“The Spirit of Error” In Nigerian Politics
By Reuben Abati
About this period, four years ago to be precise I had gone to visit a notable politician and a member of the Peoples Democratic Party. Politics was very much in the air then as is the case now, and my host was neck-deep in it all. He was a major grassroots politician and a man of experience who brought into party politics so much enthusiasm and elan. I observed him at very close quarters and it was right to conclude that he was one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s unwavering supporters. Publicly, he gave the impression that he had held down his state, and even a substantial part of his region for both the party and the President.
He reportedly ran a strong grassroots political structure which included traditional rulers, students, market women, religious leaders and the ordinary people who on election day were expected to vote en masse for the ruling party and put the then emergent and assertive All Progressives Congress and its leaders to shame.
During election season, there are persons like that in every political party. They are the people on the field. They take reports to Abuja, give feedback to the party at the national level and shuttle between their states and Abuja. They attend every major campaign. They say the right things. They pump up party leaders with adrenaline. When they do a calculation of the party’s chances and how happy the electorate are with the leadership, you would feel like celebrating even before the polls. The really talented ones among them are for the want of a better term, charmers or perhaps illusionists. This particular politician, who shall remain nameless, is experienced and talented.
We got talking. He asked me: “Reuben, what do you think of the PDP’s chances in the 2015 elections?” I told him everything looked good and that the Party will retain its majority status in power. I reeled off the achievements of the Jonathan administration. The APC Challenge? I dismissed the APC as a party of propagandists. “Those people? They will win in a few states, no doubt but they can’t take the Presidency…” When you are around politicians and you listen to them everyday, you are very likely to believe them and even begin to sound like them. Loyalty is also important, but this was not just about loyalty. I felt the President’s good performance deserved to be rewarded by the Nigerian people.
“I don’t see us winning”, my host responded. I was shocked. I almost fell off my seat. I wasn’t too sure that I heard him well. I asked what he meant by that. The party primaries had been concluded. Turn-out at campaigns was beginning to build up. The state Governors were all upbeat, or so it seemed. The traffic of politicians to-ing and fro-ing the Villa was so much there were hold-ups at the gate.
“We are going to lose”, my host repeated.
“I will tell you”, he said. “I have been in politics for years, and I have learnt to study the art very well. I can tell you that five months before any election, you can easily tell if your party is going to win or not. It is not even a matter of analysis. As a politician, you will know – from what the people say, from listening carefully to your followers, from watching the body language of the international community, and by just generally looking beyond the façade. I don’t see us winning.”
“But the ruling party looks good to me or am I missing something?”
“Yes, you are,” he affirmed.
He then proceeded to offer a state by state analysis of the party, painting a picture of grievances over party primaries, the imposition of candidates by the party’s National Working Committee, a growing pattern of deceit, the ethnic and religious division between the North and the South, and how the PDP had lost many of its faithful members. He went on:
“I don’t deceive myself. Many of those Governors you see who are promising heaven and earth, you will see that when the time comes, they will not deliver. There are many aggrieved persons staying back in the party who will not lift a finger to help the party. The people who have been badly treated during the primaries, and they have been ignored, nobody is listening to them, they will claim to be working for the party, they may even collect money but from what I see, it is only if a miracle happens.”
“This is serious”, I said. “But sir, why don’t you take this up at the highest levels, since you are convinced that the enemies are within”.
“I won’t call them enemies. I think it is something even more serious. When people join political parties in Nigeria, they expect to gain something in return. They want to be rewarded. They may follow a leader but you have to settle them. I think the party and the government have been overtaken by the spirit of error.”
“Spirit of error?”
“Yes, spirit of error. I have been around long enough to know when a political party begins to fail and when it begins to lose the people, and even its own members. That is where we are, everybody is just making mistakes.”
A few weeks later, I saw the same man, back-slapping at party campaigns, hailing the President and other party leaders. I was confused. Obviously, I thought the spirit of error had disappeared and there was renewed hope for the party. I called the man aside out of curiousity: “Sir, what happened? Is there hope now?”
“I am a politician,” he said. “Every politician is an optimist. It is not over until it is over.” I didn’t get a chance to ask him again about the spirit of error. But his prediction turned out to be prophetic.
