When President Muhammadu Buhari met with his party leaders earlier this month, high on the agenda was how to close ranks for the imminent electoral cycle after rancorous party congresses and primaries had ended in violence. So violent were the All Progressives Congress state congresses and party governorship primaries in Ekiti State that independent reports cited many dead, as opposed to the three confirmed by police. This recurring decimal of violence, thuggery, killings and lawlessness in the contest for elective office has disfigured Nigeria’s attempt at true democracy.
The sordid events of May 5 were sadly familiar. What is everywhere else a basic ingredient of democracy – congresses to elect party executives at the ward level nationwide – resulted in mini wars in several states. Reports cited thuggery, armed invasion of voting and collation centres, and kidnapping. Gun battles erupted in Rivers, Lagos and Oyo states, among others, with about three persons reportedly killed in Rivers. In Ekiti, the party’s governorship primary was disrupted as supporters of the 33 aspirants engaged in fisticuffs, forcing a rescheduling a week later.
What played out at the APC congresses has been familiar fare since the return to civil rule in 1999. The political class thrives on desperation. Not even the first election that ushered in the Fourth Republic, supervised by the departing military junta, was free of rigging, violence and broken limbs. According to the joint report of the Carter Centre and the National Democratic Institute observer teams, four rounds of polling preceding the presidential election – local government, state assemblies, federal legislature and state governorship – were marred by irregularities, some cases of violence and thuggery.
When party primaries descend into the state of nature, little is left to the imagination as the desperate gladiators confront other parties at elections. The Peoples Democratic Party that held the reins of power at the centre and in majority of the states until its defeat in the 2015 general election led in the infamy. Though not exclusive to it, the contest for office, whether within the party or open elections, was war. Assassination of political opponents was a standard practice. Among those whose lives were brutally cut short were Bola Ige, serving Attorney-General of the Federation: Harry Marshall of the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party; Harry Dikibo of the PDP; Ogbonnaya Uche, an ANPP senatorial aspirant in Imo State; Funsho Williams, PDP governorship candidate, and Dipo Dina of the defunct Alliance for Democracy. Rather than abate, elections became even more fraught with an outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo, infamously labelling the 2007 contest a “do-or-die” affair.
The brigandage in the political arena has brought unsavoury consequences to the development of robust democracy and national development. As noted by the Independent National Electoral Commission, internal democracy had failed to take root in the 67 registered political parties. Instead, dictators and “godfathers” handpicking officials and candidates dominate. The result is poor leadership, as merit and popularity are thrown overboard. This is reflected in the shambolic state legislatures that are often lapdogs of the executive and in poor opposition.
With parties devoid of internal debates among peers, the critical development-driving role of parties as policy formulators and monitors is absent. No wonder the parties lack both ideology and policies.
Violence has succeeded in keeping many decent Nigerians away from politics, leaving the field for “the worst of us to rule the best of us,” as noted by a cleric, Tunde Bakare. The cost in human life has been high as 800 persons were killed in post-election violence in 2011, Human Rights Watch estimated.
It is time to stamp out this repeated blight by strong and impartial law enforcement. Again, Buhari faces another litmus test to his fading reputation for discipline, and law and order. He should make a difference by ordering the Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Idris to swiftly apprehend and prosecute the offenders. The IG and his state commissioners have all the authority they need under the law to act.
But change must start from the security agencies. There were reports of collusion between police and thugs of party factions, especially those factions led by serving public officials. The Nigerian Army has penalised officers who betrayed public trust in the 2014 Ekiti governorship election. The police are yet to punish those indicted in that and in the 2015 Rivers and Akwa Ibom states elections. The IG should clean up, identify his complicit officers in the APC congresses and demand decisive action from the state police commissioners.
The crux of the matter is crime and punishment: where and when laws are broken, the prescribed punishment should follow; the law should be no respecter of persons. Nigeria repeatedly fails this test of orderly society by promoting a culture of impunity that allows individuals to bask in lawlessness as clients of those in power. Political parties need to rediscover their critical role in democracy and nation-building: apart from the long established Western models, the defunct Action Group, Unity Party of Nigeria and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens offered sterling examples of party organisation to emulate.
INEC should continue to seek amendments to the law so as to build internal party democracy and deny election riggers and sponsors of violence any room to ever benefit from their evil ways.