By Ike Okonta
It was the late Claude Ake, one of Africa’s foremost political economists, who observed in his book ‘Democracy And Development in Africa’ that Africa remained underdeveloped because ‘development has never been on the agenda of the continent’s rulers.’ Bringing this pithy observation back home to Nigeria, one can similarly argue that development has never been on the agenda of Nigeria’s politicians since the advent of the Fourth Republic in May 1999.
This fact was brought forcefully home to Nigerians during the just-concluded presidential primaries of the two main political parties – the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC). Bola Tinubu, who eventually emerged the flag bearer of the APC, told Ogun State delegates a few days to the primary that he was in the race because he had helped President Muhammadu Buhari to win the election in 2015 and again in 2019. Tinubu, beside himself with anger, pointed out that all through President Buhari’s tenure he did not request to be awarded contracts; he did not forward names of his protégés to be given ministerial positions; and that he did not ingratiate himself with the President for personal benefit.
What Bola Tinubu was saying was that it was pay-back time; that President Buhari should pave the way for him to emerge as President of Nigeria after the latter’s tenure ends in May 2023. Please note that Bola Tinubu did not raise a single developmental issue he would tackle were he to be elected President, using this as a platform to make his case to the Ogun State APC delegates. As far as he was concerned, development was not on the agenda. What was important is that the Presidency be ‘awarded’ to him for playing his politics right in 2015 and 2019.
It is significant that Nigerians responded to the emergence of Atiku Abubakar as the PDP presidential candidate and Bola Tinubu as the APC candidate with resounding silence. You did not see happy Nigerians trooping out into the streets and waving party flags enthusiastically. You did not see them taking to the radio and television stations waxing eloquent on the ‘sterling’ qualities of their candidates. Instead, what you heard them complaining about was how the presidential aspirants distributed wads of dollars to the delegates at the conventions of the two political parties and literally bought their way to the ticket.
The PDP was tested for sixteen years; it failed to deliver development. When APC politicians got into power in 2015, it became clear as President Buhari dithered in the simple task of appointing his ministers that he had not given prior thought to how he would govern if he became elected and who would be put in place in the various ministries and departments to help him execute his policies and programmes. We have now entered President Buhari’s last year in office, and the overwhelming evidence is that the APC, like the PDP before it, has failed abysmally.
When two major political parties fail one after the other to deliver on promises, then it is time to take a hard look at the politics of the country and ask what is to be done next. That is the situation in which Nigerians find themselves today. Nigerians are not happy. Unemployment is surging. The national electricity grid has been collapsing regularly, plunging the country into darkness and leaving offices and homes without power. The hospitals are without equipment and doctors, badly trained and badly paid, are perpetually on strike or migrating to Europe and America. The universities, pummeled into near extinction since the days of General Ibrahim Babangida in the mid 1980s, are now gasping for breath and the lecturers rendered irrelevant. Kidnapping, banditry and Islamic insurgency have overwhelmed the north. In the east, separatists are insisting that the Igbo bid Nigeria goodbye and strike out for a revived Biafra.
It is now clear that if we leave Nigeria to the present set of politicians in the APC and PDP, we will have no country in the next ten years. Nigeria is literally coming apart at the seams, and the politicians’ response to this existential crisis was to gather in Abuja and compete with each other over who would distribute more dollars to the delegates at the conventions. A party convention is a special event. It affords leading members of the party an opportunity to look at the challenges confronting the country, examine the performance of their party in meeting those challenges, and tell the citizens of the country how they intend to perform better. You did not get this at the just ended party conventions.
When a set of politicians fail to rise up to the challenge of development thrown up by their nation and instead resort to frivolities, then the urgent task is to replace them. That is the challenge staring ordinary Nigerians in the face right now. They must not give in to despair or cynicism, arguing that PDP and the APC are the only dominant parties on offer and that one will have no choice but to vote one or the other. That is clearly not the way to go. A minor political party can be turned into a major winning party overnight if voters will it to be so. Emmanuel Macron, recently re-elected as President of France, took a hard look at the dominant political parties on offer in 2017 and decided that none of them spoke to the wishes and aspirations of ordinary French. Macron established a brand new political party, positioning it in the political centre and the rest is history.
If enough Nigerians move away from the PDP and the APC and support a smaller political party with a presidential candidate who they feel best exemplifies their aspirations, then surely that candidate will carry the day. All they need to say is that both APC and PDP have been tested and have been found wanting and that they are striking out for a brand new party that will place development on the agenda. It can be done. As former President Barrack Obama said back in 2008, rallying American voters: ‘Yes We Can!’
*Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department Of Politics, University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja