“An intelligent and conscientious opposition is part of loyalty to country.” —Bainbridge Colby
Dear Jagaban, I hope this letter meets you well. Let me start by first acknowledging your pedigree as a national political figure. The depth of your political astuteness and the strength of character you have demonstrated since your foray into public life during the dark years of military dictatorship and now as a leader of the opposition is the stuff of legend. Your efforts since 2003 in providing a formidable opposition that has kept the ruling party on its toes has been recognised by those who value the importance of opposition as one of the central tenets of democracy. The question to be asked is what would have become of this democracy if you had not stood firmly against the rampaging armies of the ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party, in the South-West which is now considered a model of opposition politics in the country? I am also aware of the raging debate surrounding your comparison to, and, as a successor of the Yoruba patriarch, Obafemi Awolowo.
While I am too much of a minnow to judge who fits into the larger-than-life image of the late sage, I believe you possess some of the traits to fit in his shoes- your perseverance in the face of persecution in staying to organise the opposition while men of little conviction abdicated to feed off crumbs from the ruling party is reminiscent of Awo’s exploits as leader of opposition in the First Republic. Anybody who questions your capacity to assume that role underestimates your contributions in the last 13 years. In 2003, you fought the most important political battle of your life for the soul of Lagos when you stood your ground and ensured the state was not “captured” by the then Olusegun Obasanjo-led PDP which had hoodwinked the old guards in your political camp. That singular act of yours also started a political revolution that swept the thieving buccaneers out of this political zone in 2007. It provided the momentum for the progressives who had been bruised, battered and left in political wilderness to stage a comeback. It also ensured several electoral and legal victories for many of the governors and elected representatives whose mandates were stolen in brazen electoral fraud by the PDP.
Your endorsement of Babatunde Fashola, who has since proved himself also confirms your ability to spot talents. In you, Nigerians saw a man who can put the ruling party in check. The South-West victories also inspired other states to challenge the ruling party which had been thought invincible. I believe the history of our democracy will not be complete without documenting your role as a major protagonist. But the narrative has since changed. That is why I am at pain in using this medium to communicate to you this open letter. However, I am left with no other choice because of the urgency of the message that needs to be conveyed to prevent a looming political disaster that will spell the doom for a viable opposition politics.
The truth is that your party is becoming more of the same it helped to defeat in previous elections. The party is derailing from those ideals that attracted the entire South-West and Nigerians in 2003 and 2007. Now opposition politics faces an uncertain future. This is worrisome because this democracy needs an opposition that stands out. It needs an opposition that is distinguishable from the rot in the ruling party. Opposition parties are vital to the functioning of democracies as they provide a representative system of the electorate while keeping ruling parties accountable. But how can this happen when your party has failed to isolate itself from those undemocratic practices that are inimical to democracy, a recent example being the imposition of a governorship candidate in the Ondo election? Now there is also a worrisome perception of your continued role as a leader of opposition. Remember this is also not about you. It’s about building a strong and enduring opposition that will outlive the heroics of one man. These perceptions (either true or false) are gradually eating away at your party’s fortune. Can your party continue to be a credible opposition platform as it did in 2003 and 2007? Do you still consider yourself to be able to command the momentum that led to the success of the opposition in 2007? Can you still boast the people’s confidence to support your cause? What do you make of your party’s misadventure in the just-concluded Ondo election, for example? The results even showed that your party came a distant third behind the PDP. That is scary. Perhaps, that statistics could be a sign of what to expect in future elections.
Are you not worried that the division and negative portrayal of your person as an opposition leader will affect the fortunes of your party and ultimately opposition politics? These negative portrayals were not there at the beginning. So, it’s time to look inward. Now you are viewed in the public domain as high-handed and overbearing. The word out there is how you want to turn the entire South-West into your personal fiefdom. You have been portrayed as not giving elected leaders in your party the free hand to do their jobs. They say you breathe down the neck of elected governors and do not allow them to function. The most disturbing is the patronage system that is alleged to be rife in your party. During the Ondo election, you spoke of “capturing” the state. You should have known better that such statements put the electorate off. It reminds them of what Obasanjo wanted to do in your Lagos in 2003. It reminded them of what President Shehu Shagari attempted to do in 1983. Instead of the warlike campaign strategy on display, it would have served the party better to showcase its achievements. Now, I fear a bandwagon effect in other South-West states in future elections if you do not tone down your rhetoric and play the leadership role that endeared you to the people in the first place.
The questions being asked by the electorate are: if your party is now more of the same with the one that was replaced; if the public has a certain perception of your party, don’t you think it is capable of ruining your chances in future elections? As a matter of urgency, it is important that your party eschews some practices that will make it implode from within. The Ondo election could be a pointer to future calamities. The practice of imposition in picking candidates for future elections should be avoided. It causes disaffection- as it was in Ondo we will see in future elections. Party primaries should reflect the wishes of the people. Unfortunately, this is not the case today in your party. As a major opposition figure, you should constantly be above board and must be seen in positive and sharp contrast to the ruling party so that the electorate can have a clear choice. This is becoming increasingly important now that the votes count.
Remember this is not about you. It is about having an enduring and a vibrant opposition which is critical to the survival of democracy. For in the words of Barrack Obama, “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong democratic institutions”.