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In most modern democracies, groups and individuals vie for power through affiliations with competent political parties. Nigeria’s Fourth Republic has the largest number of political parties ever, with a total of thirty so far. Only a handful of these parties are, however, viable and competent enough to successfully vie for political power even at the local government level. The political elite instinctively flock into a few major parties leaving the rest to hang barely by the thread. Politics, to many, is all about acquiring power and only party formations that have potential to deliver on such a promise to its followers can attract and retain membership, particularly in a country like Nigeria. Once leading parties have secured their areas of dominance and influence, competition for control of their machinery intensifies at the local, state and federal levels. Sufficient cash is always a limiting factor in organizing and running political parties, especially in a democracy. With ample amount of money, one can buy influence through funding and controlling logistics of the party machine as well as maintaining high public visibility which helps to enhance the party’s aura.

The average citizen has been made to understand that political parties are veritable conduits for acquiring power and wealth. Regular party members join Nigerian political parties with great anticipation of getting something substantive out of it. There is hardly anything done for the party voluntarily, thus requiring that routine errands and sundry logistics are usually all paid for in cash by whoever is perceived to be the local boss in charge. Political parties, as presently organized and run in Nigeria, cannot function at grassroots level without the largesse of partisan godfathers.

In a democracy, parties are supposed to operate mostly independent of the government. In industrialized societies, corporate entities, groups and individuals raise the funds with which to organize and run political parties, including electioneering campaigns. For countries like Nigeria where there is widespread material poverty, disposable income with which to fund party activities is hard to come by amongst the citizenry. The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), for example, was founded by funds raised by only a few financiers who had access to big government contracts in preceding administrations. Notable figures within the military establishment thus have a disproportionately high representation in this cadre because they had complete control of the nation’s purse strings for the past two decades. Non-military nouveau riches party stalwarts are mostly individuals who are known to have benefited immensely from military rulers in regimes that preceded current civilian democratic dispensation. The saying that whoever pays the piper dictates the tune is particularly true for Nigeria because money-bags, comprising mostly of close associates of ex-military rulers, dictate the direction and pace of our democracy by personally controlling how political parties are funded at various levels.

General Olusegun Obasanjo emerged from Abacha’s incarceration impoverished and extremely dispirited in the late 90s. Within a few short months, he was re-invigorated and primed to contest for the ruling party’s presidential ticket in 1999 general elections. Before he was anointed as PDP presidential candidate, the former military strongman was reported to have donated hundreds of millions of naira to the party. How was it possible for him to raise such a huge amount of money soon after emerging from years of imprisonment, some would ask? The answer is simple; the generous helping hands of Nigerian political financiers put up the venture capital that turned presidential candidate Obasanjo into a multimillionaire almost overnight. Did Obasanjo get all this political support and funding out of mere love or were there unseen and unwritten guarantees made by him to the financiers before the deal was consummated? Some financiers, for example the much-publicized godfather of Anambra state PDP, would only make such expensive and risky venture after written guarantees or solemn oath taking by the beneficiary.

Those who surreptitiously fostered Obasanjo’s candidacy were reported to have fallen out with him shortly after assuming the presidency of Nigeria possibly because their expectations were not met as agreed. The wily president could have gotten away with this because he did not have a lone financier as was the case in some gubernatorial elections. Chief Christian Uba was said to be the sole sponsor of a list of PDP candidates in Anambra state, including aspirants for governor, state house of assembly and the National Assembly. With such power in his grip, the financier expected not only partisan loyalty but also he demanded personal adulation from whoever attained political ascendancy from his largesse. The political elite in Anambra state, the majority of who belong to the ruling party, flock regularly to Enugu and Uga residences of PDP godfather on a sort of pilgrimage to consult with and fawn on their single most important benefactor. It was reported that, when Chief Uba had cause to suspect the undivided loyalty of gubernatorial candidate Chris Ngige at the eve of 2003 general elections, the latter volunteered to make a special predawn trip to the now notorious Ogwugwu Okija shrine to swear an oath of allegiance to the former.

During political transition program of the Third Republic, grassroots leaders of a faction of National Republican Convention (NRC) in old Anambra state were routinely sent to the shrine of a deity in Oji River local government area to swear their allegiance to the main party financier of the time. This enabled this partisan faction of NRC to remain fairly intact even after the old Anambra state was split into Enugu and new Anambra states. Oath taking to ensure partisan loyalty is not confined only to swearing in shrines of powerful deities. At the eve of NRC party convention in Aguata local government in the early 90s, delegates who belonged to the Catholic denomination were secretly convened by a group of parish priests in a church where a special mass was held to indoctrinate them to vote against a non-Catholic rival candidate. The delegates were specially admonished to display their rosary and crucifix conspicuously at the election venue to ensure solidarity till conclusion of election of local government party executives. As was expected, the delegates obeyed the activist priest and ended up electing an obviously less competent candidate who was, nonetheless, pre-approved for the position of party chairman by the Catholic Church establishment in the local government.

Committing one to undergo solemn oath-taking ceremony as a means of assuring loyalty is usually given preeminence and priority over inculcation of partisan ideology because, in most instances, personality of candidates and not the issues they stand for determine the choice of political leadership in Nigeria. It goes without saying that those who are bound by oath on the eve of a democratic election have had their right and freedom of choice pre-empted and abrogated by someone else. Democracies that have endured were founded on strong principle that separates affairs of the church from those of the state. Politics, in the modern era, operates within the realm of the mundane where laws are made by humans to serve the greater society in which all must survive and thrive. Instilling fear of the unknown into the citizenry mystifies politics to the extent that unscrupulous elements can easily outwit and exploit the vulnerable in our midst. Political power, in an impoverished polity, tends to gravitate to the few who have amassed ample amount of disposable income. Nigerian moneybags, most of who lack visible ideological political conviction, dabble into politics anyway as a sort of business venture. This class of politicians demand assurances, oath taking included, before they part with their cash to support the party or its candidates.

