The general perception of Nigerian politicians is that they are a different breed. True, like other politicians elsewhere, they engage in political intrigues as part of the strategy of gaining or retaining power. In the process, they create or join coalitions and employ various tactics to attract support. It is in their engagement with these activities and in their use of power that their unique brand is manifested.
As Nigerian politicians begin to prepare themselves for one position or the other by forming or joining coalitions and alliances in preparation for the 2019 general elections, it is important once again to bring their key characteristics to the fore. True, not all Nigerian politicians share these features; but the vast majority share four distinguishing characteristics, regardless of political party affiliation.
The first is the lack of an ideological core, that is, identifiable core beliefs or philosophical code by which to evaluate their actions. Ask any Nigerian politician what his or her political ideology is. You get basically the same answer: I want to help my people. What political philosophy will guide their action? They cannot tell you precisely.
There is, however, a group, whose political trajectory took roots in the Action Group, which has followed the same progressive ideology through the Unity Party of Nigeria; Social Democratic Party; Alliance for Democracy; Action Congress; Action Congress of Nigeria; and now the All Progressives Congress. Leading this pack is former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, and National Leader of the APC. However, given the hodge-podge of its membership, it is doubtful how much progressivism remains with the APC today.
There is yet another group, typified by former Ondo Governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, which upholds the progressive ideology but has migrated to the Peoples Democratic Party, which brands itself as conservative but whose political ideology is largely unknown. There are a number of Afenifere chieftains who belong to this group more because of their opposition to the Tinubu-Buhari alliance during the 2015 presidential election than in their support for the PDP. Besides, many of them joined the PDP restructuring bandwagon at that time, and they are still at it today.
By and large, however, there isn’t much of an ideological distinction between the two major political parties. This is not unexpected. For one thing, democracy has yet to take firm roots in the country, having been bastardised and truncated a few times. More importantly, most Nigerians don’t go into politics because they are motivated by certain core beliefs or persuaded by factors beyond their stomach and their wallet. The driving force is the politics of self-interest, not of public interest. In this kind of politics, political ideology has little or no relevance.
That’s why Nigerian politicians migrate at will from one political party to another, looking for new alliances, position of power, or lucrative patronage. Many powerful office holders in the APC today are political migrants from the PDP. Depending on the calculations of political gain, further migrations should be expected as the 2019 elections approach.
The politics of self-interest leads to the second major characteristic of Nigerian politicians. Like Chief Nanga in Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, they are so corrupt that they often “take too much for the owner to see”. That’s why, as Prof. Ayo Olukotun observed on his column recently, there is hardly any difference between the two major political parties in the proclivity for, and actual practice of, corruption.
President Muhammadu Buhari may fight corruption till tomorrow. The fight will only be meaningful when he can fight corruption from within his administration and curb the pathological proclivity for corruption among Nigerian politicians. Besides, he must stop the process by which indicted corrupt looters continue to escape punishment.
A third major characteristic of Nigerian politicians flows from their corrupt practices. Because they often have plenty of money to play with, they love to play the big man. This is evident in their siren-led entourage and the lavish parties associated with various rites of passage, notably, birthdays, weddings, and funerals.
A fourth major characteristic of Nigerian politicians is their employment of thugs, whose duty is to intimidate, maim, or even kill political opponents and cart away ballot boxes during elections. Physical thuggery of this kind has become a permanent feature of our electoral politics. This was vividly demonstrated during the recent governorship and bye-elections in Rivers State where all possible electoral malpractices were manifested.
Since many of the thugs are otherwise jobless folks, they often become jobless again after election. As a result, some of them turn to various criminal activities, using the ammunition they acquired as thugs.
At least, three factors have promoted the political culture being entrenched by Nigerian politicians. One is the permissive society with misplaced values, which prioritises materialism over genuine achievements. In this kind of society, a politician is expected to be a big man, at least in his or her local community, doling largesse once in a while to kinfolk and townsmen alike. It is this culture that often prompts protests by the locals whenever their local politician is arrested or arraigned for corruption. Why victimise their man, when others are doing the same thing? It is all part of the politics of place, ethnicity or religion by which most political and economic activities in the country are assessed.
Another contributory factor is the dangerous combination of high illiteracy and rampant poverty. Most voters, especially in the rural areas, have little or no idea about their rights, while many in the cities, especially young folks, are jobless. These are the people who sing and dance whenever a politician of stature visits their community, especially to launch or dedicate a project. They thank him profusely for giving them the so-called “dividend of democracy”. The politician in turn begins to pride himself or herself as the champion of the people.
Finally, the monetisation of prime political positions, the judiciary, and security agencies promotes an endless cycle of political mediocrity, corruption, and a political culture in which might is right and money can buy anything.
A very bad dimension of this problem peculiar to Nigeria is in the extortion of political nominees for federal appointment. The story is often told about how much money is spent by political appointees to secure their letters of appointment. The figures bandied around vary from N5m to N20m, depending on the position. According to the story, it is one thing for your governor or some big political boss to nominate you, it is another thing for the President to pick you. It is yet another thing for the security agencies to clear you. And that is just the beginning. It is one thing for your letter of appointment to be prepared. It is another thing for it to be processed and handed over to you. At every stage in the appointment process, money is expected to change hands. This goes on all the time, regardless of the political party in power. True, people lobby for political positions all over the world. What is peculiar about the Nigerian situation is the involvement of big money in the process.
Now, tell me how someone who borrowed as much as N10m to N20m to secure a political appointment will not go there to steal some money so he or she could pay back the loan with which the position was secured in the first place? This is part of the culture Buhari has to change in order to have a successful fight against corruption.
Another dangerous dimension of this problem is the difficulty it poses in distinguishing between corrupt and non-corrupt Nigerian politicians and between performing and non-performing ones. Sadly, the present economic situation in the country could only compound this problem.
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