A tale of two elections
The saying that “Man is a political animal” had impinged on my mind with a measure of intensity in the summer of 1984 when, as a graduate student at the University of Detroit, (UD), USA, I found myself prodded to run for the office of the secretary to the International Students Association. I had arrived at that state of mental animation in a random manner. UD is a Catholic university of which a majority of its academic and administrative staff, including the then president, was white Jesuit priest. Blacks were a minority while Africans were a mere handful. The school had an impressive on-campus students housing of varying gradations, but there were only five Nigerian resident students on campus, of which I was one. During tutorial hours one ran into fellow Africans in classes, the cafeteria, coffee shops, bookshops, the library, etc., but after those hours and at weekends, the university was virtually devoid of Africans. Even the few African residents were rarely seen at weekends, yet the university has a bustling life outside the classrooms.
After a time it occurred to me that the African students were strictly interested in acquiring the technical knowledge, which UD had on offer; therefore their affiliations with the university did not go beyond their respective faculties. The African students seemingly didn’t see themselves as part of the university community; that realization had reminded me of a common saying back in Nigeria that most “been-tos,” though very successful in other respects, however failed to assimilate the beneficial aspects of their former hosts’ culture. It was at that realization that I felt myself being prodded in a certain direction. When I had first confided the idea in one or so fellow African students with whom I had made acquaintance, I was pointedly told to steer clear of the “crazy idea.” Africans have never featured in the university political equation, because the international students’ community was predominately wealthy Saudi Arabians and Asians. These held sway in the affairs of international students, I was dutifully informed. The sitting president of international students was a Saudi Arabian whose father was said to have made his fortune in Nigeria, where the family resided. That piece of information further opened my eyes to how Africans shortchange themselves through feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. My eventual decision to contest for and win the position of secretary to UD International Students Association was a symbolic gesture to psychologically break that unhealthy trend, at least in the minds of my fellow Africans at UD.
Therefore, under the impetus of “no man can ride on your back unless it is bent,” I composed my electioneering pamphlet; had it typed; made copies and distributed it across the university community. I followed it up by engaging fellow international students individually and in small groups. Before long other students who felt persuaded by my message went on the campaign trail on my behalf. I am glad to report that all the endeavours paid good dividends in the end. The day the election results were declared, Nigerian students descended on my apartment; typically, the air was rent with “Ol boy, na wa o!” “But na how u do am?” Needless to say that my electoral victory opened a new vista for Africans at UD.
About two decades after, a former secondary school classmate with whom I have remained in close association caused me to recall the UD election incident. Evans Njinye Woji had taken a Bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, USA, before returning to his home of Rivers State to take up appointment with the National Fertilizer Company of Nigeria (NAFCON) at Onne, Port Harcourt. After a remarkable career at NAFCON, Ebony as he is fondly called on account of his bronze complexion, dabbled into the murky waters of Nigerian politics, by joining the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). By 2002 the taciturn but profound politician felt himself ready to contest for the chairmanship of Port Harcourt Local Government Area (PHALGA). He reached out across three States and solicited my assistance in his new quest. I readily obliged him, knowing his capacity for the office.
Few weeks before the primary election, I joined the aspirant and his campaign team in Port Harcourt. I quickly recounted my UD electoral experience and proposed the idea of generating a concise manifesto for our candidate; the idea found a ready fertile ground. The mood in the campaign team soon became electric with excitement as we worked our fingers to the bone to have the campaign booklet ready before the screening of the 18 aspirants began in earnest. A couple of days before the screening commenced the booklet was ready, tagged “POSITIVE CHANGE 2002.” Among other salient issues the booklet enumerated all the known socio-economic challenges confronting PHALGA with accompanying proposed solutions to these challenges.
In an era of zero-allocation from the federation account, the booklet highlighted, the sitting PHALGA administration had literally gone to sleep respecting the numerous sources of revenues open to it as Nigeria’s second commercial city. Evans Njinye Woji, if voted to the chairmanship of PHALGA would effectively harness these revenues and judiciously invest them on cottage industries to provide essential commodities at affordable prices and give employment to the indigenes of PHALGA. The manifesto instantly became a big hit in Port Harcourt and the environs.
From the State Government Brick House to traditional rulers’ palaces and political party secretariats “POSITIVE CHANGE 2002” was enthusiastically discussed. The local media published excerpts from the booklet. Expectedly, Aspirant Woji dwarfed the 17 other contenders at the screening exercise; he subsequently became the “most beautiful bride.” Such of the other contenders as had discernment quickly offered to be running mate to would-be Candidate Evans Njinye Woji for the chairmanship the election. Three days after the screening exercise the then traditional ruler of Ikwerre kingdom formerly invited the most beautiful bride to a confidential meeting. It turned out to be a negotiation meeting. Aspirant Woji was requested to step down for the palace’s candidate; the palace would guarantee a seat for him in the State House of Assembly as a substitute.
The next day the incumbent chairman of PHALGA invited Aspirant Woji at about midnight for a yet another surprise meeting. These surprise invitations kept coming in until the election day. Late-night on the eve of the election for the party candidate, a couple of familiar faces materialised at Aspirant Woji’s residence, where the campaign team was deliberating, and asked to have a private discussion with our candidate. Woji quickly rose and conducted them into an adjoining room. The team’s eyes riveted on the closed door. Less than five minutes after, the unsolicited guests emerged and took their hurried leave; Woji brought up the rear, unmistakable gloom etched on his face. The team instinctively rose as one man. “Gentlemen,” Woji breathed as he took a deliberate sweeping look across the team, “my worst fears have just been confirmed.” The nocturnal guests were PDP officials, he further informed us; the election committee has decided to declare him winner, but he needed to come up with some ridiculous amount in cash before 9a.m. on election day(!) The modest ex-NAFCON engineer didn’t have that cash anywhere, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have offered it to the election committee. To our utter sorrow, an unlettered transporter, said to be the candidate of the then incumbent Speaker of the State House of Assembly, was declared winner of the primary election the next day.
Soon after the results were declared, all hell broke loose. From Port Harcourt to PDP Headquarters in Abuja the results were stridently rejected. PDP vice chairman (south-south), late Chief A. K. Dikibo had to fly to Port Harcourt to adjudicate over the controversy.
In the UD 1984 election, creative electioneering campaign was all that was required to clinch victory; but in the PHALGA 2002 election even proven electioneering superiority did not suffice. Reported accounts by some National Youth Service Corps members who had participated in the 2015 presidential election confirmed to me that nothing has changed in Nigeria’s electoral tradition since 2002.
• Nkemdiche, is an Abuja-based Engineering Consultant.