Beyond the merger of the political parties

December 12, 2023

By Jideofor Adibe

THE recent call by former Vice President and Peoples Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 2023 election, Atiku Abubakar, for a merger of opposition parties against the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, has been generating interesting conversations.

It should be recalled that in a statement issued by Paul Ibe, the media adviser to the former Vice President when the latter hosted the national executive committee of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, IPAC, in Abuja, Atiku warned that “Nigeria is fast becoming a one-party system” and called for a formidable opposition to address what he regarded as the “decline in democratic values” in order to prevent the country from becoming a de facto one party system.

He was further quoted as saying: “We have all seen how the APC is increasingly turning Nigeria into a dictatorship of one party. If we don’t come together to challenge what the ruling party is trying to create, our democracy will suffer for it, and the consequences of it will affect the generations yet unborn.”

The major opposition parties – the Labour Party and the New Nigerian Party have welcomed the proposal, with the NNNP’s Publicity Secretary Yakubu Shendam, giving the caveat that any merger must be to support Rabiu Kwankwaso to become President, otherwise, it would not be interested.

Three key issues involved

There are three key issues involved in the conversation about a possible merger of the leading opposition parties: First, is an interrogation of the argument that Nigeria is on a path to becoming a one-party state as claimed by Atiku and that the only way to stop that is for the opposition parties to merge and present a formidable front. Second, is the feasibility of such a merger. And third, is whether such a merger will be the panacea to the challenges of our democracy as Atiku Abubakar implied.

Is Nigeria on the road to becoming a one party state, given the inherent weaknesses of the opposition parties as claimed by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar? There is no doubt that the PDP, the main opposition party, has been very weakened by losing three successive presidential elections while the Labour Party, which brought a lot of momentum during the 2023 election, is in control of only one state and apparently lacks the resources – both material and in manpower terms to mount a concerted and sustained opposition to the government of the day. It is not also clear whether Peter Obi will be able to sustain the enthusiasm of the ‘Obidients’ – the youth-based mass movement that provided much of the energy and panache that drove his candidacy in the 2023 presidential election.

The weaknesses of the opposition parties however do not necessarily translate into an inexorable drive to a one-party state. It is here important to make a distinction between a one-party state and a one-party dominant state. A one-party state is a situation where only one party is allowed by law to exist while a one-party dominant system is where other parties exist but only one is viable enough to consistently win power at the centre.

Since our extant laws permit the existence of several parties that meet the constitutionally stipulated requirements, Nigeria cannot be a one-party state – however weak the opposition parties may be. It can at best be a one- party dominant system. Given the structure of the country and its diversity even a one-party dominant system will have a short shelf life because the inevitable disaffection by some constituent parts of the country which feel left out or marginalised by the party in control of power at the centre is likely to lead to some strong regional parties.

The party at the centre will itself become weakened once you have two or more strong regionally based parties – creating the opportunity for something to give in, especially if the strong man whose charisma or authoritarianism held the party together is no longer in power. We saw this in the Second Republic when the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, dominated the centre but there were strong regional parties like the UPN in the South-West, the NPP in the East, the GNPP among the Kanuris in the North and the PRP in Kano.

Until the merger that gave rise to the APC in 2014, we had the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, which was dominant in the South-West; All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, sentiment was strong in Anambra and some South-East states while the ANPP was strong in some ‘core’ Northern states. In essence, Nigeria cannot be a one-party system and even a one-party dominant system will have a short shelf life.

Who will bell the cat?

How feasible will the merger of the parties be? The merger that gave birth to the APC succeeded largely because of the shared frustration of the South-west (controlled by the ACN), which felt alienated from the Jonathan government and the North, which felt that Jonathan contesting the 2011 election robbed it of the chance to complete its turn of eight years following the death of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in May 2010. This shared frustration by two of the biggest voting blocs in the country, was one of the unstated driving forces behind the merger.

Buhari, a darling of the ‘core’ Muslim North at that time (but distrusted passionately in the South) rode on the wave of anti-Obasanjo sentiments in parts of the ‘core’ North when he first contested in 2003. The frustration became magnified in the light of the zoning controversy following the decision of Goodluck Jonathan to contest the 2011 presidential election. Buhari’s popularity in the ‘core’ Muslim North at that time meant that he was guaranteed the nearly 12 million votes he polled consistently since 2003 from his base.

It also meant that the South-West, substantially controlled by Tinubu’s political machine, was guaranteed to give Buhari the spread he never had. Can the merger of the opposition as advocated by Atiku be able to recreate the APC’s formula? While Peter Obi is likely to retain substantial goodwill, especially in the South-East, it is not certain for now that the opposition will be able to get a candidate with the sort of guaranteed vote bank that Buhari had in the North in any part of the country.

There will of course be additional hurdles such as which part of the country will present the presidential candidate for the merged parties, who will be the flagbearer for the party and the response of the ruling APC to the merger talks. The hawks in the ruling APC may not be as ‘gentlemanly as Jonathan was during the merger talks that birthed the APC.

Merger as panacea to the challenges faced by our democracy?

While the call for merger makes practical sense, it is also symptomatic of one of the major problems of our electoral competition– politics without principles in which the political parties are merely special purpose vehicles, SPVs, for capturing power. If the proposed merger of the parties succeeds, it is not clear how such will automatically resolve the problem of how to make our elections less anarchic and less expensive, or how it will ensure that elections no longer deepen the distrust and widen the social distance among the different constituents of the country. It is equally not clear how such a merger will help routinise our elections such that we do not need to impose curfews or restrict movement whenever elections are conducted or how it will ensure that those in power do not abuse their offices, including using state power to privilege their in-groups, while disadvantaging others.

Fixing our democracy goes beyond changing one set of political personnel to another set – irrespective of the messianic packaging they come in. It requires both fixing the rules governing the operations of the democratic process such as elections and fixing the conduct of the human agents that operate the democracy. It is akin to the structure versus agency debate.

Rather than dissipate energy on merger of political parties aimed at merely changing the political personnel, I will recommend a rotational collegial presidency made up of six people(one from each of the six geopolitical zones) into any form of governance system that is recommended. The six members of the Presidential Council will take turns of two years each to be President of the Council, while the others will be Vice Presidents with constitutionally designated powers. The tenure of the Council will be a single term of twelve years – a period long enough to give everyone a break from elections and their tendency to divide Nigerians along certain fault lines.

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