“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”- Walt Kelly 1971
Politics is threatening the fragile Nigerian democratic process in a manner that is likely to create unprecedented levels of crises.
Overheating the polity is the popular phrase Nigerian politicians like to use against opponents. In this context, this is an appropriate description of the cumulative effect of the utterances and manouvers of elected leaders and others with responsibility for managing the democratic process.
At no time in its history has this nation needed more cohesion and consensus around vital matters on politics, governance and security at its leadership levels than now. Rather tragically, at no other time has the nation been more exposed to damaging absence of unity and commitment to national interests as it is today, 53 years since politicians quarrelled and squabbled over dates and duties, but settled around the fundamentals of political independence from the British.
It is difficult to see how the nation can be freed from the depth of despair and paralysis which its leaders have plunged it. Democracy is many things to many people, but at its barest minimum, it is a social framework for resolving basic human challenges such as conflicts over social goals, leadership and allocation of resources.
It becomes a threat to social existence when its operation becomes the source of massive quarrels over leadership and security of communities and citizens. The failure of democratic institutions and leaders to resolve conflicts opens up the nation to opportunistic threats. These compound the weaknesses of the state, and expose it to more serious threats.
Many things can, and do go wrong with democratic systems. Elected leaders fail to lead well, and nations pay a huge price for inept or corrupt leadership. Many elections are rigged, or widely disputed, and governments limp on through terms battling to justify mandates and acquire some credibility and influence. Voters and citizens are quick to judge, and difficult to please, so leaders are often stampeded into taking decisions or adopting policies which create solutions that compound problems. Not all inter-related democratic institutions work well, or together, all the time.
Failure of one or all to operate above the most minimal levels of integrity and competence compromise the entire system. Viruses such as corruption and endemic insecurity infect the entire system, and although nations can be substantially rid of corruption in vital organs of the state, this can only be achieved under very strong and committed leaders who enjoy high levels of support from critical political sectors, and who operate within a consensus framework that identifies the fight against them as national priorities.
Precisely because democratic systems are both instruments for conflict resolution and sources of conflict, they are designed to operate with flexibility and adaptability.
Values which keep the system working include broad and sustainable consensus among the political elite over the mode and goals of exercising power; inclusiveness which reduce the potential damage of partisanship and vulnerability and weaknesses of those without power; respect for laws and rules for political competition and the deployment of political power; and above all, a recognition of the fact that power does belong to the people, and the people have interests that transcend those of politicians at any time.
The Nigerian democratic system is gradually losing all the elements which should make it work. The damaging quarrels within the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, represent a disastrous failure of a major pillar which supports elite consensus, and both for good and evil, has kept the quarrelsome and cumbersome democratic system in Nigeria ticking since 1999.
The edifice which has provided a platform for power sharing and economic appropriation by the largest segment of the elite is being assaulted by a leadership which appears bent on destroying the legacies of the party.
These legacies include the creation of a broad elite concesus around a Yoruba president in 1999; the creation of expertise and competence around the manipulation of the electoral process which got more sophisticated with every election; the generation of sufficient levels of elite support and commitment to stick together in spite of serious assaults from the opposition; the establishment of a veritable resource base which target and manipulate ethno-religious and other security faultlines of the nation towards retaining power; and huge experiences in the use of state resources to weaken the opposition and compromise other vital organs of the democratic process, such as the judiciary and the legislature.
This party which had pulled many chestnuts out of its own fire now seems incapable of overcoming its problems. It appears to have boxed itself into a corner, and there is very little room for manoeuvre. President Jonathan, whose candidature for the 2015 elections is at the heart of the battle cannot step back, or out.
He has to run in 2015 because not doing so will expose him as weak and intimidated by Northern pressure. He will be powerless for the rest of his presidency, and will be fair game beyond 2015. His considerable army of beneficiaries will not hear of it anyway.
Where will they go with their largess after 2015? What will be their fate under a different administration which may have a huge appetite for inquiring into the management of national resources under this administration? Without Jonathan in power beyond 2015, what will be the fate and role of the new billionaires from the Niger Delta who have the nation’s substantial oil and gas assets in their custody today?
If Jonathan does run, the split in his party will be well and truly sealed. The PDP governors who are rebelling against his ambition will have nowhere to run under a new and improved Jonathan, post 2015. He won’t run without winning, whatever the ballots say. A stronger opposition and the rump of the PDP rebels can defeat him, provided there is a credible election in 2015. But the stakes will be too high to be left to the electoral process to decide. With incumbency, massive resources, control of security assets of the nation and a morbid fear of life in defeat, Jonathan’s people will throw everything into the fray for another term.
The opposition will also fight like it has never fought before. Starting from those rebelling against his ambitions in 2015, it is becoming clear by the day that an acceptance of reconciliation on their part will amount to the most foolhardy capitulation. It will say only one thing: they are now well and truly part of his plans for another term in 2015.
Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, a commentator on national issues, wrote from Abuja