Thai Rice and Nigerian Politics — Adewale Maja-Pearce/The New York Times


LAGOS, Nigeria — In Nigeria, as elsewhere, the will of the people is fickle. The recent gubernatorial race in Ekiti State is a case in point.

On one side was the incumbent, Kayode Fayemi, who was seeking a second, four-year term. Even the opposition agreed that he was a fine gentleman, an intellectual with a doctorate in social science from King’s College London, and solid credentials as a pro-democracy activist during the dark years of military rule. Moreover, he had already proved to be an able, conscientious administrator. He built roads, saw that pensioners received their due, and had begun cleaning up corruption and incompetence in the public school system.

His rival was Ayo Fayose, a former governor suspected by human rights advocates of having political opponents killed, who is facing court hearings this month on corruption charges stemming from his first term, which ended abruptly a year early in 2006 when he was impeached and forced to flee the country. Although Mr. Fayose had fallen from favor with the leaders of his People’s Democratic Party, including President Olusegun Obasanjo, he was able to return to the fold in 2007 after Mr. Obasanjo left office.

Mr. Fayose is a proven vote-getter, so it was no surprise that the People’s Democratic Party chose him to challenge Mr. Fayemi in the election on June 21. After all, the old party bosses — known as “godfathers” in Nigeria — are willing to embrace certain political truths many of us are loath to acknowledge. Responsible leadership is all very well, but it doesn’t always win out over those who know how to play the politics of hunger, especially in a poor place like Ekiti. Thus, the godfathers were willing to bet that their sometime fugitive would beat the squeaky-clean Ph.D. hands down.

Still, they were taking no chances, for they had been burned before in Ekiti State. After Mr. Fayose’s 2006 impeachment, the P.D.P. had pulled out all the stops to ensure that its candidate, Segun Oni, would defeat the newcomer, Mr. Fayemi, in the 2007 election. So they sent in senators and other party heavyweights — including the usual thugs paid to terrorize voters — and Mr. Oni won. But Mr. Fayemi challenged the validity of the election in the courts, won a three-year legal battle, and finally took up residence in the governor’s house in 2010.

With national elections approaching in 2015, several opposition parties have allied to form the All Progressives Congress in the hope of defeating President Goodluck Jonathan and the governing People’s Democratic Party next February. The election in Ekiti on June 21 was to be the first test of its popularity in a state it already controlled.

Once again, the P.D.P. left nothing to chance. Both the national ministers of defense and police affairs flooded the state with truckloads of soldiers and national police who came to “aid” local security forces. Many people testified to witnessing outright harassment and intimidation of Mr. Fayemi’s supporters.

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Nevertheless, election observers — including representatives from the United States and the European Union — declared that the voting had been reasonably free and fair. Mr. Fayose won by a wide margin — 200,000 votes to Mr. Fayemi’s 120,000 — in a high turnout of eligible voters. When the results were announced, many observers in Ado-Ekiti, the state capital, noted the jubilation in the streets. Even Mr. Fayemi, in keeping with his graceful disposition, was quick to congratulate his “brother,” who is set to take his place on Oct. 15.

So where, exactly, did Kayode Fayemi go wrong?

The first problem was Mr. Fayemi himself. He may be an exemplary governor, but he is no man of the people. Like most states in Nigeria, Ekiti is predominantly rural, populated by farmers far removed from Government House discussions about the importance of education, infrastructure and economic development in the age of globalization. As governor, Mr. Fayemi never hesitated to grant newspaper interviews, had a massive following on Twitter and was widely liked on Facebook. But, in the words of Jibrin Ibrahim of the Center for Democracy and Development, “most of the farmers and teachers in Ekiti State are not on Twitter or Facebook and do not read newspapers.”

