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Evaluating the two-party system debate

By Austin Oboh, Snr Correspondent, Lagos

Former Military President General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB) recently observed that the emergence of the All Progressive Congress (APC) was good for the political development of Nigeria, adding that he had been vindicated on his adoption of a two party system when he was Military President 1985 – 1993. IBB who spoke to Journalists in Minna soon after the emergence of the All Progressive Congress (APC), recalled that when he proposed a two party system for Nigeria he was criticised and vilified, but noted that the recent merger of some opposition parties to counter the might of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had justified his position regarding the suitability of a two party structure for Nigeria’s democracy. In his view, the political development which would see the emergence of two strong political parties, existing side by side, is likely to provide credible opposition and balanced choices for the electorate.

Drumming for two-party system

Incidentally, the retired general is not the only Nigerian politician who ardently believes in the suitability of a two-party structure for Nigeria. Former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar also expressed his confidence in the system, and declared support for the formation of the APC, describing it as the right way towards having a strong and principled political opposition in the country. He also canvassed genuine electoral reform, which he described as the most critical step needed to ensure internal democracy in political parties.

Abubakar spoke at a public lecture organised by the Department of Political Science, University of Ibadan (UI), as part of its 50th anniversary at the Lecture Theatre, Faculty of Social Sciences. Speaking on the topic, ‘Thoughts on Internal Democracy in Nigerian Political Parties: Challenges and Strategies’, Abubakar, who said he had for a long time been a strong advocate of a two-party system for Nigeria, noted: “I am pleased that progress is being made in that regard with the recent emergence of the All Progressive Congress (APC).”

While insisting that two-party system is the best way to have parties that cut across the various regional, ethnic and religious fault-lines, he said: “It is also the only guarantee of a viable alternative to the ruling party, which is critical for keeping the ruling party from taking the electorate for granted.”

In the same week, former governor of Ogun, Segun Osoba, also proposed that Nigeria would fare better as a two-party state. In a media interview in Lagos, Osoba argued that Nigeria’s democracy would be much better if it were to evolve two strong structures “as is practised in some other climes”.

He said: “We had the experience of a two-party system before, with the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), and Nigeria was better for it. The NRC/SDP experience grouped politicians above religious and ethnic considerations.”

According to him, while those in NRC were republican/conservatives, those in SDP were progressive/democrats. “At that time, I cannot remember anyone defecting to the other party because the ideologies were clearly defined,” he said.

Osoba’s suggestion was not much different from that of former presidential candidate, Prof. Pat Utomi. Said he: “As an individual, I prefer a two-party state. The closer we move to being a two-party state, the better for the country. But we must also be sensitive to freedom of expression. I think INEC can put a mile post that does not allow the clogging of the ballot paper with a thousand names in future elections. But then the way it is done should not restrain freedom of expression. I’ve always been a two-party state person, so I would generally support anything that will drive Nigeria towards a two-party arrangement.”

Some months back, the Labour party Chairman, Dan Nwanyanwu, had advocated the adoption of a two-party in the country. Nwanyanwu who made the call also in a lecture in Abuja, insisted that most of the registered political parties only existed in name.

In the lecture titled ‘Transformation of Nigeria Politics: The Labour Party Perspective’ at the Institute of Security Studies, Nwanyanwu also called on the National Assembly to make a law that would punish public officers who misadvise the government and laws that would make electoral fraud impracticable.

He said: “Out of the existing 62 political parties in Nigeria, 30 of them are owned by the PDP out of which just nine have functional offices in Abuja while the rest of the parties have their offices in their briefcases. The best political system for Nigeria is a two-party system. Such an arrangement will make it difficult for rigging because it is just two parties; there will be no need for anybody to carry ballot boxes because there won’t be such opportunity. Touts will not have jobs and the electoral tribunal will be useless because a clear winner will emerge just as was the case in 1992 general elections between the Social Democratic Party and the National Republican Convention. The issue of merger or alliance will not arise because it is just two of them and they have different ideologies.”

Similarly, Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo State  has also noted that the two party system would thrive most in Nigeria. According to him, “I have always believed that Nigeria, like other democracies, should have two major political parties and that all these proliferations of parties should not come in. If you look at where democracy is really working well, we have those who are to the left and those who are to the right.”

He added: “In America, you have the Democrats and the Republicans; in Britain, you have Labour and Conservative. I think in Nigeria, we need two major political parties because that will relieve us of too much regional politics and it will help us to fully practice democracy as it were be. That’s my philosophy.”

Differing voices

Nonetheless, some criticisms trailed Babangida’s suggestion when he made it.

Among the critics was the Yoruba socio-political organisation, Afenifere, and the Civil Liberty Organisation (CLO) which slammed Babangida more for the role he played in the political process initiated by him, especially the annulment of the presidential election that followed, than for any considered demerit in the two party system, as enunciated by him.

Afenifere, through its National Publicity Secretary, Yinka Odumakin, carpeted IBB, saying he was a shame to democracy in the country. Odumakin, who spoke in an interview, said the former president was trying to look for a legacy after he had charted what would have been his own legacy.

The group said: “His idea of evolution of two parties has got nothing to do with democracy in Nigeria. The fact that he formed two parties undemocratically and failed to allow it to function means nothing.

