Towards sustainable democracy in Nigeria: The role of political parties
Excerpts from a public lecture to mark retired Brig-Gen. Samuel Ogbemudia’s 83rd birthday at Bishop Kelly Pastoral Centre, Benin City, Edo State on Saturday September 19, 2015.
There is perhaps no topic more compelling and relevant than the one for today’s discourse, especially in the light of our current democratic experience. It is exigent that I begin my presentation with definitions of some terms as used in the topic under discussion.
Although many definitions of democracy abound in theory and practice, the one universally accepted is that advanced by Abraham Lincoln, which says that democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The abiding principle of a democratic government is majority rule, one in which supreme power is held by the people under a free and fair electoral system. In a real democracy, the people possess the constitutionally guaranteed right to choose who rules over them at any given point in time.
In apparent recognition of this universal concept of democracy, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended (1999) in Section 14, (2a) proclaimed that “Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria from whom government through this Constitution derives all its powers and authority.” Sub-sections 2b and 2c respectively state that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government and the participation of the people in their government shall be ensured.
To achieve sustainable democracy, we must understand that there is more to democracy than elections and voting. The fact that a nation chooses her leaders through the ballot box does not necessarily translate to democracy. There are certain tenets upon which any democracy can be nurtured and sustained. These are sovereignty of the people, majority rule and minority rights, the rule of law and good governance, respect for civil and political rights, mass literacy, economic prosperity, social development, free press, and an independent judiciary. Sustainable democracy is attainable when the conditions listed above are prevalent in the society.
So what is a political party? The commonest definition of a political party is the one by Wikipedia, the free online dictionary, which defines a political party as “an organisation of people which seeks to achieve goals common to its members through the acquisition and exercise of political power.” If we agree that politics is the struggle for, acquisition of, control and use of state power then political parties are the vehicles for attaining that goal. In democracies worldwide, political parties are elected by the electorate to form a government. Except where the Constitution makes provision for independent candidates, politicians stand for election as representatives of different political parties.
Political parties and sustainable democracy
There is no gainsaying the fact that there is a very good relationship between sustaining democracy and the existence of political parties. The party system actually helps for the sustenance of democracy. Over the years, various societies in Europe, America and even the Far East have tended to gravitate towards a two-party system to largely aggregate the multi-interests of people.
Even when there are minor parties at the national level, there seems to be a drift towards a two-party system globally. The reason is simple. It simplifies the choice for the electorate and allows the people to decide which group of people should rule over them at a given point in time while the party that is not favoured at that point becomes the opposition. Hence, party in government and opposition have generally come to be accepted as major ingredients in the growth and sustenance of democracy.
Democracy is deepened and sustainable when there is good governance and this must be the central goal of the party in power. Good governance is imperative for social and economic progress. There are four key indicators of good governance in any society viz;
Rule of law – Democracy is short-changed by decision-making that is democratic only in name. The Constitution and actual written laws must be obeyed and upheld, while due process must be followed. Things should be done in an orderly, predictable manner, and for sustainability of democracy, political parties, particularly the ruling party must have respect for democratic governance and democratic institutions.
Good governance requires the development and strengthening of independent state institutions like the security agencies, a functional legislature (allowed to express itself), and a viable and independent judiciary. Every effort must be made to ensure that these institutions function properly and optimally with or without the human actor. Human beings come and go but institutions remain. When these institutions are firmly established and devoid of political control and manipulation, they guarantee the regularity of human conduct and people can predict how the system will respond in a given situation.
Democracy is undermined when actions or inactions of state institutions appear tainted with partisanship or hypocrisy. I am fully in support of the current anti-corruption war of the federal government; it is about time we deal with the monster of corruption in our society and sanitise the polity with sound anti-corruption policies and action. But our institutions must be democratic and civil in their actions, and the rule of law must be a guiding principle. Due process must be followed and an integrity test must be performed within the institutions, and their application of the law among the citizenry, ensuring there is no bias in order to retain public confidence.
The party in government must be seen to drive the process with sincerity of purpose to ensure buy-in by all. I suggest therefore that in the fight against corruption, the norm will be for the anti-graft agency to first conclude its investigations, indict persons involved, then arrest them and immediately proceed with prosecution in a court of competent jurisdiction. With this in place, the integrity of the process and outcomes will be better.
Fulfilment of campaign promises – Democracy is advanced when elected political leaders fulfil the promises they made to their constituents during electioneering campaigns. There is nothing worse than unfulfilled promises in a democratic system. When leaders act as if promises they made during campaigns do not matter, it erodes the trust and confidence of the people in the system. The resultant effect is conflict, apathy, inequality, manipulation and corruption, all of which pose serious threats to sustainable democracy.
Political leaders at all levels must realise that promises are meant to be kept; the promises that we make during electioneering campaigns matter and we are under obligation to keep them. That is the only way to maintain the trust and confidence that is necessary between the people and their leaders for sustainable democracy.
Leadership by Example – Leaders must commit to lead by example, deepening the democratic process through an altruistic lifestyle and moral rectitude. To quote George C Marshall “democracy is the most demanding of all forms of government in terms of the energy, imagination, and public spirit required of the individual.” Therefore, it is incumbent on elected officials to be good role models in transparency, humility, accountability and servant-leadership.