Nigeria’s political and intellectual elite are firmly fixated on political precedents of the nation’s founding fathers and appear committed to pursuing respective visions of the trio of Azikiwe, Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, in contrast to the Sardauna of Sokoto and Pa Awo, stands out as a nationalist whose political career and vision for Nigeria transcended direct parochial interests of his ancestral Igbo ethnic nationality. Immediate successors of Nigeria’s founding politicians sought relevance based on public avowal of loyalty to political movements that became the legacies of their respective regional champions. Until official imposition of a two-party system by former military president, Ibrahim B. Babangida, during political transition to the abortive Third Republic, partisan formations approximated the regional power bases of the post-Independence era. Truly national political parties have now become the norm since the final exit of military rule even though Alliance for Democracy (AD) and All People’s Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) still have their regional bases in the Southwest and Southeast zones respectively. Present Nigerian political parties, across the board, differ only in name and the personnel that run their affairs. They are ideologically indistinguishable otherwise.

With the creation of 36 state governments to replace the defunct 4 regional structure of pre-civil war era, Nigerian political discourse is slowly moving away from blatant ethnic and parochial jingoes as potent instruments for partisan mobilization. Money and personality cultism have subsequently assumed greater significance in current battle for survival and supremacy amongst the 30 registered political parties in Nigeria. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), since its impressive victories in two successive national elections, has emerged as the colossus of Nigerian political landscape while the less know parties are slowly fading away from public consciousness. Within the PDP, the battle for control and domination of the party political machine has become quite intense. Again, in a party that is virtually devoid of discernible ideological leanings, money and personality of key players are the two important instruments for orchestrating intra-party struggles for supremacy. PDP political conventions, for example, particularly the ones that select presidential candidates, are bazaars where partisan support of delegates is openly traded and acquired by the highest bidder.

Political godfather is basically a euphemism for an affluent partisan who has the financial resources and the will to deploy same for influencing politics in one’s domain of control. The PDP, to a greater extent and other opposition parties, to a lesser extent, are awash with godfathers at all levels of governance throughout the country. Anambra’ s Chief Chris Uba has become the poster child of Nigerian political godfatherism because the mechanism of control that he put in place to secure his home state for PDP during 2003 general elections malfunctioned and unexpectedly blew up in everyone’s face. The crises that followed inevitably led to revelations of complex underhand deals that took place amongst PDP stakeholders in the state in run up to the April 2003 general elections. It has now been revealed that the incumbent governor lacked his own personal resources to successfully compete for PDP nomination to contest for the State House, Awka. To get over this impediment, he went to a great extent to secure the favors and sponsorship of Chief Uba who ended up financing a long list of aspirants, including Governor Chris Ngige. As one would expect, the godfather’s generosity was not without conditionality.

Political godfathers are not intrinsically evil men nor are their roles in the polity. Based on the prevailing socioeconomic environment in which Nigerian democracy is constrained to function, one could boldly assert that the role of political godfathers is inevitable. Partisan politics demands the time, sweat and money of its key players in an ongoing basis to meet its many logistical, organizational and operational needs. Electioneering politics multiplies the needs of a given political party several folds. The rank and file party membership can hardly muster what it takes to fulfill the needs of a ruling party like the PDP in running a state in which it is determined to stay in control. The average citizen has been made to understand that political parties are veritable conduits for acquiring power and wealth. Regular party members join Nigerian political parties with great anticipation of getting something substantive out of it. There is hardly anything done for the party voluntarily, thus requiring that routine errands and sundry logistics are usually all paid for in cash by whoever is perceived to be the local boss in charge. Political parties, as presently organized and run in Nigeria, cannot function at grassroots level without the largesse of partisan godfathers.

How do we go about obviating the need for political godfathers and their penchant for using oath taking to retain loyalty of those who rely on their patronage to be relevant partisans or aspirants for elective posts? There are two options. First alternative is to let a neutral entity fund the party and allow political parties to be organized on the principle of “equal owners and equal joiners”. The second option is to build political parties out of grassroots movements from where they should derive their legitimacy and power. The first option was experimented upon during the Babangida administration’s transition program in the ill-fated Third Republic. The two official political parties, National Republican Convention (NRC) and Social Democratic Party (SDP), were funded by the Federal Government. This experiment cost billions of naira of taxpayers’ money annually to remotely manage only two parties. It boggles the mind to imagine the cost for sustaining 30 distinct political parties that are officially registered today in Nigeria. While the idea of floating grassroots-based political parties sounds sensible, the notion of egalitarianism in a laissez-faire democratic system of government is oxymoronic.

Nigerian democracy shall remain stunted if the evolution of national political parties at grassroots level is left in the hands of godfathers and their unorthodox ways of using wealth and personality cultism to ensure the loyalty of mostly uninformed and impoverished partisan followers. Fundamental change in the status quo shall require an ideological reorientation in Nigerian political discourse and practice. Political parties must be revamped and restructured to reflect visions and principles that resonate well with needs and values of the average citizen. In absence of these, a big philosophical void shall continue to overshadow the political landscape of Nigeria. Nigeria has the manpower and resource base to lead in the socioeconomic and cultural advancement of the African continent and the Black World. The vision to fulfill this role should inspire Nigerian intellectual and political elite to embark on a novel popular movement to clean up the mess that currently frustrates all efforts to bring many benefits of 21st Century global environment within reach of the average citizen.

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