‘With the same sword they knight you, they gon' good night you’ – Shawn Carter (Jay-Z)
Few have captured the perils of success as eloquently as one of the great wordsmiths of the last two decades. Success is two pronged, because in building a reputation for crushing the opposition, it is natural that enemies are created. Success puts a hex on one’s back, a target at which people can fire shots. At its peak, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was an insufferably successful juggernaut. It proclaimed itself the biggest party in Africa and said it would run Nigeria for half a century. Despite its many shortcomings, it swept election after election.
Why did the party fail?
There is no single answer to this question. Perhaps its initial success was a result of the lack of viable opposition or the power of its incumbent Presidents. Yet all good things do come to an end. And the end approaches more quickly if influential supporters and party followers become marginalised. Following Yar’Adua’s death and Goodluck Jonathan’s ascent to power, the party found itself internally conflicted as it was unprepared to handle the rise of the less influential Vice President Jonathan. So when Jonathan’s time came, those who failed to defer to him were left marginalised. One may recall how in the run up to the 2015 elections, former President Obasanjo famously tore his membership card. Although it is argued that for all intents and purposes, he was no longer a party member at that time, leaders of his kind making such gestures precipitated the party’s failure.
It could also be argued that ethnic insecurities played a part in the PDP’s demise. As seen in this election day post mortem, ethnic rivalry had built up in the northern regions of the country. Part of this stemmed from the sense that in seeking to run after Yar’Adua’s death, President Jonathan was breaking an unwritten zoning agreement requiring a northerner to run for office. The opposition countered this with a strategic move that elected President Buhari, a strong northern leader. Additionally, the party’s tenure was also marred by the Boko Haram insurgency which continuously pillaged the north eastern region of the country. His nonchalance, buoyed by his belief that it was a ploy to undermine him, played out badly when the elections came.
The merits of a working opposition party
It is in the best interests of the nation that the party gets used to its role in opposition. For one, a viable opposition is perhaps the greatest check on the majority in any democratic system. This is underlined by the fact that Nigeria effectively has a two-party system surrounded by a league of minor parties.
For example, one key reason the All Progressives Congress (APC) was able to wrest power was because its Publicity Secretary, Lai Mohammed, was consistent in undermining the government of the day. No decision was made by the ruling government without Mohammed finding a way to point out its flaws, dominating media coverage in the process. Although sometimes cynical, setting the agenda like that is one of the more efficient ways of influencing public opinion. Gradually, it became a self fulfilling prophecy. Moreover, as the former opposition party had little political history to be judged on, they were operating from a position of strength.
The first female Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative, famously remarked that her government’s greatest achievement was reflected in Tony Blair and New Labour, because they “forced the opposition to change their minds”. Blair was able to devise a system that married traditional Labour values with a modernist, elite favouring slant, and by doing so, he became a three term winning Prime Minister; the most successful Labour Prime Minister ever. It is not too much to hope that in this period of relative political drought, the PDP finds in itself the decisiveness that could allow it to adapt and evolve to the disadvantage of the ruling All Progressives Congress.
In achieving this, former President Jonathan can be a force for good. His decision not to preserve himself in power when all those around him thought contrary reflects well on him. It is also ironic that his greatest conviction came in his abdication, perhaps validating the theory that politicians tend to be at their best in defeat. It speaks volumes that we resorted to praising him for doing the right thing, but when counterbalanced against the political instability that plagues African politics, he stands out. The task before him is to remain a rallying point for his party by keeping his home region of the South-South and South-East together, before making a concerted effort to infiltrate the governing party’s stronghold in the South-West and the North.
How feasible is this?
As a former President, there is a level of clout and influence Jonathan will wield in the party. However, in breaking the party’s leadership streak, valid questions must be raised about whether he can serve as an effective party hub. Further doubts exist about whether Jonathan posseses the will to lead the party back into power. The political systems differ but there’s a reason leaders of British political parties resign when they lose. They need to be cut loose from the system and allow the party choose a direction.
Looking at the present People’s Democratic Party, there is a void of leadership. National Chairman, Muazu was forced to step down and the job of railing against the machine has been done solely by Olisa Metuh. The party needs an injection of leadership – someone willing to act as a hub and help in rebuilding the party. Jonathan by default, ought to play such a role. In his absence, the likes of Peter Obi, Osita Chidoka and Donald Duke who possess some gravitas could rebuild a formidable party that would reinvigorate the Nigerian polity. In the absence of that, we run the risk of allowing the All Progessives Congress get too fat in its state of comfort.