Rethinking Political Opposition in Nigeria


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Rethinking Political Opposition in Nigeria



Azeez Olugbenga Mabawonku


culled from THIS DAY of March 8, 2004.

I read with utmost interest the article entitled Nigeria: Politics of Finance and Democracy by Ndubisi Obiorah in THISDAY edition of Sunday, December 21, 2003. The article discussed what may be described as one of the main issues in Nigerian politics. He described the present political system in the country as a "rentier politics" characterised by the dominance of 'electoral machines' which are controlled by political entrepreneurs comprising largely of wealthy former military officers and their civilian business cronies. In practical terms, the 'rentier' political system may be described as a steep hierarchical order of patronage in which leadership is determined by bureaucratic means and political influence is maintained by financial and/or material inducements, ethnic and religious sentiments and deliberate exclusion of opposition. As observed in the THISDAY article, political movements representing the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged that could have served to moderate the influence of the dominant political parties have been systematically excluded from effective participation in the political arena by a combination of legal instruments and their relative paucity of resources compared with the vast financial resources available to the dominant political entrepreneurs. Some political analysts now see Nigeria as a one party state under the control of the so called political entrepreneurs though we now have thirty registered political parties in the country.

The 'rentier politics' or what I prefer to call 'politics of patronage' is clearly different from the politics of the pre-independence era which Chief Lateef Jakande, the former governor of Lagos state described as 'politics of development'. In the pre-independence era, political actors derive their influence and authority directly from the people who willingly exchange their votes for public services. But, in the patronage system, loyalty and commitment to the goals of the political entrepreneurs is the main source of political influence and authority. The election process has been reduced to mere formality, as the people are made to vote either on sentiments or through financial inducements, and the art of rigging of elections has become technically sophisticated to the extent that it is now quite difficult to prove legally. The efficiency of the 'politics of patronage' in modern day Nigeria where poverty is dominant and individuals have no rights in relation to the state is reflected by the outcome of the last general elections in the country and the subsequent neglect of the wishes of the people by the President.

In April 2003, General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd) was elected with an embarrassingly large margin compared with the runners up, as the President of the country for a second term on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Although he was close to impeachment by the PDP dominated National Assembly more than once in his first four year term, he won the ticket of his party with the full backing of the political entrepreneurs with a very large margin. It is shameful that in a nation of over one hundred and twenty million people; a nation that is home to some of the best minds in the world, can be made to believe that the 'presidency cap' of the country fits only one man. What I see in the country is a sophisticated political manipulation of the people for the personal benefit of the ruling class or the political entrepreneurs.

The late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo in his books Voice of Wisdom and Path to Nigerian Greatness noted that the evils of foreign rule may be far less than the evils which may be perpetrated under self-governance by the affluent natives or the local moguls who, if left to their own devices may constitute themselves into class oligarchy and secure the supreme power for themselves in the form of tyranny and arbitrary dictatorship. He stated further that native tyranny and oppression will become more pronounced when a cabal or group of feudal lords seize political power and refuse to hand over to others outside his own hierarchy. For Chief Awolowo, the inability of a regime - civilian or military - to extricate itself from the 'sweet uses and chuckles' of power breeds tenacity of office. He defined this as a 'political monstrosity whose characteristics are inordinate and shameless love of power for its own sake...' Chief Awolowo must be turning in his grave now because of the political situation in the country.

As preparations for the 2007 national general elections take shape, one thing seems almost certain - the political entrepreneurs that produced General Obasanjo as the President of the country in 1999 and 2003 would most likely produce the next president. Should this happen again, it would be most unfortunate for the people of the country who work day and night only to feed themselves and yet were unable to earn enough to provide for at least two decent meals per day. Meanwhile, when people like Chief Gani Fawehinmi and his National Conscience Party who remains one of the most persistent opponents of the political entrepreneurs are yet to fully recover from the losses in the last election, the political entrepreneurs are already at work towards the 2007 elections. It is in this regard that I have decided to write this article. Like Ndubisi Obiorah, many commentators on the political situation in the country often describe the prevailing situation in the country without taken into consideration why the situation is as it is, and how the situation may be changed. My aim therefore, is to suggest ways through which political opposition in the country may be more effective as the 2007 national general elections approaches. To arrive at these suggestions however, I took into consideration some fundamental principles of politics supported with examples from the Nigerian situation.

