• Monday, July 15, 2024
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BusinessDay

Feeding the beasts of election wins

Corruption still huge drawback in Nigeria despite reforms

Some Kenyans are clutching pearls at William Ruto’s victory in the August 9, 2022 presidential elections. Despite what is known about his history in the elections, politics and governance of Kenya and in spite of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s attempts to blame his Vice President for the corruption in his administration, Ruto won. And as unhappy as some are, considering him completely unsuitable for the exalted office of president, some are pleased in equal measure.

The making of Ruto is similar to the making of some of the most visible and controversial politicians in Nigeria today, and it is not difficult to predict similar pains in future elections when many gnash their teeth and wonder at the character of people in the highest offices in the country. Nyesom Wike – current governor of Rivers State, second runner-up in the Peoples Democratic Party’s presidential primaries and the most courted politician in Nigeria today – could be Nigeria’s Ruto in a few election cycles. Like Ruto, he would have put in the work and might well be the populist choice, a gwalo or thumbed nose at establishment politicians with their decades of deep entitlement that makes them impervious to growing discontent.

How, people might well ask? Well, by riding the tiger of how elections are won.

It is well documented that governors deliver the presidential elections in Nigeria. Today, at the close of the continuous voter registration process, Wike controls the votes of Rivers with the fourth highest number of registered voters (3.6 million) after Lagos (7.1 million), Kano (6 million) and Kaduna (4.4 million).

He also controls – for lack of a more appropriate word – the votes of other states by virtue of his close relationship with their governors: Abia (over 1.93 million), Adamawa (over 1.97 million), Benue (2.8 million), Enugu (over 1.9 million) and Oyo (3.3 million). Considering Wike’s brash nature and famed financial support for Governor Aminu Tambuwal’s 2019 presidential ambition, one can deduce what the terms of endearment are between these governors.

Wike is also rumoured to have the PDP structures of Anambra, Ondo, Kogi, Cross River and Kano (the Kwankwaso faction) in his camp. Being able to determine how votes of six states will go and influence the votes in another five during what could be a close presidential race is powerful, and if last week’s meetings abroad with Obi, Tinubu and Atiku are anything to go by, there is competition to get Wike on his side.

The horse trading in pre-election negotiations tend to be about who gets what when the presidential candidate wins: control over political parties and positions in ministries, departments and agencies, the juicier the better, in order to fill campaign chests and dispense political favours in preparation for the next election. And immunity shields required to keep the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission at bay.

This is how a Wike – who has been in government since 1999 – keeps moving from strength to strength, enabled by the personal ambition of men who need his special skills of ‘finishing enemies’ (after all our politics is ‘do or die’). From local government chair, to chief of staff to a governor, then minister and then governor of one of the richest states by revenue allocation for eight years, it should be no surprise that he has ambitions to lead the country when he has helped so many get to their pole position. Now he wants to be president, and the stalling of this ambition has triggered some of the most public political tantrums we have witnessed over the last eight years, in competition only with the ‘Emi lokan’ declaration in Abeokuta a few months ago.

Wike’s undemocratic and dictatorial stripes are not hidden and some see this as an unpretentiousness that is appealing. He abuses power but to millions of traumatised Nigerians, ‘he understands how to play the game’. He incarcerates those who disagree with him such as Farah Dagogo, a member the House of Representatives from Rivers who dared to contest the PDP primaries for governor and was in prison for over 60 days. And where he cannot be bothered to imprison, he bullies, sealing the businesses of his Rivers-based PDP members for daring to ‘plot against the state’ by supporting Atiku, the PDP presidential candidate. Like Louis XIV, Wike believes he is the state.

Wike is an excellent student of Nigeria’s politics and what it takes to succeed. Like most outgoing governors, Wike picked his successor, Siminialayi Fubara and, if 2019 gubernatorial elections in Rivers is anything to go by, will enthrone him in March 2023. Installing someone he presumes to be loyal and controllable, Rivers will become his base from which he will continue to influence elections across the country in furtherance of his presidential ambition. This is the Tinubu model with Lagos; the same model Kwankwaso is struggling to implement in Kano.

If Wike gets his way with ongoing negotiations for the 2023 elections, he could have a few positions in the federal government to shore up his hold in Rivers and strengthen his hand in 2027.

Wike is a populist – in a country that adores populists. He uses ‘power is from God’ references strategically enough to persuade the mentally and stomach-impoverished, and in taking on his party for not enforcing the zoning provision, he has made himself a crusader against injustice that is the reality of millions. It does not matter that PDP has always had open primaries e.g. the 2006 presidential primaries included Rochas Okorocha, even when after eight years of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the popular sense was that the ticket was going to the North.

Read also: 2023 electioneering: Beyond the jingles

He conflates his pain at losing the presidential primaries, first in 2018 when he supported Tambuwal and again in 2022, with decades of hurtful narratives about the relationship between the political establishments of the North and South. Like Ruto (and like Trump), while Wike is a ranking member of Nigeria’s political establishment, he plays the anti-establishment card successfully, tapping into the immense discontent of millions who would like nothing more than to upturn the ‘agbado’ tray.

Only now are some of his party members beginning to chafe at his imperial ways – but there was a time when he was useful. As has been pointed out about the Kenyatta-Odinga-Ruto relationship: if Ruto was good enough to be Odinga’s ally between 2005 and 2007 when they fought President Kibaki’s constitutional amendments and were part of the opposition coalition during the 2007 elections and good enough to be vice president to Kenyatta in order to deliver the presidency in 2013 and 2018, then he cannot suddenly be too bad to be president of Kenya.

This is how Nigerian politicians are winning election battles while Nigeria is losing the war. Nigeria is in bad shape, broke and hemorrhaging talent, good will and funds critical for needed investments in human and structural development and we will not make progress without meaningful reforms of our politics and political economy. Rescuing our elections from the manipulation of politicians, allies in INEC and security and armed forces is essential; this is why electoral reforms are important.

We cannot focus solely on who becomes president, as powerful as that role is; we must take a holistic view to what needs to be done and that requires the right governors, legislators and judges. As a start, without a magic wand, we need to weaken the grip of emperor governors by insisting that our elections hold on one day – this arrangement where the governors deliver the president and get carte blanche over their states must end after 2023 elections. We must care deeply about who becomes the next chair of INEC and electing the best possible persons to push these reforms begins with the 2023 election.

We must also care how our favourite candidates will win…if they are prepared to feed the election beasts in order to win, to make deals with Wike and his coterie of governors, it means that their personal, immediate ambition comes before the future wellbeing of Nigeria, because you cannot get off the tiger once you jump on its back, unless…

Ayisha Osori, author of ‘Love Does Not Win Elections’, writes for BusinessDay for the Nigeria Decides 2023 series every fortnight on Wednesdays