The APC’s Steep Learning Curve – Chris Ngwodo

Chris Ngwodo

In going against the APC hierarchy and Tinubu, in particular, to contest and clinch the presidency of the senate, Senator Saraki has exhibited the same skills for which Tinubu has been lionised as a sagacious politician, rare strategist and political genius. Saraki emerged against the wishes of his party in exactly the same way that Tambuwal did, to much acclaim four years ago – by reaching across the aisle and negotiating with the opposition.

During the 2003 elections, the Peoples Democratic Party routed the opposition Alliance for Democracy in its stronghold in the South-West. Only one AD state governor survived – Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos, who in the course of electioneering had promised to secure five million votes for President Olusegun Obasanjo, even though the latter was of the PDP. As the sole surviving AD governor, Tinubu set about building a political machine that would supplant and decommission the gerontocratic cult known as the Afenifere – the group of veteran politicians – whose overbearing influence in the AD had contributed significantly to its atrophy. In short order, the AD was fictionalised while Tinubu moved on to establish a new party, the Action Congress in 2006 with the then Vice President Atiku Abubakar and a number of other defectors from the PDP. By that time, Tinubu had retired the Afenifere gerontocrats and had set his sights on establishing a powerbase in the South-West from which he could aim for higher things.

This brief historical excursion is necessary to put the recent National Assembly election and its fallout in perspective. In going against the APC hierarchy and Tinubu, in particular, to contest and clinch the presidency of the senate, Senator Saraki has exhibited the same skills for which Tinubu has been lionised as a sagacious politician, rare strategist and political genius. Saraki emerged against the wishes of his party in exactly the same way that Tambuwal did, to much acclaim four years ago – by reaching across the aisle and negotiating with the opposition.

In an ill-advised statement reacting to the emergence of Saraki and Yakubu Dogara as Speaker of the House of Representatives, the APC used words like “treachery” to describe the development. This from the same party that joyously welcomed the influx of “traitors” from the PDP barely a year ago and which spent the election campaigns gleefully boasting that its fifth columnists within the ranks of the PDP were subverting President Jonathan from within. At the time, the APC failed to recognise the “treachery” that was serving it so well. To say that Lai Mohammed’s statement reeked of hypocrisy is an understatement.

By reaching across the aisle to negotiate with the PDP legislators, Saraki has introduced a complex and interesting dynamic that could potentially serve the republic better than the spectre of one-party dominance as anticipated by some APC partisans.

The larger question is why the APC did not simply follow President Buhari’s Inauguration Day pledge of non-interference in the legislative branch and leave the National Assembly alone to elect its own leaders (as President Yar’Adua did in 2007). The tendency towards back room deals, shadowy “consensus” arrangements and secret anointment of candidates in coven-like congresses to be later imposed on the polity is one of our more reprehensible political traditions. It is a habit that subverted the AD in 1999 after the Afenifere surreptitiously selected Olu Falae instead of Bola Ige as the party’s presidential candidate – a move that effectively triggered the AD’s implosion, with Ige subsequently joining Obasanjo’s cabinet. This was also one of the habits that fatally injured the PDP.

The question remains why Nigerian politicians are so allergic to free and open democratic contests. By taking the route of the consensual arrangement instead of simply enabling an open and fair contest among peers, the APC showed that some within its ranks have not thought deeply enough about what they are meant to be progressing from or where they are meant to be progressing to. Some exponents of “change” clearly have not reflected on what exactly is meant to have changed. Godfatherism and surreptitious anointments by secret party conclaves are dead. They were wrong when perpetrated by the PDP and they are wrong now. One of the ironies from the National Assembly polls is that Femi Gbajabiamila, an affable and articulate candidate for the House speakership may well have won had he not been cursed with the toga of being a godfather’s anointed protégé. In this instance, the approval of an overbearing party baron served only as a political kiss of death.

The APC has tried to invoke the supremacy of the party but party discipline is a tenuous concept where parties themselves are not defined by overarching ideological bonds and where Machiavellian self-interest is the dominant political paradigm. When such interests coincide…it can give the impression of party operatives loyally walking in lockstep and dancing to the same drumbeat, but this is an illusion.

Past experience tells us that having the presidency and the legislature under one party’s control is no guarantee of stability. PDP legislators were at the forefront of several impeachment plots against Obasanjo. Party lines have always proven less consequential than the lines between self-interested politicians and that between the executive and the legislature. Hegemony by any party, not just the PDP is a bad idea. Politicians across partisan divides are notoriously susceptible to the arrogance it breeds. Thus, Saraki’s bipartisan maneuvers could prove yet beneficial, making for a more robust legislative process, but time will tell.

The APC has tried to invoke the supremacy of the party but party discipline is a tenuous concept where parties themselves are not defined by overarching ideological bonds and where Machiavellian self-interest is the dominant political paradigm. When such interests coincide as they did recently for Jonathan’s eviction from the presidency, it can give the impression of party operatives loyally walking in lockstep and dancing to the same drumbeat, but this is an illusion. Once the common enemy in Jonathan left the scene, the politics of sharing the spoils of victory was always going to severely test the APC’s coherence and expose its internal contradictions as a coalition of convenience. The inevitable price of the APC’s evolution into a viable national party is that it now has onboard several heavyweight politicians (think Atiku Abubakar and Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso for example) whose interests have to be accommodated.

If we are to make progress – if we are to stop being serially hoodwinked by politicians – we must dispense with the myth that our current two-party system features a Manichean divide in which a party of angels is ranged against a party of demons.

Saraki and Tinubu are dyed-in-the-wool Nigerian politicians. They are alpha males and big men who subscribe to the same cold-blooded pragmatism, ambition and calculating self-interest common to their peers. None of them is morally superior to the other and indeed both are of equivalent orientation. Like Tinubu, Saraki is a two-term state governor and as Tinubu does with Lagos, he sees Kwara as his fiefdom. Saraki is also a scion of one of Nigeria’s more durable political clans and clearly inherited his father, Olusola Saraki’s acumen. Since his time in the Nigerian Governors Forum where he proved instrumental to the making of the Yar’Adua presidency in 2007, Saraki has been carefully positioning himself for greater things. This is not a man who sees the red chamber as his last bus stop. In short, Tinubu and Saraki are quite alike.

Partisan tribalism and selective amnesia often blind us to the moral symmetry of the political class but if we are to make progress – if we are to stop being serially hoodwinked by politicians – we must dispense with the myth that our current two-party system features a Manichean divide in which a party of angels is ranged against a party of demons. The good, the bad and the ugly men and women of our politics are to be found in both parties. Thus, the investment of our allegiances, and mental and emotional energies should be on a case by case basis weighing the merits of each circumstance and the antecedents of the actors involved and then acting in accordance with good conscience. No party or politician is worthy of uncritical adulation.

Recent court rulings that have barred public office holders from retaining their posts when they cross-carpet to other parties could help make both parties solid blocs by eliminating one of the main incentives for defections which is that politicians pay no price for defecting. In the time being, where strong egos are contesting power – the only real guarantee of maintaining the peace and minimising discontent is to enable free and fair contests without favouring any contestant. The APC failed to do so, provoked a needless acrimonious internal squabble and received an avoidable black eye for its trouble. We can chalk this down as part of the learning curve of managing power at the national level. It is a heady place to be in but it is also a far larger arena than Lagos or the South-West. It is a much broader canvas with more shades and colours of interests and egos than are typically visible from the sedate precincts of Bourdillon Road. The hope is that the APC apparatchiks will prove to be fast learners and not add to the already onerous challenges facing President Buhari.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.

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