According to the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, politics is defined as "the activities involved in getting and using power in public life,. and being able to influence decisions that affect a country or a society". This concept of politics combined with my experience as an active political agent has taught me three fundamental principles of politics, which in my opinion, explains some of the problems of effective political opposition in the country. These are: (1) power is the essence of politics just as money is the essence of business. (2) while every political position has attached to it some political powers, the effectiveness of the power depend on the influence of the politician; and (3) political power and influence are never given, they are taken. Although these principles may not be generally acceptable, in my opinion, the continued success of the patronage system of politics in the country may be explained partially by these three principles. I will take them one after the other and explain how non-observance of the principles has limited the effectiveness of the opposition political associations in the country.

Not many of the politicians in the opposition group recognize power as the essence of the political game. They often define their roles in the political process too narrowly sometimes on principles and sometimes based on misplaced priorities and self-interest. A classical example is the failure of the Alliance for Democracy in the last April national general elections. The leaders of the party, because of their misplaced priorities and self interest, lost woefully to the Peoples Democratic Party. Greed and ethnic sentiments were the main determinants of their political moves, they forgot that the political game is played by political parties and that individuals are only agents of the party. The failure of the Campaign for Democracy to follow the political agitations of 1993 after the annulment of the June 12 elections to a logical conclusion may be described as a principled neglect of power as the essence of politics. The Campaign for Democracy was then a political movement with clear ideological posture. However, after the annulment of the June 12 elections, the organization commands so much political influences that it may have been able to gain some legal powers which may have pave the way for the emergence of a genuine strong and effective opposition.

It is important to try to gain some insight into how the ruling class in the country perceive politics and power. Primarily because the political class evolve largely from a military system, politics is seen more as a battle of supremacy where laws and rules are only applied to losers in the political game. The losers of any war are often accused and/or tried for the same offence that the winner also commits. Similarly, a coup d'etat is only a crime if it was unsuccessful. The Ngige saga in Anambra and the Omisore case may be explained by this principle. For the ruling political leaders in the country, it is a supremacy game, and quite unfortunate that things turn out the way they did without a clear loser to punish. Mustapha and Bamayi are the unfortunate scapegoats of the Abacha government, just as Umaru Dikko and others were the unfortunate scapegoats of the Shagari government and Afolabi and others are the much needed prove of the anti-corruption campaign of the present government. There is absolutely no intention to convict anyone because they all still remain potential Presidents, Ministers, Governors, Senators, etc.

How about the much talk about face-off between the president and the vice president; IBB and Atiku; Buhari and Babangida; Ogbeh and Obasanjo; etc.? Crisis and confrontations are the means through which individual political actors and/or agents negotiate for power and authority. This may explain why the President embarked on a review of the local government system and the deregulation of the petroleum products market shortly after being sworn-in despite popular criticism. The crisis gave him the opportunity to assert his authority and to take control of the system. His reaction to the agitation by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) following the deregulation of the petroleum products market in October, is a true demonstration of the attitude of the President and the political entrepreneurs in general to politics and power. While the NLC was concerned with the interest of the people, the President was mainly concerned with his powers.

The political entrepreneurs and their cronies always deliberately over estimate the intentions of the opposition with the aim of intimidating them while also enhancing their own scope of manoeuvring in negotiations. The opposition, on the other hand, always seem to define their interest too narrowly, thereby reducing their power and influence. To be effective, the opposition must always strive to maximize its powers and influence. The House of Representative under the leadership of Alhaji Gali Umar Na'aba is a good example of effective opposition, despite the negative image painted by the press. It is very unlikely that the House actually intended to impeach the President, but by expressing the intension to do so, they maximize their powers, influence and scope of negotiation. Although Alhaji Na'aba has been striped of his powers, he would remain in the minds of the masses as the Speaker who speak up for fairness and defended the constitution. He is also a potentially good candidate for the opposition parties in the country. The recent demand by NLC to return petroleum products prices to its pre-deregulation prices is a good example of effective opposition. It is very unlikely that the NLC actually wanted a return of the pre-deregulation prices but by making the demand, they gained some negotiation advantages.

The power of any politician is detennined by his/her influence, but in Nigeria, people more often associate political power with political positions. Every political position has attached to it some powers however the effectiveness of such powers depends on the influence of the politician. For example, the powers of the Chairman of Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) under Alhaji M. D. Yusuf should not be expected to be the same as under Chief Sunday Awoniyi, primarily because the political influence of the two persons are not the same. Chief Awoniyi as a Yoruba northerner gives a very distinct image of the ACF which is very impressive. It may also have very serious implications for the politics of the country toward 2007 and beyond.

