An Oxymoronic Impossibility
Wait, before you dismiss this topic as an oxymoronic impossibility, try—difficult as it is when politicians are involved—to be open-minded. There are great Nigerian politicians—and they don’t necessarily make the news headlines. Of course, I understand the fact that politics and politicians are not exactly the best sort of intellectual discourse, and that the word “politics” awakens a mental image of the putrid; but then, this misconception exists only because the world is yet to study the ways of the Nigerian politician. Nigerians have perfected the art of politicking into a study worthy of intellectual interest. Now, let’s discuss Nigerian political philosophy and how to be a great Nigerian politician.
The World Changes for You
Why would you want to be a politician, you may wonder, if you consider yourself a sane person, at least. Even career politicians—and yes, that’s a profession—rarely describe themselves in those words. In Nigeria, the accepted nomenclature include: elder statesmen, public servants, regional leaders, concerned citizens, or maybe even party chieftains; but never politicians. So why should you dump a comfortable professional or vocational career and risk your sanity or more in the literally cutthroat world of Nigerian politics? The answer is simple: divinity. The prime mover in Nigerian—and African—politics is a walking god. That’s not an overstatement. And what human doesn’t want a chance to feel godlike?
Let me elaborate: when you become a great Nigerian politician, the world changes for you; and this happens even before you hold office. Your words get news coverage no matter how inane, the most mediocre of your opinions are seriously analysed by pundits, people who have never met you will kill, and if necessary, die for you. At events, you are the most respected personality: no matter how obnoxious you decide to be. You are the automatic speaker, the impromptu guest of honour, the definite chairperson. Think about this: The Chairperson. What will you not give to be the chairperson?
And if your ways are blessed with “divine favour” (as you will later call it), you get to hold a public office with: a salary of eight figures (or more), allocations and expense-paid trips, contractual opportunities—at best prices, a well serviced bank account at home and abroad, a chieftaincy title, honorary doctorates and professorships, everyday congratulations for just blinking from people you’ve never heard of, a national award, a life pension, and if you die in office—a public burial. If you are really good at your game, you could get buildings and streets renamed in your honour, or maybe even a university or two; or the greatest of all honours—your very own face on the currency.
Good gods, who wouldn’t want to be a Nigerian politician?
Gentlemen Are Not Wanted
What does it take to become a great Nigerian politician? How do you go about this arduous task? Not a few people have the, definitely insane, idea that the ideal politician is an honest, upright person whose delight is to oblige the people, and who places effective service before anything else. The impracticality of this idea is matched only by its baloney; and such fancies have no place in our democratic setting. If you attempt to follow this misguided ideal, your people you will disown you, label you as miserly and selfish, and frustrate you into an early grave.
Instead you should gather a reputation as a tout and a ruffian, someone capable of standing his own ground, a swindler with all appearance of a looter—then you can be sure of getting into office faster. You don’t even have to pretend to be good. Gentlemen are not wanted, and spiritually inclined people are disallowed (except pastors). The intellectual people are not wanted. Career professionals (excluding lawyers) are not wanted. Economically successful businesspeople are not wanted. Writers, poets, artistes, sportspersons, scientists and innovators, Nobel Prize winners and their ilk are expressly forbidden. To be clear, these are not bad people, they are just bad politicians. A good Nigerian politician knows that he can hire them for use in the ministries and government departments as underpaid civil servants. But a great Nigerian politician knows how to ignore them totally. They may have the brains to excel in their fields, but they just don’t have the brains to run for, and run a, public office.
But if you are an academic pretender, an “area father”, a business failure, or if your business was built around some not-so-legal opportunities, or if you are a retired military man without any further ambition, or a former dictator, or a failing lawyer, you are exactly the kind of person needed in Nigerian politics. You were made to rule a country like Nigeria. Your past failures are the experience you need to captain this ship. You don’t even have to be demonstrably Nigerian. If you doubt these assertions, look around and you will find evidence in almost every public office, with a few accidental exceptions—who will soon be rectified.
The Safe Ideology is “No Ideology”
The most important requirement for a politician is that he joins a political party. Any party will do. A few strategic points should be considered before making this relatively flexible decision: a ruling party seems convenient, but it is an association of individuals who are owed political favours for work done in the past, so it might take quite some time before you achieve internal relevance, or nomination for an office. However, a relatively new or unknown party would not carry you far, unless the party leader is a fiery challenger who is making waves, and whose deputy—by some incredible luck—gets assassinated, then you are sure to go places with a new party. But generally, what you need is a moderately successful party that has a foot in the door of power and where you can still shine personally. The party’s ideology or philosophy—if it has one—does not matter. In fact, it is quite useless. No sensible political party sticks to an identifiable ideology, for in the long run, all parties will have to adapt to economic and social change. The safe ideology is “no ideology”.
