VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
Every African must have seen a free-range hen, its numerous chicks in tow, moving about the yard scrounging for bits of food. The chicks soon learn the trick of digging through the dirt and grass in search of grain, insects or other pieces of food. As soon as one chick digs up something, it will grab it and run because the other chicks will run after it, trying to snatch the morsel for themselves. In exasperation the chick sat down and said, “It is not finding [the bounties of] the world that is difficult. It is where to sit down and eat it.”
Thousands of Nigerians who were elected to various executive and legislative positions in the recently concluded 2023 elections are about to come to the same conclusion. For many years, as a man strove towards his goal of getting elected to a federal or state legislative house or to a juicy executive position, he smiled and waved at everyone he met, shook every hand he found, attended every wedding and birthday party, every turbanning ceremony and every class reunion, went and condoled with every bereaved family, visited every cleric, donated to every worship center and pretended to shed tears at every disaster site.
I said “a man” who strove for positions. Many women, too, strove towards the same end but the slope was much steeper in their own case, due to deep-seated socio-cultural obstacles. I read a report recently saying 96% of all the women who contested the last elections lost. It was selective statistics. If you count the number of men who went for the same positions, right from the party primaries to the general elections, under 18 registered political parties, the percentage of those who lost is at least 96%. To give one example, 17 out of the 18 people who contested the presidential election did not win, i.e., 94.4%. If you add all the people that contested the party presidential primaries, you will probably arrive at a figure of 99% who lost out.
Today, I am concerned about only those who won. Majority of them are still looking over their shoulders at the tribunals and courts. Going to court is a must for a Nigerian election loser, otherwise his or her supporters will be disappointed, believe that he is not a serious politician, accuse him of selling out to his opponents and leaving his supporters out in the cold, and no one will listen to him again if he comes out to contest next time. If he goes to court however, no matter how frivolous his reasons are, it will keep his supporters’ hopes alive for some weeks, build up more enmity between his supporters and those of his opponent, and make it much harder at the end of the day for his supporters to defect to his victorious opponent’s camp.
Election litigation is a costly business in Nigeria. For lawyers, it is the equivalent of the hajj and umrah season for Meccan hotel owners. Legal big guns, the SANs, demand to be briefed in the tens or hundreds of millions to handle a major election case. Those going to court for lesser offices have to make do with smaller lawyers who cost only a few millions. Having a SAN or, in some cases, a basketful of SANs to handle your election case is more than a matter of legal knowledge. It is the equivalent of having a foreign coach to take your team to the World Cup. A star White coach, especially one with a glorious career football record of his own, intimidates referees by going up and down the sidelines of the pitch during a match. If necessary, he pretends to be absent-minded and steps onto the pitch, as Clement Westerhof did during our losing 1994 World Cup Second Round match against Italy, forcing the referee to stop the match while he chased Westerhof out, when the coach’s actual intention was to stop a dangerous Italian attack towards our goal post and give the Golden Eagles defence time to regroup.
Politicians will tell you that election litigation is sometimes more expensive than the election campaign. A governor once told me a story about what transpired when his election opponent came to him and said he had decided not to go to court. He welcomed the idea, the governor said, and told the man, “If you go to court, lawyers will eat your money and also eat my money. I have set aside a large sum of money in anticipation of your election petition. If you decide not to file the case, I will divide the money into two and give you half of it.” The deal however fell through when, on the last permissible date, the opponent filed his case at the election tribunal. Why? I think it had to do with lack of trust. While the governor did not want to give his opponent the money before the election petition deadline in case he pockets it and still files the suit, the opponent was not sure that the governor will pay him the money once the deadline for filing election cases lapses.
Election cases are costly not just because of the lawyers. Some lawyers also whisper into your ears that you must budget millions for the judges. Now, no judge in his right mind will demand or accept a bribe directly from a litigant, so you must channel it through the lawyers who claim to be classmates or friends of the judges. Whether the money actually goes to the judges, you may never know for sure. If in the end you win the case, you will not ask any questions. Trouble usually starts when a litigant or defendant pays millions and still loses the case.
Magic however happens at the tribunals and courts, which is why politicians cannot ignore that option. A man who did not contest the general election was declared the winner [Amaechi, 2007]. A man who came fourth in the election was declared the winner [Uzodinma, 2020]. A man who was roundly defeated in the election was declared winner when his opponent party’s entire slate of candidates was disqualified [Matawalle, 2019]. And a man who lost the general election in Bayelsa State, Douye Diri, was brought back in 2020 and installed as winner when his victorious opponent’s running mate was disqualified because of faulty documents.
After an election winner survives the party primaries, the general election and the courts, he must then reckon with his family members. A wealthy Northern Nigerian once told me that his extended family members accosted him, told him that the wealth in his hands was actually sent by God to the entire family, so he had no right to eat it alone with his inner family. Your distant relatives could go round telling everyone that they are still dirt poor even though their relative is there enjoying himself in the House of Representatives, even sending his wives to Dubai for shopping when his relatives cannot afford rice for dinner.
Wives and children also have gradually escalating demands when the family head wins an election. From a Nigerian private university, children now want to go to a foreign one. A wife who goes to Dubai to shop now wants to go to Switzerland, Singapore or Hong Kong. Family members who spend their holidays in the village have now read about Seychelles and Bahamas.
Then there is the party. Nigerian political parties impose levies on their members holding elective and appointive posts “in order to run the party,” euphemism for lining up the pockets of party officials. This is apart from the stiff “indication of interest” and “nomination” fees that you paid during the primaries. Candidates, not parties, also shouldered the cost of election logistics, paying election agents, printing posters and billboards. Every now and then, the party will also demand a donation to finance one activity or another.
After the party comes the party members, whose refrain is, “Are we not the ones who put him there? We were sleeping together with him in the bush. We left our families, mosquitoes were biting us every night, we fended off attacks from rival party thugs. But look at him now, collecting huge salaries and allowances but forgetting us. Leave him, he will come back to us after four years!” A local government chairman once told me that when he opens his gate at 6am, dozens of people are already waiting. They come in one by one and complain about rent, medical bills, food, school fees, financing a wedding or a funeral, etc.
The opponents you defeated at the polls will never let you rest. They spread stories, most of them mere rumours, in order to paint you black in the eyes of constituents. Some elders and statesmen counsel an election winner “to try to carry everyone along” in order to blunt this kind of criticism. I once suggested this course of action to a victorious politician and he said, “The person who is himself indebted, how can he extend credit? You are indebted to the people who supported you to get to the position. No matter how hard you try, you cannot repay that debt. So, what resources have you got left to extend credit to your losing opponents? In any case, those who supported you to win the election are the majority. As long as you can hold on to them, you don’t need the others.”