National conference 2014: The Diaspora vote debate

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Despite my hope and preferred choices, I was made a member of the Political Parties and Electoral Matters Committee of the National Conference. Frankly, I had wanted, above all else, to serve in the committee dealing with political restructuring issues.

There were too many ideas that have been bandied around over the years that I believe we needed to vigorously face off and interrogate. One of the points that I have noticed about the Nigerian public space is how people lap up very simplistic definitions and ideas which are then repeatedly mouthed and thrown up in discourse or in writing. They are often very emotive.

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and Justice Idris Kutigi

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi and Justice Idris Kutigi

These include “True Federalism”, “Resource Control” and “Restructuring”. They have been thrown around for so long in Nigeria as if they are silver bullets to take out all problems of the country. But scratch the surface, and you discover that these are nebulous and emotional constructs that have not been rigorously thought through. The emotions are very deep and are often aggressively canvassed and like moving trains, can be used to crush whoever refuses to convert to the emotions of the multitude.

It was to expose the hollowness of some of these ideas and interrogate those who have made a career of championing these ideas above all else, in order to hopefully help to get more accurate and mutually beneficial national platforms, that made me really want to work in the committee.

As it turned out, the leadership of the National Conference has different ideas and they packed into the committee the dinosaurs of Nigerian politics, from North and South, to do what literally might be their final shouting matches in the twilight of their lives! Most of those asked to “restructure” our country are the old people, who more than ever, are stuck in the ideas and battles of the 1940s and 1950s.

It is incredible that a country where the majority of the citizenry is under the age of 35 will entrust ideas about its future into the hands, heads and minds of people in their seventies and eighties. It is gerontocracy gone berserk! But in the end, working in the committee on Political Parties and Electoral Matters has also been most useful as a platform of engagement with Nigeria’s political process.

For me, as with all members of our committee, it is clear that we must get the political process and the party system sorted out if we truly want to have a responsible political process in our country. The experience since 1999 has shown the utter deficiency of both the party system and the electoral process. The fact that politicians can simply decamp from one party to the other exposes the hollowness of these parties. They are platforms of access to power, and are devoid of any serious ideas or values.

In any case, the Nigerian political elite seems united in their determination to run a political system which prioritises the creature comfort of its membership than any sense of commitment to the Nigerian people. I have no delusions about the issues at hand.

The age of great political parties with serious ideas about how to organise society has passed; and that much I told our committee. As a political scientist, I know that the 20th Century was the century of the great political parties: the Communist and Social Democratic Parties, National Liberation Parties, even Fascist Parties and idea-driven parties of conservatism.

The 20th Century was the most disturbed in human history and it was therefore no surprise that great parties emerged to organise the millions of humans who entered the stages of human history in the titanic battles of the century.

But contemporary capitalism does not want and it discourages great ideas. Today the thinking citizen who has duties and responsibilities, has given way to the consumer. Globalised capitalism does not need critically thinking individuals but consumers enamoured of the consumerism that is the hallmark of today’s world.

There is little to choose between the six and half a dozen of the ruling parties in the advanced capitalist countries. There is not much really between New Labour and Conservatives in Britain; and there is no Chinese Wall dividing the Democrats from the Republicans in the issues of capitalist hegemony. Each is beholden to the imperialist interests and ambitions of contemporary capitalism.

The ruling mantra in the centre of capitalism is reproduced in its periphery. It is, therefore, no surprise that the same political characters move around the political space in the neo-colonial political setting of Nigeria. Those who were PDP or ANPP yesterday are APC today. Who knows what they will be called tomorrow? In the meantime, the Nigerian people are marginal to the calculations for power.

One interesting issue which was brought to the fore in my committee’s work, was the issue of diaspora voting in elections. There were passionate arguments in favour, especially by the intellectuals, who probably have relations and friends in the Western countries and North America. Diaspora remittances have now hit about $21billion annually, according to recent reports on the Nigerian economy.

What is, however, unbeknownst to many was the size of the Nigerian Diaspora in regions of the world that they had never given a thought to. I have reported in several parts of West Africa; I did Hajj by road as a programme for the BBC in 1995; I was the first Nigerian reporter in Darfur and was a guest of the Government of Eritrea a few years ago. In these different regions of Africa, there are vibrant Nigerian Diaspora communities. Sudan alone has about four million Nigerians or so.

It will be a massive logistic nightmare for INEC that is still grappling with the load it carries on the home front, to be saddled with the responsibility of elections amongst members of the Nigerian Diaspora communities. I think those vociferous about Diaspora votes only thought about Europe and America.

But once we agree that Nigerians abroad can vote, we will have to organise such votes all over the world. It is simply going to be a nightmare. It was the realisation of the enormity of the task which made the Committee to resolve that the idea be shelved until a future date, when it is practicable.

The wisdom of that can be extrapolated to a lot of the issues that often trigger emotions and have necessitated the National Conference.

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