Opinion: Long Week of Power Bazaars – Chidi Amuta
ENGAGEMENTS By Chidi Amuta
In a little over another week, a great deal of the political cacophony all over the country will have abated. The period will end with gatherings of Nigeria’s political tribes in Abuja. Their major achievement will be to lower the deafening decibels of our current political noise pollution. From then on, there will be no more consultation visitations. No more tongue -in -cheek promises by royals trying so hard to hide their lies in political correctness. No more cosmetic courtesies by host governors who believe and speak differently. No more undigested promises by mostly ill prepared aspirants.
Delegates drawn from across the national spectrum representing lower levels of the two dominant parties will by tomorrow have decided on the two persons who will subsequently be authorized to make noise on their behalf. In the alternative, some form of inconvenient consensus will hopefully have been hammered out among ambitious aspirants as to who among them should parade the title of ‘presidential candidate’ out of the multitude. That in itself will mark some progress for Nigeria’s rabble democracy.
From a tumultuous multitude of presidential aspirants we will by the upper week hopefully be down to a binary choice of either or. Of course the minor parties will exercise their constitutional right of fielding presidential candidates even if only to justify their registration certificates. There may likely be a microwave coalition of small to medium scale parties populated by all those disappointed in the big parties to form a party of ‘no’, a sort of conclave of the angry and rejected. INEC will take note of all these minor skirmishes as it takes a closer look at the continued existence of our motley of parties.
Whatever happens, next week promises to be refreshingly more quiet on the political front. There will still be lawsuits and threats thereof arising from these untidy primaries at nearly every level. Noisy lawyers will invariably goad the ambitious aspirants towards the courts with the hope of getting a piece of the legal action in this season of political disputations. There will of course be widespread disillusionment among the losers and their disappointed spouses some of whom may have rehearsed new dance steps in anticipation of victory in the roles their partners dreamt about. A good number will count their losses in gold and cowries. A minority will move on in the hope that better days lie ahead. In a nation drenched in religious fanfare and superstitious determinism, quite a few pastors and imams will urge the disappointed to look up to heaven for better luck next time. All they need do is come forward with some token offerings of gratitude to God for the gift of life in this dangerous time and place.
Ordinarily, the idea of party primaries should impose some order on the wildness of the democratic instinct among our myriad political animals. At every level from ward to local government, state and national, the party primaries that have dominated most of this week have had the beneficial effect of sifting aspirants from candidates. Imperfect as the system may seem, we need to celebrate this milestone of democracy. Anyone who expected perfect primaries in today’s Nigeria may not be one of us.
Specifically, the presidential primaries of the two major parties should hold the greatest significance for the nation. From the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), an estimated over 2000 delegates have converged in Abuja while another 800 plus party faithful from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party are gathered for the same purpose. This ritual gathering should ordinarily be a political carnival at which political leaders representing our rich diversity would meet and mix in Abuja to compare experiences and in the process further cement the bonds of unity. At such a time of serious national emergencies, the delegates ought to take seriously the task of leadership renewal through the instrument of the political party which is the essence of the primaries.
At no other time has leadership renewal and change been such a dire and urgent imperative as in today’s Nigeria. The nation is besieged in all directions with clear and present threats of a strategic nature. Combat troops and sundry policemen and security personnel are on active patrol in all states of the federation. Nearly a hundred fellow citizens that have been held hostage for over a month after being abducted from the Abuja-Kaduna train terrorist attack are now at the risk of being murdered en masse by a band of blood thirsty terrorists. They have issued a seven day ultimatum to government to pay up or come for the corpses of their victims.
In various urban centres of the nation, lynch mobs are on the prowl bludgeoning and setting fellow citizens ablaze for the flimsiest reasons. In yet other places, deranged gunmen of unspecified motives are killing fellow citizens, including mothers and their children, in an orgy of blood and madness. The general populace would be perfectly reasonable to feel entitled to the emergence of the right quality of leadership from these party primaries if only to be saved from this string of tragedies. In a democratic setting, only the process of peaceful change can replace the bumbling squad in Abuja with a more purposeful leadership from 2023.
But judging by the media highlights since the immediate run up to the presidential primaries, public attention is hardly on the policies, ideas and qualities of the numerous presidential aspirants. Instead, the attention has been more on the ethnicity, religion, region or financial weight of the major aspirants in both major parties. Among a sample of the delegates themselves, the thrust of the discussion has since shifted to a more embarrassing area. Most delegates on their way to the Abuja presidential primaries have been more interested in how much money they were going to harvest from the competing aspirants in exchange for their votes.
In the fortnight to the week of the primaries, Bloomberg reported a sharp further decline in the value of Nigeria’s beleaguered national currency, the Naira. Its value plummeted to over N600 to $1 US dollar from a previous already miserable N475 to $1 in street side currency markets. The current predictable pressure on the Naira is the result of unusually heavy demand for dollars by leading politicians. The lighter more easily transportable US dollar is the currency of choice in Nigeria for pay offs, bribes, inducements, kickbacks and other nefarious under the table payments. In a political culture where vote buying and rampant monetization of political transactions is taken for granted, the demand for cash dollars is at an all time high in this election season.
In these hotly contested party primaries to choose who becomes Nigeria’s next president, wads and bundles of American dollars are a convenient medium for buying off impoverished party delegates from the hinterland, some of whom have been waiting for the opportunity of these carnivalesque primaries to jet into Abuja for an all expenses paid weekend break of lavish free meals and splurges of cash. To some of them, this is a political wealth redistribution season that happens every four years. The only difference now is that the financial expectations have been adjusted for inflation, exchange rate fluctuations and other contingencies.
