The Lure of Protest Politics
Why do candidates who know they have absolutely no chance of winning an election insist on contesting? Why do some repeatedly choose to punch above their natural political weight? Chris Okotie, who became a music icon while a law student in the 1980s before he discovered Christ and abandoned secular music to become a pastor, will contest for the presidency in the April 2011 polls under the banner of Fresh Democratic Party. It will be his third attempt. Sarah Jibril, the only female candidate in the last PDP presidential primaries received a standing ovation when one vote, her own vote, was eventually announced to her name. She has been a perennial candidate since 1992. Professor Pat Utomi, a very brilliant mind who got a PhD at 26, is the presidential candidate of the Social Democratic Mega Party. In the 2007 elections, he was also the presidential candidate of the African Democratic Congress. Dele Momodu, publisher of Ovation, a glossy that celebrates vanity, tried to run for President under the Labour Party, and when the party told him he did not have what it takes to run for such a high office, he went to an even smaller fringe party, the National Conscience Party, where he emerged as the party's presidential candidate. In fact among the 21 candidates cleared by INEC to run for the Presidency in the April polls, less than seven are likely to have any electoral impact even in their wards. So why are these people in the race? Several observations could be made:
One, protest politics - narrowly defined here to mean contesting for the presidency when you have absolutely no chance of impacting on the electoral outcome - must be distinguished from ideologically-driven movements and cause groups such as environmentalists or labour unions which contest in some countries often for the purpose of making the cause they espouse top of the political agenda. My personal opinion is that there are few, if any, ideologically-driven movements or cause groups in the country despite a tendency by some actors to sanctimoniously appropriate the label of 'progressives' to themselves.
Two, if the aim of the protest political gladiators is to acquire the epithet of 'former presidential candidate' or to use any improved visibility to negotiate for relevance or political appointment, it may be necessary to interrogate the cost. True, those who manage to make themselves heard will enrich the marketplace of our political ideas and probably get noticed by the mainstream politicians. However, in the current cacophony of our political marketplace, it is unlikely that most of the fringe candidates can shout loud enough to be heard. Additionally, when a candidate runs for the first time and makes a zero impact, a second run without a likelihood of making any impact will lead to the diminution, if not the crash of the candidate's political stock. This is why I am exceedingly saddened that Pat Utomi is contesting again, under the banner of a party that has neither the resources nor the organisation, money or structure to impact on the electoral outcome or even the political process. My fear is that the highly admirable Professor Utomi risks boxing himself into a corner such that moving down to his natural political weight and running for Governor or Senate may become difficult for him. Professor Utomi has name recognition and does not lack a platform for disseminating his ideas, raising the question of what he stands to gain from being a perennial protest candidate.
Three, are candidates who embrace protest politics the messiahs that the system purportedly never allow to come to our rescue? This is obviously a theoretical question because, as they say, you never really know a person until you have too much money or power thrust upon that person. A few indicative questions could however be posed: is there any fundamental difference in the espoused political visions of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Professor Utomi, Dele Momodu, Femi Falana, Reverend Chris Okotie and a host of other 'progressives' that they must each have their own political party where they are entrenched either as life chairman/chairman of board of trustees or as presidential candidate? If the egos of the protest gladiators cannot allow them to bandy together to offer a credible challenge to the existing unacceptable order, how can they be trusted to forge the sort of national consensus required to accelerate our nation building project and rescue our economy from its current precipice? My personal opinion is that the whole political labelling and grandstanding, including among the major parties and politicians are mere masks over the real issue of contention, namely who will be in charge of the distribution of lucre?
Four, Sarah Jibril, who has been contesting for the presidency since 1993, and secured only her own vote in the last PDP presidential primaries on January 13, has been lionised by some people for her 'courage'. Ms Jibril herself was quoted as asking Nigerian women to 'search their consciences' for not supporting her candidacy. My personal opinion is that Sarah Jibril owes Nigerian women an apology - not the other way round - because there was nothing in her perennial candidacy to show she was serious. In fact her perennial candidacy makes mockery of the achievements of several women who have to work extremely hard for their successes. Is there really any evidence that Mrs Jibril worked hard to sell her candidacy? How much money did she raise for her campaigns because all over the world presidential contest is capital and labour intensive? How many people know the name of her campaign manager in any of her outings? I strongly feel that Sarah Jibril's reward for just putting down her name as a candidate - the media attention, sharing a podium with President Jonathan in the last PDP primaries and possibly being offered a political appointment in a future government of national unity if Jonathan wins - are very disproportionate to her dismal and half-hearted input.
Five, the effort to encourage female candidates by the various political parties is laudable. For instance in the last PDP primaries while the male candidates paid N11 million each for the expression of interest and nomination forms, Ms Jibril paid only N1 million. While this is a good step, a wrong impression is unfortunately created that gender is the primary and only hindrance to political participation. Apart from devaluing the achievements of some women who got to the top through a dint of hard work, this sort of affirmative action is prone to abuse as we have seen in the case of Sarah Jibril. What I would have loved to see is the broadening of the eligibility criteria for the affirmative action plan such that other weak and vulnerable groups - organised labour, students, farmers, the physically challenged and pauperised professionals could be empowered through positive discrimination. This means in essence that instead of gender being the sole source of the affirmative action, one's access to critical determinants of electoral outcomes - money, godfathers, and even 'election fixers' could come become part of the indices for determining eligibility for the affirmative action programme.
Jideofor Adibe can be reached at: