NigeriansTalk started a new feature in June where we feature monthly guest posts from non-Nigerians who follow Nigerian politics and cultural happenings. We hope this will liven up the site by giving you an outside-the-country point-of-view on Nigeria, and hopefully make you see respective issues in a different light.
This month, Krystal Strong, PhD candidate at University of California, Berkley, writes about an election of the National Association of Nigerian Students that she witnessed.
The Godfather is what I am:
7:30 am. Sunday. Expressway.
His phone rang. Another update from the field. After a few moments of listening, he truncated the audibly frantic report. “Ma worry,” he pleaded, with the impatient assurance of a father trying to convince his child that there’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark. “Within two hours of my landing, every equation will change by God’s grace.”
It was obvious that the caller was First Timer, a student who’d campaigned for him during the general elections, and whose ambitions he was now supporting at the National Convention of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). First Timer had been in Yenagoa for three days and, so far, it was unclear when or if the election would hold. When I spoke to First Timer the previous night, he described the Convention ground as tense and disorderly. Violence seemed imminent and there were reports of three cultists being killed.
He cut the phone and turned towards me. Then, after a pause, he stated, “This will be good for your report.” As if pondering how I would write about him, he asked, “The Godfather….is that what I am?” Without waiting for a response, he added, “Well, it’s a progressive role,” in acknowledgement (and defense) of the niche he’d created for himself within the movement.
I’d interviewed The Godfather weeks prior. His name was well-known among student leaders and with good reason: he was a former union and National NANS president, he won a state office in the 2011 elections, and he was credited with delivering the student vote to the new Governor. It was then that he invited me to the Convention. It’d be good for my work, he promised, because NANS illustrates how debased student politics has become. This was a familiar critique. The prevailing opinion about NANS was that “comrades” were often cultists, non-students, and money-seekers.
This is how you do politics:
1:30 pm. Sunday. Port Harcourt.
As soon as the flight landed, The Godfather phoned the Governor to inform him that he was en route to Bayelsa. When he called Barracks Man next to know his location, I was shocked that they were even on speaking terms. Days before, the respective allies of Barracks Man and The Godfather almost came to blows in the Governor’s presence, in an embarrassing spectacle, in which one side carried canes to beat the other, and the Governor had to literally beg both camps to behave decorously. The episode was the most public expression of the fractionalization of the state NANS, which had engendered two students claiming to be state Chairman.
Noting my confusion, The Godfather clarified that the factions had reconciled, by necessity, to deliver four positions to their zone. “This is how you do politics: bringing enemies to your side. Also, money,” he explained. Still, The Godfather seemed all too aware of how the state fractionalization might subvert his national objectives. On the phone again, he outlined his plan for consolidation: he would call a zonal meeting to coordinate the scattered interests and sentiments. “There’s no money, but with my little money, I will empower them quietly so that we all work together.”
I asked him, then, why he was going through such pains on First Timer’s behalf. “I don’t need him for anything,” he pronounced emphatically. “He worked for me, he believed in my vision, and he added value to it, so I want to support his ambitions. He will learn leadership and get exposure.” As if to assure me that his role was not imposed, he added, “People need me around. You will see how people come around me. I used to be at the helm of most of these affairs, organizing things, getting money for them: 5, even 10 million. But, I had to move up.”
Enjoying the network:
5:00pm. Sunday. Yenagoa.
Upon entering Yenagoa, we rendezvoused with a former NANS president from The Godfather’s zone at a local eatery. They discussed making arrangements for “stakeholders meetings” with the various zones. The Godfather called a former NANS executive, one of his “products,” to fly down from Abuja to ensure that the Southeast region voted in his favor. He said we’d soon meet with his “political son,” who would help him ally with the Northern bloc to produce the Presidential candidate from their zone and First Timer as the National VP. Another veteran was traveling from Delta State to deliver the South-South vote and to double as his personal security. Personal Security, let’s call him, was The Godfather’s most trusted companion during conventions ever since he saved his life some years back when an assassination was attempted.
As I listened to the permutations at work in the electioneering process, I was astonished by the disproportionate power “the stakeholder” wields. Before entering the convention ground, The Godfather had already engineered the outcome of the process to the point of being able to stall and fast-track the pace at his discretion. Without having to present First Timer to defend his qualifications, The Godfather’s influence was all that was required and expected. The Godfather appeared publicly among students, only after the bulk of this strategy was put into motion. First Timer visibly exhaled when he saw The Godfather, who took him aside to explain the plans on ground. “Don’t worry,” The Godfather repeated to him. “You are now enjoying the network.”
