By Chidi Amuta
The race for the 2023 presidency is looking more like a tripartite sprint among unequal parties. In that race, the advantage of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) should ordinarily have been defined by two factors: age and a minus sign. It is the oldest of the three major contenders. Most importantly, it has since yielded power to the All Progressives Congress (APC) which is mired in a swamp of its legacy of endemic incompetence and dismal approval rating. Yet, the PDP has in recent times fatally injured itself through endless crises and internal wrangling. The party does not seem to be in any hurry to get up and run towards the elections. Instead, the PDP seems to have chosen a permanent wrestling match of the stunted egos of its leading lights over the possibility of victory in the imminent 2023 general election.
The ongoing brawls in the PDP could be part of the culture of discord in parties. But beyond a certain scope, internal wrangling within political parties can become a national security concern because of what parties mean to the survival of a stable democracy.
Though they are playgrounds for political animals, parties are first and foremost institutions of state stability. Parties are by nature vulnerable institutions. They may house rowdy political mammals, but they have intrinsic rules, nonetheless. Though designed to serve a democratic end, they are subject to authoritarian drifts because of the nature of politicians as scheming animals and politics itself as a treacherous game that alters its own rules continuously.
The tragedy is that of a political party with the longest institutional longevity and memory in post military Nigerian politics which has degenerated into a free for all beer parlor. Though out of federal level power for the last seven and a half years, the PDP has managed to retain grassroots loyalty, membership and name recognition. It has also retained a recognizable basic internal mechanism. But its integrity in terms of quality of leadership has suffered tremendously since 2015.
A handful of ambitious governors have literally hijacked the party executive, installing pliant cronies of doubtful credibility at will and using the leverage to advance their pre-scripted ambitions. The emergence of Mr. Uche Secondus as party chairman for instance was a classic instance of this miniaturization of the party for reasons of personal manipulative forecast. The governor of Rivers State, Mr. Nyesom Wike left his untidy imprint on the party’s wobbly leadership from the moment of the Secondus handpicked ascendancy. Throughout his stewardship as PDP national chairman, Wike hardly disguised his interest in the tenure of the rudderless Secondus as his ‘Man Friday’ for reasons other than the good of the party.
In the previous life of the party as the party in power, President Olusegun Obasanjo made sure that successive party chairmen were frequently changed more like disposable underpants. In his eight years as president, Obasanjo let party chairmen file past like hurriedly picked damsels in a pageant of middle-aged men. The roll call: Barnabas Gemade, Audu Ogbeh, Amodu Ali etc. filed past quickly at Obasanjo’s behest.
Now in the absence of a president in office, a power vacuum has left the field of party headship manipulation open to the most influential governors in the party. This mantle has naturally been usurped by the combustible Wike who is easily the most ambitious and financially enabled of PDP governors in the current era. He appears to have the largest war chest of loose cash and a fitting compliment of reckless spending, careless talk and elephantine ego.
Wike has thus emerged as a veritable political gadfly. His interest in the leadership of the party has trailed his personal political ambition. It was of course his democratic right to seek his party’s nomination at the recent primaries for the presidential ticket. It was also the responsibility of the party delegates gathered in Abuja to elect the most fit and proper person to fly its presidential flag at the 2023 general election.
Even after losing out to Mr. Atiku Abubakar at the presidential primary, it was still in order for Wike and any other PDP front liner to vie for the vice-presidential slot. Again, Wike lost out to Delta state governor, Ifeanyi Okowa. With that reverse, Wike should ordinarily have gone home to lick his wounds and restrategise for a more sensible political pathway. He did not. Instead, he seems to have opted for a career of trouble making and habitual rabble rousing. In the process, he has relentlessly challenged the party at every step. He has derided the party leadership, frontally confronted the presidential candidate, Atiku, and blatantly affronted him at every opportunity. He has even demanded the resignation of party chairperson, Dr. Iyiorcha Ayu, a veteran of the original PDP.
Ostensibly, Wike is now championing the cause for North-South geo-political balance in the leadership of the PDP. In reality, he has merely grafted his personal political ambition onto larger geopolitical issues in the party. It is of course true that the PDP cannot survive on the basis of perpetuating a northern hegemonic dominance in its leadership. A situation in which the presidential candidate, national chairman and chairman of Board of Trustees are all from Nigeria’s northern hemisphere is untenable and unacceptable in a national party properly defined.
No doubt, these are anomalies that a responsible party leadership should urgently redress through the processes and mechanisms available in its constitution. The recourse to grandstanding, hurling of crass abuses and open recrimination by Wike and his acolytes is uncalled for. By resorting to these rough tactics, Wike and his friends are converting party wide problems into vehicles for propelling personal vendetta against Atiku and the party leadership for his (Wike’s) deserved rejection for both the presidential and vice-presidential slots. In furtherance of his private power crusade, Wike has proceeded to recruit some governors and a few aggrieved party leaders to split party ranks and degrade the support for Atiku’s candidacy.
