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Performing poverty, Goodluck Jonathan and Mohammadu Buhari styles

By Rotimi Fasan
Not unaware of the general perception that Nigerians have of them, Nigerian politicians often try to appear above board. But they don’t stop at that, they also want to be seen to be above board. It does not matter to them what actually is the reality of their political life, what counts for them is to be seen to be doing what is expected.

One of the more enduring perception of Nigerians about public office, elective or appointive, is that it is an opportunity to take care of one’s interest. Entry into a public office is typically seen as an opportunity to feather one’s nest and do with public funds and at public expense those things people would not normally do with their own hard earned money. A Nigerian official only deems it fit to remember his or her long-dead great grand parents on becoming a public officer.

It is at this time that those who have children old enough to marry decide on a wedding date to which all the people of ‘timbre and caliber’ are invited. State governors and even presidents give out their daughters in marriage in very lavish ceremonies once they get into office. Local government chair persons celebrate their birthdays or those of their spouses and make their state governors the ‘father of the day’. When governors find an occasion to squander public funds, they make whoever is president or is the head of state at the time father of the day. Some of these officials organise these social events in series leaving nobody in doubt that they are determined to reap to optimal level the social and economic capital that comes with such events when organised while they are yet public officers.

Jonathan and Buhari

But this is just one way that Nigerian politicians or high-ranking officials participate in unseemly display of power and wealth. Yet they all want to be seen as at once poor and modest. Therefore, they become actors in dramas entirely of their own making. They are performers of or with contradictory impulses. The long and short of my point so far is that no Nigerian politician wants to be seen as corrupt. And if they are so perceived, they don’t want to be called that. It is for this reason that they go into the elaborate charade of claiming to have come from a poor background and desire to be seen as perpetually poor even when the evidence of their present existence gives the lie to such perception.

When President Goodluck Jonathan, the so-called consensus presidential candidate of the PDP, decided to obtain necessary documents to signify his ambition to continue as president beyond 2015, it was an opportunity for him to act his part in the PDP-scripted and produced drama of presidential politics. That the President went with a large entourage to his party secretariat to pick the ‘expression of interest’ form has been celebrated by some as a display of modesty.

That, at least, is how Godswill Akpabio, governor of Akwa Ibom and staunch backer of President Jonathan, wants Nigerians to view the matter. As television images show Akpabio mouthing this claim in a rapid speech that portrayed him as totally without the need to take some breath, Ayodele Fayose, newly re-elected governor of Ekiti, nodded in assent.

Fittingly for the big man that he is but quite not in sync with theatrical tradition, President Jonathan would appear content to look on while others speak for him on the political stage. In other words, he would rather play his role by proxy. Thus, while it was Akpabio with the active support of Fayose that harped on the much-hyped modesty of the President for picking the expression of interest form by himself, it was the lot of his spokesperson to tell the rest of us how the President raised the funds to pay for this form- some princely N25 million.

This very steep sum, if nothing else, should tell the overtly ambitious that presidential politics is not a game of paupers. But President Jonathan, the poor boy without shoes from Otuoke, the modest president that picked his own form himself, depended on friends and well wishers to raise money for his own ‘common entrance’ form. At least that is what Reuben Abati wants poor civilians like us, ignorant watchers of Nigerian politics, to believe. How far, somebody may want to ask General Ibrahim Babangida, have we travelled away from ‘money bag’ politics?

But before President Jonathan put up his proxy performance of poverty, it was the ascetic-looking Muhammadu Buhari, the APC presidential aspirant and veteran presidential candidate, that first got on the stage in a performance of poverty. Very dramatically General Buhari informed a bemused country that he got a bank loan to obtain his nomination form for the position of president.

And how much did our good General get from one of our typically reluctant banks in the seemingly non-regenerative venture of presidential politics? A cool N27 million! This, in a country where struggling entrepreneurs or ordinary public servants try but never succeed in getting even a mere N500, 000 facility for business from our banks. Such business persons are said not to have the required collateral that politicians obviously possess in excess even for non-regenerative ventures.

It’s indeed incredible how someone, even of Buhari’s status, could just walk into a bank to get such a huge sum to finance what is yet a mere show of interest that might yet turn out to be a puff of wind. Would Alhaji Buhari also run to the same bank to get more loans for campaign expenses when, if he succeeds in becoming his party candidate, the race actually gets under way? Of course, General Buhari, as a former head of state, is a person of weight in Nigeria, but he is often portrayed as a very modest man who, by self-confession, depended on loans to build his personal houses. How is he expected to pay back this huge sum?

He has not told anybody of wealthy patrons (oh no, a man like him can only be his own patron), friends or relations that came together pay his N27 million. He simply walked into a bank and came out with those millions. What form of governance operates in a bank where this kind of money can be approved? Could this be a pointer to how many of our banks come to grief?

Isn’t this yet another opportunity for us to take a close look at the regulations that should guide how politicians finance their campaigns if we truly want a corruption-free politics? This is an age long issue that should be resolved if there is to be some sanity to our politics, now or later.
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