Mr. Fayose, by contrast, has the common touch. He knows how to milk media coverage, whether it be by escorting elderly people to the bank to open an account, or by stopping his convoy at a roadside bar to buy drinks all around. “We love his simplicity, we love his style,” one constituent wrote in The Nigerian Tribune. “He dined with us, we saw him on our streets in his shirts and shorts and could ask him for a handshake which he gladly obliged.”

It is difficult to convince uneducated, undernourished farmers that big projects like constructing roads will benefit them in the long term by making it easier to get their produce to the market. While Mr. Fayemi tried to do so, Mr. Fayose hit the campaign trail armed with huge quantities of Thai rice (several years past the recommended consumption date, according to news reports), handing bags out to hungry voters.

The tactic, hugely successful, points to the challenge that faces all “developing” countries: how to negotiate a compromise between the immediate demands of an impoverished, mostly illiterate populace, and the urgent need for capital projects that will lift them out of poverty. Hungry people will always be susceptible to immediate inducements of the kind offered by politicians like Mr. Fayose.

This after all is politics, and the first duty of a politician is to win. If the able Mr. Fayemi had had the common sense to make a show of channeling more state resources to the local level, he would not have enabled the triumph of a so-called friend of the people, who will continue to pursue his own interests. Sadly, Ekiti State is now destined for another four years of underdevelopment under the guidance of the people’s choice.


Adewale Maja-Pearce, a Contributing Op-Ed Writer for The New York Times,  is a writer and critic, and the author of “Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Other Essays.”


TUESDAY, JULY 8, 2014.  7:55 p.m. [GMT]



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2 Comments on “Thai Rice and Nigerian Politics — Adewale Maja-Pearce/The New York Times”

  1. Deleola Daramola Says:

    It is easy to react cognitively and logically to the Ekiti election without critically appraising the fundamental realities. It would be an insult on the people of Ekiti whose gallantry, demonstrated the will of the people, which by so doing, showcased democracy at its best!

    It is annoying the more when people who are supposed to know imply that the election was rigged! What is rigging? That there was no election? That the result was manipulated? That voters were not allowed to vote? Nothing of such! Fayemi is an activist; he’s expected to have nose for ‘cheating’ and subsequent zero tolerance for such. He was the first to ‘Officially’ congratulate Fayose! He lost in his ward and local government; Isan Ekiti! APC lost in all 12 local Governments of the State. At the University of Ado Ekiti, all the community of students, lecturers and non-academic staff did not vote for one of their own, a Phd holder! What does that say about Fayemi? Wherefore is the rigging?

    Ekiti election was a total rejection of Fayemi, his style and the Lords pulling the strings of direction and leadership. He was disconnected from the people and the reality. The same thing is happening in Lagos, Osun. The same system that emerged these governors as the candidates in APC before they were presented for general election was ‘selection’. Because they were ‘the chosen and annointed’, they tend to believe they are the best. They stir all kinds of anti-people ’reforms’.
    Truly, investing in people is far better than ‘flower round-abouts’ infrastructures …

    World’s emerging economy grows their people first, then the people will grow infrastructures. That’s the natural and logical way and not the other way round. Investing in people is making education affordable to all. It is providing jobs. It is encouraging people to be useful to themselves and the society by laying the entrepreneurial platforms for potential and willing individuals. It is not building shopping malls that are expensive more than the reach of the voters. It is not braggadocio and arrant arrogance of ‘I know-better-than-you-all” by insulting a race up to their Obas or thinking that the wisdom to rule rests only on you.

    It will be foolhardiness to assume that the Ekitis, known throughout Nigeria as perhaps more homes/per capita with Ph.D holders than others have suddenly become stupid and oblivious of Fayose’s flaws and alleged corruption. It will as well be insulting to imply that over 200,000 voters for Fayose over the 120,000 of Fayemi all got rice and money.

    I believe that between Satan and the Devil on 21st of June, 2014, the very smart and discerning Ekiti people chose the devil in Fayose! It is sad for Nigeria but as things are right now, we will keep getting this kind of electoral results until something radically different happens.

    Fayth Deleola Daramola



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