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Constitution making and party politics in Nigeria

Political parties in Nigeria


Arthur Nwankwo

There is no nation in the world today, which does not strive for the attainment of full democracy, the material and spiritual empowerment of her people. However, as striving differs in the conscious realisation of these ideals, many nations are still caught in the tragic dance of hypocrisy and deceit. Such nations, Nigeria being a ready example, risk the danger of total violence and the pains of collective immolation. We cannot allow this country to suffer that kind of fate of which many states are unworthy examples, which litter the pages of human civilisation.

To many well-meaning observers and commentators, the democratisation process in Nigeria has at best been haphazard and at worst non-existent. The contradictions of our colonial past and our inability to evolve a workable political system stem from the opportunism and lack of vision of most of the post-colonial elite. Okwudiba Nnoli opines that ethnicity, more than any other factor is at the root cause of this. According to him, “politics, during the era of the nationalist struggle for independence from colonialism, was dominated by the conflict arising from the assertion of interests other than national interest.

In their inter-class struggles, the hegemonic regional factions of these privileged classes paid lip services to the desirability of national unity, and condemned ethnic particularism. For all intents and purposes these declarations were not taken seriously and were never intended to be. The same people who inveighed against ethnicity and ethnic identify simultaneously institutionalised them by making them a basis for economic participation within their regional enclaves and to a lesser extent for political participation at both the regional and national level” (Okwudiba Nnoli 978: 153-154.

The amalgamation of the Protectorates of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914 marked the beginning of a stupendous effort in socio-political engineering. That is the creation of a modern state out of a collection of a number of independent nation-states and nationalities. Add to that the diversities in religion, culture and tradition, language, geography/climate etc. and you begin to appreciate the scale of the ambition and the task involved.

When the Sir Hugh Clifford Constitution of 1922 introduced the “Elective Principle” in our governance and Herbert S. H. Macaulay followed up with the Nigerian Democratic Party (NNDP) which contested and won all three seats allocated to Lagos in the 1922 Legislative Council Elections, you could say that the experiment was off to a good and promising start.

The Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) was a pan-Nigerian political organisation and drew its membership across the country. However, the ethnicity question in the country eventually led to its break-up. The successor National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon later renamed National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) fared little better as the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group Party took over and consolidated power in the Western Region (Yoruba Nation) via the ethnic card. The Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) transformed itself from an essentially cultural organisation into a political party with the philosophy of “One North, One Destiny and One God.” Although the NCNC hung on to its universalistic Pan-Nigeria vision and dreams, the carpet-crossing episode practically reduced it to a regional party with the return of Zik to the East to assume power through a crisis whose unwholesome effect on inter-ethnic relations in Eastern Nigeria remains till this day.

The formation of other political parties and associations with clearly limited horizons e.g. United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC), Ibadan Parapo, Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) demonstrates conclusively that the NCNC was the odd man out in her visionary one Nigeria where ethnic, religious etc. differences did not matter and should not count.

I do not intend to minimise the impact of ethnicity on our body politic but I have always asked myself whether we have indeed been drawing the correct conclusions from our analysis of the ethnic question in Nigeria. For example a point often missed out or completely ignored in debates and discourse on “the conflict arising from the assertion of interests other than national interest” is the uncomfortable fact but reality all the same, that the concept of the NATION as a PAN NIGERIA geographical entity and identity is a novel concept yet to take firm root in the consciousness and psyche of the average Nigerian person and institutions. Put differently, it is my view that the notion of the Nigerian nation and therefore National Interest as a concrete reality of the same meaning and import in our country is yet to be fully realised from the social engineering process which the 1914 amalgamation started.

If the above is granted it seems to me that we may have to re-examine our concept of tribal or ethnic politics as practised during the First Republic and to a less obvious extent during the Second Republic because of the over-bearing presence of the military.

The acknowledged founding fathers comprising the late Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and all their compatriot were true Nigerian patriots and nationalists not withstanding the regional political power bases.

The various political alliances they forged their respective bids of power at the centre of necessity cut across their ethnic enclaves. They did not ignore but rather recognised our differences and sought to forge unitary in our diversity; they settled for a Federal Constitution. The GOAL was ultimate evolution into a united country over time peacefully.

So from the very beginning of political parties in Nigeria were ethnic or regional parties and even the NCNC which had a national outlook was soon confined to the Eastern Region the home base of its leaders by the currents of ethnicity and regionalism unleashed on the system by the emergent ideologies of AG and NPC.

