…godfathers define themselves as men who have the power to substitute themselves for the voting citizenry during elections by determining who gets nominated to contest for elections in political parties and who wins the subsequent elections in the state. Since 2011, the integrity of our elections has been improving and the implication, at least at the theoretical level, is that free and fair elections dismantle the power of godfathers.
This week, the media is full of stories announcing the end of the reign of the godfather of South-West politics, Bola Tinubu, the ‘Jagaban of the World’ as his supporters call him. This followed the defeat of his candidate in the APC primaries, as well as a second defeat in the Ondo State gubernatorial election. His attempts to get his candidates into governorship seats in Kogi and Edo States had also failed fuelling speculations that his political power is waning. I believe that the power of all godfathers should wane but it might be premature to assume that has already happened to Tinubu. My reflections today are about our troubling history with godfathers in general.
Shortly after the Edo State Gubernatorial election, the former Governor, Adams Oshiomhole, said that he would not interfere with the running of the state by the then Governor-elect, Godwin Obaseki. The speculation then was that even before the November 12th swearing-in, Obaseki was showing his godfather, Oshiomhole, that he would be his own man. It will be recalled that the APC primaries in Edo State were very bitter because Oshiomhole was able to block the victory of his deputy who was assumed to be a stronger candidate and rooted for Obaseki who had a less powerful network and would presumably be more dependent on him. Former Governor Oshiomhole’s claim to fame was that he dismantled the network of Anenih, the previous godfather of Edo politics and took over. We will see how long he is able to control the freshly sworn in Governor Obaseki.
One of the greatest godfathers in Nigerian political history was Dr. Abubakar Olusola Saraki, who first ventured into politics in 1964, contested parliamentary election for Ilorin as an independent candidate, but lost. He went to the grassroots and created a vast network that gave him control of Kwara politics until he was overthrown by his son, Bukola. He made a tradition of picking up unknown minority candidates and making them governor. The first was Adamu Atta the first civilian Governor in Kwara state in 1979. Atta tried to be independent, so in 1983, he anointed Cornelius Adebayo as the new governor. In 1992, it was the turn of Shaaba Lafiaji to be made governor. In 1999, Saraki made Admiral Mohammed Lawal governor. All these godsons disappointed him when they became governor, so he decided to make his personal son, Bukola Saraki governor after switching parties in 2003 and defeating the incumbent. In 2011, Saraki the father directed Saraki the son that his sister Gbemi Saraki would be the next governor. The son said no to father and sister. At the conclusion of the election, Abdulfatah Ahmed, the son’s candidate became governor, ending the reign of the greatest godfather of them all. The godfather, according to legend, could only weep at the humiliation. The moral of the story is that even if you make someone governor, the power remains in the hands of the governor not the godfather.
In Anambra State, former Governor Peter Obi was successful in imposing his godson, Willie Obiano as Governor. It took all of one week after inauguration for the godfather-godson relationship to last before they became bitter enemies. It’s exactly the same situation in Kano State, where former Governor Kwankwaso and the current one, Ganduje are in a bitter fight because the latter declared his UDIG – unilateral declaration of independence – from godfather.
Every governor is almost by definition the godfather of his state. Power is completely embodied and personalised in the person of the governor. It is for this reason that the most shocking fact about governors who know their power while in office would allow themselves believe that they would be able to successfully impose a governor after their tenure that would meekly obey the ex-governor rather than exercise the powers that are now in their hands.
The reality of Nigerian politics is that governors are extremely powerful because they completely dominate all power structures in their states – they are leaders, actually owners of the ruling parties at the state level, the state Houses of Assembly are in their pockets, and they control the state judiciaries. The separation of powers, which works reasonably well at the federal level, is totally non-existent at the state level. Every governor is almost by definition the godfather of his state. Power is completely embodied and personalised in the person of the governor. It is for this reason that the most shocking fact about governors who know their power while in office would allow themselves believe that they would be able to successfully impose a governor after their tenure that would meekly obey the ex-governor rather than exercise the powers that are now in their hands. In 2003, the former Governor of Taraba State, Reverend Jolly Nyame declared: “One thing in politics is that you must believe in Godfatherism… Whether you like it or not, you, godfather will not be a governor, you will not be a president, but you can make a governor, you can make a president” (Sun, August 13, 2003).
The title of the greatest godfather in Nigerian politics is a contested one. Chris Uba, the former acclaimed godfather of Anambra State politics, in a moment of intense self-satisfaction after the 2003 general elections, declared that, “I am the greatest godfather in Nigeria because this is the first time an individual single-handedly put in position every politician in the state” (Punch, August 16, 2003). This effusion of self-satisfaction was supposed to signal the eclipse of Emeka Offor, the other pretender to the throne of godfather in Anambra, who in 1999 had determined the governor of the state and about 60 percent of the state legislature.
The “success” of Chris Uba was indeed legendary. Two quick illustrations can make the point. The first was his success in getting all his godchildren declared winners in the April and May 2003 elections. The proof of his power was not just in getting them declared winners but in even getting the winners declared losers when he had a change of mind. Specifically, in the April 12th Senatorial elections in Anambra State, his candidates, Nicholas Ukachukwu, Ben Obi and Joy Emordi were declared winners by the Independent National Electoral Commission and were issued certificates of return to indicate they had been duly elected. Three days later, he changed his mind and was able to get the Electoral Commission to substitute the three with three new names – Ugochukwu Uba, his brother and a renowned professor of political science, Ukachukwu Abana and Emma Anosike.
My last word is about Senator Jonah Jang who built a brand new “Government House” with two residences, one for the new governor, who he assumed would be his nephew, and the other wing for him as senator from where he would be supervising his godson. The people of Plateau did not like the script and did not vote for the nephew of the godfather.
The second illustration was about his order to the then Governor Chris Ngige to resign from his post and the refusal of the governor to obey, despite an agreement reached at a pagan shrine. Angry at the governor’s decision to breach a contract, Chris Uba organised the abduction and forced resignation of Governor Chris Ngige, using three hundred policemen under an Assistant Inspector General of Police. He got the state House of Assembly to accept the resignation the same day and got the deputy governor to declare himself the new governor. Like all successful godfathers, Chris Uba had gone too far. People were shocked at the travesty of democracy and slowly his empire began to collapse. The governor got his post back and is today our minister of Labour.
From these examples, we can see that godfathers define themselves as men who have the power to substitute themselves for the voting citizenry during elections by determining who gets nominated to contest for elections in political parties and who wins the subsequent elections in the state. Since 2011, the integrity of our elections has been improving and the implication, at least at the theoretical level, is that free and fair elections dismantle the power of godfathers. Nonetheless, party primaries are still heavily manipulated by godfathers and governors, in particular, still insist on imposing successors. That is the next fight in edifying democracy in Nigeria.
I conclude with the recent self-definition of himself by Adams Oshiomhole. He said: “I want to be remembered as a factory worker who worked and laboured as a daily paid worker in the most subordinate post in the textile mill, rising to become leader of the textile union and eventually spending eight years as NLC president, then going back home to confront the most feared and vicious godfathers that monopolised Edo State. I fought godfathers, which is essential to make way for liberal democracy.” And yet, he created his own godson. In addition, on departing from office, he made a very anti-worker gratuity for himself that would cost Edo State, which has not been paying pensions; and pay billions of naira to former governors. My last word is about Senator Jonah Jang who built a brand new “Government House” with two residences, one for the new governor, who he assumed would be his nephew, and the other wing for him as senator from where he would be supervising his godson. The people of Plateau did not like the script and did not vote for the nephew of the godfather. That is the type of political future we must all work for. The defeat of the godfathers.