I believe that history is about to repeat itself in Nigerian politics. The ruling party, the All Progressives Congress is exactly where the Peoples Democratic Party was in 2014/2015. APC leaders are making exactly the same mistakes. The PDP which appears to have learnt some lessons, is suddenly a re-energized party and with the emergence of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as its standard bearer and Peter Obi as running mate, the same Nigerian people who thought the PDP was bad are now turning around to say the PDP should be forgiven. All sleeping cells of the PDP across the country are suddenly awake. The umbrella is up again, the rope that tied the broom together is loosened.
The success of the PDP in the last few months does not necessarily owe itself to any ingenuous strategy on the part of the leaders of the party, however, but more to the many unforced errors, and own goals, by the ruling party and its government. The government at the centre has lost the plot. When these days, its foot-soldiers and spokespersons argue that members of the PDP are corrupt, the quick response by even the worst critics of the opposition party, PDP, is that they can’t see any difference between the APC and the PDP. Some even insist that the PDP is better. In three years, the APC has frittered away its goodwill. The same international agencies and platforms that used to promote the administration have turned their back on it. Internally, the party has been overtaken by all kinds of little Hitlers who have no qualms imposing their will on others and trampling upon the letters of democracy. This much was put on embarrassing display during the recent Gubernatorial elections in Osun, and the party’s primaries across the country, but notably in Lagos, Osun, Rivers, Delta, Imo, Zamfara, Ogun, Oyo and so on. In 2014, five Governors walked away from the PDP. In 2018, many leaders of the APC have also taken a walk. The PDP told its disaffected members – “good riddance.” The APC is also singing the same song in 2018.
In 2014/15, the APC’s selling point was President Muhammadu Buhari. He was promoted as a nationalist, man of integrity and a reformed democrat. He promised to fight corruption and the people hailed him. They were tired of the PDP. They wanted change. Many believed in him as the messiah who will turn Nigeria around. Close to four years later, President Buhari is now at that point where most Nigerian leaders find themselves, covered by that standard, unscientific excuse: “the good man who is surrounded by bad people, bad advisers and bad politicians.” The economy under his watch is slow and unproductive. In three years the country’s debt profile has jumped from N22. 4 triilion to $73.21 billion and the country wants to borrow more. His administration usually blames the previous administration. Many Nigerians no longer consider that a good strategy. They are similarly skeptical about the war against corruption.
This last point is well illustrated by the recent announcement of a plan to effectuate Executive Order No 6, under which the government proposes to place a travel ban on some yet unnamed and undisclosed Nigerians. Under the Order, the government seeks to stop persons indicted for corruption from travelling abroad, and to attach their properties. The argument by government spokespersons that they are relying on a judgement by Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu of the Abuja Federal High Court has been exposed for what it is: a lie, a ruse, an attempt to misinterpret the court, knowing that the judge is not likely to engage in a market-place explanation of its own ruling. That was the same thing they did at the 2018 NBA Conference, when they said the rule of law could be violated and that the Supreme Court had given them the right to do so in the Asari Dokubo case. This is not good for the state of our law.
The Court was clear: the Attorney General of the Federation can apply Executive Order No 6, only through the instrumentality of a Court Order. By by-passing the Court, the Executive arm seeks to be the judge, the jury and the executioner in its own case. It usurps the roles of the judiciary and the legislature, and serves notice of a return to dictatorship. The Order as proposed has been correctly described as a reincarnation of the notorious Decree 2 of 1984 and a violation of Section 41 of the 1999 Constitution.
The newspapers published a list of 50 names but the Executive has since announced that it has not published any list, but the people concerned know themselves. How? The combined effect of this opaqueness is that the government has imposed a regime of fear on the people. A secret watch list which can be applied at will is an act of intimidation against the Nigerian people. It is reckless and unwise, because political intimidation is the worst, most brazen form of rigging! In an election season, it is scary. As a strategy, it makes no sense. At a time when the President and his party need the people’s votes, an open subversion of the rule of law is not a good method of votes solicitation. Whoever chose this time to take Nigeria back to 1984, has only strengthened the resolve of those who are already whispering that a second term for President Buhari would translate into misery for Nigerians. Executive Order No. 6, rather than further advance the anti-corruption war, has merely promoted fear and intimidation as instruments of governance. This is one more major error by the Buhari government. I may see the need to visit that senior politician again to give me the benefit of what old men see sitting down, which younger men may not see even when they are standing.