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Where is the Nigerian opposition? (I)

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By Reuben Abati

Less than a year to the next general elections in Nige­ria, the biggest deficit in the political process leading to that moment is the absence of a robust, virile and effective opposition. The role of the op­position in a democracy is to question, criticize, challenge, and audit the governments of the day – local and national – and make them more transpar­ent and accountable, and even if these twin-objectives may not be immediately achieved, the opposition exists nonethe­less to put the people in power “on their toes” as it were in the people’s overall interest.

This is the underlying princi­ple of a parliamentary system of government, and even in other forms of government including a Presidential system, the oppo­sition provides checks and bal­ances, it is a kind of alternative government, a counterweight, providing such balance that could safeguard the integrity of the political process. But of course, what is at stake is “the conquest of power”: the oppo­sition provides the people with a choice and ultimately seeks to wrestle power from or out of the hands of the incumbent and present a different vision of so­cial and economic progress.

In doing this, the opposition may be constructive – in this regard it could even work with the ruling party or government to promote the national inter­est. This was the case under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao of India who once sent oppo­sition leader Atal Bihari Va­jpayee to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, as leader of the Indian delegation, to defend the government on its human rights record in response to al­legations by Pakistan.

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Rao’s party members, who felt he had no business working with the opposition criticized him as loudly as they could, but the Prime Minister felt it was more important to be bi-par­tisan and project a picture of national unity. It is not a strat­egy that has endured in India’s divisive politics. But what is known is that in other jurisdic­tions, members of the opposi­tion in parliament sometimes vote on a non-partisan basis on key issues before the par­liament. This may occur when the rivalry among the political parties is peaceful and there is a broad consensus that the country is far more important than the boundaries imposed by partisan politics.

For the most part however, opposition politics can be dis­ruptive, and apropos, the strat­egy of the opposition is not to construct anything or offer any value but to “oppose, oppose, oppose” by any means possible to wear down and pull down the incumbent government. Physi­cal violence, blackmail, abusive words, post-truth imagery and fake news are part of the arse­nal of the disruptive opposition.

In Nigeria at the moment, we neither have in my estima­tion a constructive or a disrup­tive opposition. Whatever we have that may look remotely as any form of opposition is weak, uncoordinated, and ineffective. Our political parties are inter­nally polarized, politics has be­come evil, our political leaders do not know where to draw the line, the ruling government is having an upper hand, it is com­mitted to an unrelenting, over­zealous persecution of the op­position and progressive ideas. The last time we witnessed what looked like organized opposition, even if it was dis­ruptive, was ironically through the All Progressives Congress (APC). In 2013, a number of political parties formed a syn­ergy with civil society groups to become the All Progressives Congress, and adopting an “op­pose, oppose, oppose” strategy, they managed by 2015 to get the ruling Peoples Democrat­ic Party out of power. It was a major turning point in Nigerian politics since the return to civil­ian rule in 1999.

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But the PDP was not pre­pared for its new role as the leading opposition party, just as the new government led by the APC was equally unprepared for governance. This sudden re­versal of roles caught Nigeria’s main political actors napping. The APC at the centre found it difficult to even appoint Minis­ters: it took six months to come up with a list. In one or two states, the Governors acted as sole administrators for up to a year. There are about 80 reg­istered political parties in the country, but these are at best relatively unknown parties. The main political party, the PDP has been largely in disarray since it lost power. Most of its members have defected to the new rul­ing party, many of its founding fathers now prefer to be known and addressed as statesmen, and the party’s strong mouth­pieces have all been cowed into silence by a ruling party that is wielding power like a whip. The PDP came out of power mired in a corrosive in-fighting and blame-sharing that robbed the party of its soul. It was lat­er “kidnapped”, and then res­cued, but it is not yet in strong enough shape to stand up to the ruling party, offer alternative views or organize itself properly. Who is even the national leader of the PDP? Close to the next gener­al elections as we are, nobody is quite sure. What exactly does the PDP want to do? It is not so clear either. Is the PDP still interested in power? If it is, it is not showing the kind of determination that the APC projected in 2014.

There are PDP members in the legislature at the Federal and State levels, but their voic­es have not been loud enough. Nigerian politics has not been ideology-driven for a while, that is one explanation, but it is also possible that the remain­ing PDP members are hedging their bets and secretly planning to join the APC. This is the case because the ruling APC is now in charge of state resources – and that is a major attraction for Nigerian politicians, besides, the APC not knowing how to govern has been functioning more as an opposition party. It has spent the last three years hounding PDP members and the Jonathan administration, and making it difficult for any­one to come up with progres­sive, opposition ideas.

It had to take Microsoft’s Bill Gates to criticize the Eco­nomic Recovery and Growth Programme (ERGP) of the Fed­eral Government before the PDP realized that such a doc­ument existed. The new PDP, failing in its role as an opposi­tion party, cedes the initiative to the APC and merely reacts through statements that do not even make much impact. In the states across the Feder­ation, opposition members of­ten forget what their role in the legislature is supposed to be as they join the queue of law­makers trooping to the Govern­ment House to collect favours from imperial Governors. At the Federal level, APC Senator Dino Melaye has functioned more as an opposition leader than any PDP Senator with his persistent interrogation of Executive pol­icies and actions. One or two PDP Senators, along with some other APC members, in com­parison, have since acquired a reputation for going to the Red Chamber to sleep during plena­ry sessions! There is no quality debate as such in our parlia­ments, more or less, and so the debate about Nigeria has shift­ed to morning shows on radio and television, oftentimes con­ducted by ill-equipped analysts and the hysterical crowd.

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