Of course, splits along tendencies and loyalties in a party are normal political phenomena. But a sustained campaign of personal vendetta and unguarded subversion of one’s own party cannot be excused in the name of partisan freedom. Membership of a political party comes with definite behavioral requirements and ground rules.
In the context of party supremacy, no single individual can place himself or his personal interests above the coherence and corporate interests of the party. Such disruptive behavior becomes even more consequential in an election year where the party faces a crucial power contest with other parties.
Clearly, then, Wike has allowed his right to dissent to undermine the supremacy of the PDP as an institutional pillar of the Nigerian state and its democratic stability. In this regard, Wike is in active consultation with the leadership of another party, the APC. It is on record that he invited several APC kingpins to commission his many public relations projects. He is on record to have made a series of reckless utterances and outbursts against his party’s chairman and its presidential candidate. He has just accused the party chairman of subversive arrogance.
Even as an ambassador of the party in his state, Wike has engaged in a series of autocratic displays against his fellow citizens simply for believing differently. He has locked up and openly disrupted businesses owned by politicians who dare to oppose him or support his opponents in the party. He has threatened to demolish hotels and event venues that dare host meetings of opposition political groups, terming them ‘criminal cults’ to suit his convenience. As a feature of his political method, Wike has perfected a rhetoric that indiscriminately rains invectives on perceived opponents. Add to this the reckless deployment of demagoguery and authoritarian antics to frighten his opponents. A democratically-elected governor in a republic has no business carrying on like an imperial tyrant in a banana republic.
Taken together, then, Wike’s recent actions inside the PDP amount to a gross abuse of all known rules of party membership. To that extent, Wike’s actions amount to serious anti party offences, and they qualify him for appropriate disciplinary sanctions in the context of the principle of party supremacy.
In a liberal democracy, the principle of party supremacy is an unwritten code that protects parties as institutions from the excesses of overbearing members who may want to place themselves above the party. In that sense, parties use the principle of party supremacy to mimic the larger dictate of democracy which places the interests of the whole society above individual interests. This is the principle of majoritarian prevalence which undergirds every open democracy. In that context, the subordination of individual ambition to the party’s collective will and interest becomes an overriding imperative.
An unfortunate situation has been created in the PDP. It is the spectacle of one man versus the party: Wike versus PDP. This must not be allowed to persist except the party wants to sacrifice its electoral chances on the altar of a private ego war between Wike and Atiku as the dominant forces in the new PDP.
This is a problem that can be solved through the rigorous invocation of the principle of party supremacy. Under the doctrine of party supremacy, therefore, the range of sanctions that the Wike factor now deserves should include suspension for a specific period or outright expulsion from the party. In fact, an outright immediate neutralization of the Wike factor through his outright expulsion from the party would be the most expedient.
That single act will resolve the issues at stake by exposing Wike’s political vulnerability. He will have no party platform to continue flexing and distracting the party. His supporters will desert him in a matter of weeks. He cannot join the APC this late without losing his followers in a state which has long remained a PDP dominant state and in which he desperately needs to secure the governorship. He cannot expect Rivers state PDP voters to vote for any other party just because he says so.
Outside the PDP, Wike’s political relevance and nuisance value will quickly expire and evaporate. The fear that he could split the party at the national level is unfounded. No new parties can be formed or registered now, definitely not for the 2023 election.
Wike has no significant national political followership, nor can he purchase it off the shelf. He only has a media nuisance value. He has little or no followership in the South-south where he has alienated most of the governors and political leaders. He is unwanted in the Southeast and barely tolerated in the entire North. His gambits to use the incumbency value of the Southwest in the present APC configuration will cave in the moment they discover that he has no more platform to be of electoral value.
Left alone in the cold political wilderness, Wike is likely to rant, rave and fume for a few weeks and fade into tragic insignificance and political inconsequence. His rented crowd will dissipate just as his cheering band will now play its last elegiac tunes to an audience of one miserable man in faded glory. His supporters will dwindle. None of the other governors now clinging to him will resign their membership of the PDP in sympathy with Wike. He will be left to battle alone for dear life in the brackish waters of Rivers politics where his rough tactics have created a pool full of fierce injured political sharks. They will bite him very hard in his lonely days without a party platform.
Thereafter, Atiku can reunite the party and prosecute his campaign free of these irritating distractions. The party can readjust the distortions in its geopolitical outlook as part of strategies to strengthen its drive for a balanced nationwide voter catchment. The challenge of enforcing party supremacy remains the urgent joint responsibility of both Atiku Ayu. They cannot afford to shirk that responsibility unless they want to sacrifice the stake of the party in the 2023 general election.
*This article by Dr. Chidi Amuta, Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Ltd. was first published by Thisday.