What’s to be done when change is imperative but the political conjuncture makes it improbable? A coalition of major opposition parties offers a promising path.
By Chudi Okoye
A defeat of the corrupt and incompetent ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), in the February 2023 presidential election would have marked Nigeria’s stride as a maturing democracy. Unfortunately this did not happen, vexing a great many Nigerians desperate for change. Of course, APC didn’t come through the 2023 election unscathed. Its share of votes plunged – by 19 percentage points relative to 2019; and although the party survived the tough legal challenges mounted by the main opposition parties, it governs with a much shrunken mandate.
APC deserved a walloping after the galloping disaster of Muhammadu Buhari’s two terms. But an even more significant indicator of Nigeria’s democratic growth would be a defeat of the current president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, in the election of 2027. The defeat of an incumbent and a peaceful transfer of power to the successful opposition are considered a powerful sign of democratic consolidation. We’ve just seen this yet again in Liberia, with Joseph Boakai’s defeat of the incumbent president, George Weah.
We might say, then, that the defeat of Tinubu in 2027 is a democratic imperative for Nigeria. But what are the odds of achieving this feat? And what’s the most promising path for the opposition?
Atiku Abubakar, candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the February presidential election, has proposed what may be a workable, and walkable, path to that end. In a speech he delivered on 14 November whilst receiving the national executive committee of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, Nigeria (IPAC), the former vice-president called for a merger of the major opposition parties, so they can present a formidable front against the ruling party, APC, which, he averred, is exhibiting proto-dictatorial tendencies and is turning Nigeria into a one-party state.
It is strong stuff. Predictably, it elicited an equally strong rebuke from the APC. A spokesperson for the party said that Atiku was suffering from an “irrational fear of one-party dictatorship,” and advised him “to concentrate on repairing his damaged political psyche and attempt to revive his comatose PDP.”
No surprises there, I’d say. It’s par for the course for the seemingly jittery ruling party.
The slight surprise, rather, comes from the conflicting reaction of the opposition parties, as reported in the media. Punch reported that the Labour Party (LP) expressed an interest in the idea, while the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) appeared to hedge, offering a condition for its participation in any merger. Vanguard, on the other hand, reported that Labour has denied offering any positive signaling, quoting the exact same Labour spokesperson cited by Punch in its own report.
Meanwhile former Senator and prodigious kibitzer, Shehu Sani, has panned the proposition, penning on his Twitter page: “Merging PDP with the young, agile, and restless Labor supporters will be like fixing a Ferrari engine into a peogeot (sic).”
I am not sure which is the more accurate reporting about Labour’s reaction: the positive signaling presented by Punch or the rebuff reported by Vanguard. Perhaps, it’s simple political somersault: Labour was for the idea before it came out against it. Or, it might be merely a political dance to appear none-too-eager so as not to weaken the party’s position in a prospective political bargain. Whatever the case, it would be unfortunate if the opposition elements fail to at least explore the benefits of political cooperation.
First of all, a merger would mean a reversal of the very dynamic – opposition fragmentation – that enabled APC to eke out an improbable, though heavily contested, victory in the February election. Enlightened party interest should propel the opposition parties towards reconsolidation, the better to take on a fierce, if fumbling, APC that did not deserve to win the last election.
Beyond this, a move to coalition formation would only follow a tradition that has persisted– either in the form of a governing or an electoral alliance – throughout Nigeria’s political history. In the 1959 general election which heralded Nigeria’s independence, none of the regional parties emerged with sufficient seats to form a national government on its own. So the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) entered into a governing alliance. This led to the leader of the former, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, becoming governor-general and later, in 1963, president; while Sir Tafawa Balewa, NPC deputy leader and chief minister since 1957, was a shoo-in as prime minister.
As it happened, the NPC-NCNC coalition had become increasingly frayed and unstable as the 1964 general election approached. In the chaotic lead-up to the election, the kaleidoscope of Nigerian politics was re-scrambled. New electoral alliances were formed to fight the election: NPC, along with Ládòkè Akíntọ́lá’s Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) and a straggle of other parties formed the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA); while the NCNC, Action Group and a rump of other political groupings coalesced into the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA).
The political conflagrations from that election led to the January 1966 coup d’état and the collapse of the 1st Republic.
When democratic politics returned and election was held in 1979 to usher in the 2nd Republic, Alhaji Shehu Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria (NPN) secured the largest share of votes. But the party was not strong enough to form a national government on its own. So, in a repeat of the 1st Republic model, NPN entered into a governing accord with Azikiwe’s Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), with the latter offered a few ministerial portfolios in the NPN government.
