WE are used to endless pleas that ours is a young democracy, and so, our far less than average performance should not be compared with those of advanced countries. We do not want to embrace best practices, but are content with grudging acknowledgments by foreign election observers. Even when we copy great ideas from others, we make a big mess of them and are unable to advance to the next level. The presidential system of government that we labour to practice was copied from the United States. While it remains a refreshing work in progress in the U.S, after more than 200 years of determined effort, ours since 1979 has remained one of trial and errors. And it is so because we do not want to connect democracy with development. We see democracy as opportunity for chop I chop, in an unending, unproductive north/south and east/west ding-dong.
Let’s look at the ongoing primaries in the U.S presidential election slated for November for some inspiration. So far, we are seeing a level-playing democratic field. For the two parties – Democratic and Republicans – we do not see any candidate being projected as preferred over others by their parties. There are candidates though, who could be more representative of the thoughts and ideology of their parties, but at this stage of the primaries, ‘ordinary’ delegates are the ones deciding the fate of candidates. As the series of primaries and caucuses are staged, there might be a point at which the party establishments could subtly prevail on the process, through endorsements, funding, but not outright rigging as we see in some countries.
Of serious note so far, is the strain by Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate of the Democratic Party to connect with would-be voters, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Even with her visibility, being wife of former president Bill Clinton and the gender advantage, she does not resonate well with younger female population. In the Republican Party, Jeb Bush, who was thought to be one of the best for the job is struggling to climb out from the rear. Bush is a member of the George W. Bush family, whose father and brother had been president of the United States. He was governor of Florida and in terms of visibility and familiarity with Republican ethos, he should have no equal among other candidates. But Bush is lagging behind, simply because the majority of voters know what they are looking for. They are looking for something fresh and have become wary of those who had been there.
The lesson is for our political parties to conduct primaries with a bit more rigour and creativity. The debate culture is simply not there and engagement with voters does not take place. While presidential candidates in the U.S have to go through all the 50 states, where they are grilled for hours in campuses and town halls, here we are miserly with the process, always ready to approximate efforts. In 2015, there was no serious engagement between the people and the presidential candidates. What we had were pre-arranged town hall meetings that did not allow for robust connection with the people. Our political parties would rather arrange fictitious town hall meetings with the youth wing or women wing of their party, instead of a critical mix of citizens who earnestly yearn for change.
In our party primaries, the night before, delegates are traded like commodities; they are wooed with huge sums, most times in hard currencies. They are usually quartered at the expense of candidates, in the hope that they would surrender their votes. They call it horse-trading, but it is actually a bazaar of who has more forex to play with. In the end, the candidate or aspirant who pays more may not win the ticket of the party because conspiracy is part of the deal. Delegates could eat a candidate’s bribe and still vote against him. The delegates’ convention of a political party is not a religious ceremony where people are expected to have good conscience. In our politics, those who eat with you will turn around to pour soup on you.
Even the choice of where to stage a party’s primary convention is part of the calculation. We saw all of that in 2015, when the All Progressives Congress (APC) decided to come to Lagos. Lagos seemed neutral, but it turned out to favour their mainstream candidate. The outcome could have been different if another state capital had been chosen as venue.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) did not have similar challenges as the APC in 2015, since it fielded only one candidate, former president Jonathan. There was no need for an elaborate and costly primary, just the ‘crowning’ of candidate Jonathan as the opposition put it then. But that does not mean that delegates were not ‘pacified’ for refusing to cause trouble like the new
PDP governors and their followers who departed angrily because Jonathan had made up his mind to run for second term.
How candidates stand on key issues is of far more importance to informed voters than where candidates come from. In the U.S, voters are asking questions about candidates’ knowledge of foreign relations, they are concerned with minority rights issues, migrants and gender issues, homeland security and the economy. Voters in the U.S do not want to blame themselves after electing a candidate who would turn out to be helpless and clueless. Perhaps, that informed the huge space between when an aspirant indicates interest and the time he is elected. In the U.S candidates spend close to one year in the field, with enough time to meet voters and be engaged. Here, the time allotted by Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for candidates and the people to get familiar is limited. We barely get to know minute details about the emotional stability of our presidential candidates. We hardly have the time and opportunity to pry into their personal lifestyles and emotional suitability for the job.
And this has been the situation since 1979, when we introduced the presidential system.
Another area where lessons could be learned is that of campaign funds. Everything about campaign funds here is shrouded in secrecy. Apart from the fund raising dinners where political parties rake in billions, details of how the funds are applied are not known to outsiders. Perhaps, if there had been transparency in that aspect of our political life, those who disburse freely from the Federation Account to fund elections would have applied some tact. And those state governors who funded their parties from accounts of their states would have thought twice.
What we have seen so far in the U.S primaries is that candidates raise their own funds. It is up to you to raise money for the primaries and there are monitors independently watching in case you go outside the rules. When a flag bearer finally emerges, the party’s National Committee takes over the management of that candidate’s campaigns and fund raising. You do not have one larger-than-life party chairman to decide who gets the flag of the party or be the sole manager of affairs of the party. The highest body that manages the party is its National Committee. It raises money to run its affairs and has no direct authority over elected officials.
Do you wonder why we never hear about the national chairman of the Republican Party or that of the Democratic Party of the U.S?
There is nothing of such. Parties are managed by National Committees that are not as visible and noisy as what we have here. It is only in Nigeria that you have sit-tight and life national party chairmen who have no serious work to do, other than causing trouble. Remember the one with long, red cap, who presided over APGA for years and ruined the fortunes of that party? Remember all those who made PDP’s Wadata House a trading post for party tickets? Remember the one in the APC, who thinks elections in ‘lucrative oil states’ are won in Supreme Courts?
We do not have much time left to do it right and build lasting democratic institutions. If we must copy others, let’s do it well like the Japanese and Chinese, who copied and became masters of western technology. We have failed in technology transfer; must we fail in democracy transfer?