The most urgent question in Nigerian politics at the moment is not the outcome of the 2011 elections. It is the possibility of forging a viable progressive alternative to the extant political order. Several analysts interpret Nigerian politics as a Manichean drama between the “evil” ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party and an angelic opposition. This portrait is simplistic to the point of silliness. What ails Nigerian politics is bigger than a single political party; it is a militarized and parasitic political culture of which the PDP is only the most obvious example. It is a system, poisoned by the long years of military dictatorship, which cuts across party lines. The PDP is its most visible manifestation because it is the dominant party. Therefore, it would be a mistake to reduce political change to simply changing parties in power. Ejecting the ruling party will count for nothing if we do not change the reigning ideas.
A second view of Nigerian politics shared by many of its practitioners and analysts is that ideology is inconsequential; that tags such as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are passé. Again, this is a legacy of military rule which virtually eliminated ideas from politics and redefined it as a contest of cash and brigandage. It is true that Nigerian politicians mostly do not reckon with ideology. Indeed, to the extent to which political parties are ideological communities, we do not have authentic parties at the moment; only protean constellations of interests ever changing in accord with personal fortunes. The PDP is thus the biggest and the most successful congregation of strange bedfellows in the field. But ideology does matter. Over the past two decades, governance has been shaped by what can only be described as a free market kleptocracy entrenched by a raft of neo-liberal reforms that emphasizes untrammeled liberalization, huge cuts in social spending, privatization and the devaluation of the naira.
These measures are consistent with the structural adjustment programmes that were promoted by western governments and Bretton Woods Institutions during the 1980s and were discredited by the 1990s. General Ibrahim Babangida fundamentally altered the fabric of state-society relations by imposing SAP in 1986. Within the context of military dictatorships and our quasi-militarized illiberal democracy, and in the absence of regulatory inhibitions, these measures amount to simply vandalizing the state, cannibalizing federal assets and sharing them among cronies. The contradictions inherent in effecting a radical shift in socio-economic priorities under a totalitarian regime was glossed over by architects of SAP. In effect, even though, it affected a consistency with capitalism, what emerged can only be called a kleptocracy or more charitably, crony capitalism or predatory capitalism.
To be sure, Nigeria’s economic woes predated Babangida, but his socio-economic engineering deepened the consumerist maladies of the society, accentuated social injustice and corruption, and destroyed civic trust in government. The perverse neo-liberalism that generated these dysfunctions remains the dominant philosophy of government. The state has lost its meaning as a provider of public goods – social infrastructure, roads, bridges, education and healthcare etc. Government’s responsibilities have shrunk dramatically, while it has tightened its grip on national resources and redefined itself as a profit machine for its operators. For the vast majority of our compatriots, governance is denoted by its absence except for the nuisance value of sirened motorcades and allied formats of reprobate pageantry. It is this culture of predation for which a progressive alternative must be found.
In the quest for a progressive alternative today, it is sensible to look back and to reclaim the vision of the progressive patriarchs of yore. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Aminu Kano were the leading luminaries of the progressive tradition in the fifties and sixties. It may be argued that their inability to win power, due to British colonial intrigues, internecine squabbling and ethnic mistrust, was the most significant political mishap in the early stages of the Nigerian project. For without a doubt, the course of Nigerian history would have turned out very differently if they had directed it. Zik, Awo, Aminu and their cohorts were not doctrinaire socialists despite their left-leaning rhetoric. British colonialists saw them through the blinkers of the cold war and deemed them to be a “red danger” but they were nothing of the sort. Rather they were “third way progressives” who envisioned a synthesis of an enterprise economy and a welfare state.
Their ardent advocacy of universal public education reflected their belief in the moral purpose of the state as an enabler of human potential and national prosperity. They were welfarists who were as interested in wealth creation as they were in social justice. The philosopher, Chinweizu has characterized their ideology as “communalism” rooted less in Marx than in the communal ethos of African society which emphasizes inclusion and collectivity. It is a vision of the responsible society that leaves no one behind in the quest for moral and material progress. The state is thus necessary to underwrite the mutual wellbeing of the citizenry while reining in the inequities and inequalities that result from unbridled capitalism. Certainly, surrendering society to the caprices of market forces would have been anathema to the patriarchs.
Nigerian progressives today are suffering from a number of plagues. The ascendancy of right wing military regimes throughout our history severely limited progressive fortunes. It also meant that right wing politicians were the favoured parties in military-sponsored transition programmes. Babangida’s particular persecution of so-called “radicals” nearly destroyed the progressives and left them too exhausted to mount a feasible challenge for power in 1999. Thirdly, the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism in 1989, unleashed a sense of ideological bankruptcy which buffeted the Nigerian left. The left has long supplied the moral energy of progressivism and with their weakening the progressive community also atrophied.
But the progressives are also reeling from self-inflicted woes, chiefly, their congenital inability to build a truly national movement. Progressive forces have been undermined by factional infighting, bigotry and sectarian prejudices. Progressivism is not synonymous with any ethnic nationality even though some politicians and commentators of the south west persist in making this unfortunate assertion. Their potential for a national victory has been nullified often enough by the irredentist reduction of progressivism to an ethnic enclave. In his seminal book, Africa in Ebullition, Adegoke Adelabu argued that the Action Group was limited by its “self-imposed provincialism and its petticoat of shabby parochialism.” The same criticism is valid today against those who deem themselves heirs of the A.G., and its later incarnation, the U.P.N. For years, an odious narrative has made the rounds casting the south (and the southwest in particular) as the bastion of progressivism and the north as the seat of feudal conservatism. This bogus narrative assisted by bigoted and ignorant commentators has long prevented progressives on both sides of the Niger from linking hands and rising to the defence of their constituency – poor, disillusioned Nigerians who are in the majority.
Secondly, progressives seem incapable of subsuming ego and personal ambition in the quest for greater collective victories. Internecine dogfights splintered the Peoples Redemption Party and reduced a potential national progressive movement to a skeletal organization located entirely in Kano. Too often, progressives prefer to operate as lone-rangers so convinced in the justice of their own cause that they wind up in a cul de sac of their self-righteousness, high on puritanical fervor but electorally impotent. This is a shame because when they make their case rightly, the progressives have the most compelling vision for Nigeria; one which should enjoy greater mass appeal but which for these reasons does not.
Of late, progressive ideals have disappeared from the public square. We live in an age of intellectual famine and ideas are rarely given space to manifest. Militarized politics ensures that public debate is frequently “won” by the hecklers and those who make the loudest noise. Reasoned, sober voices are drowned out. The triumph of cash and carry politics has sapped progressives of their confidence. There is presently no recognizable progressive party. Creating a national movement calls for progressives to rediscover their political identity and re-establish their pavilion in the marketplace of ideas. If they can regain their faith in themselves and in their values, overcome expired prejudices and provincialisms and find new young and energetic leaders, Nigeria could very well experience a national renaissance.