Since 1999, we have seen a disturbing rise in politicians with criminal backgrounds contesting and winning elections at local, state and federal levels in Nigeria. Apart from being closeted murderers engaged in different forms of ritual killings and routine assasination of opponents, they are also drug barons, terror sponsors, armed robbers, advanced fee fraud afficionados and cross-border pedophiles. There must be reasons why parties nominate and voters vote for such candidates. The reasons are not far fetched. Criminal candidates are strongly rooted in the communities of their electoral jurisdiction. They have immensely powerful local networks which they deploy for political support and to generate resources for their political ambitions. Most often, they are interested in politics because they see politics as another criminal enterprise and the opportunities it offers in rent seeking.
Politicians need a lot of money to fund political activities, sustain party offices, bribe the electorate for votes and, of course, to fund their flamboyant lifestyles. Long before shady characters took over our politics, there has been a symbiotic relationship between criminals and politicians. Politicians are beholden to the dons of crime because criminals pay them and law enforcement for protection against the processes of law in advance, by helping them win elections. Soon, the criminals realised there was no serious fulfillment required for public office other than money and impunity which they have in abundance. Once they realised this, they found their way in and today we have 32 Senators with active criminal proceedings against them and 97 in the House of Representatives. In a generation, Nigeria became a racket and a vast criminal enterprise where criminals rule over the law abiding with unrestrained impunity. It is so bad that a retired General with much touted integriy, uprightness and character has been reduced to a toothless pit bull by a criminal gang.
In a way, the delegate system created this bind because political parties put forward criminal politicians on which they depend for funding. Be it in All Progressives Congress (APC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or any other political party, the excessive control of party apparatchiks in the democratic selection process within their parties, in deciding who runs for public office, is a problem. The root of the criminal take over of our politics can be found in election finance. Elections are not cheap, they cost money and parties often have to use money from their own account to subsidise candidates. Most often criminals emerge as party candidates due to their financial clout, obtained from their nefarious activities as opposed to candidates who earned their own keep legitimately. Consequently, criminal candidates are able to finance their campaigns independently and party bosses welcome this because not only does it conserve the party’s limited funds, it helps the party allocate money to other activities. Political parties welcome any source of funding, they do not discriminate, they actively court and encourage criminal candidates to sponsor their own campaign and the campaign and election of other candidates.
We got to this sorry pass because nepotism, cronyism and lack of intra-party democracy creates a channel for the entry of criminal candidates who are willing to use political office for private ends. Our politics has degenerated to abysymal levels because of extreme poverty at the grassroots which the politicians continues to propagate, systemic corrosion of values where everything is seen in monetary terms even if it is destructive to our long term interests, and the lack of specific ideology in our politics, which enables politicians to shift between parties depending on which party gives them the best deal. Another year is here! We can change the narrative in Abuja and the state capitals. We have the power! We are only beset by the twin affliction of poverty and ignorance of the power we wield. If things must change we have to change the delegate system and use open primaries. Let us push for open primaries where everyone can vote. Candidates can bribe a few delegates but they cannot buy every vote or at least it is more difficult to buy votes in an open primary. Let us pressure the Independent Electral Commission (INEC) to make it mandatory for all candidates seeking political office (at federal, state and local government level) to file an affidavit disclosing criminal records (pending criminal cases) as well as information on his or her asset, liabilities and educational qualifications. This will lead to increased voter awareness about those who seek to represent them at all levels. Nigeria cannot be great if we do not drive up the quality of those who seek to lead us. We cannot aspire to greatness when criminals make laws for us.