Snares of Disparity Politics in Nigeria

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Nigerians were astounded and unsure of how to react to the meeting between President Muhammadu Buhari and former Senate President Ken Nnamani, on 25 April 2016, aimed at breaking the 2016 budgetary impasse. As Senator Ken Nnamani and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Bello Masari advised the president, “It was in the interest of the country for the two arms of government to close ranks” since budgetary matters “is an area where we practice what we call co-management between the National Assembly and the Executive Branch of government”.  In the context of Nigeria’s dichotomous and disparity politics, such an engagement is unprecedented.  Disparity politics is the inverse of bi-partisanship. Disparity politics can be inter-party, inter-ethnic, inter-social strata, and in the case of the ruling APC party, intra-party, which explains why the Eight Senate had problems choosing its leadership and now encounters a rift in passing the 2016 budget, despite being in the majority party.

Buhari seeking the assistance of two opposition politicians outside government in tackling the legislative logjam is noteworthy.  It was utterly a rare moment of bipartisanship. The gesture marked for President Buhari and the APC, a weighty recognition of dominant realities and importance of collaborative politics, which compel  opposing political parties find common ground through compromise. Unarguably, it was the rude awakening to the looming fiscal cliff and grounded government, rather than accommodative politics that orchestrated the meeting. While such bi-partisan meetings should be the norm, Nigeria’s real politik has consistently dictated otherwise. Partisan politics in Nigeria remains a zero-sum game, without middle grounds and devoid of centrists. Since Buhari’s government yearns for understanding and patience from Nigerians, its seeming allergy to bi-partisanship, becomes unfathomable. Not fully appreciated, is the extent to which disparity politics has hamstrung Buhari and the APC, since they took over in 2015.

Well before independence, Nigerian leaders have always promised change, variously couched as reform, transformation etc. Yet, in governing, they consistently fail to carry Nigerians along, because political leaders hardly tolerate the opposition, and thus, find consensus building difficult.  Historically, Nigerian politicians have reflexively assumed the Walpolean political economy model, “in which an alliance between the political and economic elite deprived ordinary citizens of access to economic opportunity”, even as politicians feigned interest in the welfare of the masses. This underpinning thrust of Nigeria’s disparity politics, is double-sided; one flip side being, the perceptible transparent aspects of public privatization; and the other being the underhanded dark side of hijacking governance structures via insensate greed and corrupt practices. This governance trend is remarkable for its dubious end product: Nigerianization of the economy did not democratize economic opportunity for all, and  democratization of Nigeria beginning in 1999, did not Nigerianize economic opportunity for many. Nigerians still ignore the adverse implications of this disequilibrium.

Economic dichotomy, a corollary of political dichotomy long assumed a destructive impetus in Nigeria. The deleterious impact has never been so adversely felt by Nigerians as in the past twelve months, when they not only lost a vast portion of their purchasing power, but confronted stagnated income and unprecedented shortages of economic enablers, like foreign exchange, electricity and petroleum. If the dividend of change is analogous to hardship, shortages and deprivation, then Nigeria’s economy offered the most remarkable model. Yet, as we are informed, for any nation, chiefly developing economies or emerging markets, “inclusive growth is about bringing all sectors of the economy and different strata of the society into a process of broad-based economic growth. This raises incomes and creates wealth across the board through increased labour productivity. It is not the same thing as inequality.”

Nigeria’s middle class disappeared long ago.  Today the middle class has no champions and a broad swathe of the national population feel disenfranchised.  Such feeling is distinct from the routine claim of socio-economic and political marginalization emanating from different nooks, which undergird the corrosive tone of the country’s politics. Government as an employer can’t guarantee monthly salaries; most State governments can’t pay salaries and the Federal government is borrowing to pay salaries. So, the broad spectrum of economic wellbeing, wealth creation and resource distribution engendered by public policies tend to support two extreme ends of the spectrum.  This sandglass model has the very wealthy at one end and the very poor at the other end, with a very sinewy middle-class. Such reality presents Nigeria’s present leadership with immense challenges, which perfunctory excuses no longer assuage. Nigeria’s challenge is thus best appreciated via John F. Kennedy’s counsel, that “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”.  A corollary of this neglect is “declining trust”, characterized  as, “part of a broader syndrome of disillusionment.”  Ironically, Nigeria’s powerful and the powerless alike, are the victims.

Impatience aside, there is discernible widespread disillusionment with Buhari’s government. Why? The genesis can be traced to disparity politics. Buhari’s government is hamstrung because of the disparity within the ruling APC party, which is abetted by opposition disparity politics. As Senator Babafemi Ojudu, Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Political Matters admitted recently, challenges confronting the Buhari government, arise because the “party that is in power is an amalgamation of different parties, different viewpoints and different ideas.. People from PDP have their own idea of doing things. People came from ANPP, CPC, ACN, a number of others came as individuals to join the coalition that formed this government.”  Ironically, APC members, who as opposition members vowed to make Nigeria under former President Goodluck Jonathan ungovernable, now contend with their scripted disparity modus operandi.

