Political parties have often been traced to the early days of America. Yet, even then the founding fathers did not plan for partisan divisions. George Washington, the first president, was not a member of a party and even went as far as to caution against such groupings in his farewell address. A prescient warning is where he discusses the potential for it to distract the government from its duties. Regretfully, that is where we are today in Nigeria.
Political parties are usually the symbolic carriers of an ideological flame. From Left to Right, Conservative to Liberal, parties emerged through shared beliefs of how government should serve the people. We often do not agree, but a respectful and sincere exchange with the aim of preserving and protecting democracy and its service is always the main objective.
The First Parties
Nigeria's first political party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party, was admittedly more Lagos-based, but it worked for the expansion of voting rights across the country. However, its Lagos-centric membership meant it could not truly reflect its aims and objectives and was later dethroned by the Nigerian Youth Movement, whose more radical and diverse membership enabled it to become a truly national movement.
In the first Republic, parties transitioned from being alliances of ideas to alliances of proximity. Most of the older Nigerian Political parties did not start with ideology but were regional or tribal alliances, and their bases reflected that. The aptly named Northern People's Congress (NPC) was even led by the traditional leader of the North—the Sardauna of Sokoto. The Action Group (AG) was domiciled in the West and the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) was in the East. Yet, while these parties were primarily regional and tribal in nature, all shared certain nationalist traits. They advocated for independence, sought for collaboration for their new nation and to varying degrees, addressed the issues of the groups they represented. Many will argue that this split birthed the tribal politics of today's Nigeria, and it doesn't help that each of the leaders, AG's Awolowo, NCNC's Azikiwe and NPC's Bello, were all of the three major tribes in their regions.
The Second Republic
Alliances of proximity soon shifted to become alliances of necessity. The three major parties that defined the Second Republic were really successor parties of the initial three regional parties. Two of them even fielded leaders of the First Republic's main parties in the contested 1979 election. The National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was a Northern-based party and fielded President Shehu Shagari, the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) was a repackaged AG and was led by Obafemi Awolowo, while The Nigerian People's Party (NPP) was a successor of the NCNC, also led by former President Nnamdi Azikiwe. These parties were more national in outlook, but marked the shift in focus from tribal politics to electoral success.
The High Point of the Third Republic
The aborted Third Republic featured two political configurations that were created by the military government. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC) were created with the aims of having a more national and ideological roster of supporters. The SDP was designated as the Center-Left party, while the NRC was ideologically Center-Right. Results from that time show a truly competitive electoral era, with neighbouring states returning governors of different parties. For example, Delta elected the late Ibru of the SDP and Imo returned late Senate President Evan Enwerem of the NRC, Lagos elected the NRC candidate even though Ogun returned an SDP aspirant, and Jigawa went with the SDP even though Kano backed the NRC candidate. Moreover, as the parties were almost evenly split across the country, SDP with 14 states and NRC with 16, one can only wonder where our politics would be if that republic was not truncated so early.
The Politics of Today
And now we reach the Fourth Republic, an era that has seen political parties move to an alliance of convenience. The same names dot the 19-year history of this Republic, just with different party names at different times. Cross-carpeting and electoral expediency have ruled the day, and arguments could be made that parties have simply become vehicles for electoral success. Names have changed, symbols have been redesigned, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. Few can outline the PDP’s ideology or explain what differentiates the APC from the opposition.
Nigeria does not deserve this lack of attention. Yet, perhaps as an electorate, we are complicit in this new political age where stomach infrastructure and vote-buying are rife and rampant. Where leaders can ignore the criticisms of a population because another news headline will cause a distraction. And where single leaders can move and change the leaning of a state because of their following.
And still, hope is not lost. More Nigerians are becoming more politically active and aware of their ability to make a difference. These unions and groupings, from newly-established political parties to densely populated WhatsApp group chats, show that Nigerians are waking up and ready to act. And in time, hopefully, we will turn the attention of parties and politicians away from addressing the spectacle that comes every four years, to fixing the reality that is present every day.