“He annulled the results of the elections under the platform of the two-party system won by late Chief MKO Abiola in 1993, and failed to allow workers to enjoy democracy. A lot of people died in detention while hundreds of people were killed in the process of agitation over the annulment. He is only rubbing pepper on the injury of Nigerians. Whatever he is doing now will definitely not lead to two-party systems in Nigeria. There may be two strong political parties as it is in every nation.”

Adding his voice to the discourse, the Enugu State chairman of Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Alloy Attah, stated that IBB was seeking undue relevance and should be ignored by the masses.

He remarked: “While what he said was not out of place but coming from a character like him after truncating the same two-party system shows that he is ignorant of reality. I am an advocate of four-party system. The two-party system, as far as I am concerned, is not the ideal thing. For Babangida, he should bury his head in shame. He is not worth listening to on matters that have to do with democracy.”

As one would note, both criticisms of Babangida avoided a confrontation with the concept of two-party system as a workable construct in Nigeria, possibly because of the obvious attractions it holds. Indeed, some critics have noted that apart from the argument that multi-party system guarantees freedom of political association, and enables different interests groups to establish platforms to pursue their agenda, the multi-party system is a load of confusion, especially when it permits the formation of as many as fifty political parties. They readily point to the 2011 general elections in Nigeria when the average voter found the melee of party symbols on the ballot paper overwhelming. Some commentators have even argued that the recent deregistration carried out by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was informed more by logistical necessity to trim down its workload than by the fact of the parties’ non-performance.

Workable examples abroad

Proponents of two party system appear to have been impressed by its success in two prominent advanced democracies, the United States and Britain, over the years. In these countries, however, there have been no attempts to legislate any party out of existence; lesser parties operates in alliances with the two major parties which represents the two major ideological extremes of conservatism/capitalism and radicalism/socialism. At any rate, most analysts believe that the differences in ideological practice in these two capitalist nations ultimately boils down to a difference in welfare package as given by each party during election campaigns.

Nigeria’s romance with the concept dates back to the military supervised Third Republic, between 1989 to 1993, when Babangida, who was then military president, floated the NRC and SDP by military decree, in line with the recommendations of the Political Bureau headed by S.J. Cookey. In other words, the system did not evolve naturally, which was one of the reasons some critics found it unacceptable. Besides, unlike in the US and UK mentioned above, no allowance was created by the decree establishing the Nigerian two-party system for the existence of other parties. Under the circumstances, persons whose ideological interests did not suit any of the available ideological leanings found themselves unaccommodated in the political space.

As would be recalled, in Babangida’s own words, the two parties were adopted to cater to what was then considered Nigerians’ political tendencies which swayed along two ideological positions: a little to the right, a little to the left, while avoiding extremes. Ideologically, the NRC was supposed to tend towards capitalism while the SDP moved towards socialism, according to the manifestoes drawn up by their source, the Federal Military Government.

Some time ago, Nigeria’s House of Representatives, probably encouraged by the historical antecedent, did toy with the idea of reintroducing it in a democratic era, but the idea ran counter to the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on November 8, 2002, in a suit filed by the late Gani Fawehinmi against the refusal of the 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”

Opponents of two party system note that supporters of two party system often ignore the wider practice of democracy in countries such as the US and Britain, earlier cited. 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, elections have sometimes thrown up the Liberal Democrats to make them coalition partners with the Tories, though Labour and the Tories have shared political dominance in the country for many years. 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.

The debate continues

Proponents of the two party system are firm 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 were recognized by INEC.

The argument range between those of Babangida who believes 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 electorate,” noting that a two party system would “help voters distinguish parties” easily.

Elsewhere, Chris Ngige, former governor of Anambra State, joined 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.”

Regardless, some commentators maintain that what Senator Ngige attributed to two-party system, such as good governance and good system, are not necessarily concomitant with it. According to them, no particular party system provides the template for good governance; good governance is a factor of political maturity, conviction and patriotism.

Fred Irabor, Executive Director of Citizens Democratic Initiative (CDI), argues that “those advocating the two party system for Nigeria are only carried away by the brief success of the system under the supervision of the military; the ugly underbelly of the system would have been exposed in time.”

He states further: “Can a particular party system cure the average Nigerian politician’s urge to steal public funds? So, what are they talking about? Nigeria’s problem is corruption, condoned by a permissive citizenry. Except you tell me that two party system would make the populace sit up and begin to perform their role as watchdogs of their rulers and immediately remove them from office when they derail. Nothing short of that can guarantee good governance and, indeed, democracy in Nigeria. We need a vigilant populace who would not permit the excesses currently going on in government at all levels, not change of party system.

“Though I think we have too many parties at present, that should not be our main concern now; we should be devising ways to make our leaders accountable to the people and ways to ensure that only people of integrity occupy positions of authority. And, by the way, what we actually have now is not different from a two-party system – how many parties are actually active across the country? Just three or four, and only one of them has a national spread. So, the rest can go ahead with their APC, for all I care. My recommendation is that we must begin to play active roles as citizens and begin to throw out these charlatans and pilferers who call themselves politicians – that’s the way to go now.”

The debate would apparently continue for as long as the imperfections of the present system subsist, and it would be worthwhile to wait and see how related events, especially the emergence of the APC, influence political development in the days ahead.

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