NANS elections can’t go smoothly:
11 am. Monday. Yenagoa.
Throughout the early morning, I heard muffled chatter from The Godfather’s room next door. Wearing the same clothes from the previous evening, he summoned me to join him in a meeting of the Northern Senators, most of whom looked entirely too old to be students. Among them were First Timer and the candidate The Godfather was supporting for the presidency. He nonchalantly explained that I was doing research on student politics, and returned to convincing them to work with him to deliver the Presidency and Vice Presidency. “Come, I will be leaving this place soon, and you can’t all have what you want,” he insisted. “My zone is going for 4 posts and that is what I’m expecting you to do. If you have the Presidency, you can’t also have the Senate Presidency. Take Ex-Officio, take Financial Secretary, take one other.” Their negotiation finished, The Godfather instructed me to take a picture of us all together. “The winning Presidential and Vice Presidential ticket,” he prophesied.
For security purposes, The Godfather and Personal Security were adamant about us quickly rounding up the meetings then “getting the fuck out of Bayelsa” long before the elections started. They knew The Godfather was a target and, if their plan worked, violence would break out. The night before, two union buses were sprayed with bullets and, elsewhere, The Godfather narrowly missed being struck by gunfire. The Godfather and Personal Security agreed that “the election can never go smoothly.” As soon as the President emerged, a gun battle would ensue among rivals. Normally, The Godfather, a self-proclaimed “warrior,” said he could handle a battle, but he hadn’t prepared and given his current office, it wouldn’t speak well of him to shoot at students.
He opted, instead, to “empower” his way to victory. As we alighted from the car at the Convention ground, The Godfather held out a black nylon with wads of crisp Naira notes for me to put in my purse. (Just as there’s no way to refuse “transport fare,” there’s no real diplomatic way to refuse carrying it). The Godfather was immediately recognized by person after person and, in no time, a crowd of 50 men surrounded the car. Though The Godfather appeared calm in the midst of the multitude, I clutched my bag compulsively and prepared for the worst. Personal Security explained that they were fighting over N200,000 from The Godfather, as he ushered me into the back seat. The Godfather joined us and instructed the driver to move up the road away from the crowd so the money could be shared securely. “Count out 20,000,” he instructed me, then asked for one of the bundles of N50,000. He gave another N100,000 to Personal Security, which he stuffed in his pants, to share to the Southeast and South-South stakeholders. And just like that, with the money shared, we were off.
The Godfather laid his head back on the headrest and sighed. “We have tidied up quietly. We have tried our best. Can you imagine I spent almost N700,000 on that ground? He will win,” he assured himself.
That is politics for you:
6 am. Tuesday. Expressway.
I woke up suddenly, to the sound of lamentations. “He won’t win. There’s no way. I’m so annoyed. I wanted the Presidency. I wanted the Vice Presidency. The two are important to me,” The Godfather ranted. I gathered that First Timer had lost. Just minutes before, we left Lagos by road before dawn. The election started late the previous night and by the time I dozed off, the only progress was that his candidate had emerged as President. His grief metamorphosing into revenge, The Godfather threatened all parties involved, known and unknown, “Let them come to my state and say they want to see my Governor. They will know me. All my plans for them? The executive accounts, the NGOs, the international connections? Cancelled.”
The zonal reconciliation had failed. Beyond that, the candidate he’d helped emerge as President sacrificed his alliance with The Godfather, having already secured his victory, in favor of one of his competitors for the Presidency. Apparently, the new President’s desire to avoid a factional government forming was stronger than his loyalty to The Godfather. “My traditional friends abandoned me because I’m not there. They’re not good people,” he explained. “If I believed in factions, I would just misinform my governor, they would give First Timer a car, announce it to the press, and he would be acting as National VP. But that is what’s dividing NANS presently.”
I considered the money, time, and energy invested in the expected outcome and asked The Godfather what was next. Before he could respond, the phone rang. “They stopped the election because they know I’m aggrieved,” he later explained. “It looks like in the by-election, they will arrange for First Timer to have a post. Maybe the External Vice President.” “So, what does that mean,” I asked him? With a smirk, he said “I will forgive them, of course. That is politics for you.”