By ‘Fisayo Soyombo
THERE has never been a time in Nigeria’s political history when the party affiliations of leading politicians were this difficult to place. At the moment, we are unsure if Godswill Akpabio belongs to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or the All Progressives Congress (APC). Over the weekend, PDP’s two-time former Akwa Ibom Governor met with President Muhammadu Buhari in London. A few days earlier, Okoi Obono-Obla, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Prosecution, had said Akpabio would formally defect to the ruling party at a rally to be held at Ikot Ekpene on Thursday. The senator himself has remained tight-lipped. If he does leave, it will be a big blow to the PDP — Akpabio is the Minority Leader of the Senate, officially the one to whom PDP senators look for motivation, for momentum.
Until yesterday, we were unsure of the party status of Hafiz Abubakar, Deputy Governor of Kano State. PDP announced his defection from the APC on Wednesday via its official Twitter handle, but hours later, the Professor told journalists in Abuja the news was untrue. It took only four more days for Abubakar to quit both his deputy governorship seat and the APC.
Like all the protagonists of the ongoing political transfer season, Abubakar hinged his resignation on the oft-abused phrases: the mandate, aspirations and expectations of the good people (this time, of Kano), democratic ideals and values, and so on. But the story runs much deeper. Abubakar is loyal to Rabiu Kwankwaso, a current senator and former Governor the state, who joined more than 10 senators in defecting from the APC to the PDP in fourth week of July — “more than 10” because after 15 senators announced their resignation from the APC, one clarified that he wasn’t moving to the PDP while another awoke the following morning to rescind his decision. We’re not 100 per cent sure how many more have made, or are about to make, an about-face. Such is the PDP-APC chaos that numbers and names relating to party affiliation must now be written in careful, in fact speculative, terms. One newspaper even fell into a pit last week, erroneously referring to the All Progressives Congress as the All Progressives Party! There should be no surprises if, this week, another rechristens the Peoples Democratic Party as the Peoples Democratic Congress.
As Senate President Bukola Saraki, Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal and APC National Publicity Secretary Bolaji Abdullahi dumped the APC for the PDP last week, it was only logical that the Kwara and Sokoto state houses of assembly subsequently followed suit. In Sokoto, 18 of 30 lawmakers made the plunge. But the real drama was in Kwara; as 23 of 24 lawmakers left APC for PDP, the PDP state Exco led by Chairman Iyiola Oyedepo headed the opposite way. It was like a barter between APC and PDP.
Even Shehu Sani, one of the senators who made a lot of noise about leaving the ruling party prior to the defections, is in a way merely sitting on the fence. Asked on national TV on Thursday evening if he would remain in the APC, he answered: “For now, yes”. When he was asked the same question a week earlier, his response was typically unconvincing: “If I am here, I am an APC member. If I am not an APC member, you will not see me at the party’s national secretariat.” Depending on how his popularity battle with Nasir el-Rufai turns out in Kaduna, Sani could still be on his way out of the party in a matter of days or weeks.
The APC is on some intense lobbying towards recruiting PDP senators in a desperate scramble to maintain its now-threatened stranglehold on the legislature. This is already yielding fruits. Sonny Ogbuoji, representing Ebonyi South Senatorial District, moved from the PDP to APC days ago. More are likely to follow suit when the Senate reconvenes on September 25.
For the politicians, the cross-defections mean good news — at least until February 2019 when the results of all the permutations would be seen. All of a sudden, PDP genuinely considers itself sufficiently equipped to snatch power from Buhari in 2019 — a prospect that looked unlikely just six months ago. Meanwhile, asked to comment on the defections suffered by his party, Lai Mohamed, Information Minister, said: “God has removed stones from our rice and sands in our garri.” In some ways, it was good for Lai and his party that Sararki and co couldn’t delay their exits for as long as they seemed to want. Now the battle line is clearly drawn; the earlier it happened, the better for the APC.
Unfortunately, the people cannot say the same. First, the defections beg the question: who exactly are the people voting for in 2019? Is it the party or is it the individual? For example, are the people of Akwa Ibom North-West re-electing the PDP through a separate candidate in 2019 or are they re-electing APC’s Akpabio? Should Akpabio win, who will the people hold to account? The man or the party?
Ahead of 2023, these defections represent a dangerous precedent for Nigeria’s democracy. The pre-2015 election defections were largely one-way; it was PDP against its renegades and the APC alliance. But 2019 is looking like a mere reshuffling of individuals across the two main parties. A victory for APC at the presidential polls will leave President Muhammadu Buhari with a false sense of popularity for which the people will pay with increased incompetence, government neglect and executive arrogance. Similarly, a victory for PDP is destructive for whatever good democracy represents; it would encourage politicians to do nothing other than jump ship to the party of the moment at the start of every election cycle. It would mean the opposition party no longer needs to strengthen and position itself to win greater support from the people. Nigeria is tottering towards a two-party or multiparty yet one-way-political-elite state — very close in danger to what operates in a one-party state.
The Nigerian electorate must analyse the raging prostitution of partisan interests beyond its potential to oust Buhari from the government. It may or may not hurt Buhari in 2019, but it will surely hurt democracy and, by extension, the people.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), tweets @fisayosoyombo.