The Game is the Game

-Feyi Fawehinmi

Liverpool lost the league by 2 points from 7 point lead.Manchester City won its 2nd successive Premier League title. But this post is not about politics.

What motivates footballers on the pitch to put in a good performance for their country? If a team does well and fights to come back from 2 goals down in the quarter final to win 3–2, what motivated them to put in such a performance? The easy answer that ‘makes sense’ is to say they love their country and that love pushed them to deliver such a performance.

But not really. Here’s one of the most important things I learned reading The Righteous Mind last year:

In September 1941, William McNeil was drafted into the US Army. He spent several months in basic training, which consisted mostly of marching around the drill field in close formation with a few dozen other men. At first McNeil thought the marching was just a way to pass the time, because his base had no weapons with which to train. But after a few weeks, when his unit began to synchronize well, he began to experience an altered state of consciousness:

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.

McNeil fought in World War II and later became a distinguished historian. His research led him to the conclusion that they key innovation of Greek, Roman, and later European armies was the sort of synchronous drilling and marching the army had forced him to do years before. He hypothesized that the process of “muscular bonding” – moving together in time – was a mechanism that evolved long before he beginning of recorded history for shutting down the self and creating a temporary super organism. Muscular bonding enabled people to forget themselves, trust each other, function as a unit, and then crush less cohesive groups.

If 2 members of that team hate each other’s guts and are not on speaking terms, that kind of issue will trump any love of country. They will sabotage the team’s efforts, knowingly or unknowingly, and the team will never perform to the level its capable of. This explains why team managers put a lot of emphasis on things that help to bond the team together — wearing the same suits, eating meals together, using secluded locations away from the public, getting players to share rooms and generally trying as much as possible to avoid any kind of preferential treatment for individual team members, no matter how talented they might be.

This can help to explain why some teams can perform really well even when their country has treated them abysmally. Getting the team members to bond and be ready to fight for each other is far more important than love of country or any other consideration.

Ok, I lied — this is actually about politics.

Conversations about politics in Nigeria that have been bubbling underneath the surface for 3 or 4 years, usually take on more urgency once the starting gun for the election has been fired. So something that keeps getting discussed a lot is how to change the political system in Nigeria. No reasonable person disagrees that the system needs changing — the question is the ‘how’.

Probably the most common view is that ‘good’ or better people need to get their hands dirty by going into the system and changing it from within. That is, entryism or the long game of infiltration. This solution accepts that the problem is the abandonment of politics to bad people (I’m sure there is an ancient philosopher who said something about that) who naturally do only what they can. Once these better people enter the system, they can form a critical mass and change it from within.

It is not easy to fault this argument — it sounds about right and makes sense. But when you tease out the underlying assumption, you can see the problem with it.

The first major assumption is that the people who are entering the system are part of a team. That is, they will remain committed to the team even when they are having to play somewhere else. Because without this commitment, the strategy makes zero sense. Why will anyone go through the hell and torture of climbing through the ranks of a Nigerian political party and then work to overturn it either by working with other sleeper agents in the system or bringing more agents into the system?

And that’s the problem — the ties are not strong enough, the bonds are too weak from the outside before going inside. As such, they snap very quickly once the person is on the inside. The only way this strategy can work is if there are some strong bonds forged before the people go inside the system. To use one example — consider the Vice-President who is/was a Pastor in RCCG before he got picked as President Buhari’s running mate. No one is counting, but I can name a number of RCCG Pastors who are now in government in various capacities since he got in. Coincidence? I think not.

Or cults. We can never tell how many people are in the system based on their membership or affiliation to one cult or the other day. As another random example — back in 2013 when a vicious fight broke out in the Rivers State House of Assembly, people remarked that they could see and hear some of the lawmakers making cult signs with their hands.

And so what is the point of all this? If you settle on a strategy of sending in good people into the current system, be prepared to lose them to the system once they go in. Whatever ties them to you is not that strong and will break as soon as it comes in contact with the system.

There’s a way for you to know once you have lost them. Listen out for when they start telling you ‘you don’t understand how the system works’. Once you hear that, it’s done.

The best strategy still remains creating an alternative structure that solves for a lot of the problems that have been entrenched in the old order — actual direct democracy to select candidates and not delegate system, clean and easily accessible register of party members, clear system of resolving disputes internally. These three things alone, believe it or not, will go a long way in changing how Nigerian politics works.

But doing this is such bloody hard work that I honestly don’t blame anyone for not trying it.

– Feyi Fawehinmi is an accountant and social commentator.

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