In a recent tweet, I jovially noted that since state Governors and Presidents in Nigeria share some common grounds such as immunity while in office and only two terms of 8 years in all, and since Governors have shown a proclivity to switch from one party to another – mostly to the ruling party – could the President also defect from the party that delivered the presidency to him to another party while still in office? I guess that is a million naira question.
Actually defections are not new in Nigerian politics. Before Nigeria had independence in 1960, Nigerians of like-minds formed political parties that were to deal with the political challenges in the country at the time. There was the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) in the North, with its name clearly indicating its local embrace and limitation. There was the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) in the East, with its name depicting its scope or dimension and there was the Action Group (AG) in the West, predominantly made up of Western Nigerians who were, as their name implied, always ready for political ‘action’. The newly formed political parties were led by Sir Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Obafemi Awolowo respectively. What can comfortably be regarded as the first most credible election was held in 1959. But none of the three political parties was able to win a majority. And so, an arrangement was struck that saw the NPC and the NCNC merge to form the national government.
In that same year, a national census was conducted and the result was allegedly manipulated in favour of the Hausa-Fulani of the north. The Igbo of Eastern Nigeria were not comfortable with that. And as a result, the NCNC pulled out of the union. This was perhaps where and when the history of political defections in Nigeria actually started.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo (left), Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Centre) and Sir Ahmadu Bello
By this time, the Action Group had broken up into two factions as a result of the irreconcilable differences between Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Samuel Akintola. The NCNC decided to join the main faction of the Action Group and together they formed a new political party called the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The other splinter group created the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), led by Chief Samuel Akintola.
In actual fact, the NNDP was Nigeria's first political party , formed in as far back as 1923 by Herbert Macaulay . In Lagos, the NNDP successfully organized various interest groups into a single group that became politically virile. The party sponsored many candidates for seats in the 1922 elections for the Lagos Legislative Council . That year, they won three seats. But in the elections of 1923, 1928 and 1933, the party won all the seats.
The party's major function was to get their candidates into the legislative council. But it had a wider objective of promoting democracy in Nigeria and enhancing local participation in the social, economic and educational development of the country.
The party continued to dominate politics in Lagos until 1938, when the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) defeated it in elections. The party's name was then adopted in 1964 by Chief Samuel Akintola for his party as part of a process to dislodge power in the western region from the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo .
The military struck in 1966 and for several years afterwards, they took charge of governance at all levels. It was not until General Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime that the transition process which brought an end to military interregnum was initiated. A new presidential-style constitution was drafted and adopted in place the Westminster system of government which the country inherited from Britain.
During this period, there were high profile defections from one political party to another by prominent Nigerian politicians. Among them was Chief Akin Omoboriowo who quit the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) led by Chief Awolowo to join the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). It was alleged that during the UPN primaries, the votes were manipulated – and Omoboriowo was declared the looser. But Omoboriowo suddenly became the beautiful bride who many political organizations were ready to court. He finally settled for the NPN – the archenemy of the ‘progressives’ of the West. His ambition to be elected to contest the gubernatorial post in his Ondo state was thwarted and for that reason he switched party.
Between 1979 and 1983, there were a number of high profile defections from one party to another throughout the country. The more prominent among them were Chief Fagbamigbe, who like Omoboriowo was from Ondo state. He defected from UPN to NPN. There was the late Senator Lai Joseph from Oyo state who also defected from UPN to NPN. There was Senator N.N. Anah, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who defected from the Nigeria Peoples Party, NPP to the National Party of Nigeria, NPN.
During the Second Republic, many of these defections culminated in violent and sometimes tragic results. An example was the 1983 election crisis in Ondo state where Chief Fagbamigbe, a publisher of great repute, was hacked to death and Chief Akin Omoboriowo, former deputy governor of Ondo state escaped death by the whiskers because he had the strong backing of “federal might”. He had to relocate to Lagos as a result.
