Like many Nigerians, I used to believe that the problem with Nigerian political parties was their lack of ideology; that they are a mindless rabble of strange bedfellows, neither fish nor flesh. But then I asked myself: what exactly is ideology? How do you define it?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ideology can be defined as:
a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture c: the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
By this definition, it's clear that every society and perhaps every political party has some form of ideology. The only question is whether such ideologies are 'good' or 'bad'(defined by whether they lead to positive or negative outcomes).
For example, it could be said that the prevailing ideology in Nigerian politics is neither progressivism, socialism or conservativism but rather 'politics of the belly', otherwise known as stomach infrastructure.
What will we eat?
Politics of the belly promotes control of resources by a few well-connected individuals who use these resources to accumulate political power. Votes are not freely given based on conscience but rather bought and traded openly or secretly. Once the 'patron' assumes political office, s/he no longer owes dividends to the voters. The party manifesto, if it exists, is not worth the paper it's written on.
Therefore, politics of the belly (POTB) is the direct antithesis to politics of issues (without disregarding the fact that hunger in the belly is a very important issue). We should also be clear that POTB is not an informal system but a very clearly defined system with a set of rules that are ruthlessly enforced.
For example, a party member representing the party at local, state or national level, whether elected or appointed, is expected to render monetary or material gifts to his or her local party chapter on a regular basis. Failure to do so results in ostracization. These contributions are separate from whatever contributions such representatives may make to individual members of the party for personal needs such as school fees, wedding ceremonies, funeral programmes etc. Sometimes the contributions are distributed in highly publicised 'empowerment programmes' where elected representatives distribute items like grinding machines, sewing machines, hairdressing equipment, motorcycles and even cars. In the case of federal representatives, these items are usually purchased at inflated costs from their constituency budget disbursed to each federal lawmaker. Of course, the representatives also make a tidy profit from these programmes. These monetary and material gifts have taken the place of transformative and sustainable public policy as a tool for positively impacting the lives of constituents.
The POTB ideology reduces every political transaction to monetary or material terms. Everything has a price. For example, after the last presidential election in Nigeria which was won by the All Progressives Congress (APC) with the slogan of CHANGE, jubilating party members in one southwest town were overheard asking for 'nkan CHANGE' from their patrons. 'Nkan CHANGE', loosely translated, means a monetary gift to mark the electoral victory (a traditional practice during religious or social events).
I've talked at length about POTB. But what about 'good' ideology? Did our founding fathers in Nigeria envisage a role for ideology in national life?
The way we were
In Nigeria, like many other countries, we reminisce wistfully about the 'good old days' when things were the way they ought to be. The truth is that with regard to party politics and ideology, things have always been bad in Nigeria.
Despite the fact that the major parties in each political dispensation often self-identify as either 'progressive' or 'conservative', the truth is that their attempts at crafting an ideology eventually devolve to an ethnicism that mirrors the divided society at large. This can be blamed on the lack of a national consensus about the meaning of Nigeria and the obligations of a citizen to the nation.
The Nigerian nation is held together not by the will of the people or by patriotism but by legislation and the force of arms. But patriotism, civic responsibility or political ideology are not things that you can legislate. This was the misguided approach adopted by President Ibrahim Babangida during his failed transition when he decreed that one of the two registered political parties should be 'a little to the left' while the other should be 'a little to the right'. IBB's approach was doomed to failure because national political ideologies arise from competing belief systems shared by different (patriotic) groups and sub-groups within a larger society. Elections are then contested peacefully in the marketplace of ideas. In the absence of a commonly shared patriotic belief system defining what it means to be a Nigerian or of how to develop the Nigerian society, the average Nigerian automatically falls back to identify primarily with his or her ethnicity or religion which are the only other belief systems that bind together large numbers of people.
The failure of the Nigerian founding fathers to codify a national identity has resulted in a system whereby the average Nigerian sees national politics as a zero-sum game whose objective is the acquisition of large sums of cash to share with your ethnic group. This belief is at the root of the system of national corruption that has retarded the socio-economic development of the Nigerian nation.
There have been a few exceptions. In particular, the late great Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of Action Group in the First Republic and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) of the Second Republic was a noted intellectual who built an organized and visionary political ideology which later became known as Awoism. In essence, Awoism was a form of social welfarism that promised Life More Abundant for all. Many citizens of the Western Region benefitted from Awolowo's Free Education policies.
Similarly, the Alliance for Democracy and Action Congress led by Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu have also practiced Welfare Liberalism which is a form of progressivism with a strong neo-liberal flavor. This particular ideology has led to the rapid transformation of Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria.
Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, alumni of this 'Lagos School' of politics, has also been a vocal proponent of ideology in politics. A notable socialist in his early days as a student activist, he published a 'Little Green Book' manifesto called My Pact with the People of Osun State. This little green book was mass distributed before and after his election. It listed his six-point Integral Action Plan:
- Banish Poverty
- Banish Hunger
- Banish Unemployment
- Restore Healthy Living
- Promote Functional Education
- Enhance Communal Peace and Progress
This innocuous tract clearly signaled his controversial and aggressive program of infrastructural and social development.
If we continue along our current course guided by politics of what we will eat today, without a thought for careful planning for the future, there will be an acceleration of the present anomie. There will be increasing corruption, increased lawlessness, more kidnapping, terrorism and separatist movements.
These phenomena are a direct result of weak national, state and local governments which have abdicated their responsibility to provide for the well-being of the majority and rather focus on satisfying the needs and longings of the privileged few members of the political and business class.
What is to be done?
So my answer to the question posed in the title of this essay is that yes, ideology is essential to building a political system that will lead to rapid socio-economic development of the Nigerian nation. Each political party must present clearly stated sets of propositions for national development that take into account the history and structure of Nigerian society and the numerous problems retarding our development.
Ideology is important because in order to fix Nigerian society, we must first fix Nigerian politics. In order to fix Nigerian politics there must first be a consensus about the meaning of Nigeria. Are we Nigerians in our hearts or minds or are we simply members of our individual ethnic groups who don the 'Nigerian' hat when it suits our pockets? For many Nigerians, in the absence of ideology, Nigeria is simply a mere geographic expression, a juicy cake to be shared; and political parties become the vehicles to gain access to that cake.
What do we stand for as a Nation? Is it football? Afrobeat? Owambe? 419? Drug Smuggling? We have to decide on the two or three things that we want to be known for around the world and begin to develop policies to project and profit from these things that bind us together.
There are national economies that thrive on just one thing whether tourism, sports, food or music. We have to inspire our countrymen to focus on those things that bind us together and to embrace peace and dialogue. There is no doubt that Nigeria is destined to be a great nation. We all agree on that. Let's begin to act like it.
What are your thoughts on ideology in Nigerian politics? If you would like to join the conversation, please consider subscribing to my email list [here]. I hope to hear from you soon!