In the aftermath of the historic victory of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2015 presidential elections, there was a mad rush of scores of leading members of the dislodged former ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), from their former political abode to the perceived new venue of sumptuous pecuniary dining. This trend has continued in the last three years despite the reputation of the President, General Muhammadu Buhari, as a no-nonsense, tight-fisted, corruption hating and fighting crusader.
In the previous 16 years from 1999, the flow of political vagrancy, the rampant defections of political actors from one party to the other largely for selfish reasons than those of ideology or principle, was mostly from opposition parties to the PDP. The excessive centralization of power and resources in Nigeria’s largely unitary federal system makes it almost compelling for most members of a political class, dependent on the state for primitive accumulation and economic empowerment, to be members of the ruling party at the centre.
Indeed, the success of the opposition APC in dislodging a ruling party from power at the centre for the first time in the country’s history was partly due to this culture of vagrancy, which saw a not insignificant fraction of the PDP defecting to the opposition shortly before the election. The phenomenon of political vagrancy throws light on certain aspects of Nigeria’s political culture. One is the desperation of political actors to hold public office at all costs and by all means since state power is the most important source of material accumulation in our rentier economy.
Another is the absence of any clear-cut ideological differences or even philosophical orientations beyond superficialities among the major political parties, which makes it easy for political actors to traverse diverse parties without moral compunction. Again, there is the lack of internal democracy within parties, which gives those who believe that they are denied a competitive level playing field in intra-party competitions, a plausible ground for jettisoning one party for another and casually returning to their former parties in the same cavalier manner they left. This is all in pursuit of personal interests. The APC’s new resort to direct primaries may be an antidote to this but that is a matter for another day.
There have, however, been some notable exceptions to political vagrancy in Nigeria’s political evolution. Perhaps the most important factor in the sustenance and survival of the current democratic dispensation, for instance, was the stout and steadfast refusal of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu to play the political vagrant in the aftermath of the devastating loss of the defunct Alliance for Democracy (AD) to the PDP in the South West with the exception of Lagos in the 2003 elections. It was a testy and difficult moment. Tinubu was the last man standing in the AD. All his colleagues – Olusegun Osoba, Lam Adeshina, Bisi Akande, Niyi Adebayo and Adebayo Adefarati - had been dislodged in Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti and Ondo states respectively.
It was only a matter of time, the PDP behemoth believed before the diminutive Lagos helmsman would cross over to the happening party which at the time believed it would be in power for at least 60 years. But Tinubu chose to say no to vagrancy. He rallied his former South West governor colleagues to stand firm in the defence of progressive ideals in the South West. Aided partly by the exceptional ineptness and lack of vision or a sense of mission of the PDP Southwest governors, the progressives regained political vibrancy and electoral vitality in the 2007 elections. Through the courts, they recovered stolen mandates in Osun and Ekiti as well as the neighbouring Edo state.
Tinubu remained at the centre of various experiments in party formation – Action Congress (AC), Action Congress of Democrats (ACD) and Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN)- all within the progressive social welfarist and federalist tradition but never considered the PDP an option despite the perceived South West tactical contribution to Jonathan's victory in 2011. A key component of the ruling APC, the South West progressives are today major participants in a democratically elected government at the centre for the first time in Nigeria’s history. The easier path would have been for Tinubu to succumb to political vagrancy in 2003 and migrate to the seemingly invincible PDP. He chose the narrower route of staying in opposition. That is a key reason why opposition survived in Nigeria and was gradually strengthened and able to successfully challenge and triumph over the ruling party in 2015.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo was one of the most ideologically consistent politicians ever in Nigeria’s political history. He was the founder and leader of the country’s most disciplined and ideologically clear political parties – the Action Group (AG) and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) after Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) in the first and second republics. He ardently and earnestly desired to be President of Nigeria but would not compromise his ideological and philosophical beliefs to achieve this goal even though his UPN went into a tactical alliance with a faction of the conservative northern political class in 1983.
In 1977, leaders of the Middle Belt in the Constituent Assembly met with Awolowo at his Apapa Park Lane residence and promised to support his presidential bid if he would appoint persons from the Middle belt as Finance and Foreign Affairs ministers. According to Mvendaga Jibo who was at the meeting, “To our utter amazement, Awolowo flatly refused to make any such commitments”. Desperation for office was not in his dictionary. Ironically, however, Awolowo’s party, AG, was believed to be the instigator of the first act of political vagrancy in Nigeria’s history.
After the 1951 elections under the Macpherson constitution, the AG was believed to have utilized ethnic sentiments and alleged pecuniary inducement to prevent the popular National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) from forming the majority in the Western Regional House of Assembly. Some members of the NCNC including five members of the lbadan Peoples Party (IPP), which was in alliance with the NCNC, defected to the AG on the eve of the convening of the new legislature in Ibadan on 7th January 1952. This enabled the AG to form the regional government and utilizing its majority to prevent Dr Nnamdi Azikwe, leader of the NCNC, from either heading the Western Regional government or even being elected to the federal legislature in Lagos from the Western Regional House of Assembly.
Of course, I cannot understand why the great Zik would want to be Premier of the Western region when an Igbo, Dr Michael Opara was Premier of the East and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello Premier of the North. But I digress. In the run-up to the inauguration of the Western Regional Assembly, according to Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu, the great Penkelemesi, member of the IPP and NCNC as well as leader of opposition in the Western region, “We were daily progressively reduced to 42, 37, 33, 30, 38, 26, 25”. This depletion of the NCNC ranks he attributed to the fact that “our opponents had no scruples as to whether recruits belonged to their faith or not, as they had no worthwhile faith except feeding fat on the spoils of office”.
In his last battle cry against political vagrancy, Adelabu declared “I advise all those who seek material gains and the spoil of office to move over into the other camp whilst there is still time. So far as I am concerned, if Dr Azikwe and myself alone are left, I will go on fighting to my last breath. I will be happy”.
President Muhammadu Buhari is another notable exception to the virus of political vagrancy. Even though he was in the political wilderness of opposition in the 16 years before his election, he never for once contemplated joining the ruling party. His previous contests for the presidency were on the platforms of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and Congress for Progressive Change (CPC). If wealth was his aim, migrating to the PDP would have been PMB’s best and wisest option.
If he had done so, it would have been impossible for PMB to be a critical part of the APC merger and without his presence in the party, it is doubtful if the victory of 2015 could have been achieved. How do we ensure a substantial increase in the number of principled and ideologically constant politicians in our polity and a continuing depletion of the tribe of unprincipled political vagrants? That is the big question.