The piece you’re about to read was written in May 2011, shortly after the general elections. It occurred to me at that time that the Peoples Democratic Party was in an urgent need of reform, and that the electoral defeat it suffered across the South-West ought to serve as a wake-up call. Of course, that reform never happened. Weeks ago, I asked Dr. Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, a former Chairman of the Ikoyi-Obalende Local Government Area, and currently Executive Director of the Center for Public Policy Alternatives, a Lagos-based think tank, what he thought about the chances of the PDP becoming an effective federal opposition party.

Gbadebo-Smith told me he believes the party has the potential to “become the most potent opposition any government in Nigeria has ever seen. They have the money, they have the experience, they know where the bodies are buried, so to frustrate the programmes of an incoming government will be easy. They will make it their mission for four years to make your situation so bad that the population will be screaming for the PDP to return.” But he had a caveat: This would only happen if “the PDP itself has half a brain.”

Indeed, there’s not much evidence that the PDP will summon the resolve to build itself into a formidable opposition party. See the piss-poor job it did as an opposition party in Lagos State, even when it had federal backing?

Economist Bismarck Rewane famously describes the PDP as “an enterprise for winning elections and sharing the spoils.” I think that aptly sums it up — and will apply to the All Progressives Congress in a few years if it fails to learn from the PDP’s failings. Now that the PDP has lost the presidential election, and there are no federal spoils to be shared, it is very likely that it will irredeemably fall apart, a modern-day Humpty Dumpty interring itself in a crowded graveyard of Nigerian political acronyms.

Until very recently, the party’s arrogance has been legendary. Sixteen years of federal electoral successes, and a domination of the National Assembly and state governorship seats turned it into a preening monster, swallowing the lies of its own invincibility. When the PDP Governors’ Forum came to Lagos last month, for a pre-election meeting with journalists and the civil society, I struggled to gatecrash the event. I faced much hostility, even though I genuinely wanted a chance to listen to the party’s own side of the narrative. I found that the organisers had carefully selected people they thought to be loyalists and sympathisers. I hope the APC governments never succumb to the temptation of cutting journalists and the civil society groups off because they consider them “unfriendly”. It is the duty of public office holders to always keep all avenues of public engagement open.

The PDP owes Nigerian democracy this: A commitment to building an opposition as formidable as what the APC represented in the last few years. But it cannot do this without a fundamental restructuring. One question that needs to be answered is this: Is the PDP even reformable?

This is the article from May 2011, entitled, “Time to reform the PDP.” (The APC wasn’t even in existence then; the two main opposition parties were the Action Congress of Nigeria and the Congress for Progressive Change).

“Joseph Chukwuyenum has been a “card-carrying” member of the Peoples Democratic Party in Lagos State for more than 10 years. In that time, he has risen to become a “Unit leader” in Ward H1 of the Etio-Osa Local Government Area. I met him at his polling unit during the April 26 elections. He was in a good mood.

“This is the first time (the PDP is) having it so good. It’s never happened like this before… without spending 10 kobo on the electorate,” he told me. Voting had just ended, and it emerged that the PDP had defeated the Action Congress of Nigeria in the state house of assembly ballot at that unit.

I was curious. Why were those people voting for the PDP? “People are doing what their conscience has said to them; it is the decision of their hearts they’ve taken,” he said.

I was also eager to know why he joined the PDP. “I see the PDP as an open party, a party that does not discriminate,” he said, gesturing at his crutches. “You can’t say it is a party where (a single) person has a say. No matter your tribe, we are one. Some parties are sectional. Immediately the name of the party is mentioned, you know their godfather. In the PDP, there’s nothing like that.”

Now, you may quibble with parts of that assertion, but there’s no denying the essential validity of it. The PDP is the only truly “national” party we’ve got in Nigeria.

Now, let’s quickly face the deep irony embedded in that statement. You have to admit that it is a tragedy of monumental proportions when your only national party is not even a real party.

NEXT once described it as “Africa’s largest party – and everyone’s invited.” For Nasir el-Rufai, it’s a “franchise” (“There is nothing apart from the symbol that unites – it is like MacDonalds, although at least in MacDonalds the quality of the food is the same.”). Thanks to Wikileaks, we know the Americans regard it as an “opportunistic coalition of interests.” Wole Soyinka called it “a nest of killers.”

All true. The one-eyed man of our democracy sadly wears a patch on the good eye. Also true, however, are these: that, one, the opposition platforms seeking to be the PDP’s undertakers mostly lack the moral credentials for that task; and two; the ruling party is not beyond fundamental reform.

For a start, the PDP ought to overhaul its Board of Trustees. If you click on the “Board of Trustees” link on its website, what you will get is a message that says: “This page is under construction.”

Is that perhaps deliberate? Are they too ashamed to let us see the calibre of people leading them? Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (the Chairman) and other aged, tired faces should voluntarily step down from the Board. The PDP needs an infusion of new, younger, thinking leaders; it needs to give ideas a chance to replace intrigues as the party’s leading propellant.

Isn’t this the time to clamour for the redemption of the party that will rule us for the next four years — now that it has been severely chastened, and is a world away from the days when Vincent Ogbulafor never failed to remind us it would rule Nigeria for 60 years?

The now-total reversal of the party’s 2003 conquest of South-West Nigeria, coupled with the severe rattling its governorship candidates have faced in states like Imo and Delta, as well as the violent backlash (utterly condemnable in its murderous outplaying) against it in parts of Northern Nigeria should have sent a message to the party that the days of taking Nigerians for granted are over.

Eventually, when the votes were tallied across the constituency, Chukwuyenum’s candidate lost to the ACN candidate, cutting short the party agent’s joy. There’ll be another chance in 2015. There is evidence of a growing sophistication amongst the Nigerian electorate; more people voting for — or against — candidate(s) fielded, as opposed to blind commitments to party symbols. This was clear in the South-West where people voted overwhelmingly for the presidential candidate of the PDP seemingly because they liked and wanted him, but wasted no time in turning against the governorship candidates.

At a polling unit down the road from Chukwuyenum’s, I watched a man walk up to the pasted results sheet (again the ACN led in the governorship but lost the legislative ballot to the PDP) and say, triumphantly: “The two results are good… I want the PDP guy to win in this constituency.”

What this means is that Nigeria’s parties will soon begin to compete for “talent” the way Europe’s football clubs do; knowing that the future of Nigerian politics is one in which competence, not godfathers, not financial inducement, will make the difference between winning and losing elections.

The ACN would do well to learn from the failings of the PDP, shun ethnic insularity, and curb a growing propensity for arrogance and dictatorial action. The CPC should by now be working hard to transform itself from the “Special Purpose Entity” cum ‘vote-cache’ it currently is, into a properly-structured nationwide party that can outlast the Buhari mystique. Other ‘platforms’ also need to start building now, instead of waiting for the 2015 frenzy.

True democracy will never be built in the absence of real political parties.

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