By Anthony A. Akinola*
The great Nnamdi Azikiwe had his own special “political anthem” when campaigning in the old Western Region populated by the Yoruba. He often sang in Yoruba, to the applause of his audience, a song saying we should build our house on a rock because the one built on sand gets easily washed away.
The history books tell us of great nations that have collapsed because many fundamentals were swept under the carpet. Had the defunct Soviet Union followed the path of the United States of America by putting appropriate democratic structures in place, rather than indulging in many decades of sloganeering, it might have survived until today. Nigeria can only learn from the history of others if its own is not to be a continuation in the chapter of failed nations.
There are things to admire in American political history, not least the pragmatic solutions the founding fathers offered to controversial issues when the nation was transforming from a confederacy to a federal union in the latter part of the 18th century.
The introduction of a bicameral legislature to reconcile the fears of smaller states about the dominance of larger ones is an act of exceptional ingenuity. The device might have looked comical at some stage but share commitment by a succession of disciplined and purposeful politicians has seen the arrangement survive more than two centuries of political practice.
It is not likely one would find a reference to political parties in the American Constitution, not least because the institution of political parties was one development that came afterwards. Today’s Democratic and Republican parties are mere electoral machines, parties that hold different meanings to different people in the fifty states of the federation.
The American political parties are not ideological in the same context that most European political parties are. When it is said that the American elected politician does not vote strictly along party lines it is principally because of the diversity of interest in the American society. If, for instance, one is from a tobacco growing state, he or she has no business supporting a bill proposing a ban on smoking in public places.
The line between the Republican party and the Democratic party is very thin, hence their peaceful co-existence over the years. The Nigerian political parties, on the other hand, have yet to develop a character, as politicians still display the type of loyalty that makes prostitutes look like devoted housewives.
Contemporary America may be as heterogeneous as Nigeria but it is not an ethnically-divided society. As Nigeria is approaching an election year the reality of the society is fast blowing onto the surface. The noise has been about the next president coming from the South-South, the South-East or the North. It would be dishonest or ill-informed to assume the presidency is not an issue in Nigerian politics.
It is indeed a big issue and will remain so until it is boldly addressed in a new Constitution. Contentions over leadership have been responsible for the Civil War of 1967-70 and many other crises experienced in recent years. The writer once said in an article, and he is repeating it here, that the single institution that can hold Nigeria together or tear it apart is that of the presidency.
The main reason why groups scramble for the presidency in our type of society is not because of the expectation that the political leader or president will favour his or her own group over and above others. Groups want the presidency for psychological reasons. – be it the psychology of domination, or that of not wanting to be subservient.
The renowned constitutional lawyer, Professor Ben Nwabueze, once said emphatically that the quest for a Nigerian president of Igbo origin was not an aspiration that could be abandoned simply because there was one president from somewhere else who was developing Igbo roads or even transforming every Igbo citizen into a millionaire. It is in the nature of ethnic politics that one group measures its own progress in society against the successes of rival groups.
The Yoruba did not consider the candidacy of General Olusegun Obasanjo favorably in 1999, not least because his only challenger in the then presidential election was a preferred kinsman. He won the presidency outside of Yoruba constituency.
However, when Obasanjo sought re-election in 2003 and had non-Yoruba contenders as his opponents he won massively in his ethnic constituency. The Yoruba-dominated Alliance for Democracy (AD) tactically refused to present its own presidential candidate in order to boost Obasanjo’s ethnic support. The facts of our politics are there for all to see.
Issues can only be resolved when they are addressed. The issue of state creation was once a crippling phenomenon in Nigerian politics. Political parties were formed to actualize group aspirations for separate states or regions. The United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) and the United Independence Party (UNIP) were examples of such one-issue oriented political parties of the First Republic. In fact, agitation for state creation provoked large scale violence in some areas of the Nigerian Federation. Successive military governments did well to address this once-disturbing issue and the Nigerian Federation is all the better for it today.
Nations differ from one another and so also does the temperament of their occupants. There could not have been a state of California with a population of 35.9 million existing alongside a tiny Wyoming of 506.5 thousand in our own society. What about the possible agitation by governorship and senatorial aspirants for our own California to be split into 10 or more states in order to accommodate their ambitions?
With states tending towards equal sizes, can we honestly say today that bicameral legislature holds the same relevance and significance for us as it does for the nation that invented it? It serves no useful purpose for us to want to do things the way Americans do if our circumstances call for something different.
The argument that a potential president should be intelligent, competent and patriotic cannot, in any way, be faulted. However, those with such qualities can be found in all the geo-political zones of the Nigerian federation. The time will come, and it may not be long, when we see conventional wisdom in a remodeled presidency that is made up of an elected leader from each of the geo-political zones.
The position of president who combines the functions of Head of State with that of the Chairmanship of the Collegiate can be based on rotation. Because of the belief that Nigeria is one important nation of the world whose political leader deserves a face, the preferred model here is one in which a zone holds on to the position of Head of State and therefore, the title of President for the duration of a single term of whatever number of years the Constitution prescribes.
The members of the Collegiate will be entitled to seek re-election. When we have done this we will have built our nation and its democracy on a rocky foundation.
*Anthony A. Akinola lives in Oxford, UK.
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