But while the political elite was busy consolidating their regional/ethnic bases, there was a growing class of Nigerians in whom the Pan-Nigerian nationalist sentiments was taking root in their consciousness. This was the up and coming educated class and university undergraduates and also in the military. The university students had in 1961/2 demonstrated their impatience and dissatisfaction with the politicians when they stormed the Legislature in Lagos and scuttled the proposed Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact.

Meanwhile the politicians continued with their shenanigans to which were added to rampant corruption, nepotism, robust political contestations, bordering on open warfare, etc. Exasperated by it all young nationalistic military officers who saw no boundaries of religion tribe, class geography or anything else except one united Nigeria properly governed for the well being and development of her citizens struck on January 15, 1966 to arrest the drift. The consequences of that military intervention is now history. But suffice it to say here that what began as a welcome development and was cheered across the country was soon given sinister interpretations that unleashed on the Igbo and peoples of Eastern Nigeria a wave of genocidal killings and engulfed the country in 30-month factricidal war. And the military took centre stage, proscribed the political parties and political activities, and abrogated the constitution and ruled by decrees.

In the relatively open and democratic environment of the transition to the Second Republic, the emergent political parties, i.e. NPN, UPN, NPP, GNPP and PRP were incarnates of NPC, AG, NCNC and NEPU. The NPN controlled the North, UPN controlled the west including old Bendel and Kwara States while the NPP controlled the Igbo heartland. During the Babangida junta, the pattern of emergence of the political associations, their organisational structures and leadership composition showed a remarkable replication of the political parties of the First and Second Republics. The same geo-political and ethno-cultural alliances, axes and configurations were substantially sustained in the way that the ideological forces which informed political parties of previous era were worked into the new associations. This relationship is not a one-on-one correspondence but a very complex articulation of equally complex historical, social and political processes and dialectics.

In my book, “Nigeria: The Political Transition and the Future of Democracy” (1993) I argued that despite the newness of the emergent political associations, they were still characterised by the inter-play of primordial political loyalties and forces. It was to prevent this attachment to ethnic and primordial sentiments that the Babangida junta defaulted all known integers of political party evolution to impose, unilaterally, a two party structure on Nigeria in 1991- the SDP and NRC with a mocking cliché “a little to the left and a little to the right.” In part A of this paper, we noted that political parties are never imposed. They evolve as a matter of course by attracting people of the same political persuasion on how to govern a given political system.

Because these parties were imposed, they became government parastatals and were run as such. It was only a matter of time for both parties to be consumed by their own internal contradictions. When Abacha came to power, he dismantled the political structures set up by Babangida and went ahead to supervise the emergence of his own political parties. The five parties under Abacha were aptly likened to the five fingers of a leprous hand. Because of their praetorian origin and not so subtle imposition, these parties had no authority of their own, no mind of their own and no identity.

Even today in Nigeria, we cannot say in all truth that the present political parties we have, evolved from the people. They were military imposition except of course AD which is a coalition of pro-democracy groups in Nigeria. AD evolved as I explained in point one of the factors for party evolution. The PDP represents the political wing of the military which was their tool for a “negotiated” withdrawal while the APP is the political wing of the core Northern civilian elite with all the trappings of reaction and additionally provides a fall back save haven for the military in case the PDP fails them. In all, these parties are made up of strange bed-fellows whose political persuasions are diametrically opposed and this also explains the high level of party indiscipline and collapse of party machinery.

Because of their artificiality all the parties are experiencing cracks; mass exodus and carpet crossing from one party to the other. Indeed, Nigeria is a case study. The political class has always remained bereft of viable political ideology on which the nation’s political future could be anchored. This bankruptcy in ideology and vision has rescued party politics in Nigeria to a bread and butter game where monetisation of the political process is the bedrock of loyalty and support. This erodes the aim of the democratisation process. For the avoidance of doubt, the democratisation process is a process of political renewal and the affirmative acceptance of the supremacy of popular will and consensual obligation over the logic of elitism and parochialism.

To that extent, political parties in Nigeria must of historical necessity and dialectical imperative represent an articulate and objective expression of the ideological world outlook and beliefs of the various groups in it. This has to be so given the fact that political parties bear the stamp and identity of the people. Democratisation is basically related to the mass mobilisation and conscientisation of the people.