The nearly 40 presidential aspirants from both major parties and their proxies have already each paid the equivalent of $100,000 to $200,000 just to procure the application forms for the party presidential gate passes. They seem even more prepared to shell out a few more hundreds of thousands of dollars to clinch the prize presidential ticket of each party.
The major aspirants for the presidential ticket of each major party are speculated to have budgeted anything from $15,000 to a princely $50,000 per delegate. These are to be delivered in sealed parcels to delegates in the dead of the night preceding the delegate elections. The precise price tag of each delegate vote is not yet fixed. It could go up as aspirants weigh and balance their chances and compute the required number of delegates to defeat their rivals. It is all an open -ended equivalent of an Arab street bazaar. The highest bidder is bound to win. In effect, what could turn out to be one of the most lavish vote buying sprees in the history of party democracy anywhere in the world is in progress in Nigeria’s capital city as we speak.
To most rational observers, the extent of monetization of politics in Nigeria defies all understanding and logic. Here is one of the most indebted countries in the world, spending over 98% of its mostly oil revenue in debt servicing. Here is a nation with the largest population of poor people (over 100 million) in the world. Here is a nation whose most prosperous city-Lagos- was this week voted the most difficult place to live in in the world.
The sheer quantum of cash that will change hands to produce the outcome of who gets to rule Nigeria from 2023 is best left to the imagination. The open bargaining in this Arab street bazaar politics is often justified by the general simplification that politics everywhere costs money. Yes indeed, money and politics are bound by an ancient umbilical cord that is now nearly universal. It however remains a matter of how and to what ends money is deployed in a given political system in the competitive quest for power. In normal political transactions, power is never treated like a commodity on the shelf to be purchased by the highest bidder in the kind of open market bazaar that has become the staple of Nigeria’s political industry.
Yes indeed, in liberal democratic societies and their free market systems, the political enterprise has become a sub set of the modern market economy. In such market societies, it is quite legitimate to buy media space, pay for advertising slots in the press, radio, television and the internet. It costs money to print innumerable posters, banners, mount billboards static and electronic, erect banners and other campaign material. These are the props that convert political candidates and aspirants into commodities that are either more attractive than their competition or fall by the way side for scant marketing effect.
It is equally legitimate to hire lobbyists, researchers, statisticians, strategists, consultants, influencers and facilitators of all shades at great costs to achieve political ends. In all of this, there remains an abiding requirement that political spending, like other aspects of the free market economic system, is subject to a regulatory framework. Campaign spending has ceilings and regulations and ought to be subjected to minimum accountability requirements and standards. Pre and post election audits ought to determine whether practitioners have complied with spending limits and caps.
The accountability requirements of political money spending include the tracking of funds to ensure that bad money from terrorists, narcotics traffickers, gangster collectives and other bad sources are not deployed to political ends. It also ought to include limitations on contributions from local and foreign companies and a moratorium on campaign fund donations from foreign governments with or without business interests in the recipient country. Nigeria’s rule books contain most of these regulatory guard rails.
In spite of extant laws on political spending and campaign financing, money continues to play a less than edifying role in Nigerian politics. This is of course a reflection of the porous regulations that guide a great deal of Nigeria’s public sector spending with its lax accountability standards. The Nigerian system elevates the political leadership above most rules of public accountability. The concept of the king being the law himself is an underlying carry over from most Nigerian ancient traditions onto the modern state.
There is a culture of inbuilt absolutism in Nigerian traditions that have been smuggled into the operation of the modern nation state. In this regard, the Nigerian president is easily one of the most powerful public officers in the world. There may be limitations to his power on paper but hardly any Nigerian president since 1999 has been held to strict account for the actions taken or not taken while in office. Nigeria’s presdientialism is said to have been adapted from the Washington model. The American president pay for his food and that of his guests except on state occasions. But the Nigerian president lives in a lavish and expansive string of mansions free of charge. He and his family and countless dependents and guests are fed, entertained transported and feasted at state expense. In addition to the power of life and death which is reserved for most sovereigns, the Nigerian president literally has an exclusive prerogative of impunity.
The budget for feeding, entertainment, travel and maintenance in the Nigerian presidency is practically above legislative scrutiny. It of course features in the annual budget only as a matter of courtesy to the legislature. There is a saying that the Nigerian president is free to help himself to limitless cash from the Central Bank only subject to his own moral restraint. Those who author these stories have often pointed to the late General Sani Abacha who is said to periodically send a truck with instructions to the Central Bank to load cash in specified foreign currencies. Twenty four years after Abacha’s sudden death, the funds he looted from the Nigerian treasury are still being discovered and repatriated from different countries and jurisdictions!
Therefore, aspirants to the Nigerian presidential job will spare no expense to secure a ticket to the party ticket. It is this almost limitless lack of accountability that drives the literal stampede of a multitude of aspirants to the presidential palace in Abuja every four years.
In the advanced democracies of the West, former presidents return to the real world of ordinary mortals at the end of their tenure and are expected to live by the limitations of mortals in a republican setting. Check Angela Merkel’s modest apartment block abode in East Berlin. Check Barrack Obama’s ordinary residence in a Washington precinct. In contrast, former Nigerian presidents literally enroll into a pantheon of men transformed into virtual deities.
It is not the power and privilege of office that is at issue here. It is the destructive role of the ‘cash and carry’ culture on the development of Nigeria’s democracy that ought to be the lingering concern from this week’s party primaries. The success of most of the primaries should be commended in spite of the observed lapses in places.
The monetization of our democracy and its processes is dangerous. Political parties that charge a fee of N100 million for a presidential nomination form can only be the prime promoter of a regime of corruption. A presidential ticket procured on a transactional basis can at best produce a mercantile president. A leader who literally bought his way into office cannot be trusted to honour the social contract which is a non transactional bond between a leader and his fellow citizens.