FORMER Kaduna State governor, Senator Ahmed Makarfi, was last Wednesday preaching to the converted when he suggested in the presence of members of his party’s strategic committee that Nigeria was unsafe without a strong opposition. The only people who did not, and still do not, know it are the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) when they held the reins of power between 1999 and 2015, and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in office since last May. It seems Nigerian political parties suffer amnesia when they take power. There is no other way to explain why not quite two years after losing the grand political prize, the PDP has started to recant.
Senator Makarfi, who is locked in supremacy battle with another factional chairman of the PDP, former Borno State governor, Ali Modu Sheriff, philosophised thus: “If you eliminate or encumber the opposition, nobody will be safe. It is in the interest of Nigeria that there is opposition. Some people are already apologising for voting us out of office, but we are telling them to vote for us and return us to power in 2019.” Probably aware that the regret he claimed to hear or perceive would be insufficient to return his party to power, he added: “We are reviewing and rebranding the party, it is only the judgment in Port Harcourt we are waiting for, and we are praying for a fair judgment that will revive the hope of the people.”
It remains to be seen how the party would review and rebrand, for neither Senator Makarfi nor Senator Sheriff prioritised the need for fundamental redirection of the party in the early days of their caretaker chairmanship when they felt unencumbered by party fractiousness or legal impediments. That deficiency, if not absent-mindedness, led many observers to question whether both former governors, who did not carry out revolutionary changes in their states when they ruled, were in fact capable of the intensive surgical operation their party desperately needed. Right under the nose of their first president, Olusegun Obasanjo, the party had been asphyxiating because of micromanagement, and atrophying because of needless obtrusion into the party’s internal workings. At the states level, the party was redolent with that same obnoxious, detached style. Neither former governors proved revolutionarily different.
The awaited Port Harcourt judgement may, ceteris paribus, resolve the contentious claims to the party’s leadership; but it is uncertain it will ineluctably lead to a resolution of the more crucial and difficult question of ‘reviewing and rebranding’ the party in order to make it competitive again and even turn it into a winner some two years down the line. It is a relief to the opposition party and many patriots that the mass defection thought to be capable of depopulating and scarifying the party has seemed to abate. Deputy Senate President, the PDP’s own Ike Ekweremadu, has sworn he never contemplated defection. Whether he is telling the truth or not is immaterial. What is reassuring is that he is evidently now not disposed to crossing over to the ruling party in order to retain his seat, as some gung-ho APC senators gratuitously suggested to him moments after former senate leader, Ali Ndume, was unhorsed.
It makes no sense to defect to the APC, for the ruling party is itself mired in internecine warfare of its own. The party’s elected leaders are aloof from the rank and file, and restive party Young Turks have suddenly become regicidal, with no party leader sure of the loyalty of his mentees. Worse, the party’s awkward approach to the country’s economic crisis, not to say the social and political conundrums baffling and agitating the electorate, has frittered away the immense goodwill that accompanied the party into office in 2015. With nothing substantial to inspire anyone in the APC, and none of its leaders in firm control both of the party’s foot soldiers and the challenges afflicting the country, it would be decidedly unwise to jump into a party that is fraying at the edges. Senator Ekweremadu may thus have made the sensible choice to stick with a party where he is well regarded, though his current position in the Senate appears threatened.
But by far the more crucial and sensitive of the statements made by Senator Makarfi when he addressed his party’s strategic committee on Wednesday was his pledge to embark on reviewing and rebranding the PDP once the litigation in Port Harcourt was brought to a close, supposedly in his favour. Indeed, more Nigerians appear disposed to his mercurial and level-headed leadership than that of the spirited but contentious Senator Sheriff. It is true that the PDP reposed great hopes in the combative leadership of the former Borno governor when it seemed President Buhari, forgetting he was elected by people’s votes than soldiers’ bayonets, was about to ride roughshod over the entire country regardless of the restraining tenets of democracy or even the secularity of the nation. To some extent, however, the president has been tamed and forced to play by the staid and slower rules of democracy, especially the rule of law. With that taming came instantly the need for the PDP to reassess its methods and philosophies, away from the rambunctiousness of Senator Sheriff to the much more steadying and fascinating style of Senator Makarfi.
If anyone would review and rebrand the party, therefore, it will have to be Senator Makarfi. But it is doubtful whether even he is deeply persuaded that fundamental and revolutionary change is more important as a tool of reclaiming office than the alienation he claimed the apologetic electorate had begun to reel under. It is only now that the former Kaduna governor has begun to speak about reviewing and rebranding the party. Yet, he has not spoken of that desire in terms that are believable. Their loss of the presidency hurts badly, in fact much worse than the APC has felt badly disappointed by its loss of oil-producing South-South states. But they have not spoken to that loss with a coherence that gives the impression that they recognise the penitence and restitution they must bring to their politics.
The PDP had a founding philosophy and an inspiring mantra, especially as exemplified by its founding fathers, many of whom were products of more than two republics and a very rich experiential background. But the moment the party was hijacked by the nihilist forces that swarmed around ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo at his assumption of office, the party’s soul was gone. To regain it, party leaders will have to embark on an extraordinary journey of rediscovery through unfamiliar political and ideological warrens. It will require inordinate amount of discipline and focus. It will require a deliberate and carefully calibrated purge of its leadership and rank and file. It will mean the emergence of new leaders fired up about the future, men and women eager to seize the moment, politicians who have reconciled themselves with and are convinced about the truest tenets of democracy.
If Senator Makarfi is to succeed in his quest to return the PDP to power in Abuja, he has to find ways of formulating and encapsulating the ambitions and visions of Nigeria as a democratic and free nation in terms that Nigerians can cotton on to. He must also seek means of reconciling these virtues with the principles and values that undergirded the PDP when it was freshly conceived. If the present generation can identify with that process of renewal and even own it, if the party can be the perfect counterpoise to a dithering, increasingly undemocratic and unsure APC, then Senator Makarfi can say with some measure of conviction that the PDP may be on its way back. So far, however, what is evident are not these measured and philosophical and inspiring strategies to reclaim the high ground, but a sheer desperation to return to power in order, perhaps, to forestall the disintegration of a party which can’t seem to thrive outside power.
The poignancy of the observation that Nigeria would be badly served with a weakened or destroyed opposition cannot be faulted. While it was in power, the PDP did its damnedest worst to weaken the opposition. Has the party learnt its lessons now? Or are the lessons brought so severely home only because the shoe is on the other foot, and it is hurting badly? Nonetheless, it is true that in barely two years in office, the APC has behaved much worse to the opposition. The ruling party is encouraging defections from the PDP, even as it has not for once in about two years propounded the smallest of ideas about democracy, federalism, the rule of law, and fundamental rights of Nigerians. The country indeed seems to be gnawed by a yawning vacuum. But neither the former Kaduna governor, nor Senator Sheriff, nor anyone else in the PDP for that matter has eloquently proffered a coherent and succinct alternative. Let Senator Makarfi address these matters persuasively.
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