Political parties and constitution making in Nigeria

Constitutional development in Nigeria could be said to have started with nationalist agitation. The first constitution in Nigeria was that made in 1914. The changes which the 1914 constitution was expected to usher in were denied by the British Government. Instead, the British pursued a vigorous policy of divide and rule. The North was ruled by proclamation while the South was ruled by a colonial constitution. Sklar (1963:18) noted that, “for a period of twenty two years after amalgamation, the Northern and Southern provinces were linked tenuously in law and through the person of the Governor; their destructive political identities were preserved by the maintenance of separate administrative establishment. Okibe H. B. (2000:86) observed that most of the colonial constitutional reforms de-emphasised the essence of corporate existence of Nigerians as that would cripple their mission of economic exploitation of the people.

Between 1914-1946, the philosophy of British colonial government was based on protecting its interest economically while Nigeria bled to death. Nigeria participation was only nominal. The constitutional conference at Ibadan in 1947 provided the British a better opportunity to vitiate the destiny of the country. It was at this time that the cracks in the political class manifested more vividly with the political leaders disagreeing sharply on what form of constitution suited the country. The conference produced about four minority reports submitted by Mbonu Ojike, Eyo Ita and the Action Group.

The colonial constitutions were imposed on Nigerians by the British in the sense that they were neither allowed to determine the nature of the documents nor did they participate in the process of bringing them into being. In this category fell the Lugard constitution of 1914 the 1922 Clifford constitution and the Richards constitution of 1946.

The electoral principle introduced in 1922 was dubious since it presented greater obstacles in qualification and universal adult suffrage. Of the three seats allotted to Lagos only one was won by a pure Nigerian. The other two were secured by nationals of Gambia and Sierra Leone resident in Nigeria and who satisfied the one-hundred-pound annual income qualification. The seat allotted to Calabar was won by Ata Amonu, Ghanaian. The 1946 constitution was promulgated without consultations. It introduced regionalism and in the process gave official seal to separatist tendencies.

The problem of the 1951 Constitution, according to Aguda (1985:304) was not primarily with whether there should be a sort of federal union but with how many units should comprise the federal union that was agreed and what amount of power should devolve on the units to be created. However, Aguda (1985:411) dismisses the 1951 constitution as being basically unitary with extensive authority of the central government and its powers of control over the regions. For these reasons, the 1957 constitution could not function well in a big country like Nigeria with diverse communities of different cultural backgrounds and more so in a setting of inter-religious friction, as there were burning desires for regional autonomy with each of the regions being dominated by an over-bearing ethnic group and political party.

The point one is making is that all the constitutions so far used in Nigeria have been one imposition or the other including the independence constitution. When the military struck in 1966, the constitution was suspended and party politics was put in chains. The 1979, 1995 and 1999 federal constitutions were all imposed by the military on Nigeria. I have always said that the military is incapable of formulating a people-oriented constitution basically because of its praetorian nature. It is therefore not surprising that all these constitutions have been very subjective in one form or the other. What the military has always done is to create the impression that Nigerians are involved in the formulation of their constitution and this explains why each of these constitutions has always started with a nebulous statement, “We the people of Nigeria…” Of all the militarily-imposed constitutions, the worst remains the 1999 constitution. The 1999 constitution was fashioned simply for perpetuation of Abacha in office . It is a Hitlerite constitution meant to foist and maintain despotism in Nigeria and animalise the Nigerian people. It never originated from the people and was never intended for any form of amendment.

Curiously, all these constitutions were made in the absence of any organised party system. Therefore, as democratic institutions concerned with interest–aggregation and articulation, no political party in Nigeria has ever partaken in the process of constitution making. Because of the historicity in terms of constitutional evolution, these constitutions have tended to generate more friction in the system than it envisaged to solve. Such critical matters as self determination, principles of derivation and revenue-sharing formula have continued to cause tensions in the land ostensibly because the real stake-holders in the Nigerian enterprise have been denied the opportunity of making inputs in the constitution that is supposed to guide them.

Part C

What Is To Be Done

One thing every Nigerian would readily agree with is that Nigeria is sick. They also agree that a cure is urgently necessary but differ on what manner of therapy Nigeria needs. As a student of history, I believe in the momentousness of history, its processes, identity and possibilities.

