Is Nigeria a shadow State controlled by criminal gangs and godfathers? It’s a legitimate question to ask when we recall that moment in January 2008 when Senator Nuhu Aliyu, at that time Chair of the Senate Committee on Security and Intelligence, threaten to expose the names of his colleagues who he was investigating for Advanced Fee Fraud (419) when he was Deputy Inspector General of Police in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department. Senate President David Mark immediately threatened him and forced him to withdraw his allegations – (Thisday, 24th January 2018). I was furious that we were denied the chance to know the criminals who were parading themselves as distinguished Senators of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The context of the debate was that several Senators were busy attacking the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for doing their work and the angry Senator and former police boss lost his cool and told Nigerians the true professional status of some of his colleagues.
Nigeria is famous, or rather, notorious for the significant role godfathers play in the country’s politics and political economy. I still remember when Chris Uba, the onetime 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 outside government single-handed put in position every politician in the state.” This effusion of self-satisfaction signalled the eclipse of Emeka’s Effort, the previous pretender to the throne of godfather in Anambra who in 1999 had determined the governor of the state and about 60% of the state legislature. Mr. Uba was able to advance from imposing 60% to 100% meaning he determined who became governor, three senators and members of the Federal and State Assemblies.
The fact that Nigerian godfathers have had the effrontery to define themselves as men, yes, they are almost exclusively male, that have the power to substitute themselves for the voting citizenry is deeply disturbing. During elections, they have been able to determine who gets nominated to contest for elections in political party primaries and who wins the subsequent elections. Godfathers could behave in this manner because they control the levers for the organisation of electoral fraud. Since 2011 however, the integrity of elections has grown and electoral fraud has reduced in a dramatic fashion. This means in principle that the power of the citizen has grown over that of the godfather. Is this the case in practice? I certainly hope so.
Let us not forget however that last year, a professional kidnapper, Chukwudubem Onwuamadike, also known as Evans, was arrested and he confessed that he had extorted over $50 million from his victims with the intention of using the money to context for the seat of governor in his Anambra State. It is useful to recall that the question of Godfatherism in which kingpins of the criminal underworld played a major role in politics first hit the political science literature in relation to pre-war politics in Chicago, the United States. At that time, the heads of criminal gangs sponsored politicians in elections, manipulated the elections to get them elected and in return received protection and contracts from their political godsons. That era has significantly evolved in the United States and must do likewise in Nigeria.
The most legendary of Nigerian godfathers was of course Oloye, Olusola Saraki. He determined four successive governors of Kwara State starting with Adamu Attah (1979 to 1983) to Cornelius Adebayo and later Mohammed Shaba Lafiagi. In 2002, a few months to the general elections of 2003 Olusola Saraki bragged that: “I have made three Executive Governors in Kwara State. The fourth one, Bukola my son, is coming.” The following year, his son Bukola did become governor having defeated the previously anointed godson Lafiagi.
Godfathers were however frustrating for Oloye because he could impose a governor but could not always make them behave as he pleased, which was why he eventually decided to appoint a biological son. His son ended up being his nemesis when in 2011 he decided his son should pass over the mantle of leadership to his daughter Gbemi. The son rejected his sister, the father sought to impose her through another party and the son defeated his godfather father in a battle befitting a Greek tragedy. The father never recovered from the defeat by his godson and biological son.
Saraki the son succeeded in his ambition of becoming the new godfather, imposed the governor and the legislators he wanted, went to Senate, then later became Senate President and worked hard to get the nomination of his party to be the Nigerian President, which would have sealed his fate as greater than his father and therefore the greatest godfather in Nigerian history. It was not to be. He did not get the presidential nomination of the PDP, which he sought for. He settled for Senate hoping he would regain his current position as Senate President. Again, it was not to be. A massive movement emerged in Kwara State known as “O to ge”, meaning “enough is enough” – we have had enough of godfathers. All the candidates he sought to impose as governor, senators and state house of assembly members in Kwara were defeated and routed. Kwara State celebrated what they called the end of the yoke of political subjugation by the Saraki family.
It is too early to make the pronouncement that Nigeria is no longer a shadow State controlled by godfathers. What we can say is that the significant increases to electoral integrity since 2011 has provided citizens an instrument, which in politics is called the franchise, to wrest power from godfathers and seek to be masters of their own political destiny. Citizens are beginning to learn to use the instrument with efficacy and the quality of Nigerian democracy is bound to continue to increase. Godfathers in the country will however not give up, they will continue to devise stratagems to control the political process.
I am referring here to only one type of godfather, the ones that operate from the shadows. The other type of godfathers in Nigeria are the ones with institutional control of the executive branch of government. The president and state governors in Nigeria are extremely powerful and tend to control party machines and thereby significantly control the political process. This type of power is insidious and more difficult to contest. Gladly, Nigerians are undaunted and fighting back. In the 2019 elections, we saw many governors frustrated by citizens as they sought to impose their godsons to succeed them in office. Many could not even get the Senate seats many governors assume to be their birth right immediately they finish their two terms in office. Yes, Nigerians are on the march and now know that godfathers can be fought and defeated. The franchise has long since been granted to citizens by the Constitution but it has taken two decades to learn how to fight to truly own the Constitutional right. The verdict emerging is that Nigerians can end the politics of godfatherism. The struggle continues.