The alliance did not subsist, however. Nor did the 2nd Republic itself. Still, when the military re-opened the political space for the 3rd Republic in 1992, a rash of political formations erupted, forcing the military to create by fiat a two-party system comprising the Social Democratic Party (SDP), ideologically positioned “a little to the left,” and the National Republican Convention (NRC), pitched “a little to the right.” These parties were veritable coalitions, each comprising a diversity of interests and tendencies compelled to cluster – by an ineluctable, nearest-neighbor political algorithm – into the superstructures created by the military. But the “voodoo democracy” of the 3rd Republic (apologies to Prof. Soyinka) was soon scuttled by the military.
With the emergence of the 4th Republic in 1999, there was yet a recrudescence of the coalition dynamic in Nigerian politics. We’ve had seven presidential elections so far in the 4th Republic. Results from the first six indicate a persistent duopolistic tendency, with two political conglomerates commanding a disproportionate share of votes, as seen in the following tallies: 1999 – 100% (there were only two parties); 2003 – 94.1%; 2007 – 88.3%; 2011 – 90.8%; 2015 – 98.9%; and 2019 – 96.8% (see chart above).
It was only in the 2023 election that we saw a departure from the two-party dominant outcome, with the leading parties, APC and PDP, securing a combined share of 65.7%. The Labour Party emerged as a third force, propelled from obscurity by the Peter Obi factor. Its 25.4% share of the votes and command of 11 states plus the FCT was many orders of magnitude above any previous third party performance.
This statistical trend begs the question of the best electoral strategy to defeat a floundering APC in the 2027 election. Should the opposition parties reconsolidate? Or is there a chance that either PDP or LP, each on its own, will emerge triumphant?
A single-party win is not impossible. But a coalition strategy would greatly improve the odds. A cooperative strategy makes sense when we consider the result of the 2023 presidential election, with the PDP candidate and the two former PDP members who decamped to LP and NNPP winning a combined 60.7%. Opposition coalition is further advised, being the very means by which APC emerged in 2013, to defeat a swaggering PDP just two years later.
Although it was PDP’s Atiku that has suggested the idea of a pan-opposition merger, this should not be, or be seen as, a play by him for another presidential punt in 2027. I’d expect Atiku to play a prosocial, statesmanlike role in building an opposition alliance for others before he exits the political stage – perhaps as a personal revenge but more in aid of Nigeria’s democratic development.
I would suggest, further, that any opposition electoral alliance that likely emerges should present a 2027 ticket led by Labour’s Peter Obi. This is not merely because Obi was the second runner-up in the February election. He has also attracted an ardent progressive base unmatched by any other candidate. This is important because, in Nigeria’s ever-opportunistic political culture, Labour, like other opposition parties, will likely lose some of its electoral cache before the next election, as plum-seeking politicians pivot to the ruling party. A strong base of personal support offers Obi a bargaining chip to bid for leadership in any emergent opposition alliance.
In addition to this, Obi also embodies a unique political calculus melding ideology and geopolitics. He represents the mainstreaming of progressive (though not radical) politics, and his election would constitute a geopolitical correction for the South East so far denied presidential accession. No other candidate in the coming electoral cycle will embody such a vital convergence in quite the same way as Obi.
This brings me, finally, to the argument made by Senator Shehu Sani concerning the incompatibility of PDP and Labour.
This is an incredibly ignorant comment, I would argue, with due respect to the senator. Democratic history anywhere in the world shows that mass political parties harbor within their ranks a diverse range of political tendencies. This is the case with the Democratic and Republican parties in the US, the UK’s Labour and Tory parties, and their counterparts elsewhere, all of which have moderate or centrist factions as well as more radical elements. All such parties also cultivate a generational mix. There is no reason therefore why the Nigerian Labour Party’s “young, agile and restless” horde, to use Shehu Sani’s description, cannot cohabit with PDP’s wizened, if staid but well-connected, political operators. Ferrari and Peugeot can certainly share the same garage!
If the opposition parties hope to win the next election and rescue Nigeria from the clutch of a dysfunctional ruling party, their best strategic option is to orchestrate a formidable coalition. Change won’t come by revolution, though it is increasingly invocated by starry-eyed and frustrated public intellectuals. Political theorists have long identified the conditions that can trigger revolutions if they converge. Some of these are present in Nigeria today: extreme hardship and mass discontent; acute perception of governmental failure; political decay and distrust of institutions. But other triggering factors are missing or not yet acute: widespread revolutionary consciousness cutting across primordial and class divides; intra-elite fissures and emergence of dissident elites; institutional decay paralyzing state coercive apparatuses; and a favorable global environment.
Military intervention is arguably less implausible than revolution as a mechanism for change, but it is barely more probable. The Nigerian military is totally discredited as a political institution and significantly depleted as a martial force. Whether in their stratocratic or civilianized guises, our erstwhile military rulers are deeply implicated in the Nigerian quagmire. So there is no moral justification for military intervention.
What do you do when change is imperative but the political conjuncture makes it improbable? Our best hope for a needed near-term change in Nigeria is a coalition of the major opposition parties, invigored by our present agonies and rising discontent.