Where’s the ‘third force’?

It was former President Olusegun Obasanjo that, in recent history, touted the doctrine of a third force in Nigerian politics. In a fiery open letter to President Muhammadu Buhari last January, he shredded the incumbent’s performance credentials and pitched in against his seeking another term of office. Obasanjo, however, sensed he was up against a brick wall with his gratuitous counsel as far as it pertains to the president and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC); but he also foreclosed a return to the old path of nationhood when the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was in the saddle. And so, he threw up the idea of a third force as his proposed alternative.

The former head of state said the PDP now in opposition had not shown better behavioural traits than when it was in power. “As the leader of that party for eight years as president of Nigeria, I can categorically say there is nothing to write home about in their new team. We have only one choice left to take us out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and that is the coalition of the concerned and the willing – ready for positive and drastic change, progress and involvement,” he wrote.

Obasanjo didn’t seem to think through how the third force would emerge as a veritable force, independent of the first and second forces he sought to consign to the history bin. Besides, his conceptualisation of the new force was notoriously foggy. But he did make some attempt at sketching its rudimentary profile, saying the force should be a movement that need not be a political party – one to which all well-meaning Nigerians can belong. “That movement must be a coalition for democracy, good governance, social and economic well-being and progress, a coalition to salvage and redeem our country,” he explained.

Although he granted that nothing should in the course of time stop such a movement from satisfying prescribed conditions for fielding candidates for elections, the ex-president said he would, for his part, relinquish its membership at that point so that he could personally remain non-partisan.

In other words, Obasanjo presented his idea of a third force as a civic action and public-centred movement, even if only in the short to medium term by his envisioning. His motives have never been widely trusted to be altruistic, and he seems already fixated with a sole agenda to orchestrate Buhari out of power. But we must isolate the third force idea, which on face value touts a promise to widen the scope of citizens role-playing in the political space. Few other groupings have touted a similar promise, like the National Intervention Movement led by eminent rights lawyer Olisa Agbakoba and the Red Card Movement inspired by respected civil activist Oby Ezekwesili. None has, however, galvanised the political renown of Obasanjo’s proposition.

Apparently owing to the ex-president’s dubious agenda, the third force idea was still-birthed on arrival and Obasanjo is himself back in the partisan fray. But that is to be expected, because from the moment he broached the idea, noting has stayed true to its avowed fundamentals. On the heels of Obasanjo outing with the proposal, for instance, his political ally and former Osun State Governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, stepped up to arrowhead a membership drive. But like Oyinlola, notable responders were mainly political actors recycled from this country’s inglorious past.

In apparent desperation to get into electoral action, the purported movement was hastily collapsed last May into a political party, namely the African Democratic Congress (ADC). And the ADC itself has since then pooled with a number of other political groupings to integrate their 2019 aspirations with that of the PDP through a recent memorandum of understanding. Consequently, nearly all the presidential aspirants on PDP platform have staged random pilgrimages to Obasanjo at his Abeokuta, Ogun State, base to seek his blessings. On the other hand, some other parties have signed up to a working alliance with the APC in pursuit of Buhari’s re-election bid in 2019. And so, the political space remains dominated by two-force contestation.

It isn’t really that our country is under-served in terms of existing political parties. Nigeria presently has a motley crowd of 91 parties – with 23 new parties registered only last week by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to top up the 68 parties that previously existed on the commission’s roll. Only that most of those parties are no more than what they evidently are: nominal existences on INEC’s burgeoning records.

Worse is that with no restrictive criteria in our electoral laws for parties to be placed on the ballot, the huge number of registered parties can’t but compound INEC’s logistics for conducting elections. Consider, for instance, the bogus size of ballot paper that would be required to reflect every political party fielding candidates in an election. Besides, nominal parties could well play the spoiler in electoral outcomes by nitpicking on guidelines for the conduct of elections and laying ambush against inadvertent omissions – either by INEC or by serious contender-parties in a particular poll. Meanwhile, INEC must keep registering new parties as our electoral law provides once minimum conditions are met.

Not that the huge number of parties is in itself the challenge. India perhaps has the largest number of political parties – totalling 2,075 as at April 2018, and with more yet getting registered. But the Indian system clearly defines territorial relevance for its parties, and so the country has two parties namely Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), simply called Congress, dominating its national politics.

Israel, with a voter population of just about 6million persons, as well has numerous political parties. The country, however, operates the proportional representation system that accommodates many of those parties in its 120-seat Knesset (parliament) and compels every emerging prime minister and his/her party to negotiate coalitions with other parties.

Nigeria, on the other hand, operates the first-pass-the-post, winner-takes-all model that gives the dominant political parties a permanent edge over all others; hence the unyielding two-force structure. The United States from which we adopted the model also has dozens of political parties, but few get to qualify for ballot placement, for which there are stipulated preconditions that vary from state to state. Besides, many of those parties have sundry objectives that are not limited to seeking electoral offices – like climate change, environmental issues, and as well controversial rules of social conduct like same sex rights and marijuana use. Only the Republican and Democratic parties cross-cut all 50 states and Washington DC in seeking offices, hence the bi-party nature of that country’s electoral system. The catch is, Nigeria has no restrictions for ballot access, and so weak parties wheel and deal in and out of electoral contestations without offering the electorate any real alternative.

But we do need a third force – to be sure, not according to Obasanjo’s image of it – to moderate the mutually aggressive contestation for power by the existing two-force blocs and ensure necessary safeguards for ordinary citizens. In our circumstance, a vocal civil society and enlightened voter population seem best placed to constitute that force.

Among other things, we need that third force to instill the code that politicians can’t prostitute with membership of political parties out of sheer self-interest, without bearing the costs in the form of rejection at future elections. We need the force to let it be known that the Police can’t lock up harmless journalists for no other reason than ethically practising their trade, like they did with Premium Times’ Samuel Ogundipe last week, and as well Jones Abiri who was just released after two years of detention without arraignment. And the government in power just remains indifferent or outrightly insular about it all. We need the third force to make the point that political power ideally reposes in the people, it is only delegated and could well be withdrawn from partisans during elections.

To be a part of that force, all you need is get your voter card ready for the impending 2019 elections.

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