Generally, political office seekers tap into the influence of some notable politicians who has large political influence. This phenomenon is popularly called 'godfatherism' in Nigerian politics and it is popularly condemned. The ruling political leaders however know that the phenomenon is very much a part of the political power game and there is very little that can be done about it. Persons like General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) and the strong man of Ibadan politics, Alhaji Adedibu are renowned political god-fathers whose influence can not be over-emphasized. Such people control enormous powers which often supersede those of political office holders in the sense that they can influence decisions at different levels. The powers of President Obasanjo are for example constrained by the political influence of IBB whether it is acknowledged or not. Similarly, the powers of Governor Ladoja are constrained by the political influence of Alhaji Adedibu and the Anambra crisis have been described as a power game between the godfather and the godson.

Unlike the ruling political leaders, the opposition group has not been able to make effective use of godfathers in politics neither have they recognized that the effectiveness of political power depends on the political influence of the person occupying the position. First, many of the newly registered political parties were established by persons whose political influence is limited to their party, while there are so many political heavy-weights with enormous influence but which are not associated with any political party for one reason or the other. Although someone like Chief Gani Fawehunmi is popular among the youths, his background as a political activist suggests the need for him to work with liberal progressive political groups such as the National Reformation Party of Chief Anthony Enahoro. It has to be recognised that political advocacy is completely different from election-based politics. The knowledge, skills, and personality that is required for political advocacy is clearly different from those that are needed for electioneering campaign. Some political analysts believe that General Obasanjo, based on his own personal influence can not win an election in his own ward or in any part of the country, but with strong support from the political entrepreneurs, he won the presidential ticket twice. In Oyo state, Senator (Dr.) Peter Adeyemo is perhaps the best gubernatorial candidate in the April 2003 elections, but he lacks the needed political support from the political heavy-weights in the state. Although the people generally like him and identify with him, they did not give him their votes because he was unable to involve their recognised leaders in his campaign.

Individuals have specific needs and aspirations and many times they also have real problems and challenges. In addition, because individuals are endowed with intelligence, they can reason and articulate situations; they know what is basically good and what is basically bad. Many progressive politicians and development practitioners assume that once an individual is made to realise what is basically good s/he will do it. In the last two decades or more, many political activists and the progressive political class have based most of their activities on the intellectual ability on man. They assume that people, knowing the good and the bad, will willingly choose the good over the bad. They expect the Nigerian people to react against the ruling class which has continuously misrule them. People like Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Tai Solarin, Pa Anthony Enahoro, and many others who fought for justice, equality, and good governance belong to this category.

Experience has shown that the actions and behaviours of people are determined more by their needs and aspirations as well as the problems and challenges which they face. Political entrepreneurs realise this fact and hence they derive their powers mostly by ensuring that the people are maintained in a perpetual state of dependency in which the people always look up to them to solve their immediate problems and to meet their needs and aspirations. According to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, an ignorant and poverty-stricken people are the easiest preys to political enslavement and economic exploitation. The hierarchical political patronage system in Nigeria and many other African countries actually feeds on the ignorance and poverty of the people. One man that has perfectly mastered how this works is the Maradona, General Ibrahim Babangida. It is well known that he knows how to effectively meet the needs of different people at different times, under different circumstances. As he solves people's problems and help them to meet their needs and aspirations they willingly submit to him and allow him to influence them. This is perhaps responsible for the enormous influence and powers which the man continue to have in the nation's political process. General Obasanjo's lack of concern for the needs and aspirations of the people is one major reason why he lacks personal political influence distinct from the influence associated with the of fice of the President.

The important point is to realise that good talk, principled actions and sound ideologies are not suff~cient to make realistic political impact in the real world. Money and election malpractices will continue to be the dominant factors in the nation's electoral system as long as the people are poor and lacks the capacity to make effective demand from government. The opposition political groups have to support their principles and ideologies with well planned actions that will touch the life of the people directly. The failure of the Alliance for Democracy in the South West is a good illustration of the political behaviour of people. The Alliance for Democracy erroneously believes that the people of the region supported them because of their pro-democracy activism and support for the principles of Awolowo. It is a known fact that the governors of the party were selected in 1999 on the ground of their activities during the 1993 pro-democracy movement and they repeated the process in 2003. Unlike Awolowo which they claim to be following, the governors of the party scored very low in terms of public service delivery in the four years between 1999 and 2003. Meanwhile, people like Otunba Gbenga Daniel and Mr. Ayo Fayose both of which contested on the platform of the People's Democratic Party in Ogun and Ekiti states respectively were known to be engaged in state wide public services few years before the elections. Through these services, the needs of the people were met and so the people identified with them and gave them their votes.

