There are many political parties in Nigeria, they spring up like green onions in a vegetable garden. Some evolved from older parties, while some are formed afresh. However, no matter how numerous they are per election cycle, there are never more than two or three main stalks. Their history is a splintered one and can be told from several perspectives. But in this context, history leads us back to 1960, when Nigeria gained independence from British colonial rule, and when political parties stood for something.

In the twilight years of British colonial rule, between 1959 and 1960, the main political parties in Nigeria were representative of the three largest ethnic groups — Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. The Northern People’s Congress (NPC) was the dominant party, capturing 134 out of 312 seats in parliament, and representing Northern Muslim, Hausa and Fulani interests; it held conservative ideologies. The National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), the second largest party at the time, winning 89 seats in the parliament, was based primarily in Eastern Nigeria and was Christian dominated, holding nationalist ideologies. The Action Group (AG), founded by Late Obafemi Awolowo, was the third major party in Nigeria; created to challenge NCNC in the Yoruba-dominated Western Nigeria, it held liberal ideologies and was the main opposition party during the First Republic.

During those early years of independence, belonging to a political party in Nigeria gave a person an identity. If you were liberal, Christian, conservative, Muslim, and/or nationalist, people could guess what party you supported or belonged to.

Over the years, however, as the nature of politics changed in Nigeria, so did the political parties. Ideology stopped counting for something and was gradually overlaid by selfish interests. Political parties became something politicians identified with, not because they held a particular set of ideologies similar to the party’s, but because it increased their chances of winning. And the more this happened over time, the less political ideology mattered to the public. People were ready to support anyone who appealed the most to their immediate needs. If a politician was offering to give them jobs, build and repair their roads, get their children to school, and wipe out corruption, he would likely win their hearts without explaining how he intended to do all that. It didn’t really matter to the people that this politician had spent the last 10-12 years of his career with the erstwhile ruling party and had only recently jumped ship to the new ruling party. Or, it didn’t really matter that this politician was in an entirely different party a few months ago, or that he had even changed parties twice in the last year. If he was good enough for them in the moment, he was good enough.

As the nature of politics changed in Nigeria over the years, it became less clear what politicians and party supporters stood for. Granted, Nigeria’s politics has been tainted and disrupted by years of military coups and dictatorships (In 56 years of independence, Nigeria has suffered 3 military coups). But, since her return to democracy in 1999, 18 years ago, very little has been done by the current political parties to codify their ideologies.

Why are political ideologies important?

A political ideology can be defined as “a coherent set of views on politics and the role of the government.” Ideologies shape and explain our perception of reality. We don’t all see things the same way, and as humans, we have the tendency to interpret reality through our biases and orientation. So, political ideologies are important because they help us understand our political views better. They help us identify what we stand for and what we are against. Ideally, they help us know how best to relate and interact with other people politically.

As religious beliefs are vital to a person’s identity, so are their political ideologies. As Dr Jim Riley, a former professor of Politics at Regis University, wrote, “When combined with other factors such as effective leadership, persuasive rationale, timely development, and popular appeal, political ideology goes a considerable distance in the direction of comprehending things political.”

In Nigeria, however, political ideologies, if they still exist, do not feature prominently in our political discourse, at least not anymore. Nigerian politics has no regard for ideologies because our political parties themselves are not built on ideologies but on selfish (often times economic) interests. This is made worse by the absence of political education, and not just any type of political education, but that which is done through political parties.

During a meeting with members of the Yoruba Patriotic Movement on Monday, Bisi Akande, former governor of Osun State, said, “The core value system is no more in place. We have a mixture of the negative and positive tendencies among the youth. The negative tendencies are more than the positive ones. How do we get sincere and good future leaders in the present society? … The military orientation of controlling the political parties after leaving power is still being practised by the democratic government in the country, whereas it is the people of like minds who ought to get together, form their parties and run them the way they deem fit.”

He also said, “Political parties grew in [a] hierarchy system in those days; whether you are a tailor, bricklayer, carpenter or whoever, you must learn politics through your political party. You cannot just rise up and say you want to become this, you want to become that in the party. You must learn first. [The] political party was a leadership training ground.”

That is just not the case anymore. Chief Akande said that the “majority of the people at the leadership of the political party are those who grew or learn politics in the military arrangement.” This reflects heavily on the kind of democracy that is now practised in Nigeria, where freedom of expression and freedom of the press remain limited and government accountability is still as weak as ever.

Political ideology and political education go hand-in-hand. One buttresses the other and neither can flourish without the other.

So, if someone asks you what it means to support a political party in Nigeria, tell them it means nothing. If they ask you why, tell them it is because political ideology and education no longer count for anything in Nigeria politics. Or simply reply their question with these two questions: What does it mean to be a PDP or APC supporter? What do those parties stand for?

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