IT will take more defections than the country has witnessed to shake the National Assembly to its foundations. But clearly, Nigeria’s democratic edifice is not as steady as many democrats would have liked it to be, nor as inspiring and ennobling. On nearly a weekly basis, there is a stream of faint-hearted lawmakers moving into the safe, warm and undiscriminating embrace of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). They cite irreconcilable differences in their parties, especially the fractious Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) whose leaders are locked in deathly embrace. None of the defectors openly talks of the pressure the anti-graft body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), might be exerting on the corrupt, with the APC thought rightly or wrongly to offer shelter to the damned. And no defector is also talking of moving to the APC to enhance future electoral prospects. But defection is proceeding apace, and the reasons are duplicitous.
So far, the 8th Senate has become the most visible and worrisome face of these defections. Inaugurated on June 9, 2015 with a firm and unquestioning lead of 59 APC senators to PDP’s 49, the Senate has transformed mainly through defections than by by-elections into an unassailable and dominant APC forum of 65 senators to PDP’s 42 in a 109-member assembly. In a struggle over a bill, opposition is thus rendered futile and hopeless once the APC has made up its mind. The situation is even much worse in the House of Representatives whose 360 members are divided into 219 APC members and 133 PDP members by the last count, with the rest divided inconsequentially between four fringe parties that are, despite their best efforts, unable to cast a deciding vote should they nurse the ambition.
Assuming these figures are accurate and politicians and their parties can find the ethical strength to keep them stable for some time, perhaps pundits and analysts would not make heavy weather of permutating the political future of Nigeria and extrapolating the benefits that could accrue from the present composition of the National Assembly. Sadly, the figures are still in a state of flux, with the National Assembly itself unable to track the number of defectors, not to say their shifting loyalties. More defections are expected, either as elections draw near at state and national levels or as the EFCC ramps up its activities, or as the Muhammadu Buhari presidency grabs more powers than the constitution allows it and its security agencies. For a number of reasons, some altruistic and others selfish, there will therefore continue to be some instability at various legislative assemblies in Abuja and the states, a situation that is prompting fears of a one-party state.
At various times, the PDP had warned of the spectre of one-party rule. Their fears are not unfounded. The ruling APC, reluctant to learn from its own difficult past as an opposition party, has sometimes acted intolerantly and unreasonably in enunciating policy measures and deploying law enforcement and anti-graft agencies. This has led the PDP to complain that some of its members were being unfairly targeted by the government. Responding, however, the APC argues that since the PDP ruled for 16 years and controlled national resources, it is unavoidable that most of the malfeasances of the past governments were naturally committed by PDP members and supporters. The PDP remains sceptical.
But the latest to warn of the spectre of one-party state is the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel. According to him, “As a country, we are assisting other countries to institute democracy, how come we are destroying ours? We should not allow the country to be run like this, else our democracy will collapse.” The governor was unable to comprehend why the police sealed off of the Abuja International Conference Centre, venue of the meeting called by the Ahmed Makarfi faction of the PDP. “The sealing off of International Conference Centre, venue of the meeting, by the Police was a sad commentary on our democracy,” said the governor. “Twice, we have experienced this. The other time, we had to hold the convention at the zonal secretariat of the party because the Port Harcourt stadium was barricaded by the Police…A country of more than 170 million people is too large for one party structure. Let us make room for other parties to operate because a multi-party system will ensure the survival of democratic governance in the country.”
Mr Emmanuel’s postulation that Nigeria may be too large for a one-party rule may be conceptually wrong, as many larger one-party states have demonstrated, he is nonetheless right to observe that the Buhari presidency has demonstrated a frightening unease with democratic rule. In fact, under the APC government, the security agencies have carried on as they did under military dictatorship, and certainly far worse than under the Goodluck Jonathan government. Apart from disobeying court orders, the government has done nothing to change the militaristic orientation of the law enforcement and security agencies, and has instead given the impression that it has struggled to acknowledge a constitution it naturally disdains and prefers to ignore. Mr Emmanuel is not the only top elected politician to worry about Nigeria’s political direction. There are many more.
Surprisingly, the only semblance of democratic rule in the country is today located in the unsteady and sometimes vacillating National Assembly. With the PDP fractured by internal schism, and its leaders unable to speak with one voice, let alone promote and exude one generally conservative ideology, all opposition has been left to the 8th Senate and to some extent the 8th Representatives. The legislature is not often the best place where opposition should be conceived and promoted; that role is better played by the opposition parties. But given the inadvertent weakening of the PDP and the smallness and insignificance of the other parties, the role of opposition has devolved rather accidentally but fortuitously to the National Assembly. It was as if the country anticipated the future lurch towards dictatorship, militarism and one-party tendency and therefore guardedly ensured that the National Assembly was birthed in controversy and antagonism in such a manner that it would not see eye to eye with the executive for a long time.
The National Assembly, despite its own weaknesses and faults, is actually the country’s saving grace. As the texture of opposition waned in the PDP as a party, the incidental opposition exemplified in the legislature, the National Assembly, became stronger and more emboldened. The linkage is clear. First was the rather objectionable and unprecedented desire of ambitious senators to defy their party’s formula for sharing principal offices in the National Assembly. This led to the emergence of powerful individuals willing and indeed eager to stand their ground against the Buhari presidency and the ruling party executives. In turn, the executive branch put a lot of legal and bureaucratic pressures on the rebels, thereby indirectly provoking more antagonism and more defiance. The result is that the National Assembly has by the bipartisan composition of its principal officers shaped itself, obviously accidentally and perhaps unwillingly, into an opposition and restraining group capable of putting breaks on the executive’s sometimes giddy resort to extraconstitutional measures.
While these unanticipated happenings have helped to stabilise the polity, and in some ways, democracy itself, they do not guarantee democratic stability and progress in the long run. It is not healthy for the executive to forswear democracy and act dictatorially and often antagonistically, nor is it also healthy for the National Assembly to act like a Camorra at worst or a political opposition at best. The constitution defines their roles unambiguously, and experience here and in other climes has refined those roles and made them even much clearer than the constitution has spelt out. The country needs the three arms of government to confine themselves intelligently to those roles.
In its heyday, the PDP did little to establish a sound culture and tradition for Nigerian democracy. Now, given the abhorrent and rampant defections disembowelling the polity, the former ruling party is a victim of its own foolish machinations. Unfortunately, the APC has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. If it is not to be a victim of its own complacency in the future, the ruling party must constrain itself to champion and possibly enthrone a sound democratic culture and tradition. It must scrupulously discourage the crazy and needless defections bifurcating the PDP and weakening the opposition. It must recognise that the story of its own founding is even shakier than the founding of the PDP, and that it does not stand on any solid ideological or intraparty ground. It appears to prefer not to see beyond its nose. That is dangerous. If the APC has any man of vision within its ranks, he must move the party to the mountaintop from where it can get a glimpse of the future, a future clearly fraught with terrible forebodings, a future the party seems bent on jeopardising by its reckless and unprincipled prostitution of partisan politics and the constitution.