mass consciousness will be the major decider of the course of history.

While more enlightened capitalist classes prefer to liberalize, at least to some degree, the political space as a way of limiting sudden outburst (even Egypt that just emerged from autocratic rule), Nigeria’s political class is so weak and bereft of initiative and justification to rule, to allow such liberalization. They have destroyed the nation’s economy to the extent that they know that on an averagely open ground, they will be defeated and rejected by the working and oppressed at all levels. Hence, the collective decision of all capitalist politicians not to allow this simple democratic reform. While some of the opposition parties claim to support the call for constituent assembly to redraw the nation’s constitutional foundation of existence, they will not support this on the ground of liberalised political process that will allow for independent candidacy and existence of issue based and localized political party formations.

Therefore, the question of liberalization of political space cannot be achieved through appeal or correspondence to parliament or ruling class in general alone. It is part of the collective struggle of the oppressed people to liberate themselves from the political stranglehold of the capitalist class. Therefore, while the working and oppressed people strive to build a pan-national political platform to wrest power from the moneyed class organized in ruling but ruining political parties in Nigeria today, they must use all available resources at their disposal to break all undemocratic guidelines either in the constitution or the so-called reformed electoral law. It should be understood that even if the working people build their own party, and are sure of defeating the moneyed class, electorally the current political class would use all legal and illegal, covert and overt means to fight the working people tooth and nail. This further underscores the fact that the working people must know that the process of liberalising the political process in their favour must be conducted in a class manner.

For instance, while the labour leadership is urged to convene a political summit comprising the working people’s organizations, youth and student movement, peasant movement, petty traders, artisans and professional groups, pro-labour and left organizations and parties, etc, that will chart a political course for the oppressed people, pro-working people activists organizations and labour unions must begin the constitutional process. This will mean while writing petitions and position papers (including bills) to the appropriate government organs, they will start mobilizing people for mass action to put effect to such a campaign for liberalization of the political process. This can also help in crystallizing a conscious mass of workers’ and youths’ movements needed to raise the banner of independent working people’s party. At the least, such a campaign will help to raise the political consciousness of the oppressed people, and make the question of small, community and localised political party on the front burner, which will serve as a mobilizing process for building a mass working people party on a national scale.

It will however be futile if the orientations of such community parties and indeed a pan-national working people’s party are tailored toward the same pro-business orientation of the moneyed class. It is only economic and political programmes that seek to commit public resources to public work programmes that can serve as vital alternatives to the corrupt politics of the big business class. This will mean that such parties will campaign for mass public work programme to build new schools and renovate existing ones to standards, with employment of tens of thousands of teachers and other support staff. This will be linked with other programmes like public water programmes, mass public, cheap, decent and environment friendly housing programme; mass road construction as a subset of a larger integrated transport system; mass, poor peasant oriented but mechanized agricultural and food security programme; improved, free and integrated health infrastructures, among others. By equipping public works department/ministry of works with adequately equipped manpower and equipments, it will be possible to end the regime of dubious contracts; public resources will be saved which can be useful in undertaking these programmes. Also, reducing the bourgeoning high cost of maintaining political office holders by cutting their wages to that of skilled workers will liberate resources needed to implement these programmes.

Inasmuch as local political parties can set an example at local levels on how a working people can effectively run a pro-poor people government, a pan-national party of the working and oppressed people is ultimately needed to put this into full realization. For instance, it is only a pan-national revolutionary government of the working and oppressed people that can nationalise the commanding height of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working and oppressed people; a fundamental task needed to liberate the resources and wealth of the country in the interest of the working people. The task of building of this party rest with the labour movement, which aside being the rallying point of the oppressed people’s struggle also has a national spread across ethnic divisions.

Kola Ibrahim writes from Enuwa, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected].

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