Seventeen years into Nigeria’s return to participatory democracy, the nation has been unable to shake off the yoke of disparity politics. Political dichotomy remains aligned to ethnocentric politicking, hence the broad outcry of marginalization. Similarly, alignment of policies is sectoral, as is federal political appointments.   Dots on the national political trajectory, are all connectable and can be validated with past political-historical events. The Zik-Awolowo schism; the Obasanjo-Okadigbo rift; Obasanjo’s ‘do-or-die mantra’ and rift with Tinubu; the Yar’Adua-Jonathan succession crisis that triggered the “doctrine of necessity” and Buhari’s-no-reward-for-five-percent voters, all add to the disparity problematique.  The growing list includes, the consecutive rustication of former Igbo Senate Presidents – Evans Ewerem, Adolphus Nwabara and Chuba Okadigbo. Neither Senator Ken Nnamani nor Senator Ayim Pius Ayim, completed two terms in office, when compared to Senator David Mark. Add exclusion of the Igbo from the presidency.

Hardly discussed these days, is the deeply worrisome intrusion of disparity politics into the Nigeria’s judicial system and dispensation of justice. Yet, behind closed doors, highly placed Nigerian politicians and leaders allude to judges aligned with or who have sympathy for differing political parties; and judges who fudge their judgements, so that they benefit plaintiffs or appellants from their ethnic stock.  Such dubious realities compel the prevalence of judicial forum shopping. Just as disparity politics blunted Nuhu Ribadu’s EFCC from any notable convictions during Obasanjo’s administration, disparity politics is today rendering Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign redundant.  Disparity politics explains why northerners never engaged constructively on the Niger Delta militant crisis; and southerners continue to view the Boko Haram scourge as a “northern problem”. Also,  twisted perspectives arising from disparity politics foster our inability to build problem-solving coalitions on critical national issues like state creation, minimum wage, budgeting, Boko Haram, Fulani Herdsmen, the PIB and resource sharing. Yonder the vagaries of Nigeria’s tangled politics, this ostensibly wished-for divide – partly an inheritance from old colonial protectionism- remain costly, well beyond everyday economics.

Nigeria has nationalized indifference. Hence, it is incrementally mortgaging its future via politics and outcomes that remain indifferent to the plight of the poor and especially the nation’s youth. This explains why leaders across the political divide, cannot rally to a policy consensus on youth poverty alleviation measures.  In what is now a ding-dong affair, Buhari’s presidency after initially reneging on its campaign promise, said “one million poor and vulnerable Nigerians will soon receive monthly payments of N5,000 to allow them live decently”,  as part of a programme “designed to recognize the need for ordinary, poor Nigerians to also benefit from the resources of the country.”  Ironically, in the realm of good governance, the yearning by Nigerians for good governance is hardly peculiar. In fact, it mirrors the desires of people in other emerging democracies; they “want better education and job prospects. And they want clean government. Too bad many of their politicians are stale, often corrupt and mired in battles of the past.” For Nigeria, that challenge with all its prebendal downsides persist.

As Jean Riboud advised, “If you want to innovate, to change an enterprise or society, it takes people willing to do what’s not expected.” Another challenge is the inability of Nigerian leaders to build trust. Also as Larry Diamond avers, “to build public trust in government, government must govern better: more transparently, responsibly, accountably, and responsively, with more active engagement with the public and in particular more rigorous respect for the law and the public interest… those who hold the power to rule (and hence to allocate resources) should exercise it temporarily not permanently, and for the public good, not their own private interests and those of their kin, cronies, and parties.” Two  critical variables of democracy are respect for peoples’ rights and earning their trust; irrespective of whether they voted for you. Add to that, consensus building, compromise and collaborative-negotiations – all pillars of good governance.

Most Nigerians continue to believe that President Buhari is doing his personal utmost, including what’s not expected, in order to orchestrate change. But even as House Speaker Hon. Yakubu Dogara challenged APC to “ensure that it delivers on its promise of change as this will make reelection in 2019, a walkover for the party,” it remains an uncontested fact that President Buhari, his party and his policies are ensnared by disparity politics. Overcoming this challenge in the remaining three years will require the president resorting to bipartisan problem-solving, by using  Nigerians in good standing irrespective of their political persuasion and idiosyncrasies.  Only through such bipartisanship can the president achieve his change agenda.

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Obaze, MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult Ltd., is the immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.

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