Written by the Editorial board of The Guardian Newspaper
When the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said the other day that it had been inundated with more than 32 new applications for party registration, no one was surprised at what seemed an illustration of desirable political activism. It is, therefore, heartening that the commission has consequently emphasised its commitment to “the opening of the democratic space in line with law and our guidelines.”
This development is indicative of the expansive desire by Nigerians to express their freedom of association, to impact their views on the political process in the country’s quest for growth and development. Equally INEC’s response is an appreciation of this superb right of the citizens to associate freely within the polity.
However, there is a veiled hint of ‘regulation within the law and our guidelines.’
The point must be made that the quest to apply guidelines should not be counterproductive to the exercise of the people’s freedom of association. It would be recalled that in 2002, the National Conscience Party and other political parties fought the odious guidelines up to the Supreme Court. Indeed both the Appeal Court ruling on July 26, 2002 and the Supreme Court judgement of November 8, 2002 declared most of the guidelines used by INEC as contained then in the Electoral Act 2001 unconstitutional and invalid because they were contrary to the provisions of sections 222 and 223 of the 1999 Constitution. In the Court of Appeal ruling the court held that “We are operating a constitutional democracy, therefore any law, Act or guidelines which were made outside the provisions of the Constitution cannot be allowed to stand and must be struck out as inoperative…”
While it is to be noted that the Electoral Act has undergone several mutations, it must also be stressed that political parties are political platforms of citizens united by common principles on how to govern the affairs of a particular political community. Besides, “parties serve as the singular most important arena, avenue and medium of political participation everywhere in the world”. And because there are diverse interests in a society, those interests cannot be expressed a single vent, hence the plurality of parties and class contestations.
It needs to be reiterated, therefore, that INEC’s powers to register political parties are a negation of the inalienable rights of the citizens to freely associate.
This has simultaneously stunted the evolution and growth of parties in the country. In this country’s Fourth Republic concrete instances abound of anti-democracy disposition exhibited by political parties controlled by moneybags. The so-called guidelines limiting the registration of political parties despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary have, therefore, entrenched the warped, directionless and ironically dominant political parties in the country in ways that limit the choices that are available to the citizens. Also, this has undermined issues-and ideology-based political parties
In this context, it is appropriate to tap into the bounty of history. On the eve of the first military putsch in 1966, there were about 81 political associations in Nigeria. None was burdened by deliberate red tape of registration and guidelines. In that era, independent candidates flourished and won seats in parliament. That was the beauty of the first republic parties and individuals who wished to vie for political offices were simply put on the ballot. In this way, personalities such as Dr. Chike Obi and Adegoke Adelabu won elections on the platforms of Dynamic Party and Ibadan People’s Party respectively.
It is to be noted that parties without social base will not survive. Parties can only endure on the basis of the support they get from their followers or membership. Government and its agencies should free themselves from imposing strictures on parties. The more the merrier with wide-ranging choices available to the citizens.
In other climes, parties proliferate, undergo the natural process of birth and death. South Africa with a population of about 54 million people has over 95 political parties with 12 having representations in government. Many others outside the current 95 have gone into extinction. India has about six national parties and 49 state parties. Beyond the two dominant parties, Republican and the Democratic parties, there are many political parties in the United States with some active in states and independents are even represented in the Senate. Britain with two well-known dominant parties, namely, the Conservative and Labour, has many other parties active at the local council levels. These configurations of parties have even nurtured consensus in governance through coalition building. This is to be emulated in Nigeria, a country where citizens are denied the right to participation by entrenched and self-serving parties currently available. Anything else only qualifies Nigeria’s democracy as choiceless.