In Nigeria, the concept of political participation appears to have been reduced largely to the civic responsibility of voting on election day. Civic campaigners, political activists, and NGOs have concentrated a major focus of their efforts in “getting out the vote” campaigns. These groups and organisations, backed with a lot of international donor support are pushing the boundaries of voter awareness campaigns.
Voter awareness campaigners have argued that the voter is the ultimate kingmaker. They have told us that our vote is our power. They say with our votes we can decide the quality of leadership that we want for our nation. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing wrong with these campaigns. But if you pay close attention, you will discover that your votes don’t make any real impact in shaping the direction of governance and that voters, in actual terms have no say in determining who becomes anything in the cycle of governance. Voters are merely pawns in a larger chess game more complicated than coming out to vote on election day.
A survey by NOI Polls reveals that just 2 out of 10 Nigerian adults are registered members of various political parties. What this means is that card carrying members of Nigerian political parties constitute a very insignificant fraction of Nigeria’s adult population and by extension, the registered voting population. The deeper implication of this is that the most critical step in deciding who becomes the next president, governor or senator as the case may be is in the hands of less than 20% of Nigeria’s voting population. The remaining 80% majority or more are completely shut out of the party primaries where the decisions on who the parties will present to the electorate are taken by the party delegates and their leaders. Of course, to become a delegate at a party primary, you must first become a member of that political party.
The foregoing narrative completely deconstructs the citizen’s voter’s card as nothing but a tool to validate the options that have been selected or handpicked by the elite class as represented by the political party system. So by coming out on election day to cast your vote, you simply went to queue up under the sun or inside the rain to validate a choice that was already made for you by a few other citizens!
In his book “The Trouble With Nigeria”, Chinua Achebe declared that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.”
Achebe was correct. But what he did not add is the inability of the Nigerian followership to discern the reality of our political system. How can good aspirants ever emerge as candidates if we leave that very significant process of selecting them as candidates in the hands of a very insignificant minority of fellow citizens who have chosen to participate in party politics?
How can we influence the quality of candidates that emerge when all of us are running away from political participation because the popular perception is that politics is “dirty” and only for the “corrupt”?
How can we really effect change in the governance of our nation when we have all abandoned politics in the hands of a few people, mostly political hustlers who every election year dictate who the rest of us vote for?
It is important to note at this point that there are actually very competent Nigerians in most of our political parties who have what it takes to govern Nigeria and meet the governance aspirations of all citizens. But they almost never get the chance to emerge as candidates because the political parties are wired to ensure that the best individuals – the credible and competent aspirants, the men and women who have an actual blueprint for social transformation, the people who have a mind of their own and who are unlikely to perform the bidding of godfathers never emerge as candidates. And even when a few of them manage to emerge, they are eventually defeated by the inability to mobilize the humongous resources that winning elections requires.
Another major problem that has derailed the entire process of real political participation in Nigeria is the pattern of voting for the two dominant political parties on the ballot. For some strange reason, the Nigerian voter believes that only one of the two biggest political parties can win the general elections, shutting the door on the candidates of other political parties who may be better equipped to play the contested role. What this means is that we end up being stuck with the options presented to us by the two biggest parties. The inherent danger in this approach is that when Party A and Party B give you bad candidates, whichever candidate you vote for, you end up electing a bad leader.
What do we do going forward as citizens? How should we begin to engage the political process in a way that ensures that politics translates into good governance? How do we effectively break the cycle of incompetent leadership?
First, we must face the reality that whereas it is the civic duty of every citizen to come out to vote on election day, voting on election day is not enough. We must begin to rethink a political culture that sees political participation only as being able to vote on election day.
Second, we need to understand that in a democracy, governance is a product of the political process and the political process itself is engineered by a game of numbers. Because politics is a game of numbers, the choices made by the majority, no matter how poor those choices are, will stand. And that’s why informed citizens who posses the character and good sense of judgment will have to get involved in mass numbers by signing up to participate in politics as card carrying members of political parties. This is the real meaning of political participation! Of course there are several other fences we must scale like driving advocacy for political parties to embrace new age ideas and making their parties more accessible to membership. But let us start somewhere.
Third, we must put an end to a political culture that fails to look beyond two major political parties. We must begin to look out for competent candidates irrespective of the size of the political parties that have presented them.
The great scientist, Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The 2019 presidential election in Nigeria is fast approaching. But the paradigm shift advocated by this essay transcends the 2019 elections. Going forward, we will always be faced with two major choices; get inside the political parties and influence the choices of leaders they present to us or stay outside as spectators waiting only to rubber-stamp the choices political parties present to us on election day.
Ohimai Amaize, a journalist, image crisis manager and communications strategist writes from Abuja. He tweets at @MrFixNigeria