By Bassey Ubong
What makes one political party different from another – the name, logo, members, operators, structures, level of organisation and reach? All of the above in mature democracies, but with the most important thing missing – the platform.
In Nigeria, political parties are different by way of logo no more, for the members are the same across board, in terms of vision, mission, and the itchy feet which make them move from party to party based on perception of possibilities of success in elections, or patronage by those in office.
In the United States politicians stay where they were registered despite the need to serve in the government of an opposition party. Some card carrying members or voters do vote for opposition, but remain where they were in the long term. Few people change party affiliation in their lifetime, because they joined based on their personal life’s orientations and convictions.
The key difference among parties comes in the context of the platform which details the intentions and positions on several issues, both domestic and international. A manifesto details specific programmes of action for specific periods derived from the platform.
In management circles, two concepts perform allied functions of platform and manifesto. The words are vision and mission, and no serious business or not-for-profit organisation, such as schools and religious organisations, starts and runs without well-articulated vision and mission. In institutions of higher learning, supervisory agencies cannot look at an institution during accreditation which has no vision and mission statements along with core values, because if applied as outlined, will lead to achievement of set goals.
In the case of politics, the platform can be seen as the vision, while the manifesto becomes the mission. I can confess ignorance with respect to the existence of the platform and manifesto in the political parties which dot the Nigerian political landscape. If they existed, the word decamp would have no space in their dictionaries. In fact, the websites are empty beyond recurrent developments and in the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) website, the links when clicked drew blank. It will be interesting to read a rebuttal on this from any of the 69 registered political parties in Nigeria.
We listen to speeches during rallies which sound the same: We shall build roads, equip hospitals and schools, and fight corruption and insecurity. Others are inanities which generate boredom and frustration, while some insult the intellect of the voters All the candidates of the entire parties reel out ‘plans’ which they know they will repeat in four years and hand over to the anointed successors at the end of eight years. These are empty words which fit into no platform and no manifesto.
What are political platforms and why are they crucial for electoral success and governance? Platforms in the United States of America (world’s No. 1 democracy) are said to have predated political parties. A platform functions like a roadmap and lists beliefs, inclinations, and specific policy choices which a political party wishes to be identified with. The platform states positions on issues along with ambitions which voters are expected to study, understand, and vote on. Persons with identical or near identical beliefs and worldview draft such documents which they or other persons revise based on developments in the polity from time to time. The revisions avoid deep retouch of the fundamentals, for instance, big government versus small government and abortion rights.
With respect to issues, two types can be identified, the first being valence issues, while the second are position issues.
Valence issues are those which every government should work towards, such as the stoppage of corruption in Nigeria. Position issues make for differentiation among parties, examples being abortion rights, gun rights, domestic policies, and international policies in the United States (US). While the Democratic Party canvasses gun control, for instance, the Republican Party wants every citizen to own at least one gun. These are fundamental issues which sometimes cause serious problems in the polity among supporters of the different issues and parties which canvass them.
Political planks are what planks are meant to be – unit or individual issues which a political party, given the mandate through free and fair elections, will, under normal circumstances, pursue. Democratic administrations in the US continue to fight for measures to contain gun violence through more and stiffer background checks, while Republicans, backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) continue to use the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution to fight against legislation which can tinker with the rights of Americans to own guns.
Well, with few differences, such as Electoral College, Nigeria runs the American Presidential system. But you may wish to pause and ask the question, does any political party in Nigeria have a platform? Which major orientation does any of the 69 political parties, other than the Green Party, pursue?
I checked the INEC website for the Constitution of the parties and found links to ‘Constitution’ and ‘Manifesto’, the latter used as synonym for platform. None of the links worked as most links in Nigerian ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) which work by default. The websites of the major parties display empty and uncoordinated statements in the name of manifestos.
The lack of platform and planks should be regarded as the major cause of defections by politicians in Nigeria. These politicians in their personal lives have no specific principles and world view which they hold dear, to the extent that they would be willing to let go juicy offices if a party, with opposite view, offers them.
For instance, if children mean more to someone than money or high office, if a Republican administration offers the rank of Secretary (Minister) to someone in the Democratic Party, the person may reject the offer. An average Democrat holds on to abortion rights along with disagreement on gun rights, because of the prevalence of mass shootings in schools.
In Nigeria people join political parties for reasons such as where their friends and associates are and the probability of the group winning elections.
Individuals have no interest in definite issues and have no business with the interest of their constituencies. Imagine a Senator who decamped just because he lost election two weeks back joining another political party. One wonders whether any Nigerian politician thinks about the direction of the country today, and in 50 years when the children we claim to love will run affairs and structure the system for our grand/great grandchildren. The words legacy and posterity have no place in political thought and calculations in Nigeria.
There have been defections in developed democracies, but such cases are few to make them statistically significant. A Republican can accept the post of Defense Secretary in a Democratic Party administration (seven from 1940 to date) but remains a Republican throughout life. Maria Shriver who hails from the Kennedy clan known as Democratic remained a Democrat throughout the tenure of her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who held the office of Governor of California as a Republican.
Few cases of carpet crossing have been recorded in parliamentary democracies, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, but voting against one’s own party are more frequent. In the US, the term party switching represents movement from one party to another, but in most cases it has to do with ideological positions. Republicans stand for conservatism and advocate traditional values. They are known for limited government, free trade, opposition of abortion, same sex marriage, gun rights, regulated market economy, civil rights, lower tax on the rich, and related others. Democrats canvass liberalism, which promotes freedom, equality, abortion rights, and social services along with higher tax on the rich, gun control among others).
Back in Nigeria, the 1951-52 carpet crossing in the Western House of Assembly led to loss of control of the West by the National Council for Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and victory for Action Group (AG) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Afolabi Aribigbola in the Hope Newspaper called the development “ideological deficit.”
In 1979, I met a Governorship aspirant in Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP) in the Cross River State before the creation of a new state. When I asked him the platform of his party, his excitement went away like candle light before a gust of wind. He looked at me with pity and said, “My friend here we talk of the winning party, not platform.”
It reminded me of a close incident in Togo when a foreign journalist asked post-coup military Head of State what ideology his government would pursue. President Eyadema, we read, looked at the journalist with pity and said, “My people eat cassava, not ideology.”
A well-articulated platform should stem the flow of politicians from one party to another. Some politicians have decamped two or three times in search of specific offices. And platform creates room for orientation towards public service rather than self-interest.
One can claim the relevance of the term ‘nascent’ democracy for Nigeria can be traced to non-existence of political platforms. Given the speed of a snail, which our democracy moves, the term platform may be operational by the year 3,000 by the special grace of the Almighty.
Dr Ubong, an educational administrator, writer and literary critic, lives in Uyo