A Two Party System by Legislation?

by Joel Nwokeoma

Perhaps enamoured by the seeming ease with which two dominant political parties trod the political landscape of, at least, two notable advanced democracies, the United States and Britain in recent years, Nigeria’s House of Representatives recently attempted another of its legislative misadventure, when it sought to decree into existence a two party system for the country through a legislative fiat.

The first and only time Nigeria had a romance with a two party system was during the botched Third Republic, between 1989 to 1993, when former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, floated, by military fiat, two political parties, namely Social Democratic Party and National Republican Convention, in line with the recommendations of the SJ Cookey- led Political Bureau.

Gen. Babangida had enthused then that Nigerians’ political tendencies swayed along two ideological extremes: A little to the right, a little to the left, which he felt the two parties ideologically represented. These two government-funded political parties, however, were to be similarly decreed out of existence in November 1993 by late General Sani Abacha following the inconclusiveness of the transition to civil rule programme. This followed on the heels of the earlier annulment of the June 12 presidential elections said to have been won by late MKO Abiola of the SDP, widely regarded as the freest and fairest election ever conducted in Nigeria, by Babangida himself for reasons he is yet to avail Nigerians.

Obviously, one thing deductible from the latest effort of the legislators is that it appears either they were clearly unmindful, or at best, characteristically ignorant, of the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on November 8, 2002, on a suit filed by the late Gani Fawehinmi against the refusal of the Independent Electoral Commission to register his political party, National Conscience Party. The apex court had ruled that any attempt by INEC to limit the political space by any form was both “unconstitutional and illegal”

But, whichever one it might be, it, surely, is unfortunate, and also an indication that the lower house had, by mere listing of the bill to legislate a two party system for Nigeria on the floor, exhibited an unpardonably shallow understanding of contemporary politics.

For instance, though presidential power has always been alternated between the Democratic and Republican Parties, otherwise known as “current major parties” in the US over the years, theirs is not a two party system legislated by the US Congress. Instead, the two parties’ prominence and dominance evolved over time, not over night, given that there are still in existence such parties as Constitution Party, Green Party, Reform Party and Libertarian Party, referred to as “current third parties”, among others.

Also, in the UK, the last parliamentary elections threw up the Liberal Democrats as coalition partner with the Tories, the first coalition government since 1945, decades after Labour and the Tories have shared political dominance in the country. Yet there are others in existence such as Plaid (Wales), SNP (Scotland), United Kingdom Independence Party, Green Party and British National Party

At no time, it must be pointed out, did the UK parliament contemplate a law prohibiting other parties as the Nigerian Reps attempted.

Reports had it that members of the House of Representatives had on two different occasions failed to vote on the amendment to Section 80 of the Electoral Act 2006, to include a clause which would regulate, as it were, the number of parties in the country. And when they eventually decided on the matter last week, it was characterised by rancour and acrimony among the lawmakers

Proponents of the two party system are however vehement in their insistence that Nigeria will be better served with a two part system than the subsisting multi-party system where over 57 political parties are recognized by INEC. They range from Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who argued recently that the existing multi-party system in the country “creates room for instability and charlatan parties which only exist for political grants,” to the former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who observed that the system “breeds confusion among the electorates” noting that a two party system would “help voters distinguish parties” easily.

And, just the other day, Chief Chris Ngige, former governor of Anambra State, added his voice to the debate when he stressed that the two party system, based on precedence, is the best that could bring about improved ideological conviction in Nigeria’s body polity. As he put it, “We have experienced a two-party system in the past. Though it was by military fiat, (yet) we had an equitable political climate, good elections, conduct of party primaries, and other ingredients for good governance and a good political system”.

Nonetheless, it needs be stated that it does not advance the cause of democracy for a legislative contraption of the political space to be undertaken, the way and manner the lawmakers contemplated and attempted without success recently. The beauty of democracy in a plural society like ours is for a level playing ground to be provided for the articulation and propagation of unhindered divergent and disparate political ideals, values and tendencies. Sadly, the defining feature of the party system in Nigeria since 1999 is the dearth of any identifiable ideologies and convictions.

Nigeria has not always been a country of parties bereft of known ideologies and strong values, other than a dogged pursuit of political power for self aggrandizement. In the First Republic, such parties like Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group, Aminu Kano’s Peoples Redemption Party as well as the Northern Peoples Congress and the Nnamdi Azikiwe led NCNC manifested distinct ideological leanings. They all had programmes with which the people identified each of them.

The best the lawmakers would do for the country is to repeal the constitutional provision that allows for grants to be made available to political parties in the country for political activities. Individuals who share common ideology under whatever platform and are passionate about such should devise a mechanism of funding them. If the funding of political parties by government is discontinued, through a review of the relevant laws, the motley of parties that parade the landscape would naturally find a way of surviving based on cherished ideals, or expectedly wither away. Political parties should no longer be used as conduits for siphoning public funds by a very few desperate politicians.

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