The moral imperatives of political leadership, by Dan Agbese

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Justice Inyang Ekwo of an Abuja federal high court, defrocked David Umahi and his deputy, Kelechi Igwe, as governor and deputy governor respectively, of Ebonyi State. He also invalidated the legal right of 17 members of the state house of assembly to remain in the state legislative chambers. I hail him.

Their offence? It used to be called carpet crossing. It is now called defection. It means a man leaves the party on whose platform he was elected and re-elected governor or legislator and joins another party in power for continued political opportunities or relevance. It is the tangled web of politics sans morality.

The howling of protests in APC is rather deafening but it is understandable. Let them howl even louder.

We have been under the inclement political weather of carpet crossing or defection since 1954 when the Action Group used it to deny Zik the chance to become premier of the Western Region. It has now become the defining characteristic of our national politics, a way of life for the politicians who appear to see it as a clever and rewarding game. But it is the bane of our national politics as I shall show here.

 Mr Justice Ekwo is a courageous man. His judgement may not end defections or even pass through the eye of the needle at a higher bench but it has hit the glass ceiling hard. Governor Ben Ayade of Cross River State may be sleeping with one eye open because I am sure PDP under its new national chairman, Senator Iyorchia Ayu, will come after all those of its members who want to ruin the party. Other judges will find courage in his ruling and help to rescue governance in our country from the irresponsible actions of our politicians who think that swaying from branch to branch like monkeys is pragmatic politics. 

Our party politics is in a mess because the big men refuse to play by the rules. Our country is in a mess because we are all complicit in the egregious raping of our constitution and the continued hacking at the pillars of our constitutional government by men entrusted with both the moral and legal duty to protect them. 

In his judgment, Ekwo has done more than brought these men down from their high political perch and told them in no uncertain terms that there is a reasonable limit to impunity and the cynical disregard for our laws by men made big and important by the same laws. Ekwo has introduced a new and welcome dimension into political leadership in our country, to wit, the moral imperatives of political leadership. 

Ekwo has become not just the first judge to treat defection as a moral and legal offence committed against the electorate but also the first to challenge his fellow judges to end the assumed right of our political leaders to do as they please, the electorate be damned. Moral imperatives cannot be divorced from legal imperatives. 

The gale of defections blows in all election seasons. 

In my column, Carpet Crossing (February 18, 2017) I wrote: We are generally amused by the to-ing and fro-ing of our politicians desperately in search of opportunities even in small fish ponds. We should not be amused. Their behaviour is deleterious to the meaningful growth of our party politics. I put it to Nigerians (sounds lawyerly, right?) it is time we woke up to the damage carpet crossing has done, and is doing, to party politics in the country. It is extensive. And disgraceful.

In 1979, five registered political parties contested the various elective offices at federal and state levels. Each of them won at least two states, By the time the 1983 general elections came around, only the NPN, which offered its leaders and members rosy cheeks, stood strong. NPN had damaged the other four political parties beyond repair. We did not bargain for a one-party rule. It had become anachronistic. 

Think of defection as a worm in the apple of our party politics.

Since we returned to civil rule in 1999, defection has become the rule rather than the exception. It nearly ruined the chances of President Buhari returning to Aso Rock in 2019. There is not one political party registered by the generals in 1998 that has remained the same and intact. Not many of the politicians have remained in one party since 1999. They have crossed the carpet back and forth. Not for ideological reasons but for what has been cynically dubbed stomach infrastructure. This translates as using politics for self-service.

This is no way to build strong political parties.

In 2015, the once impregnable PDP, touted by its leaders as the biggest political party in Africa, fell apart. It became a sad and pathetic victim of carpet crossing. It was once the greatest beneficiary of carpet crossing and destroyed the other political parties in the process. The biter found itself bitten. It is not always pleasant to swallow one’s poison meant for others. Men who became president or state governors or senators or members of the House of Representatives or speakers of the houses of assembly, etc., suddenly abandoned the party. They hitched their political waggon to the new and untested political party, APC, an amalgam of mostly carpet crossers. Thus did it happen that in the 2015 presidential election, the sun suddenly set for PDP. Its once arrogant leaders who made a virtue of impunity, began to pick their way along the road side.

Think of defection and think of the damage it continues to do to our political parties and party politics.

Defection is a malaise with a capacity to spread its poison to all things political and decent. The generals who gave us the 1979 and the 1999 constitutions knew the damage free roaming by the politicians via carpet crossing would do to party cohesion and our national politics. They took constitutional steps to discourage it. The constitution says national and state legislators who cross the carpet must automatically lose their seats in parliament. The constitution is silent in the case of state governors who defect to other parties. The politicians have taken advantage of this to ruin governance and party politics. The generals must have thought that a state governor would exercise a greater sense of responsibility and loyalty to his party to even think of defecting from his party to another and still feel morally entitled to hold unto to the position secured for him by his party. A state governor has a moral obligation to remain committed to and make his party strong and impregnable against opposition parties.

But governors Ali Shinkafi of Zamfara and Isa Yuguda of Bauchi, showed the excesses of impunity and the untouchable when, along with the entire members of their respective state houses of assembly, they defected from ANPP to the ruling PDP. The court ruled that what Shinkafi did was immoral but not unconstitutional. Yet the law is clear in the case of legislators. Using defection to bend the moral imperatives of the constitution to personal benefits is the ultimate excess in cheap political power play. 

Because of defections we cannot have political parties formed and built around a well-articulated ideology intended to promote economic and social development. Our political parties are thus bereft of progressive and developmental ideas. We take one step forward and take two backwards.

Because of defections, we have no real commitments to our political parties. We are there long enough for opportunities to open up in another political party. and then we cross the carpet.

Because of defections, our political parties are merely convenient legal tools for oiling our political aspirations. The cynical abandonment of parties that put their platforms at the disposal of ambitious seekers of elective offices tells everything the non-Nigerian needs to know about our lack of sense of gratitude.

Because of defections, families cannot build legacies of ideological commitment to particular parties so that generations of such families remain true and faithful to such parties.

Because of defections, our political parties sway in the wind. They are unable to drive good leadership recruitment, are detached from their statutory responsibilities and the moguls take advantage of the vacuum created.

It bears repeating: defection is the bane of our party politics. We are merely using politics for self-service rather than national service. Even the blind can see that it is deleterious to our national political health. If Ekwo’s judgement stands, as I hope it will, it will represent a) a major paradigm shift in our national politics and b) be the first step towards rescuing governance from scoundrels.

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