Why millions join political parties in Nigeria

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Tayo Oke

Last week, the All Progressives Congress announced its latest membership tally of 40 million members and counting. With its ongoing “revalidation”, the Peoples Democratic Party will, no doubt, announce its own membership tally in the millions soon enough. What is going on? What accounts for this new enthusiasm for membership of political parties in this country? It is even conceivable that either the APC or the PDP will have reached 50 million members by the time of the next presidential election in 2023. That would mean, in effect, that one quarter of the population belongs to a single political party. It is either that Nigeria has the most politically conscious citizens in the world, or the most ignorant.The astronomical membership figures are at variance with all theories of democracy and democratic norms. Political parties in Nigeria are the antithesis of what they are generally understood to be. Political parties exist to propagate ideas, policy and programme for government. The APC’s “change”, and the PDP’s “power” hardly count for programmes for government, let alone ideas. Furthermore, at a time of agitation for “restructuring”, and a general breakdown of law and order, crippling inflation, decayed infrastructure, and debilitating unemployment, the ruling party is attracting more, not less, members. Something is wrong somewhere, it seems. Otherwise, the general feeling that things are going in the wrong direction under the leadership of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), is a red herring orchestrated by the metropolitan elite and the media. People appear to be endorsing the APC’s record in office as they flock to the party in droves. Or, isn’t?

To put things in a wider perspective, the Conservative Party in the UK has 200,000 card-carrying members, while the Labour Party has a ‘massive’ (by the UK standard), 450,000. Contrast it with the USA, the Republican Party has 36 million members, while the Democrats have 48 million. The discrepancy between the two most advanced Western democracies in party membership can be explained in terms of political culture. In the UK, millions of lifelong members of either the Conservative or Labour Party are not, in fact, card-carrying members. They are born into either of the party’s tradition and ideology. And, they usually remain so, almost invariably, for life. Actual party registration is regarded as superfluous. In the USA, the story is slightly different. Party ‘membership’ is transient and mostly passive. People simply ‘register’ as Republicans or Democrats and vote freely either way in different elections, without being accused of “anti-party activities”. Besides, whatever million members the Republican and Democrats have locked down have been achieved over a century. For instance, it has taken the Republican Party 167 years to build up its membership to its current level of 36 million, and the Democrats 193 years to do the same for its 48 million members. The parties were founded in 1854 and 1828 respectively. Compared to the PDP, founded 23 years ago, in 1998, and the APC, founded only seven years ago, in 2014. What a rapid turn-around for them both! Is anyone seriously suggesting that the level of political consciousness in Nigeria is far higher than that of the UK or the USA?

The optimist in us may wish to hail the rise in party membership in this country as a triumph, and evidence of a vibrant democracy, but sadly, it is not. It is, in fact, a worrying trend, effectively lying waste to Nigerian democracy. Many of the millions queuing up to collect their party cards are doing so totally oblivious of the party’s programme, policy, manifesto or anything of the sort. In fact, they could not care less. Political parties in Nigeria are not parties in the conventional sense; they are open-door, special purpose vehicles. You hop on, and hop off, embark and disembark at random. In a country where nothing seems to work for most people except for the select few, where social services are only extended to the lucky few, where criminality is a recognised means of livelihood for the youth, where access to education and healthcare is curtailed by financial incapacity, where the gap between the have and the have-nots has become a chasm, where poverty is the lot of the majority, and where bribery is as pervasive as the air you breathe in, membership of political parties has become the surest means of accessing state resources, especially where the winners usually take all. If the APC is attracting members in their millions ahead of the PDP at the moment, it is because of the belief that it will be victorious at the next elections. Both the PDP and the APC operate a pyramid structure that trickles down to the grassroots – supposedly.

The big guns at the top are just as important as the lumpen proletariat sitting at the bottom, waiting for the crumbs to drop. The people at the top mobilise and demobilise them at will. There is a symbiotic relationship between the top of the pile and the bottom. Neither can survive without the other. They are bound together by their mutual loss of faith in the system they live under. They are propelled by their mutual sense of fear and vulnerability to the catastrophe the loss of power would bring, or energised by the ‘real’ prospect of capturing power soon enough. So, the queue for party membership grows longer not to advance governance, but to serve as an escape hatch out of a sinking ship.

The sense of ‘if you cannot beat them, join them’ is alive and kicking in both the APC and the PDP, which have become surfeited with members of late. Political parties in Western democracies work their socks off to get people to sign up. They would look at the happenings inside the two main parties in Nigeria with some envy, but then, the party managers there know better not to dwell too much on it. The countries normally associated with a hundred million party members are to be found in Cuba, China, and North Korea, which all run authoritarian regimes. Party membership in these countries are the nearest to conscription as you will get. Life is so political in those countries, you can feel it in the air that passes through the lungs. It is in an individual’sbest interest to belong. If the trend in Nigeria is moving along a similar way, then, party membership and authoritarianism will also become a reality sooner rather than later. Some might even postulate that Nigeria is there already. There is a way out of the morass though. The best way out is to widen political participation by loosening the stranglehold of parties on the electoral system. At the moment, the only route to political office is via a political party. This is not only wrong, it is iniquitous. It goes against a fundamental tenet of democracy; the right to vote and be voted for. A candidate for election ought to be able to present himself directly to the electorate as an independent candidate. That would obviate the need for party membership and would also give the voter a broader pull from the slate, while expanding competition with registered political parties. If implemented, the course of presidential election in Nigeria would take a dramatic turn for the better.

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