Defections in the present dispensation which started in 1999 have been quite frequent. But they have not generally been greeted with the same level of violent reprisal as was the case in the Second Republic. The list of prominent defectors includes Senator Wahab Dosummu who left the Alliance for Democracy for the Peoples Democratic Party. There were Senator Musuliu Obanikoro who defected from AD to PDP; Dr Kingsley Ogunlewe who moved from AD to PDP; Late Funsho Williams who left the AD for the PDP; former governors Bola Tinubu, Lam Adesina and Bisi Akande who opted out from the AD to the Action Congress. And there was the former Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who defected from the PDP to the AC and Governor Segun Mimiko who quit the PDP for the Labour party, among others.
However, the defection that induced comments from many Nigerians was that of the former Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar whose carpet crossing in the middle of his political battles with his former boss, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, was to become a matter for the Supreme Court to decide.
Nigerians condemned some of these defections particularly the defection from the smaller parties like AD or AC to PDP. Curiously, defections from the PDP to smaller parties were welcomed with open hands and even celebrated. It is usual among the country’s progressives and their supporters to denounce defecting politicians in the strongest terms possible. They are largely regarded as political prostitutes and opportunists who do not have the interest of the electorate at heart, politicians who are only goaded by their own selfish interests. Of recent, however, the progressives themselves have been caught up in the wave of defections that has become the hallmark of Nigerian politics so much so that they are no longer in a position to pontificate on the dangers of defecting from one party to another.
For example, in the buildup to the April 2007 polls to elect the President, the governors and members of the National Assembly, there was massive defection of progressives from the Alliance for Democracy (AD) to form a new party called Action Congress (AC).
Since 1999, the number of political parties in Nigeria has proliferated outrageously because restrictions were largely removed after Obasanjo was elected as the civilian President. It was like any Nigerian could come up to register any number of people as a political party any day. Political parties became too many for Nigerian citizens to keep their finger on. Nigerian political system which was already in a confused shape because of selfish tribal interests became almost completely incapacitated. Political parties lacked ethics. They lacked ideologies. They lacked focus. Party leadership became a compensation for financial input into the party’s campaigns. It negatively impacted the growth of democracy in the country. But even this fact did not stop the politicians from defecting from one party to another and sometimes back to the old party they rejected. And somehow, curiously, they were always welcomed with open hands.
In both American and British politics, the two political systems that hugely influence the Nigerian dispensation, politicians do change parties but not the same way Nigerian politicians do. Between 1987 and 1992 for example, as many as 17 Liberal Democrats defected because of the merger between the Liberal Democrats and the Social Democratic party to form the Social & Liberal Democrats and later the Liberal Democrats. In 1995, Emma Nicholson switched from the Conservative to the Liberal Democrats. About the defection, he said: “The conservative party has changed much while my principles have not changed at all. I would argue that it is not so much a case of my leaving the party but the party leaving me.” In 2005, Robert Jackson left the Conservative party for Labour because he disagreed with the party over higher education funding.
It is also common for politicians in the U.S. to switch party affiliations. Many of the best American leaders and legislators did so in the past. While some well-known politicians switched parties early in their career, others defected while still in office. So, in some ways, British and American politics, like Nigerian politics, becomes a study in contradictions. Britons, Americans and Nigerians value party loyalty and political consistency but for some inexplicable reasons their politicians find it impossible or difficult to adhere strictly to both loyalty and consistency, especially when they are under some pressure or giving some flimsy excuses that predicate on their self-indulgence.
Among the prominent American politicians who defected was Strom Thurmond, the U.S. Senator who represented South Carolina for nearly 50 years, from 1954 to 2003. His opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 motivated him to switch parties and register as a Republican.
Elizabeth Warren is the U.S. Senator representing Massachusetts since 2013 till now. Although she is hugely known as a Liberal stalwart and a powerful Democratic voice in Congress, it had not always been that. Warren grew up in Oklahoma and voted Republican because of the pro-business stance of the Republican Party. By1996 Warren switched her political affiliation to the Democratic Party. She ran unopposed to secure the Democratic nomination to run for the Senate in Massachusetts in 2012, ultimately winning the seat from incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown.