From every corner of the country there is persistent feeling of angst and nadir. Suddenly, Nigerians seem to realise that they are strange bedfellows. This sudden realisation has given vent to tendencies suggestive of a paralysis of will. Ethnic and religious disharmony are now more pronounced than ever. The centre appears to be loosing its grip and the components parts are threatening to fall apart. From east to west, from north to south, there is no end to claims and counter claims of marginalisation or domination. There is persistent mutual suspicion and perpetual subversion among the various peoples in the country.

This state of paralysis is in my humble opinion traceable to our inability so far to produce and operate a Constitution or National Guide Book that represents the will of the Nigerian people. The absence of such a truly Nigerian constitution has perhaps unconsciously bred in us a withdrawal of wholehearted commitment, identification and support to the Nigerian enterprise across the land.

The pity of this country is in the fact that we can seem always to know that we have a problem even discover the cause of the problem but display a tragic lack of will to take the necessary appropriate action. Otherwise we should not be here today talking about political parties and the review of the 1999 Constitution. Everyone knows that that document is an imposed fraud. It is a piece of bad work that should have been thrown out of the window on May 29, 1999 and necessary measures put in train to give us a people-derived constitution through an open all inclusive process. By now, we should be nearing completion of the exercise if not already completed.

In the deceit of a review process, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has re-wrapped and published for comment what they titled Draft Electoral Law. In Part III–Political Parties–are stipulated the rules for political parties. The most charitable thing that can be said about that piece of work is that it stemmed from a militarised mind set.

Now listen to some samples of big brother speaking:

The very first provision: 89(1) No association, other than a Political Party, shall canvass for votes for, or sponsor any candidate at any election or contribute to the Fund of any Political Party or to the election expense of any candidate at an election.”

Or 90. “No association by whatever name called shall function as a Political Party unless it is registered by the commission as a Political Party.”

Or 90(e) “the Headquarters of the associations is situated in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.”

Or 90(g) It furnishes to the Commission the addresses of the branches of the Political party in at least two third of the states of the Federation including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.”

Or 91 (1) The constitution and rules of the Political Party shall

(b) ensure that the members of the executive committee or other governing body of the Political party reflect the Federal Character of Nigeria.

Or 93(2) The Commission may issue such guideline and make such rules as it may, from time to time, consider necessary, introducing principles and elements likely to enhance democracy and participation of the people in the governance of Nigeria and it shall be the duty of the Political Parties to comply with such guidelines or rules.

97. Power of Commission to Monitor Convention etc. and so it goes on to the very end.

Everything in the Proposed Draft Electoral Law runs like a military decree.

And the intention is quite clear that is, to take us back to the days of “Presidency” or “Orders from above” manipulation of the electoral process, or clearance and non-clearance of candidates, of registration today and non-registration tomorrow of political parties. The so-called Draft Electoral Law should be shredded.

Let me say it again loud and clear that in an open democracy, participation in the political cum electoral process should be open, unfettered and inclusive. There should be no restrictive and exhaustionist electoral laws. Thus we should have room for political parties that wish to operate even at the ward level, state or regional/zonal level only, religious parties, interest group parties e.g. labour, market or trade associations etc.

It is my firm belief that political party pluralism or multi-partisan is sine quo non for our progress and development in a democratic system no matter the degree of the heterogenicity or cleavages in our society e.g. Germany, Japan, Israel, India and Canada have highly developed national consciousness despite the number and complexity of parties. In contrast, where societies were circumscribed under totalitarianism or one-party state structures in the excuse of accelerating development the recorded progress generally fell short of the advertised benefits and expectations e.g.–East Germany, Indonesia, the USSR etc.

I have always asked the question–why is Nigeria in such dire straits? And my conclusion has always been that out systematic ills are not pernicious ailments inflicted upon Nigeria by some super-natural or mysterious forces. These ills are traceable to the artificiality of Nigeria. It is an artificial and fragile amalgam of many nations and therefore many currents. I have always maintained based on historical and empirical realities that the determining currents of social forces and dialectics or ethnicity, religion, linguistics, class cleavages, culture and tradition.

It is regrettable that our leaders have always pandered to the regressive dictates of these determining currents of social forces and dialectics and have failed to wade into the catacombs of Nigerian society with a view to building a strong and stable society. Unfortunately, for forty years, Nigeria has lumbered aimlessly like a clay-footed behemoth without a sense of direction. This is indeed regrettable. For us to solve Nigeria’s problems without the inevitable consequences of misrule and revolt that is ever so threatening, it is high time we faced the realities on the ground. That is for al the ethnic nations in Nigeria to come to a round table conference to determine what kind of country and constitution they want.

