A week is said to be a long time in politics. Last year seems like a century ago in Nigerian politics. Hopes were high that “alternative” politicians a.k.a the “third force” would wrest power from the dominant political parties in the 2019 elections. This dream was buoyed by the signing into law of a meaningless “not-too-young-to-run” bill. It slowly but resolutely collapsed into farce. It is now safe to conclude that the bevy of alternative presidential candidates and their “Mickey Mouse” political parties will have zero impact in the 2019 elections. The parties may end up not getting even one federal lawmaker elected.
“Ultimately, Macron and Trump, and indeed Britain’s Brexiteers, appealed to historically-rooted ideological divisions along which Western politics has long been structured: free trade versus protectionism, free domestic markets versus protected internal markets, global engagement versus isolationism, etc.”
The cardinal error, for the one or two alternative presidential candidates who didn’t enter the race principally as an exercise in personal branding, is a messianic complex which obscured realistic assessment of what was possible. Their supporters touted the victories of Donald Trump in America and Emmanuel Macron in France as evidence of what was possible in Nigeria –anti-establishment alternative politicians riding to power on the crest of popular disenchantment with traditional politicians. This is worse than facile. Ultimately, Macron and Trump, and indeed Britain’s Brexiteers, appealed to historically-rooted ideological divisions along which Western politics has long been structured: free trade versus protectionism, free domestic markets versus protected internal markets, global engagement versus isolationism, etc. Western alternative politicians were thus moving the ideological needle, no matter how wildly, rather than inventing new ones. In Nigeria, ethnicity overwhelmingly remains the ideology on which political mobilisation and affiliation are structured. It is readily evident on social media that even the most educated Nigerians support candidates and parties not on account of their reform plans for the oil and gas or education sector but according to ethno-regional sentiments.
The odds are high but quite surmountable. Nigerian alternative politicians and their boosters need to take a ruthless reality check. Pat Utomi failed to win even the gubernatorial primary of a major party almost a decade after first running a presidential campaign. Without doubting the seriousness of Kingsley Moghalu or the sincerity of Oby Ezekwesili, it was always very clear that they stood no chance in 2019 against the vast structural network of ethnic identity politics: local elites, institutions, loyalties, impoverished voters, party cells, etc.
The majority of voters will never be convinced of the chances of a lone wolf sitting atop an unknown party; they probably would not be able to name one thing they have promised or that they stand for. Nigeria may not survive for long as a viable state if the predatory political culture favoured by our traditional political parties is allowed to dominate the next two to three election cycles. What Nigeria desperately needs are political entrepreneurs who can undertake the hard graft of building a formidable “third party” that crafts solutions to the nation’s legion of political, economic and social problems and transforms them into effective political demands through consistent social mobilisation. Not new “ashiwajus” with dreams of riding their tiny purpose-built political vehicles into Aso Rock.
Nigeria’s traditional political parties have remained dominant not because they are so well-organised or because political mobilisation on the basis of economic self-interest can never trump the ideology of ethnicity. (The Peoples’ Democratic Party is so disorganised it cannot even help itself by articulating a clear message on its record of relatively successful economic reforms.) Rather, Nigeria’s alternative politicians have placed the cart of winning elections before the horse of shaping and mobilising opinion as the primary goal of a political party. They have not even tried to build political parties. They owe it to their followers and to Nigeria to begin the task of alliance building and aggressively mobilising Nigerians behind policy solutions to the country’s problems immediately after the 2019 elections. They could within a year emerge as the main opposition party.
In the short term, the objective should be to secure “catalyst” economic reforms such as passage of the Petroleum Industry Bills. This would almost immediately relieve Nigeria’s strained fiscal position and reduce poverty by boosting financing of health and education sectors and physical infrastructure. Eradicating Nigeria’s multiple exchange rates and preventing the reinstatement of currency controls in the event of a further decline of the oil price, thus boosting foreign investment, should also be a target. Nigeria’s business media and private sector associations have been ineffectual in preventing atrociously poor policy choices that have damaged confidence, investment and jobs. The emergence of a political platform – a third party – that daily explains to Nigerians how they are being impoverished by a mix of non-reform, such as the refusal to sign the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill, and graft-enabling foreign exchange “follicy” would increase political pressure for reforms. The third party requires simple and rousing ideas to win these tactical policy campaigns and the strategic battle to build widespread following. The major idea should be “economic liberty” – liberating Nigerians from the battery of statist economic controls that have impoverished them while stupendously enriching politicians and bureaucrats. Coupled with this should be the promise of “political liberty”, localising political competition and economic development through constitutional decentralisation of government powers a.k.a restructuring.
Nigeria’s third party would have an instant and very powerful brand differentiation advantage. Nigerian political parties exist chiefly to trade in name-calling during elections. By consistently proffering authentic solutions to Nigeria’s countless social, economic and security problems – it is critical to package and “retail” them creatively in populist terms – the third party easily would strike Nigerians as a party knowledgeable about and genuinely interested in solving their problems. It would thus be able to grow membership quickly, especially amongst educated Nigerians. Political affiliation is very rational; people fund and vote political parties that successfully pitch new ideas and look like winners. Nigerian professionals will support and finance a third party that inspires hope of a better future. This funding will build out a network of cells and agents to reach the masses of Nigerians that the traditional parties capture through rice and cash.
It isn’t certain that any of the alternative politicians who commit to building a viable third party would one day emerge president. What is certain is that by slowly transforming Nigerian politics, forcing Nigerian traditional political parties to compete on ideas and policy, even stealing some of their proposals, they would make life better for Nigerians. Democracy is a middle-class bluff; middle classes force governments to adopt policies that reflect their views and interests not on account of their numerical strength but because of their domination of the institutions which mould opinion – the media, universities, business associations, think tanks, etc. Nigeria is so badly governed because its middle classes largely have failed to articulate a coherent economic vision for the country and its political parties primarily are designed to appeal to the poor, ill-informed and illiterate masses rather than articulate and mobilise middle-class opinion. Nigeria’s alternative candidates should come together and build a strong political party for the country’s middle classes, not offer them a slew of presidential candidates.
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