I count it an honour and it is indeed my pleasure to address you on the occasion of this important retreat. First, let me join the Chief Host, His Excellency, Chief Nyesom Wike, in welcoming you all to the Garden City.
Your Excellences, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
This retreat is so important because it is our very first major outing and brainstorming session since the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, lost both the presidential election and its majority advantage at the National Assembly. Consequently, the outcome of the 2015 general elections, naturally places the burden of being an effective opposition on us. When the tune of the music changes, the wise man also changes his dance steps. Having been the ruling party for the past 16 years, it means that we have no cognate experience in playing opposition politics as a party. And for the National Assembly Members-elect in particular, we have no experience in minority parliamentary role.
It was, therefore, for this reason that the Forum of PDP National Assembly Members-elect thought we should come together to learn and properly rehearse the new dance steps before we enter the village square. To do this, we arrived at the theme “The Role of the Opposition in Facilitating Development and Good Governance”. We also came up with various sub-themes, namely: “Strategies for Capacity Strengthening of the PDP as an Opposition Party in the NASS”; “Change Management: From Ruling to Opposition Party: The Ghana Experience”; “Developing Shadow Governance Structures and Processes”, and “Managing Effective Communications by the Opposition”.
Your Excellences, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
I am one man who believes that unless a man knows where the rain started beating him, he might never know where it stopped. Before I go further, therefore, I thought we should admit that the PDP’s journey from a ruling to an opposition party was not a sudden flight. We did not appear to have managed our success well. We appeared to have taken a lot of things for granted. We did not also appear to have taken full cognisance of our successive dwindling electoral fortunes over the years or the trend of electoral revolutions going on in other emerging democracies around us in which ruling parties lost control of power to the opposition.
In 1999, the PDP had a comfortable majority with 214 seats in the House of Representatives. It peaked at 263 in 2007 and dropped to 208 and 137 in 2011 and 2015, respectively. The loss of a whooping 55 seats in 2011 should have set the alarm ringing in the party. Likewise, our performance in the senatorial elections peaked at 87 seats in 2007 and shrank to 71 in 2011 before crashing to an all-time low of 49 seats in the 2015 general elections. Thus, the loss of 16 senatorial seats in 2011 should have served as a bad omen. Even in the gubernatorial elections, the drop from 28 states, which the PDP controlled in 2003 and 2007, to 23 by 2011 was enough sign that all was not well. It should have served as a catalyst for rescue mission before it plummeted to an unprecedented 13 states in 2015. And in the presidential election, the fact that the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR who hardly garnered reasonable votes in 2003 and 2007 polled a whooping 12 million votes on the platform of a brand new party, the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC, in 2011 was a clear handwriting on the wall for us. Whether or not we heeded these warnings is now a subject for sober reflections.
At the same time, it also needs to be admitted that the PDP and Nigeria are not alone in the rising wave of regime change from ruling party to opposition party. By mid 1990s, ruling parties had begun to suffer defeat by minority opposition parties in Africa. It began with ruling parties winning elections by smaller margins of 10-20% as opposition parties became stronger by each subsequent election mainly through mergers. We began to see the position of ruling parties eroding and opposition parties becoming stronger in countries such as Cape Verde, Zambia and Sao Tome. From the 1990s and 2000s, we witnessed increasing change of hands in governance from ruling parties to opposition parties. Zambia started in 1991 with the defeat of President Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party by Federick Chiluba’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy by a wide margin after 27 years in power. Subsequently, we saw how John Kufor’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) defeated the then incumbent Vice President under President Jerry Rawlings, late John Attah-Mills and his National Democratic Congress (NDC) in Ghana’s 2001 presidential election. But Atta-Mills of the opposition NDC defeated Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP in 2009 to emerge Ghana’s third president in that nation’s Forth Republic. In Senegal, Abdou Diouf and his ruling Socialist Party fell to Abdoulaye Wade’s opposition Senegalese Democratic Party in 2000. The ruling party and incumbent President Wade in turn lost the 2012 presidential election to the opposition Alliance for the Republic founded by the incumbent President Macky Sall in 2012. Similar changes occurred in Kenya in 2002, Benin Republic in 2006, Sierra Leone in 2007, Ivory Cost in 2010 and Malawi in 2014. Sadly, this year, the PDP suffered the same fate that befell ruling parties in many African countries as the All Progressives Congress, APC, a coalition of opposition parties and a faction of the PDP recorded a historic victory. Again, whether or not we reckoned with all of those electoral trends around us is yet another matter for introspection.
Your Excellences, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
I have taken these retrospective narratives, not to lay blame on anybody, but as a brief overview of the conceptual and empirical contexts of our fortunes and realities today as a political party. It is also to show that a party grows not only by making its mistakes and learning from them, for this is inevitable, but also by learning from the mistakes of others, tapping from experiences from far and near. We failed to do that and today we are paying the price for failing to learn from the mistakes of others. Instructively, these are the key dual purposes served by this retreat. First, the retreat shows that we have come over the shock, blame game, and recriminations that characterised our initial reactions to our electoral misfortunes. It shows that we are now taking strategic and positive steps towards regaining and possibly surpassing the lost ground. To take this retreat beyond mere academic exercise, we have also drawn resource persons from countries like Ghana and Kenya, which are emerging democracies that have been through this road before, to share their practical experience with us. I believe we have a lot to gain from both their defeat and bounce-back experiences.
