Internal democracy in political parties, institutions for checkmate

Internal democracy in political parties, institutions for checkmate
Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo

By Patrick Okedinachi Utomi

Being remarks in tribute at Webinar to celebrate Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo at 70

LET me congratulate Dr. Okwesilieze Nwodo on reaching the prescribed age of 70 in scripture, and trust, because I know he is strong, that 80 and more is his portion. The angle I have been assigned to speak to on this critical subject, the place of institutions and regulators in assuring internal democracy in the political parties, set me out on the track to a great debate about what is the most responsible for human progress. To many, it is institutions.

To others, it is culture. How have institutions of restraint failed us such that internal democracy has been lost in a way that has reduced our democracy to a farce of sorts and allowed our country to become the laughing stock of the world? That is, besides the many directly related failures of governing that have made us the poverty capital of the world, and Abuja, a reality show attracting more viewership than Big Brother Naija.

First, let me commend Dr. Okwi Nwodo for recognising that the absence of internal democracy in the political parties, is the reason for the deep leadership crisis that currently torments wellbeing in Nigeria. A few days ago Dr. Nwodo and I both featured in a Diaspora webinar organised by NIDO – Americas and he spoke quite eloquently on the subject of internal democracy in political parties. That it is the theme for this webinar to mark his 70th speaks much to a sense of commitment.

Even though I was assigned the sub-theme of institutions and regulatory oversight on internal democracy a few hours ago, yesternight, I am very pleased to speak from that angle, especially as I have written several books on the subject of institutions and economic performance in particular, and institutions and human progress generally, and therefore have been passionate about the subject for more than 30 years. I would however, like to begin the conversation on the big question of which matters more: Institution or Culture.

In the instance of internal democracy, the critical institutions are party organs, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, the courts, and in a manner of speaking, the agenda setting function of the media and organised public opinion. But the domain of culture includes the norms and ethics of political actors and the values of the political culture.

Even though I can be called an institutionalist, I disagree with people from that school like the Peruvian Economist Hernando De Soto whose excellent work on the mystery of capital, suffers, in my opinion, from trying to dismiss the importance of culture.

That value of culture I am quite pleased, was raised by the colloquium at Harvard on Patrick Daniel Moynihan’s two truths which resulted in the book: Culture Matters. I shall return to these organising thoughts in wrapping up, but for now I will turn to the nitty gritty of the practical question of internal democracy in Nigerian political parties, which in spirit, and in truth, in my opinion, make most elections in Nigeria coup d’états.

The outcome, the subversion of the will of the people, by means other than force of arms (barely, given the violence that attends many of these elections) is the same. A graphic illustration of this phenomenon of internal party democracy goes back to the one-man- one-vote campaign  by then Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole. The campaign was evidently motivated by a desire to stop the godfathers of Edo politics.

As a committed democrat who risked everything to end military rule, I took the trouble to journey to Benin to participate in the final rally. When I arrived at the stadium I was pleased to see President Ibrahim Babangida. But it was a bit of a spectacle seeing him wearing a T-shirt over his traditional gear; so I teased him and bantered around that and matters of democracy with him.

To be sure, I did not miss my flight out as I was connecting from Lagos to go abroad that night, I left early. At the Benin Airport, I met an ACN contingent that had arrived by a private jet. They included Senators Bola Ajimobi of Oyo and Bola Tinubu of Lagos. They had heard IBB was at the stadium and wondered if it was impolitic to go to a rally on democracy with General Babangida.

My flight arrived and I left them trying to make up their minds. With benefit of hindsight, today, if I could rename the rally, it would have a banner of ‘Summit of godfathers’, rather than ‘one-man-one-vote’, because the organisers and those who debated whether or not to go to a democracy event with the General, seem, no thanks to the suppression of internal democracy, to do more damage to democracy than the Generals.

In my view, IBB smells more of “Democratic Roses” than the other main actors in the feast of hypocrisy I had taken so much trouble to go to Benin for. At the least, he would look for quality people or play the corporatist state game of incorporating populists and people from the unofficial opposition like NBA and NMA, drawing Attorneys-General from radical NBA and Health Ministers from the critical groups.

As we can see in what has unfolded in both PDP and APC, the quest for state capture, using manipulated party primaries, is to corner political power for legal plunder and a combination of petty and mega corruption that recent National Assembly hearings manage to showcase, if only the tip of a horrifying iceberg.

Given the goal of those who frustrate internal democracy, it should be obvious that the target is to prevent people who think (or have capacity); people who have integrity, and people passionate about the common good from roles in public life. Surely, they know, or assume that such people will be in the way of their objective to substitute public goals for development and society’s wellbeing, with theirs for unhindered access to the treasury of the commonwealth.

So, how have institutional arrangements responded to this? The first line institutions are  internal party organs. The leading political parties in Nigeria have not even bothered to set up the internal organs and party leaders who have made the effort, like Dr. Nwodo, have been frustrated by money bags and high stakes power players who want to send their tea boys to the House so they can use state resources to build stupendous wealth which they then use to further deepen state capture.

I have tried to encourage the building of such internal organs unsuccessfully. How does a party member unhappy with policies of the government of his party express it and help it change for better? Where are the organs for that?  What of the internal Ombudsman to ensure open transparent party primaries?

I was pressuring for the establishment of such, as well as an academy to socialise all potential candidates into the ideology, ethics and development philosophy of the party with former APC Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, in his office in Abuja, a few years ago when Osita Okechukwu of the Voice of Nigeria walked in. Osita supported my position. But nothing was done.

The machine politics view of how to organise society no doubt contributed largely to Forbes Magazine verdict, late last year, that Nigeria was  a money-losing machine. If you want to lose money the globally regarded magazine said, go to Nigeria and invest it. The absence of those internal organs have made the courts the arena of internal party disputes.

Unfortunately, this has contributed to corrupting the judiciary and making the courts dysfunctional. By contrast, the ANC party organs in South Africa have regular meetings on government policy all the way down to grassroots. A Nigerian who is a member of the ANC and is currently an Assistant to the Kaduna State Governor has much experience of these.

Then there is INEC and its role. In my view INEC has been unable to do the needful. A few years ago at a public lecture at the NIIA in Victoria Island, I raised this issue with then INEC Chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega. I gave him the example of South Korea where the politics was as dysfunctional as ours is today.

There the Electoral Agency sought to change things by insisting on debates at all levels, from the grassroots to television, to enable those running to be properly interrogated on their ideas, programmes, and character in a way that can be actionable and used to hold the candidates to account. He agreed with me but there was not much time left then on his watch. This is what eliminated money from their elections and opened the way of committed and capable people driven by selfless service into the arena in South Korea.

The bottom line is that institutional failure characterizes the political party process in Nigeria. We need to start afresh to build political parties here. The only alternative to massive reform is popular revolt. They should read Ted Gurr on “Why Men Rebel”. My own experience with the process in the APC primaries of 2019 is a classic example. In that case the party collected large sums of money from its members and then 419ed them by not allowing primaries such the Governors asked the party to refund the monies but they have.

Conclusion: The sad state of our political parties as instruments of state capture may seem like a paradox but was long identified on commentary made more that than a hundred years ago in Roberto Michael’s 1911 frame setting book,  political parties. The idea of the iron law of oligarchy suggests that political parties tend towards control of a few. This is why the right institutions are necessary for them to belong to all. From his political science students have learnt to chorus: he who says organization says oligarchy.

Elsewhere in the world, these challenges of the democratic process have led to soul searching. In the US, ironically for our subject, many think that it is recent reform that tied the hands of party bosses and probably enabled a person like Donald Trump who party elders, in smoke-filled rooms, could have stopped, reach the presidency. But here party elders have not acted to stop candidates perceived as troubling in character but have rather promoted such people in a cash and carry transaction pattern that has defined our current Republic.

From Cambridge University in the UK and Harvard, a series of books have emerged rethinking Democracy. Harvard’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt title theirs: How Democracies Die; while David Runciman’s is titled How Democracy Ends.

Unfortunately, we have not exposed our democracy, which started with citizen aplomb, as measured by the Afrobarometer data on democracy and governance in Africa, to such scrutiny. The fruit of the Afrobarometer partnership between Michigan State University in the US and major Civil Society Initiatives across Africa with base in Ghana, show Nigerians are far from being upbeat with our democracy today as they were in 1999.

What needs to be done, to save the situation, is for INEC to act from the institution-building perspective and for civil society to do much more on the culture angle. Values shape human progress. If the public arena is dominated by people of public virtue, as Montesquieu calls for, or public morality, as Prof. Peter Ekeh, former head of the department of political science at the University of Ibadan suggests, in his 1975 seminal essay on “The Two Publics”, then the democratic arena can truly define modernity.

For the ultimate contemporary philosopher of modernity and the public sphere, Jurgen Habermas, that is about “rational public conversation” which our lack of internal democracy frustrates. Unless we make parties more democratic rather than transaction enterprises of “owners” of the party our democracy will remain that of “is ok, its ok”. Switch off the mic’.

Happy birthday, Ude Ukehe.

Prof. Pat Utomi is Founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership

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