POWER AND CREDIBLE PARTISAN OPPOSITION IN OUR DEMOCRATIC CULTURE
Being Speaking Notes
At the Launch of “FOOPP”
When I received the invitation to be Resource person at this event of the inauguration of the Forum of Organised Opposition Political Parties (FOOPP) in Rivers State of which Dr Davies Ibiamu Ikanya is the Chairman with my good friend and brother, Prince Tonye Princewill as its Leader barely two days ago, my first reaction was to ask why me? How do I fit in this arena of party politicians and what can I reasonably contribute to their discussion that would not be a mere academic exercise. Are politicians, especially those in our clime, people prepared to listen to reason? It was Abraham Lincoln who was quoted to have once said that politicians are as a group, one large step removed from honourable men. And yet they are the honourables within us. My concern, I must confess, was further heightened by the recollection that I am told this is a League of opposition political parties in the state.
The very idea of opposition political party presupposes that there are political parties, one or a couple of which is/are in power whilst the others are in opposition. In my view, what should distinguish one political party from the other is not whether one is in power and the other is not, but some core principles and values. I insist that these differences in values are what should even distinguish between the policies which they parties generate and out of which the electorate are expected to make preferences.
Against this background, how can we interrogate the political party system in our country today? It is apparent to me that what we have is a gang up of individuals united in the quest for power and what might distinguish one from the others are not values for principles but the fact that one gang has been able to outwit the others in the power grab contest.. This might explain why in most cases those not in the party in power is mainly those who have been 'cheated out' or 'deprived' by that party and have consequently sought solace outside.
This phenomenon is exacerbated or even explained by the preoccupation of our political system with elections than building a sustainable political culture. Even elections, if we must say, are not just about the exercise of voting but involve many processes and activities may of which take place before and after the elections. Over concentration our focus on 'elections', unwittingly leads us into the trap of taking elections as the most important attribute of democracy. Democracy as we know, is a system that reigns in the varied, and often conflicting, interests and opinions of individual as well as the use of arbitrary power by leaders. Its beauty lies, not in the ritual of periodic elections, but in ensuring that community issues are dealt with after hearing as many opinions as possible.
As I submitted in an intervention at the European Parliament sometime in the recent past:
“In several societies, especially in the developing countries, there is the blurred distinction between the state and resources and politics and economics. Politics have become a contest by a few elites to capture state resources to amass considerable wealth which they in turn use to capture political power and cyclically to capture resources. Where this occurs, it house a pervasive regime of fear – that failure to grab power means loss of access to resources and the winner fears the return of the loser.
This phenomenon in turn leads to a situation where the first preoccupation of those in power therefore is to annihilate the political opposition, or out of sheer survival instincts, the political opposition commits suicide after an election since the government in power, targets their economic interests and deprives them of any entitlements or benefits.”
In an atmosphere of intolerance of opposing views, therefore we have to be careful in focusing discussions on the ritual of elections as even the worst forms of dictatorships have some form of elections.
Be that as it may, I have to say that today's event casts a responsibility on the political players in the state. For the group in power, it has to be appreciated that the attempt to strangle the 'opposition' or to see political opposition as treason, kills not the opposition but our collective aspirations for a democratic culture. Although desirable, 'accommodation' of the opposition through symbolic allocation of political positions and patronages, but should go beyond that into the theatre of accommodating and accepting constructive criticisms and not to see such as enmity.
For the 'opposition', it must not see itself as opposition to the government for the sake of it. There must be an acceptance that there are responsibilities of government and governance and where actions and policies of government are in the overall interest, not only to commend it but also assist it to achieve stated goals. There should be areas and issues, especially where the interest of the state is concerned, over which we should have bi-partisan or multi-partisan consensus and working arrangements. Here again, the government in power must also try to take the 'opposition' into some confidence.
Apart from these areas, both the party or parties in power and those out of power must work towards erecting a firm foundation for credible elections. The global standard test for credible elections is often stated to be whether an election has been free and fair. The phrase 'Free and fair elections' have become so used and abused that several time, it has become more of a cliché than a concept or goal that our electoral system should aim to attain.
Many times I have heard it being insisted that 'a free and fair election' is one in which there is a level playing field by the contestants. In other words, all contestants should be able to enter the contest on equal footing, at least as far as possible. If we are to interrogate this concept of a level playing field for 'free and fair elections' further, could it be said that an election in which the contestants have equal or nearly equal number of arms and thugs is 'free and fair' to the extent that the contests had a level-playing field?
That is not the context in which I view and therefore discuss the issues of free and fair elections. In my view, an election must be a genuine contest and the electorate should be able to exercise their freedom of choice of who their representatives shall be by casting their votes in favour of those candidates who, in their deliberate and informed judgment, they consider possess the qualities which mark them out as preferred candidates to those others who are contesting with them. The voters must be allowed to freely go to the polling stations to cast their votes for their preferred candidates unmolested.
I will neither insult our collective intelligence nor bore this discussion by setting out the well-known attributes of a free and fair election in this context. However, it is important to point out that Electoral Commissions and authorities are often more pre-occupied with 'getting the job done' on time especially in atmosphere that politically charged than appreciating what in my view is the single most important attribute of a 'free and fair' election: how the election is perceived through the eyes of the ordinary citizens. Whether the elections in question were regarded as meaningful and worth the time of those who are intended to be the primary participants-the eligible electorate has profound implications for institutionalization of democracy.
Where the citizens believe that the election has not been the product of their expressed will, they generally withdraw their support and by so doing lower the legitimacy and authority of the state vis-a-viz the citizens. When that happens, they often engage in foot-dragging, feign ignorance, fail to participate in future elections and engage in self-help by retreating to community associations.
It is my hope that if we are able to strike the requisite balance between a tolerant and accommodation power and understanding opposition, we could together build the requisite foundations for consolidating our democratic experiment. I believe that the foundations laid here today could nurture that culture, and I feel proud that for a change, our state and our region could identified by something original and positive other than militancy or kidnapping that the rest of the nation needs to learn from.
Finally, I congratulate the initiators of this novel project and wish to assure them of my support to create an enduring democratic culture in our State. Thanks and God bless us all.