Indeed, being in opposition is not a life sentence for any party. It is an opportunity for soul-searching, self-construction, and providing healthy, robust, vigilant, and responsible opposition, which is critical to democratic growth and good governance. As the American statesman, Benjamin Disraeli, once put it, “no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition”. And this, the PDP Members in the 8th National Assembly is poised to do. I recommend that we in the opposition should set up shadow committees relative to Ministries, Departments, and Agencies, MDAs, to sustain a methodical monitoring of the APC performance and report to the whole world on real time basis.
The new role of the PDP places a special burden on its Members at the National Assembly because from the United States of America to the United Kingdom, and Ghana, among so many others, the Members of Parliament have always been the springboard for their parties’ return to power each time they suffered defeat. This is because, among others reasons, parliamentarians enjoy legislative immunity that shields them from prosecution for things said in the course of their legislative duties. But, let me quickly add that ours should not be an opposition that sees nothing good in any government action or policy. We should not engage in market square propaganda and destructive criticism that turn truth upside-down or tends to incite the citizenry against the government in power. The inherent danger in this brand of opposition is that apart from overheating the polity and detracting from good governance, even if such propaganda and false promises get you to power, it will not keep you there. So, we must oppose responsibly and patriotically. We must play by the rules and stick to verifiable facts.
The PDP lawmakers in the 8th National Assembly should hold the ruling APC accountable on each of its campaign promises. We should not only hold them accountable in terms of their list of promises, but also in accordance with the timeline they gave in the course of the campaigns. They should be able to bring exchange rates down to one Naira to one US Dollar, bring back the Chibok Girls, eradicate terrorism and insurgency, stamp out corruption, create two million jobs every year, provide uninterrupted electricity supply, and fulfill other campaign promises or prepare to hand over power to the PDP in 2019. Their recent dithering and excuses on their campaign promises are not acceptable. We believe they must have studied the Nigerian situation thoroughly before mounting the podiums with promises. We should also provide policy alternatives, dissect every executive bills on its merit, and provide informed and energetic oversight of the executive to ensure that Nigerians are not cheated by the ruling party. We should ensure that successive national budgets address national needs and that they do so equitably. We should only support the confirmation of appointments that meet competency test and comply with the principles of federal character and equal opportunity.
To achieve this, however, we need to stick together and speak with one voice. As I recently pointed out, the worst tragedy that could befall the PDP is not that we lost the 2015 presidential election or our majority status at the National Assembly. The greatest tragedy would be our failure to draw from the lessons embedded in the outcome of the elections. We got to this point primarily because the falcon refused to heed the falconer. Party supremacy took the back seat and vaulting personal ambitions and agenda took the centre stage against common interest. But now, party members, especially those of us in the national parliament, must put party and national interest above every parochial interest.
Importantly, those who still nurse the defection idea should perish the thought. It is the shortest route to political Golgotha and oblivion. Today, the APC cabals cannot agree on the zoning or sharing formula for their electoral windfall. They have no seat for others because they do not even have enough seats for themselves. They have said so loud and clear. Therefore, those who are running to the APC house should be ready to stand up endlessly. Let us stay and rebuild our party and revive its political fortunes.
Meanwhile, let me add that a healthy opposition that deepens democracy is not in the hands of the opposition parties alone. It is the duty of the government to facilitate healthy and functional opposition. The ruling party must not impose restraints of any type or suppress public opinion and public voice; otherwise, it will be guilty of undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies. The APC government must always bear in mind that both the party and the government are products of the atmosphere of democratic liberties promoted by the PDP government under former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan,GCFR. That atmosphere must not be fouled by executive excesses, witch-hunt or intimidation.
The press and Civil Society organizations are natural allies of the opposition party in thriving democracies. I, therefore, call on the members of the press, Civil Society Organisations, and members of the public to live up to their vital roles of holding the government accountable. On our part, the PDP must develop new rules of engagement in the media and with the media.
Your Excellences, distinguished ladies and gentlemen
Let me appreciate you, our dear Governors elected on the platform of the PDP for coming to encourage us at this retreat. May I also remind you that you have a big role to play in restoring the political fortunes of the PDP because PDP governed-states will now be the major yardsticks for evaluating our performance in the next four years. I call on you to demonstrate unbeatable and undisputable capacity for good governance such as would stand the PDP-governed states out as models in uncommon transformation and actualisation of all the blessings and promises that democracy holds. I implore especially that citizens’ welfare, including prompt payment of workers salaries should be held sacred. Although times are hard, we must operate in the full consciousness that a worker deserves his wages. The times call for ingenuity in governance to harness available resources within the limits of extant laws to keep our states afloat and give our people a better life.
In conclusion, Your Excellences, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me say that I am extremely glad that we are here in Port Harcourt, the Garden City, to prepare ourselves for the task ahead. The key to success is preparation. As we listen to our resource persons in the areas earlier mentioned, let us remember that our countless PDP men and women are looking up to us to lead the way to recovery. We must not fail them. That journey of a thousand miles starts today.
God bless Nigeria.
SENATOR IKE EKWEREMADU, PhD, CFR
Deputy President of the Senate,
Chairman, Organising Committee