Sometime back, the Independent National Electoral Commission chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu rolled out a specimen of the ballot paper to be used for the presidential election, it was an almanac-sized sheet. Even if one struggles with maths, the unusually large ballot paper is not surprising considering the numerous political parties that dot the space in Nigeria. As at the last count, INEC, the body saddled with the responsibility of registering political parties, had registered 91 of them.
Constitutionally, INEC is expected to register as many political associations that meet the requirements for registration and truth be said, for Nigeria, limiting the political space to a handful of political parties is not only an unfair representation of her multiple complexities but also a form of disenfranchisement of some ideologies and demographics. Be that as it may, this piece is not about the legality or otherwise of the multi-polarity of the political sphere, but the viable options these offers the voter.
One thing to be made clear is that democracy by nature creates a pyramid of options or as I often call it – sticky oligopolies – that presents the consumer (and for the sake of this article, voter) with limited but dominant possibilities and relatively surplus butminor alternatives. This is what informs the mergers of conglomerates and franchises or the takeover of smaller by the bigger and richer. So as seen in the universalization of democracies, the shrinking of the market place into the hands of fewer and powerful players should not be strange to us. Which implies thinning of the political sphere into two dominant parties is normal.
Despite this inevitability, the Lilliputians in the conundrumare permitted by the system to either join or pull down the oligarchs off the top of the food chain. However, the political dynamics in Nigeria outside the leading two may be going for another futile attempt in the coming general elections.
First thing is that almost all of them are relatively new to the game. They were mostly registered less than 18 months to the 2019 elections and would be competing with established parties that predate this republic. Their inability to progress, build and strengthen on the older “smaller” parties over time has made them remain underdogs. How many voters know the name of the political party these entrants are standing on? These aspirants are practically stand-alone independent candidates. Always coming in as new parties every electoral cycle is not healthy for the system and hampers their chances.
In addition, their political naivety of not coming together in a united front in order to give a more formidable contest as the All Progressives Party did ahead of 2015 makes a clownery of their efforts to attain power. The APC merger was in fact a success because it consolidated on previously earned political capital of smaller units before obtaining the holy grail. These political midgets are yet to make gains of minor political territories or lower cadre offices and so thinking of getting the phoenix out of the fire at the first shot on a weak platform is purely a daydream. Even the emergence of their candidacies was democratically suspect. The two dominant parties had competitive primaries to pick those running for their respective platforms after sales of forms where made public to aspirants. These were absent in practically all other parties. What we have mostly were ambitious people whowere either offered the tickets of parties that needed recognition or the hopefuls floating their own parties.
So one wonders how they want to benefit from the fruits of elective democracy at the polls when they never sowed seeds.
Aside not developing ideologies outside the temperament of their flagbearers, the parties are not pan Nigerian. How wide is their individual spread across the federation? Elections are not only won in the media or urban centres. This is what PDP and APC have taken for granted. This is reflected in endorsements of the candidates of the big two parties by socio cultural groups like Afenifere, OhanezeNdigbo and Arewa Consultative Forum. One may argue that these groups are ethnic and may represent Nigeria’s past. This is countered by the non-endorsements of these more cerebral light weights by professional bodies like Nigerian Bar Association, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria or the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce.Yes, it is one man one vote but endorsements by interest groups or influential individuals really sway voters for or against a candidate.What we have is the situation where these parties even adopt either Buhari or Atiku as their candidate. Awkward.
Having a Red Card Movement against PDP and APC or describing them as “bad sides of the same coin” in presidential debate weeks after the underwhelming performances of their running mates won’t easily swing voters to their side. The voter is not only choosing a president or a governor, he is more importantly choosing a government. The 2019 elections in particular is not a referendum for or against the PDP-APC duopoly, but on the soul of Nigeria and her future.
So the voter routes for a team whose captain is embodied in the executive and sadly, these parties can’t form a team. This absurdity is made evident with over 70 candidates vying for the presidency and an average of 40 per gubernatorial seats and 20 per legislative. This only exposes their deficiencies of forming a government. Only APC and PDP have candidates for every elective position except the courts bar them.
I am not unmindful of the dilemma the Nigerian voter finds himself and he is not alone. It is this pretense of choices electoral democracy presents that is making the European and American voter throw the dice on far-right populism. Yet, it is still within the confines of the dominant binary options because the needle of the electorate’s meter hardly makes a dial towards unfamiliar zones.
Does it mean the voter is wrapped into a two-party system? No, since contrary to sentiments, the two dominant parties have never been forced on Nigerians. There has never been a time when only two parties were allowed to participate in elections since 1998. There have always been a third option, fourth option, …., fourteenth option as at 2015 and now a seventy-second option. The Nigerian voter has never been left without choices aside the top two.
Apathy is not an option because we vote to make a statement not necessarily to vote a winner and abstinence is a plebiscite for the status quo. We also vote for who and what we believe in. Those that voted for Awolowo despite never winning never regretted nor threw away their votes. And we vote to renew our faith in democracy.
Let me admonish by saying the Nigerian voter should pick up his PVC and vote on Election Day for who or what he believes in then not fold his arms until another election. He should hold the elected accountable, demanding dividends of democracy and good governance whether the future of Nigeria in the foreseeable future is in the hands of PDP, APC or “The Rest”.
Okunfolami writes from Lagos