I have persistently called on well meaning Nigerian to focus attention on this dilemma. We have become prone to flying at each other’s neck at the slightest chance. The stench of alienation, marginalisation and domination is suffocating. We are indeed in a serious dilemma and the choices at our disposal are very limited. Recent events in the country portend ominous signs that we may not be far from Hades.

At every opportunity, I have reiterated the fact that Nigeria is in great pains, charting an unknown course and that it is the patriotic duty of concerned Nigerians to stop the drift before the country completes its infamous orbit. It is precisely because of the cyclic gyration of these ethno-centric forces in the polity, at which completion we may harvest the ruins of a country destined for greatness but destroyed by the blinding ambition of its leaders and ethnic pariahs that the need for:-

(a) the redefinition of the country

(b) resolving the nationality question

(c) proper revenue derivation and allocation and resource control formula

(d) self-determination, assumes greater urgency and impetus.

At many fora, I have persistently called for the urgent convocation of a Sovereign National Conference where the Nigerian family will come together in a round table to thrash out their real and perceived differences.

Why it is called Sovereign National Conference? It is Sovereign because every ethnic nation in Nigeria is distinct in relations to others. It is sovereign because what is agreed upon is binding. It is sovereign because every nation in the country will infuse its will into the resolutions of the conference with substances, which need not be violated, by the will of others.

A conference of ethnic nationalities is sovereign because it will mark the inauguration of a progressive Nigeria devoid of any form encumbrance. Sovereign National Conference means a decisive end to ethnic conflicts in Nigeria. It means the end of a colonial Nigeria and the beginning of the history of a Nigerian’s Nigeria, our own history. A progressive Nigeria is the inauguration of a future historical conjuncture, which is the establishment of a new Nigeria through a Sovereign National Conference after more than 40 years of colonial induced under-development and internecine strife.

It is, therefore in relation to the foregoing variables that we can historically understand and evaluate the process of Sovereign National Conference. To neglect the crucial nature of this perspective is to avoid coming to terms with the essence of the Nigerian neocolony and its historic role in the continued ethnic and religious tensions in the land. It is in this context that we can visualise the future as meaningful history. The process cannot be otherwise because Sovereign National Conference as a process of change denotes a radical departure from the past that has failed to make the present meaningful and threatens out future. It will succeed in creating a new social order that will be superior in content and form. Sovereign National Conference connotes positive change for Nigeria because it is a process borne out of historical contradictions. It’s process is immutable and the outcome will be irreversible. Is it not time we asked ourselves why all the constitutional conferences in Nigeria have failed and continued to fail. Each of these conferences has failed and continued to fail because none of them is sovereign.

As a matter of fact the present Federal Government can even call for a Sovereign National Conference. One problem, which every government in Nigeria faces, is the “hijack” syndrome. There is no doubt that the present Federal Government means well for the country but I am afraid it has fallen hostages to his syndrome of hijacks. There are Nigerians, whose purpose always is to hijack every government, hold it to ransom, overwhelm the government and blackmail it into doing their bidding.

They will advise and mislead government because they are prime beneficiaries of the iniquitous and unbalanced system in Nigeria.

These people do not love Nigeria more than those calling for a Sovereign National Conference. Indeed, it is those calling for a SNC that could be said to love the country more. This is because such patriots see beyond their nose to appreciate the lessons of history, such historical lessons offer them the benefit of hindsight to call for the restructuring of society. There is one statement which J.F. Kennedy made that begs repetition here. He said, “those who make peaceful change impossible make violate change inevitable.” The truth in John Kennedy’s statement cannot be more correct in Nigeria’s case. Why are some people suspicious of SNC? They are afraid because their place is not assured in the new Nigeria. They suspect they will have to earn their keep for once. Suspicion says William Shakespeare always haunts the guilty mind. While I appreciate the fact that there may be hiccups on the way to a new nation, Henry George warns that there is even more danger in blind conservation.

Finally I am confident in stating that Nigeria has no alternative to a Sovereign National Conference. It is a great historical movement, which will soon occur for the simple reason those ethnic conflicts, religious intolerance and systemic crisis in any political system represent a question marks in the scripts of human civilisation.

I thank you for listening.

Dr. Arthur Agwuncha Nwankwo