From the discussion of the three principles above, it is clear that political influence is very essential in the political process. Therefore, one may like to ask the question - how do politicians acquire political influence? In my opinion, there are essentially five inter-related strategies which are often used by politicians to gain public influence. The first, as discussed earlier is public service. Chief M. K. O. Abiola is one man that used this strategy effectively. He invested massively in sports and education in the eighties and early nineties to the admiration of almost every Nigerian. There is hardly any state in the country where Chief Abiola did not have a physical presence in terms of public service. He was able to touch the life of almost every Nigerian either directly or indirectly, and hence majority of the people identify with him and were willing to follow him. Since 1999, apart from Governors Ayo Fayose and Gbenga Daniel, the other politicians that use public service strategy includes Governors Bola Tinubu, Urji Kalu, Adamu Mu'azu; Senator Peter Adeyemo among others. Chief Gani Fawehinmi is also another politician that has gained significant political influence through public service. Political radicalism or activism is a form of public service and it is a very potent means of gaining political influence. People like Alhaji Lam Adesina, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti; Alhaji Abubaker Rimi, etc. are well known for their political radicalism before they recognised political leaders.

While public service is a very effective strategy for gaining political influence, it has very high cost both in terms of time, money and personal involvement. Public service, the type that Chief Abiola engaged in, requires enormous amount of money to be effective, while people like Chief Gani Fawehinmi had to pay for their political radicalism with repeated imprisonments. However, these short-comings may be avoided through intellectual contributions to national political and development issues. Although this may be classified as a form of public service, we discuss it here as a distinct political strategy. In the last few years, Governor Chimaroke Nnamani has been using this strategy effectively. General Babangida also used the strategy partially with his erudite speeches and the wide variety of books that were published during his regime. Furthermore, General Babangida attracted many intellectuals to his government - Jerry Gana, Olikoye RansomeKuti, Babatunde Fafunwa, Akin Mabogunje, Ojetunji Aboyade, among others. This strategy is relatively less costly and it holds enormous potentials for opposition political groups. The only main disadvantage of the strategy is that it will not directly meet the needs and aspirations of the people. In addition, because there is a general disregard for knowledge in the country, one has to be highly innovative in using the strategy, particularly in combination with other strategies.

Financial and other material inducement are very effective in gaining political influence in the country and this will likely remain so for some time. The primary reason for this is that the social institutions for the allocation of resources and opportunities in the country have failed and there is poverty and dependency in the land. An indication of the seriousness of the dependency problem in the politics of the country is the fact that the National Assembly had to address the issue of demands for money and material gifts by members of their constituency particularly during festive periods. In the south west, some people talk of the 'Alamala Politics', to describe the situation in which politicians has to continuously feed their followers daily particularly during elections. There are several accounts of how the present PDP government in the country used financial inducement to buy votes in the last April 2003 elections. At the intra- or inter-party levels, contracts, financial rewards and appointments are used to negotiate for political support. The shameful behaviour of Alhaji Abdulkadir, the immediate past National President of the Alliance for Democracy, is an example of how material inducements influence the political power game at the institutional level.

The financial inducement strategy is being used mainly by the political entrepreneurs. This strategy as well as sentimentalism tends to shift focus away from the issues and challenges in the country.

Therefore, one thing that the opposition groups can do is to find ways to maintain focus on issues and problems. Sentimentalism, like financial inducements are designed to meet the needs of the people. While financial inducements and public service were designed to meet the material needs in a poverty stricken society, sentimentalism as a political strategy to gain influence, is designed to meet the emotional needs of the people. Humanity in general places a lot of emphasis on their roots, cultural identity and spiritual belief. Hence, ethnicity and/or tribalism and religion are critical issues in politics in general, but it is particularly more relevant in poor communities because in the absence of material holdings, poor people always tend to guide their ethnic and religious identity as essential resource without which their life will not have any meaning. The political entrepreneurs in the country always take advantage of these emotional needs by the people of the country while the needs were most often neglected by the opposition groups.

Politicking is the last strategy of gaining political influence. Politicking is essentially about sociopolitical relationships. That is, the art of building political friendship and partnership based on interests, goals and ideologies. This is an area in which I have come to respect and admire the political entrepreneurs in the country. The politicking that produced General Obasanjo as the presidential candidate of the PDP in 1999 and 2003 is particularly highly commendable. It shows that the political entrepreneurs in the country are highly sophisticated and disciplined, unlike the opposition groups. They have the ability to make very important critical concessions and to defer gratification. In my opinion, it is the ability to play politics objectively that actually separate the political entrepreneurs from their opponents many of who often place personal interests and sentiments far above group goals. One major weakness of the so called progressives in the country is their inability to accommodate alternative opinions. Because of their dogmatic approach to politics they exclude many people and institutions that could help their cause. The opposition groups are often unrealistic in their approach to politicking.

Rethinking Political Opposition for Greater Effectiveness

There is need to have a critical rethink of the political system in the country particularly the system and style of opposition. Perhaps the most important fact to consider in this respect is that we now have a democratic system of governance as against military dictatorship. Unlike during military rule when there are very few institutionalised means of opposing the government in power, there are a wide range of opportunities for constructive political opposition in the new democratic system of government. First the opposing political groups have the opportunity to contest any election through registered political parties. Secondly, there are opportunities for the opposition groups to lobby for specific legislations and policies either by lobbying the legislators or through systematic public outreach activities. Lastly, there are opportunities for political opposition groups to take legal actions against the ruling party or the government. Therefore, for a more effective political opposition in the country, the following may be taken into consideration:

Recognise power as the essence of politics:

As discussed earlier, power is the essence of politics just as money is the essence of business. Unless a politician has power s/he can not have much influence in public life. Many of the existing political parties in the country do not seem to have any real interest in power and as such they cannot provide effective opposition to the ruling political party in the country. It is reasonable to expect that if the Alliance for Democracy had contested the presidential elections in April 2003, the outcome of the elections would have produced a totally different result and the political situation in the country would have been more competitive.

Focus on issues and processes:

Considering the large financial resources and experience of the present ruling class, it is very unlikely that the opposition group can oppose the political entrepreneurs effectively in their own game. Therefore, there is need for the opposition groups to shift the focus of political debates away from sentimentalism to address concrete development issues and problems as well as processes. It is particularly quite unfortunate that none of the other twenty nine political parties in the country is making any systematic effort to challenge some of the unpopular policies of the present government. The opposition of the deregulation of the downstream oil sector for example have been very weak. To be effective, the opposition groups need to equip themselves with much more information than is available on the pages of newspapers about the downstream sector. Decisions on key national development issues such as the deregulation of the downstream oil sector needs to be based on a rigorous knowledge and understanding of the sector and not mere speculations based on theoretical abstraction. Where necessary, opposition groups should make use of independent policy think-tanks.

Strengthen political relationships and networks:

It is good to have thirty political parties in the country. However, membership and followership of the different parties are limited to specific interest groups. There is need for effective politicking and for the political parties to form alliances and partnership with each other as well as other interest groups across the country and even internationally. If the opposition groups are to make the necessary impact on the political system in the country, they will have to engage more on discussions and negotiations among themselves and with politically influential people who are not publicly known to be in the ruling political party. There are a good number of renowned politicians in the country who for one reason or the other are unable to join the PDP and would not like to be associated with a weak political party. If the opposition group are to be effective, I will like to see such radical combinations such as a Na'aba and Kalu presidential ticket on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy; Nnamani and Adeyemo on the platform of the National Reformation Party; or Abubarkar Rimi and Ngige ticket on the platform of APGA. The possibilities are limitless.

Engage in information dissemination and policy outreach activities:

One of the strategies of the ruling party and the political entrepreneurs in the country is to impoverish the people both materially and intellectually as a means of disempowering them both politically and economically. The political opposition groups in the country can enhance their public influence if they can systematically empower the people by providing them with useful information about politics and policy. For example, Akitiyan Senator which means 'the efforts of a Senator' is a Yoruba radio programme which became very popular in Oyo state in less than one year because it tends to empower the people by providing information about happenings in the Senate and the policies of government in general. The popularity of Senator Adeyemo, the initiator of the radio programme may be attributed largely to this radio programme. There are many other innovative ways through which sensitive information can be disseminated to the public and political actors.


  • Dr. Mabawonku is a development policy analyst based in Ibadan. Nigeria



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