And, as surely as the snake sheds its skin, you should also have a capacity to change parties, easily and conveniently, without conscientious scruples. If you get into office through one party, you can cross carpet to another: unschooled observers may call it cross-carpeting, but it is no more than a shortcut to relevance. In fact, it is ideal to get nominated and elected on the ticket of a small party, ramp up your nuisance value and then join the other, more important, party afterwards. Nothing personal, it’s just politics.
Godfathers and Platforms
You need a godfather, and preferably one with a Mario Puzo predilection. This is for a simple reason: the godfather is feared by the people. And by “people”, we mean the trade unions, labour unions, and other amorphous social and commercial associations that make up 70% of the voting public. These people will vote—consciously or not—according to the desires of the godfather. Be warned, however, when you assume office, do not forget your godfather—even if you change parties. Remember your obligations, and pay your dues to him. The scriptures are clear: the godfather giveth, and the godfather taketh away.
You must learn to make deals and swap promises. Never give something for nothing and if you can swing it, never give something for anything. Do not worry about leadership or service: if you can get some well liquidated youths to cause a furore now and then, spray money at public parties, donate visibly to churches and mosques, then you have satisfied the expectations of the people. People expect nothing better from you, and in any case, no sensible Nigerian would believe your promises or expect you to fulfil them. The mass media is malleable, and the intellectuals and professionals will not bother you, at least, not until you get to power and, in that case, it would be too late for these eggheads to control you.
Look for a platform from which to launch your career. In Nigeria, things are so bad that it is very easy to succeed as a politician—traffic, bad roads, unstable electricity, non-existent water supply, insecurity, Niger Delta issues, terrorism, shaky education, unpaid minimum wages, excitable labour union, recalcitrant fuel prices, payment of taxes, non-payment of taxes, missing pensions, greedy banking sector, currency devaluation, past military rule, potential military comeback, the presidency, the National Assembly, the judiciary, anything, and everything will do. Nigeria is a gold mine of opportunity for the eager statesman. Pick your topic, publicise your views in the media, stage a protest—or criticise a protest, kick some dust, express strong opinions at law events, at student events, at labour union events. If you are a militant type, organise a public palaver and then solve it: a garage fight, a religious riot, union strikes—commission some trouble and then be seen to put it to a stop.
Do all of these and you will certainly get elected.
After Your Election
After your election, the first thing you do: get a battery of lawyers.
A lawyer is a politician’s best friend, to phrase it mildly. Do not be stingy with the law: and this rule will save your neck someday. Lawyers will handle your election petitions, sort out the allegations of non-qualification, dismiss the claims of corruption, and possibly frustrate the attempts at an impeachment. You can bet that these trials will come your way, not from the people you govern—they are not bothered—but from envious, less successful, fellow politicians.
Next, and this is even before you settle into the office, plan for your re-election. The road to re-election is paved with good appointments and strategic alliances. You must fulfil all obligations to party leaders and godfathers, accommodate their suggestions for appointees, award contracts to them at not-so-commercial prices, and pretend, good-naturedly, to be a loyalist. Now that you have the office, you don’t need to show that you have it.
And finally—pay day. You have money, then spend it. Spend public money. Spend it as though money was going out of fashion. Here’s a tip: prioritise recurrent expenditure, and spend only on capital expenditure that requires consistent maintenance and repairs. Generate contracts for your people to execute. A good government is a government of family and friends: insert your people—friends and relatives—in subtle, but key, positions and obstruct people who refused you support when you started out. Reward your friends and frustrate your enemies: this is the full meaning of justice.
And that is how you attain divinity.
The Great Nigerian Politician is, as Achebe describes, “A Man of the People”. Reject the foregoing guidelines and you will begin to gain a reputation as, in Ibsen’s words, “An Enemy of the People”.
On a worrisome note, remember that the people cannot always be trusted to be docile. You may push them around—but not too much. Otherwise, they will wake up, recover their senses and their dignity, and fight back. Then things will get ugly: unsponsored protests will rage in the streets, the mob will pull you out of your office and set fire to your mansions, the crowd will strip the clothes off your family, and the country will make you a spectacle and a laughing stock. So, avoid investing in any type of education—for if their minds are open, the fury of the people will be limitless. They will rise against you and put an end to your time.
But, really, every great Nigerian politician knows that this is a very unlikely scenario.
Ayo Sogunro is the author of The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. A lawyer by profession, he also indulges in socio-legal philosophy on this blog. Interact with him on Twitter via @ayosogunro.