Political godfathers have been holding power for decades in Nigeria. But as Nigerian society changes, its politics are bound to follow suit

Nigeria will head to the ballot boxes on February 23 to elect a new president.

The main opposition People’s Democratic Party candidate, Atiku Abubakar, will aim to prevent the incumbent All Progressive Congress (APC) candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, from securing a second term in office.

In the 2015 elections, Buhari presented himself as hope for a country that was reeling from deadly Boko Haram attacks and widespread corruption. Despite his old age - he was 73 at the time - he was seen as the anti-corruption warrior who will bring change for the country’s young masses.

However, after four years of Buhari’s rule, Nigeria is far from what he promised in 2015.

The World Poverty Clock’s 2018 report shows that Nigeria overtook India as the country with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty, despite India having a population seven times larger than Nigeria’s.

Nigeria’s most recent unemployment rate stands at 23.1 percent, and Buhari’s first term has been marred by a devastating recession since 2017.

Although Buhari became well-known for his anti-corruption rhetoric during his 2015 election campaign, there has not been any significant conviction of high-level government officials in his first term.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari arrives to attend a visit and a dinner at the Orsay Museum on the eve of the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of the First World War, in Paris, France on November 10, 2018.
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari arrives to attend a visit and a dinner at the Orsay Museum on the eve of the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of the First World War, in Paris, France on November 10, 2018. (Reuters)

Additionally, the country ranks 144th among 188 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption report. It is against these odds that Buhari aims to convince Nigeria’s young masses to elect him for a second term.

Youth pushes for more inclusion and reforms

This year’s election will be the first involving voters who did not live under the military rule that ended in 1999.

With the rapid growth of the youth population and extensive use of the internet, Nigerian society is changing at a lightning pace.

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in the Nigerian capital Abuja, believes that the young Nigerians' votes will significantly shape the election. 

Hassan told TRT World that, "the votes of the youth will, in fact, determine the results of the election. 51 percent of the total electorates are young people and this number will go a long way to have an electoral impact".

As 60 percent of the nearly 190 million Nigerians are under the age of 30, the pressure is building for the political establishment to form structural changes in Nigerian politics.

 Hassan said: "Beyond pushing for accountability, the Nigerian youth has the role of seeking to participate in government, politics and in policy formulation and be the social actors of change and progress they desire".

As Hasan mentioned the youth's push for more change, grassroots movements have already succeeded in lowering the minimum age for political office, and most of the candidates running for the country's top job are in their 40s and 50s.

Patronage and corruption

Patronage and corruption in Nigeria are based on complex socio-economic factors.

One major factor is the tradition of gift-giving to those in power and the expectation that power-holders in public offices would distribute state funds to their followers or constitutes. The traditional practice, instead of being swept away, was developed by the British colonialism. It has existed in post-colonial Nigeria due to a lack of political institutionalisation. As such, the patronage-client networks between politicians and businessman have spread to all the corners of the Nigerian state.

The patronage system specifically, has extensively expanded to the oil industry as Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and the sixth largest in the world.

The most famous scandal is the case of Diezani Alison-Madueke, the former minister of petroleum from 2010 to 2015.

Alison-Madueke has been accused of multiple allegations of corruption and bribery. According to the United States Department of Justice lawsuit, Nigerian businessmen Kola Aluko and Jide Omokore, received very lucrative oil contracts from Nigeria’s state oil company while Alison-Madueke was the minister. In exchange, she was gifted with millions of dollars. While the US lawsuit seeks to reclaim assets worth $144 million — including a $50 million luxury condo apartment in New York and an $80 million yacht — the multiple lawsuits in London and Abuja are taking place with nearly $200 million involved.


But Alison-Madueke’s case is just the tip of the iceberg.  “It has been estimated that close to $400 billion was stolen from Nigeria’s public accounts from 1960 to 1999,” a Chatham House 2017 report shows.

Political Patronage in Nigeria: Ogas (Big Men)

However, although young people are becoming increasingly important, there has been a long pattern of patronage in Nigerian politics that is dominated by powerful elders.

Hassan said, the former generals "have been a significant part" of Nigerian politics and they also maintain "their part in this 2019 elections". 

Prominent politicians, who were mostly army generals and took part in army coups in the past, have long played a political chess game to pursue their interests as the country transitioned into a multi-party system in 1999 after 33 years of military rule and weak democratic experiences.

Olusegun Obasanjo, who headed a military government from 1976 to 1979, ironically became the first president in the post-military rule era in 1999. Atiku Abubakar, the opposition candidate in the upcoming elections, was Obasanjo’s vice president until 2007 and is deeply entrenched in the old patronage networks that a lot of the younger candidates may not have access too.

Abubakar, a wealthy businessman, and former army general Obasanjo have been praised for liberalising the economy, but their administration also faced serious allegations of corruption.

Atiku Abubakar
Atiku Abubakar (AP)

After eight years of leading the country together, Obasanjo and Abubakar fell out in 2006 and Abubakar’s departure from PDP started his long journey through different parties to pursue his lifelong ambition of becoming president of Nigeria.

In 2013, Abubakar joined the newly-created APC party to be the face of the opposition in the election, but he lost to Buhari. Even though he supported Buhari to end the PDP’s long-standing 16-year rule, the two veteran politicians separated shortly after that.

On the other hand, Obasanjo - who had bitter relations with Abubakar - publicly supported Buhari in his presidential campaign in 2015. However, it now seems that he has withdrawn his support for Buhari, endorsing Abubakar, who he once called untrusted and corrupt, as his candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.

Hassan believes, "this coming election could be the first time that the generals will be defeated". 

In Nigeria, the old generals don’t fade away. They become powerful political godfathers in the corridors of power. But the 2019 presidential election, contested by 76-year-old Buhari and 72-year-old Abubakar, could be the last election for the old political elite.

Source: TRT World