Godfather Politics in Nigeria
Nigeria’s recent presidential election between an ageing seventy-two year old former military junta leader, and a seventy-six year old former politician and wealthy business man highlights two major problems in Nigerian politics. First, the lack of young voices in politics, and secondly, the unwillingness of leaders like President Buhari and former Vice President Abubakar’s to step aside for new leaders.
Despite the growing public support for younger outsider candidates, Nigeria has been governed by a number of old political celebrities and a network of political godfathers pulling the strings.
In an interview with the BBC, political science Professor Dele Ashiru of the University of Lagos described this style of “godfather politics” as a “situation where there's a big man who wields enormous political power.” Ashiru adds that these godfathers “anoint a godson, who he adopts as a candidate for the election,” and “will do all that is reasonably possible to get the godson appointed into political office.”
Other experts of Nigerian politics, such as Dr. Omobolaji Ololadade Olarinomye, a visiting professor at Hunter College agree with Ashiru’s assessment. In a 2007 article, Olarinomye writes “godfathers will do anything they can to prevent the emergence of a strong state, as its activities would entail a diversion of resources meant for godfather private accumulation to other purposes.” Olarinomye adds that political power is “handed over to a person whom the godfathers believed would not rock the boat,” allowing them to block any policy that would “deny them continued access to state resources… for personal use especially for the maintenance of control over political society.”
It’s clear that in order to push Nigeria forward, a new generation of leaders and policy makers need to end the godfather politics. These politics have ensured decades of corruption, government ineptitude, and feckless politics.
Structural issues like the high age requirements to serve in office, up until recently, have prevented younger voices from breaking through ending this system. The lack of a true ideological core from the major parties has prevented voters from voting based on policy rather than their ethnic or regional politics.
Old politicians and candidates backed by godfathers are able to bounce between the two major parties, the All Progressives Congress and the People’s Democratic Party, depending on whatever is politically expedient to hold on to power.
A young candidate, no matter how progressive and forward thinking their vision is for Nigeria, will inevitably lose an election against a godson. In a crowded election field, many young candidates are simply not able to find the same kind of financial and institutional resources that the backing of a godfather grants. Even if a young candidate could find a way to become a viable as an alternative to the godsons, their candidacy could be cut short if a godfather decides to use their influence and money to covertly intimidate voters or destroy ballots.
The unfettered control that some godfathers have over politics has insulated many leaders from the actual issues that face Nigerians, especially those that affect young people. The lack of true representation and earnest politics has made many apathetic to the entire process. An unemployment rate of nearly fifty-five-percent for young people, and limited access to higher education and social mobility, pushes some to start from scratch and move to countries like the U.S, Canada, and the U.K. Yet, there are those who unfortunately do not have these opportunities, and are restricted to those available in Nigeria, which are rare. Rightfully so, many young Nigerians are fed up with the lack of opportunity and years of government’s negligence.
However, the older generations do not seem to recognize the issues that the young face when seeking employment in Nigeria. President Buhari at the 2015 Commonwealth Business Forum in London said “a lot of them (young Nigerians) haven’t been to school and they are claiming, you know, that Nigeria has been an oil-producing country therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, health care, education, free.”
Similarly, Buhari’s main election opponent Vice President Atiku Abubakar during his time in office failed to substantively improve these issues that preceded him. Rather, Vice President Abubakar for most of his political life has been mired in one corruption scandal after another. During this election rather than taking the opportunity to seek to understand and solve the issues facing young Nigerians, his campaign proudly released #AtikuPlanforYOUth, an emoji campaign platform. The platform and the accompanying text version offered a number of empty platitudes and weak policies.
It’s clear that the old guard of Abubakar and Buhari’s generation lack both the ambition to solve these issues, and the faith that Nigerians will choose the right leaders to fill places. For decades they have promised to end corruption and grow the economy for all Nigerians, and despite the years of work, the Nigerian people still don’t see any real results being generated.
February’s election illustrates the failure of the leaders to let go of this paternalistic form of politics, where the godfathers choose what the people need. It also shows the real opportunity Nigerians will face in the future.
For most of Nigeria’s short post-independent history, progress has come at frustratingly slow, but at a steady pace. From the end of military rule in 1999, following the death of General Sani Abacha, to the first peaceful transfer of power in 2015, the tide is beginning to turn for young people that have been excluded from politics in the past. Following several years of student activism and public pressure, the Nigerian Federal Government ratified the Not Too Young to Run Constitutional Amendment. This amendment lowered the age requirement for federal and state assembly seats and the Presidency from 40 to 35 for the next election in 2023. In February’s election, out of the field of over seventy registered candidates the third party candidacy of Omoyele Sowore, a forty-eight-year-old human rights activist and former journalist, Fela Durtoye, a forty-seven year-old business consultant, and fifty-five year-old Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister, and prominent woman’s rights’ advocate for the Bring Back Our Girls campaign; all help to illuminate the fact that Nigeria has a lot of qualified leaders that can make a positive difference in Nigeria and work to empower young people.
Nigeria has all the resources and qualified leaders to break the legacy of colonialism and a decades of post-independence instability. From its oil-rich energy sector, blooming telecommunication and film industry, burgeoning fashion sector, Nobel Laureates, and academics, the potential that Nigeria holds is quite noteworthy. What stands in the way of Nigeria harnessing its resources and talent, to rebuild the economy and provide more opportunity, are the old political veterans and godfathers that would rather cling to power than watch their nation flourish.