PDP was a great party. It is still a great party, but more instructively, great in the nostalgic sense of what rose from a political party founded on nationalist ideals in the wake of Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999, to a behemoth at the prime of its glory in 2007 when former President Olusegun Obasanjo was winding up his tenure in office.
Carried away by the lust and lure of political power, the party’s misfortunes can be traced to the days when it began to put politics above leadership and national interest. It was a fancy tale in Nigeria how PDP was Africa’s largest political party, how the house of Nigeria’s political heavyweights was too solid to collapse and how the party was going to rule Nigeria for the next 60 years. Such were the brazen expressions signature of the heydays of the PDP as Nigeria’s ruling party.
The PDP Titanic ship may have been sunk in 2015, but the party’s head-on collision with the icebergs of public perception had become evident as far back as 2011. By the time Nigerians went to the 2011 presidential polls, the public reputation of the PDP had become so battered that the average Nigerian considered those three letters – P.D.P. – synonymous with impunity, corruption and incompetence. It was so bad that President Goodluck Jonathan was voted into office in 2011 largely on his individual goodwill.
As Nigerians grumbled and public opprobrium mounted against the ruling party, the party leadership, just like the autocratic Bourbon monarchy of France, heeded little or no attention. So much was taken for granted. What the PDP did not say in words, it communicated loud and clear to Nigerians in a body language that seemed to be telling Nigerians to their face: “Rave all you can. We have the formula for winning elections. We really don’t need your votes!”
It was a costly mistake.
Within the party itself, party members who attempted to spearhead internal reforms were branded rebels or reduced to pariahs. Some left. The incurable optimists who believed in the dream that birthed the party, stayed behind. Some were muzzled into silence. That a man the caliber of Chief Alex Ekwueme lost his voice in the PDP; that shining stars of the party like Donald Duke, Frank Nweke Jnr, Nasir El Rufai etc became relegated to the fringe of events, speak volumes of the ill breed of politics that had taken over the party. Plagued with a humongous reputation crisis, lack of internal democracy, insistence on maintaining the old way of doing things and a myriad of internal disaffection – the last of which led to the formation of the Baraje faction of PDP in 2013 and its eventual defection to APC, there is no way the party was going to survive the impending onslaught without effecting radical changes in its organizational modus operandi. It was only a matter of time. Something had to give.
I joined the PDP in 2012 as a young Nigerian professional at the age of 28. My attraction to the party was largely anchored on what could be termed for want of better description, the audacity of faith – faith in a dream that was and is still possible. A good number of young Nigerians like me joined the party with the conviction that somehow, with the collective strength of our will, we could continue the struggle for internal party reforms which by extension would rub off on the quality of leaders the party produced at various levels of leadership in Nigeria. One of the first battles we had to fight was to correct the anomaly of a National Youth Leader who was over 60 years of age! At the time we were done, he had been replaced with a National Youth Leader who was barely 30! It was a hard-won victory, but the real struggle was yet to even begin in a system that saw its youths at best in the mold of thugs fit only for electoral malpractices!
Fast forward to 2015, Nigerians are screaming for change. Nigerians are saying they would rather go back to the past to return a leader who led Nigeria with an iron fist as a military dictator over 30 years ago! What went wrong? The simple analysis here is that PDP lost power at the center, not so much because of what the All Progressives Congress (APC) did right but much more because of what the PDP did wrong consistently over 16 years as the ruling party! That the APC ran a presidential campaign that made the PDP look like it was the opposition party is a pointer to how much the PDP had disconnected itself from the strategic thinking required for strategic outcomes.
But where do we go from here? Beyond the PDP’s battle for political survival, it is instructive to note that Nigeria needs a strong opposition to keep the ruling party in check. But for PDP to effectively play the opposition, it needs to reform, refocus and reposition itself. It is time for PDP to become honest with itself. The party must be ready to confront the truth as it is. To live in self-denial would be tantamount to a self-inflictive imprudence that would rest the party in irreversible oblivion.
The first thing PDP must do is to embark on a truth and reconciliation process where all members who have been or have cause to feel mistreated for any reason whatsoever, have the opportunity to express their grievances. PDP cannot make progress by pretending that all is well, burying its head in the sand or sweepings its problems under the carpet. Key stakeholders of the party must be able to ventilate their grievances before the party leadership and the leadership must be ready and seen to be willing to listen and take necessary actions. Grievances from the just concluded elections alone would be enough to keep the party busy for the next few months. But this is the first pragmatic step to true healing for the PDP.
Secondly, the PDP will need to embrace a new way of doing things. The party must rebrand. By rebranding, I am not talking about another opportunity to make money at the expense of the work that needs to be done. Such a rebranding exercise must be internal and external and a team of credible professionals should be immediately assembled to midwife this process. It may be necessary, but it will not be enough to change the party’s name or logo. More importantly, what needs to change is the way the party conducts its affairs. The party must be ready to project new faces that command credibility and endear the admiration of Nigerians. With all due respect, some of our elders in the party have lost the respect of most Nigerians. Yes, we still need the wisdom and counsel of our elders in the party, but they must now step aside to project and support credible fresh faces that will take the party to the next level. It is better to be an elder statesman in a party that is successful than to insist on occupying positions even if it means the party fading into extinction.
Thirdly, the PDP must invest in youth engagement. The PDP must become receptive to innovation, creativity and new age ideas by paying attention, empowering and strengthening the capacity of its brightest youths. At the just concluded elections, the PDP under-utilized some of its brightest brains. A situation where most of the key youth actors in the presidential campaign had to spend their personal resources campaigning for the party, is unacceptable. Elections are not cheap. To win elections, you must spend money and ensure your resources are put in the hands of those best equipped to deliver. For instance, during the just concluded presidential campaigns, we saw a state-of-the-art situation room of the APC manned by passionate young professionals. In a 21st century political environment, the PDP had nothing close to a functional situation room for its presidential election, manned by young professionals. 90 percent of the PDP’s social media campaign was created and executed by young people who took initiative on their own without a single shred of support from the party. Yet the media is awash with reports of huge sums of money that were released for the campaign. What is wrong with us? Elections are not won like this. At least, not in this revolutionary age of communication explosion.
Going forward, the PDP must open up the space for more young Nigerians to become card-carrying members of the party. This is the best time to attract young Nigerians who want to be in the opposition. And there are millions of them! The process of registration should be made easier and technology-oriented. In most wards across the country, the story usually is that PDP membership cards are not available. This is because the cards are being hoarded owing to a systemic deficiency that seeks to shut the door against new members. The party cannot continue like this.
Finally, the PDP must begin to take the media more seriously by constantly engaging this critical sector of our national life. The media is the chief custodian of perception creation and management. A party that wants to make progress must be ready to go the extra mile to woo the media to its side. Nothing in Nigeria is free or cheap. PDP must be ready to make huge sacrifices and investments to transform its tattered image. Credible professionals should be engaged to manage media relations for the party under the supervision of the relevant party officials. The sense of media engagement must also be considered beyond the boundaries of traditional broadcast and print media. The new media space is the new battleground for socio-political engagement. The PDP can ignore the new media only to its own peril.
Ohimai is the Special Adviser (Media) to Senator Musiliu Obanikoro and Convener, Rethink Nigeria – a group of young professionals affiliated to the PDP