Viable political parties – Finally, another contributory factor to good governance and, by implication, sustainable democracy is viable political parties. Sustainable democracy is dependent on the existence of well-functioning and well-funded political parties. Political parties are crucial factors in bringing together diverse interests, recruiting and sponsoring candidates and developing competing policy proposals that provide people with a choice. There is, therefore, no substitute for open competition between political parties in a democracy.
Strengthening political parties/party system
In many parts of Africa, many parties unlike their counterparts in Europe, are more like artificial parties, used as vehicles to advance the personal ambition of their leaders to win elections, sponsor their preferred candidates or control state power. They fail to provide an institutionalized framework from which the society can hold elected persons and governments to account.
Rather than be known and largely assessed and judged by their ideological stand/manifestoes, many political parties are more distinctive in ethnic, religious and regional terms. For democracy to thrive and be sustained therefore in Nigeria and Africa, whole political parties need be grown to become healthy and functional institutions. While consolidating our democracy and running through the seventeenth year of this 4th republic, there is need to observe that campaigns and political advocacies have not largely been based on ideological identities, and worse still memberships appear to be more based on convenience, personality cliques, ethnicity, regional identities, and electoral possibilities at the moment in question.
This is a major setback to the sustenance of democratic growth, as the stability of political parties may not be guaranteed, be it the party in government or the opposition party. The gale of defections in the last few years among political actors clearly shows that our politics is still largely driven by self, and not ideology. If not checked, this has the capacity to weaken our party systems and impact negatively on sustaining our democratic growth.
Sustainable democracy needs strong and sustainable political parties with the capacity to represent citizens and provide policy choices that demonstrate their ability to govern for the public good. There is need, therefore, to strengthen political parties so that they do not constitute a weak link in the democratic process. As we strive to support the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in partnership with other multinational bodies to truly gain independence to conduct credible elections, we must begin to pay attention in our developmental process to the strengthening of party systems and political parties.
To a great extent, political parties, in theory, ought to advance political pluralism, enhance citizen participation in the political process, broaden the representation of different political opinions and ideologies in the governance process, ensure the peaceful and democratic transfer of political power at both National, State and Local government levels, enhance the accountability of governments, and give the necessary legitimacy to both the government of the day and the political system as a whole. They ordinarily should provide a platform for interest aggregation and political stability in societies.
In strengthening our political party systems, the following criteria are crucial, and should be used to guide the process:
Ensuring a representative parliament
Making elections accessible and meaningful
Facilitating stable and efficient government
Holding the government and representatives accountable
Promoting legislative opposition and oversight
Making the electoral process sustainable
Strengthening internal governance systems in the parties, and ensuring internal democracy.
There is no doubt that a strong and viable political party platform will enhance the sustainability of our democracy and the strengthening of our parties will be a plus to our growing democracy.
The role of the opposition in sustaining democracy
Every society needs a viable and strong opposition for sustainable democracy. The opposition must be alive, strong, focussed and ready to play its role. It must consistently and responsibly expose the weaknesses of the ruling party and challenge it to deliver on its promises. In the process, it is their duty to articulate, aggregate and advance its ideology as superior to that of the ruling government, that the people’s interest are better served with them. That way the opposition is able to keep the government on its toes and motivate them to deliver on good governance.
Party supremacy and sustainable democracy
Let me touch briefly on the issue of party supremacy in the aftermath of the recent rumpus in the ruling party over the filling of political offices in the National Assembly. The greatest sustenance of democracy in any country is the Constitution. Every other law, whether of a party, tribe or association, must respect the Constitution of the country, which in legal parlance is regarded as the grand norm.
When the issue of the party being supreme in the governance of a system is canvassed, it is never intended that the constitution of the party is superior to the Constitution of the country. It only means that since the Constitution has not yet made provision for independent candidates, you cannot be an elected representative of anybody or community unless you are a member of a political party.
Therefore, as much as possible you respect the rules and regulations of that party. However, those rules and regulations must not conflict with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. There are clear limitations to party supremacy; it cannot override the Constitution of the country. On the whole, party supremacy is subordinate to the supremacy of the Nigerian Constitution. I am, therefore, glad that peace is returning to both chambers of the National Assembly in the larger interest of Nigeria and Nigerians.
As I conclude this address I wish to affirm that democracy remains the best political system for people to get the best out of their government because of the possibilities that exist in an atmosphere of freedom and the rule of legitimate law. In our chequered history as a nation, we have had the longest stretch of democratic rule beginning from 1999. And with the successful transition from the ruling party to the opposition, Nigeria today can be said to be a healthy democracy. What happened is a highly welcome development.
We need to acknowledge it as such and celebrate it. This is what we need to sustain.
Sustainable democracy requires the existence of these non-negotiables–the upholding of the rule of law, respect for fundamental human rights, an independent and credible electoral process, access by the citizenry to basic necessities of life (food, shelter, education, health, and transportation), transparency in government, a robust and independent judiciary, and a free and independent press. It also requires that strict measures be taken to rid the polity of vested financial and commercial interests.
Finally, political parties must plan for the present and future needs of the people for democracy to be sustainable. For this to happen, civic leaders and elected representatives must embrace the principle of deferred gratification and long-term planning that has the welfare of the people at its core. Together if we take immediate action, we have the power to build a people-oriented and sustainable democracy.
• Dr. Okowa is the governor of Delta State.