Nigerian political lexicon is filled with glib and facile labels such as “liberal,” “progressive,” “conservative,” etc.
It’s obvious, nevertheless, that neither the political class nor, in fact, the cultural elites have any informed understanding of the conceptual limits of these terms.
In Nigeria, for the most part, “progressive” has become the all-purpose term of esteem to deodorise filthy, crooked, and loud-mouthed politicians who nonetheless have untrammeled access to the news media.
“Conservative” has also emerged as the choicest term of disesteem to slur politicians who are as reactionary, filthy, and corrupt as self-described “progressives” but who have no access to the media—or capacity for, or interest in, shaping media narratives in their favour.
Let’s start by conceptualising who a progressive or a liberal is.
French philosopher Voltaire once said, “If you must converse with me, first define your terms” – or something to that effect.
Although there is no iron clad definitional unanimity in the conception of what constitutes a liberal or a progressive, no one disagrees that it refers to someone who is not limited to or by established, conventional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; who is free from, or at least recognises the unacceptability of bigotry.
The term is also used to denote a person who is amenable to proposals for reform, new ideas for progress, and is tolerant of the ideas and behaviour of others.
Generally speaking, it means one who is broad-minded, who is not invidiously wedded to his or her primordial identity to the detriment of others, and who is not held in check by the tyranny of received, often outmoded, wisdom.
Very few politicians in Nigeria come even remotely close to these ideals. Take, for instance, the corrupt, conscienceless clowns in the ruling All Progressives Congress who are a study in narrow-mindedness, ethnic insularity, religious bigotry, retrograde politics – and worse – but who fancy themselves as “progressives” and who tag others like them but who happen to be outside their fold as “conservative.”
For instance, Bola Tinubu, Tunde Fashola, Yemi Osinbajo, and others, whose easy access to the media causes them to be seen as the poster boys of progressivism in contemporary Nigeria, are just as reactionary as any politician in the country.
In several media interviews, they have made no pretenses about being ethnic bigots and about why they are self-interested enablers of Buhari’s fascist monocracy.
In October 2018, for example, Fashola told Yoruba voters to ignore Buhari’s incompetence and the corruption he enables and protects because, “A vote for Buhari in 2019, means a return of power to the South-West in 2023. I am sure you will vote wisely.” That’s backward, Stone-Age ethnic politics often associated with “conservatives.”
Fashola did not even attempt to make the slightest pretence to cosmopolitanism and broadmindedness, which are central to notions of progressive politics.
In the United States, too, it’s traditional to draw a distinction between liberals and conservatives in every national debate. But unlike in Nigeria where everybody avoids the label “conservative” like a plague, here people who think they are conservative not only accept the label but flaunt it.
A conservative is generally understood to be a person who is impervious to change, who conforms to the standards and conventions of the power structure, who finds joy only in his or her ethnic, religious and racial comfort zone, who is resistant to accepting others who are different from him or her, and who is exclusivist and inward-looking.
In policy terms, the conceptions of progressivism and conservatism will most definitely differ from country to country.
In the US, progressives champion universal health care, racial tolerance, renewable energy, acceptance of cultural, religious, and sexual minorities, etc.
That explains why the liberal camp is the natural attraction for all racial and religious minorities in the country.
In Nigeria, a progressive is someone who is able to transcend his or her ethnic and religious particularities and embrace others who are different from him or her, who defends and protects weak and vulnerable populations from the terror of the state, and who promotes justice, fairness, and equity for all.
In America, cultural conservatives resist racial equality, are in favour of excluding religious, cultural, and sexual minorities from mainstream society, are religious fundamentalists, want to control the choices women make with their bodies, and are generally ruthless, vulturistic capitalists who can suck the blood of a dead person if they are convinced that his blood has profit value.
I know of no politician in today’s Nigeria who isn’t a conservative by any definition of the term. Even so-called human rights activists, with a few exceptions, are ideologically indistinguishable from conservative politicians.
Conservatism is the easiest ideological disposition to gravitate to because it requires no effort. It comes from the human tendency to be at peace with the familiar and the predictable – and to be discomfited by the unknown and by the repudiation of settled certainties.
That is why although progressives are usually the drivers of innovation and of human progress, they are usually a minority who are never popular with mainstream society.
That was what Martin Luther King Jr meant when he once said, “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”
In other words, conservatives are the “conforming majority”who defend tyranny when they are not personally affected by it, who do not want to jolt the habitual order of things. Progressives are the “nonconforming minority” whose “creative maladjustment” requires confronting and working to extirpate the established order and entrenched but ruinous attitudes, which is often done at the cost of social and cultural ostracism – and sometimes death.
In Nigeria’s First and Second republics, there were politicians and political parties that were truly progressive.
Take the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), for instance.
At great personal risks, Aminu Kano led a disciplined rebellion against a ruthlessly backward feudal order in the North.
NEPU also formed an alliance with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) at a time regional insularity was the norm, particularly in the North. That was creative maladjustment.
In the Second Republic, the People’s Redemption Party (PRP), particularly in its first incarnation, was clearly Nigeria’s most progressive party of the time, not because it proclaimed itself so but because of its philosophy, politics, and governance style.
For instance, Kano’s Abubakar Rimi instituted cosmopolitanism and ethnic inclusion as a deliberate governing philosophy.
Although he was governor of a predominantly Muslim and Hausa state, he appointed many non-Kano indigenes, including Christians from the South, into his government.
He also intentionally weakened and demystified the traditional institutions that have historically oppressed and held the North back. No such radical reordering of society is taking place anywhere in Nigeria now.