Saturday, August 23, 2014

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Nigerian Elections: Personality Politics

Lagosians’ love of incumbent “action governor” Babatunde Fashola is not matched by equal warmth to his party’s presidential candidate, Nuhu Ribadu.
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The popularity of Goodluck Jonathan and Babatunde Fashola in Lagos is due to their personalities, not parties. Picture by Mark Dearn.

Lagos, Nigeria:

To the outsider, Lagos is the emblematic “Third World” city, a seething metropolis beset by traffic jams, smog and the squalor of urban poverty. Yet to many Lagosians this image is one that is changing, in large part due to the leadership of reformist incumbent governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola.

After four years in office, it is hard to find Lagosians who do not want the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) candidate to win re-election this month. But the same cannot be said of Fashola’s fellow Lagosian, ACN presidential candidate Nuhu Ribadu - who was born in Lagos, but hails from Adamawa State - firmly underscoring the marked tendency to pick individuals over parties in Nigeria.

Joseph, 25, works on Victoria Island, an area distinct from the mainland and home to the wealthy, high-end hotels and expatriates. “Fashola has done a lot, he is a good man,” he says. “He is trying to build bridges and make the roads look nicer.” His sentiments about the man who has become known as the “action governor” are echoed around the city, with Lagosians pointing to Fashola’s efforts – in part a continuity of the efforts made by his predecessor - to tackle Lagos’ traffic problems, clean up the environment and deal with power shortages.

“Action governor”

The amalgamation of fumes from the cars, buses, tuk-tuks and dilapidated lorries that are found all cross Lagos is hard to miss. Smog reached such high levels in 2005 that schools across the city of more than 13 million were shut. Massed shanty towns are still found in the city, with people eking out an income whatever way they can. Some scavenge on the immense Olusosun dump site to the north of the city, many fish, while there are also those who favour the illegal practice of selling their wares - ranging from snacks to SIM cards - to motorists stuck in the daily traffic bottlenecks that epitomise the infrastructure-light city.

Critical to raising the living standards of this massed urban poor will be the job creation that is essential for Nigeria to capitalise on the “demographic dividend” it has been bequeathed by a rapidly expanding population. The Nigerian population is set to expand to around 290 million by 2050, with Lagos’ population growth to make it the world’s third largest city by 2015, with a population of 38 million by 2050.

While high-end developments often do little for the urban poor whose life alongside the conspicuous consumers populating central business districts is a characteristic of the ‘global city’, Fashola will hope an ambitious project to reclaim land from the Atlantic will spur a sustainable economic growth which will ‘trickle down’ to the urban poor, largely sidelined until now by the Nigerian state.

Eko Atlantic City is an ambitious project to reclaim some 820 hectares of land from the Atlantic while at the same time providing a buffer against coastal erosion which can claim ten metres of land in a year. The new city will complement Victoria Island, becoming home to 250,000 people and helping “establish Lagos as the financial capital of Africa” while acting as a growth hub for the country and region.

The development is international, with Chinese contractors leading the dredging and landfill operations, and Danish experts drafted in to build a state-of-the-art sea defence system. The island will also feature it own power generating system to combat Lagos’ infamous power cuts.

Although many are aware of the new city emerging from the sea , Fashola has undoubtedly won followers with his efforts to clean the city’s image and tackle power generation. He has made an election season promise that by May landmark buildings and 24 streets in Lagos Island will have a 24-hour supply of electricity from a state-run power project delivering ten megawatts to the city, while under the Special Education Intervention Programme, 507 graduates have been brought in to help state school students sitting the Senior School Certificate Examination and the West African Senior School Certificate Examination.

Popularity gap

The difference in popularity in Lagos between Fashola and Ribadu is indicative of a political system in which parties lack ideological glue and personality politics predominates. Emblematic of this is the frequency with which parties are reformed and repackaged, and the manner in which politicians flit between them: only yesterday - Monday - Abdulbaqee Yemisi Coker, the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) candidate for the House of Representatives in Lagos Island Federal Constituency, defected to the ACN, which he quit to join the ANPP in August last year.

Although the ACN claims the way Fashola is changing Lagos is the way the ACN will change Nigeria, Fashola’s stablemate Ribadu does not enjoy the same adulation in his home city. While Ribadu is almost certain to score votes in the party's core south-west region that could potentially threaten Jonathan and the PDP, he struggled to be heard at a Lagos rally where the crowd clamoured for Fashola.

Critical to Ribadu’s ascendancy to the ACN nomination was the role of the predecessor to Fashola as Lagos governor, prominent Yoruba, Bola Tinubu. Tinubu, still respected in Lagos for the reforms he initiated and his staunch opposition to the PDP federal government of Olusegan Obasanjo, played a key role in the formation of the ACN, a coalition formed in 2006 to take on the hegemonic PDP.

However, Ribadu was reported to have listed Tinubu as one of 23 governors who was under investigation for corruption charges in 2006. In Ribadu’s mass purge of state governors as the then crusading head of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission - which led to his eventual fleeing the country - Tinubu was alleged to have committed financial crimes with an “international dimension”.  Ribadu now says he never called Tinubu corrupt, while, for his part, Tinubu says Ribadu was pushed to pursue his prosecution by Obasanjo.

Personality politics

Ribadu none the less faces a tough task to beat Jonathan in Lagos. Jonathan evokes trust from large swathes of the population who align with him on the basis of his personality, rather than – and in some cases in spite of – his party.

Ahmed, a street vendor, says his allegiance is to Jonathan.

“I am fed up with the PDP, but I like Jonathan,” he says. “It is about the person, not the party. Jonathan is a pure politician. We in Nigeria have had enough of rulers attached to the military.”

Kareem, a driver from the mainland, argues in a refrain repeated around Lagos that Jonathan is destined to continue doing a good job.

“Jonathan is a good man,” he says. “And look at his name. He’s been deputy governor and governor, deputy president and president, and not even elected.”

Of the many people keen to talk politics in Lagos, all express an opinion about who they want to win and many say the postponements - which have led Independent National Electoral Commission chief Attahiru Jega to offer his resignation – are embarrassing, if not unexpected. But, whether for or against Jonathan, few seem either concerned or sanguine about the prospect of clean polls.

“Jonathan is a good man, a nice man,” says Joseph. “Some want Buhari, but he is not going to win. He cannot win. Jonathan will win.”

However, Joseph laughs off the suggestion that elections will be as clean as Jonathan has promised.

“There will be problems. It is Nigeria - there is always a problem with politics.”

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