The Party Is Over, Really?

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Azu Ishiekwene

If the defections from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) continue at the current pace, the only people left in the opposition may be those to pack and return the chairs to storage before the next general elections in two years.

It’s not funny. Apart from Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo who bucked the trend one year ago when he moved from APC to PDP on the eve of an off-season election, the drift has been the other way.

In eight months, three governors – Dave Umahi, Ebonyi; Ben Ayade, Cross River; and Bello Matawalle, Zamfara – have jumped on the gravy train, abandoning the platforms on which they were elected. 

Apart from the mass defection of governors in 2014 that sealed the fate of the ruling PDP at the time, the recent defections of three governors indicate, yet again, that democracy is not only still in its infancy, it’s also in very poor health.

The point at issue is not about freedom of association. The constitution is clear that strange bedfellows can flock together all the way to Fool’s Paradise and back, as long as they are not infringing other people’s rights. 

Except if politicians have chosen to read the constitution upside down, as could well be the case, they know that it is illegal to stand election on the platform of a party and later invent convenient excuses to jump ship.

The salient condition under which defection is permissible under the constitution is when there is evidence that a party has become irredeemably factionalised, threatening not just its own existence but also the wellbeing of its members.

What we have seen is that when politicians try but fail to gut their party and gorge themselves on its entrails, they create imaginary crisis, improvise factions and declare that they have moved. And they do so without shame, remorse or consequence, while retaining all the benefits of the platform on which they came to office.

A politician in the South East once described politics as another business franchise. His cousin in the North Central and former Governor of Niger State, Aliyu Babangida, improved on that transactional description. He reportedly said, in January 2015, that, “Politics is not about morality. If you’re talking about politics or morals, go and become an Imam or a pastor.”

Babangida should know. This veteran of defection brinkmanship was among those who plotted one of the deadliest defections in Nigeria’s recent history, only to relent and stay put in his party at the eleventh hour. 

On his part, Ayade’s defection speech will make you cry and laugh at once. The inventor of bombast and theatrics offered yet more “kinetic shambolism”, which in effect means, his only reason for defecting was self-interest first and self-interest last.  

Same for Umahi and Matawalle – insecure and opportunistic politicians who dressed their defections in patriotic national colours.  

In between these three major defections there have been other smaller different defections, which have left the rest of us mere mortals wondering the kind of politics and politicians we are blessed with in this country.

After the 2015 general elections, the ruling party, APC had 24 governors while the PDP had 12. 

But of course, internal bickering and strife took their toll on APC and in no time, the party was left with only 19 governors, after losing five to PDP. And then, thanks partly to court-determined elections and defections, the tide is turning again.

With Umahi, Ayade and Matawalle joining the fold, APC has 22 governors, but the scorecard is not settled. Insiders told me that the current wave of defection is largely the scheme of one of the legacy parties – the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) – to secure its hold on power ahead of the APC convention.

By the time the conventions of the APC and PDP are over, the two parties would have been so consumed, almost beyond recognition, by defections and infighting, there would probably only be the ragged ends of their party flags left for their funeral.

There are two types of politicians in the world: Nigerian politicians and others.

And since 1999 when the country returned to democracy after 16 years of military rule, it’s becoming ever more evident that our politicians are a special but unlimited edition. If shamelessness was a person, it would be a Nigerian politician.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. 

The entire thing is almost like a joke but unfortunately, the joke is on the rest of us who have become active and passive spectators as these politicians enjoy their shameless dance in the village square.

Defection is not new. It precedes Nigeria’s independence in 1960. It began in 1951 when some lawmakers in the defunct Western House of Assembly who were members of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), defected to the Action Group (AG) just so Obafemi Awolowo could become Premier of the Western Region, instead of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe of the NCNC.

It wasn’t any different in the Second Republic. 

Samuel Ladoke Akintola, who was Premier of the now defunct Western Region, had also defected from the AG to form a new party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP).

This was after he fell out with Awolowo.

In the same vein, the political rivalry between Azikiwe and Dr. Kingsley Mbadiwe in the Eastern Region forced the latter out of the NCNC to form a new party, Democratic Party of Nigerian Citizen (DPNC). 

The Second Republic (1979-1983) also witnessed the defection of Akin Omoboriowo from the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) to the then National Party of Nigeria (NPN), where he became NPN’s governorship candidate for Ondo in the 1983 general elections. 

We all know that it ended in tears.

That was also the period Abubakar Rimi defected from his party, the People’s Redemption Party (PRP), to the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP).

Defections have since risen to dizzying heights, with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the modern poster child.

We watched in 2014 when Bukola Saraki and his fellow travellers walked out on President Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP to join the newly formed APC. Thereafter, he became the Senate President on the platform of the APC, only for him and a few other members of the National Assembly to defect again to PDP, momentarily creating an interlude of partisan math that kept the country spellbound.

Unlike in South Africa where the African National Congress (ANC) had the so-called juggernaut effect, sucking the oxygen in the political space, because of the party’s role in the freedom struggle and its ideological leaning, PDP and APC are descendants of the infamous leprous fingers of one hand, as Bola Ige once described them. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, very little separates them.

Faced with a similar situation, India introduced an anti-defection law. It’s tempting to try that, except that in Nigeria, laws tend to multiply transgressions. Some have argued that the pathetic lack of ideology may be responsible for the flux.

Perhaps that may have some residual effect. But around the world, ideology is waning and politics is claiming middle ground; not because politicians want it that way but because, thanks to the power of technology, citizens are getting more involved and holding government accountable.

Until we do our share of the slug, we shall continue to endure the unhealthy choice between rotten palm kernel and the broken mortar.

Ishiekwene is the Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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