Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Big Man politics in Nigeria

Most American textbooks use the term "big men" to describe these political movers and shakers in Nigeria. Academics in Nigeria label them "godfathers," although that term is seen unfavorably (anti-democratic) by most people.

Nigeria election 2019: How ‘godfathers’ influence politics
"Godfathers" in Nigerian politics don't usually run for office themselves, but many believe they are the ones who decide the election winners and losers.

With campaigning well under way for general elections on 16 February, these are the men - and they invariably are men - who pull the strings behind the scenes.
APC election banner

They are political sponsors, who use money and influence to win support for their preferred candidates.

Their "godsons", it is believed, are not always selected for their political acumen, but rather on their ability to repay and enrich their godfather.

These arrangements have spawned the term "godfatherism", says Dr Dele Ashiru, a senior lecturer at the department of political science at the University of Lagos.

"It refers to a situation where there's a big man who wields enormous political power and then anoints a godson, who he adopts as a candidate for the election.

"And the godfather will do all that is reasonably possible to get the godson appointed into political office.

"The godfather must be influential, most often they are, or were, a political office holder."

In the southern state of Akwa Ibom, the country's largest oil-producer, many people believe the main godfather is Godswill Akpabio, who holds a senate seat…

So powerful in fact that his defection just a few months ago to the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) is seen as pivotal to the party's hope of winning its first victory in the state since Nigeria's return to democracy in 1999.

A hope reiterated by President Muhammadu Buhari when he chose Akwa Ibom to launch his campaign for re-election in December.

And Mr Akpabio certainly seems to deliver in numbers. During a recent rally I spoke to followers who said he would bring more than 300,000 voters over to the APC…
In a very different part of the country, the political future of the majority Muslim state of Kano in the north may also be defined by a larger-than-life godfather.

Kano has the second-biggest number of registered voters in the country, making it a key state for either of the two main parties to secure victory.

Rabiu Kwankwaso, a former governor, has built a loyal and dedicated following there, partly built through a free education programme implemented during his tenure. Whichever candidate gets his blessing is guaranteed a lot of voters.

He is backing Abba Kabiru Yusuf, a candidate from the People's Democratic Party (PDP), after falling out with a former ally…

As godsons become political players in their own right, it is inevitable that they fall out with their godfathers…

[T]his is because in developing societies like Nigeria, the state is the most important source of revenue and wealth accumulation, which both will want to access to.

But it is also a question of ego, according to Emmanuel Onwubiko, from Human Rights Writers Association Of Nigeria.

"Some of the godfathers are not really out to get money, they just want respect, they want to be venerated if they come into the state; they want to be recognised as the most important person in that society," he says.

For Mr Ashiru this is a key problem with godfatherism: "Godfather culture is more about the individual than the collective.

"Democracy is about the people, but here you have a few individuals across the country who take critical political decisions, particularly that have to do with the recruitment of public officers.

"So it goes without saying that such a system cannot make democracy thrive."

All the politicians I spoke to shied away from the term "godfather" as it has become loaded - associated with bullish tactics and undemocratic practices.

And as godsons gain their confidence, it is not clear how much longer godfathers will be able to keep their hold on power…

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