Condoleezza Rice was the US National Security Advisor from 2001 to 2005 and Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009. Many Americans were surprised to learn that Condoleezza Rice was a registered Democrat until 1982. Though Rice voted for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, she became disillusioned by President Carter’s foreign policy – especially his handling of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Rice switched parties in 1979, voting for Ronald Reagan in the presidential election the following year. Rice spoke publicly about her decision to switch parties at the Republican National Convention in 2000. Her decision to register as a Republican, she said, was partially inspired by her father: “My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow’s Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote.
Hillary Clinton was the First Lady of the United States from 1993 to 2001; U.S. Senator, representing New York from 2001 to 2009 and U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. Hillary Clinton grew up in Chicago, where she was raised in a politically conservative household. She was already politically active at a young age. As a college student, she served as president of Wellesley’s Young Republicans Club and attended the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami. Clinton’s political views had matured by the time she graduated from Wellesley. She switched her party affiliation and registered as a Democrat, a party to which she’s been loyal ever since.
Teddy Roosevelt was the New York State Assembly man from 1882 to 1884; Asst. Secretary of the Navy from 1897 to1898; Governor of New York from 1899 to 1900; U.S. Vice President in 1901 and U.S. President from 1901 to1909. Two years after finishing his second term as U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt announced his plans to run for President again, for a third term, in 1911. Roosevelt’s best-laid plans went astray, however, when William Howard Taft secured the Republican nomination. Determined to run in the election, Roosevelt formed the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party. Eventually he lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.
Ronald Reagan was the governor of California from1967 to 1975 and the U.S. President from 1981 to 1989. Republicans tended see Reagan as the model of what the GOP ought to be. GOP or Grand Old Party was a nickname for the Republican Party. But many Americans found it hard to reconcile Reagan’s status as a Conservative with his earlier roots as a movie star. Reagan, as the President of the Screen Actors Guild before running for Governor of California in 1966, was a staunch anti-communist who worked to “protect” the actors’ labour union from communist influence. His support for political candidates who shared his anti-communist views eventually led him to switch parties in 1962.
Be that as it may, one very striking difference we notice is that in both British and American politics, politicians defect for ideological reasons. If their parties were not handling a particular domestic or international issue the way they would have loved it, they could defect. It was either that, or because they were rusticated from the party for some reason like anti-party activity. Then they change batons. But that is hardly the case with Nigerian politicians. Nigerian politicians have a different approach. In their anxiety for a brighter economic future for themselves, their families and cronies, so many politicians defect to the ruling party, the party that is in charge. These defections are scarcely made in the interest of their constituents.
It is important, however, that these flexible politicians do not forget that it is a responsible opposition that makes a government work in the interest of those who voted it into public office. It is a responsible opposition that makes politics mean well for the citizens. For any government to succeed, it will need a responsible opposition to criticize it. If every politician begins to run away from his or her original party because it is not the party that produced the President, from where will the government get a responsible opposition party that will meaningfully criticize it and make it focus on working for the people? That is one of the serious problems unbridled defection to the ruling party can create.
At the end of the day, those politicians who defected from their original parties to the ruling party because they believe the ruling party would protect them from being accountable for how public money was spent under their watch would not be doing the government or the ruling party any good. Their defection simply means that government cannot possibly get the responsible opposition it would need to succeed as a government. A responsible opposition party such as the PDP which knows that what concerns the country is more important and transcends what concerns any citizen or political party, an opposition that has vast political experiences is still very much relevant in the dispensation of legitimacy and in the nation-building efforts of its successor.
Simply put, the politicians who defected from their parties to the ruling party should go back to their original parties. They would be of better use in building Nigeria’s democracy from their original party than jumping into the bandwagon of the ruling party, hoping that given whatever they did that was pursuing them from their original parties, the President would protect them from the wrath of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. As a matter of fact, the President will do no such thing.