In the first week of April, 2013, the warning signs were already there.
Over a year ago now, I attended a symposium organised by The Future Awards in Ikogosi, Ekiti State. At the session attended by the governor, Kayode Fayemi, one Ekiti indigene after another got up told the governor to pay attention to ‘stomach infrastructure’. That event is significant in hindsight, because if there was one danger sign ahead of a re-election push, that was it.
Now, people all over the country are trying to pick through the wreckage of a campaign that seems to have been dead on arrival. Instead of congratulations, there are post-mortems. The post-mortems are necessary because Fayemi was widely perceived as a governor who was performing. Some have even described him as the best pound-for-pound (apologies to boxing fans) governor in Nigeria. Why then did he lose?
The events on June 21st have confirmed to me that, were Gary Chapman to write the Nigerian political equivalent of ‘The Five Love Languages’, ‘Stomach infrastructure’ would be the top love language.
It is not like Nigerians do not appreciate good roads, hospitals, and other amenities. It is that there is something that matters to them a bit more than that. There was a lot of debate on social media about sharing rice to potential voters in the days before the election, but to restrict the idea of ‘stomach infrastructure’ to food, whether cooked or raw, is naïve.
Stomach infrastructure is simply the system by which political patronage is dispensed to various groups in a particular society. This patronage can take many, many, forms. For instance, putting in a good word for the relative of a high ranking party chieftain, approving a contract or an appointment for a close political ally or their relative, and so on.
Stomach infrastructure means honouring an invitation to an important social club in Ekiti, and ‘declaring’ for its members. It can also mean turning a blind eye to a racket, or several rackets, for that matter. Other times, it is simply dispensing hard currency.
I am sure by now you begin to get the point. Grassroots politics, as far as Nigeria is concerned, is more or less a fancy term for building and maintaining stomach infrastructure. Having a strong ‘political structure’ is more or less the means by which this political patronage is consistently dispensed, the means by which it reaches the ‘masses’.
It is this (infra)structure that sustains you when you try to do unpopular things like take on the teachers and civil servants, as well as reform the civil service in general. It is this structure that enables you to call in favours on election day. It is this structure that enables you to ward off challengers like Ayo Fayose, backed as he was by a rejuvenated PDP.
Ibrahim Babangida, to name just one example, understood this idea of ‘stomach infrastructure’ very, very well. MKO Abiola understood it too. Both men were famed for their generosity and people skills, traits which kept them relevant in Nigeria’s power play for decades.
My best guess about what happened, is that the culture shock of moving from the governance style of Niyi Adebayo, Ayo Fayose and Segun Oni, to the style of Kayode Fayemi, was so great that it produced a backlash. Overnight, the people of Ekiti went from experiencing one extreme to another, and they just could not take it. Then, along came a familiar face at just the right time, with just the right people skills, who had just the right party behind him.
The reason why Ekiti cannot be used as a barometer for the rest of the country, is that what happened there was a perfect storm. It does not take just one factor to bring about the defeat of an incumbent, especially by such a margin.
Fayemi took on the teachers over competency tests, and implemented the results, leading to the demotion of some who had served for decades. The rest of them never took the tests and punished him at the ballot box. This fight may have been better left for a second term. There was also a lot of friction over the payment of the new Teachers Salary Scale, which he said the government could not afford. Again, scaling back on ambitious goals to focus on ‘bread and butter’ issues could have saved the situation.
The biggest fall-out of this election is that it might cause many who want to seek political office to pause and wonder what the point is, if someone who is performing can be so summarily rejected. The best thing to do is learn. The majority of Nigeria’s electorate are preoccupied with basic issues of survival, and this affects everything else. No amount of political correctness can change this.
Democracy remains a popularity contest, and for as long as everyone above 18 can vote, then the wishes of the majority must be taken into account to a significant extent. If the people in a particular place want to be governed in a certain way, then that must be accommodated, even if it means deviating a bit from a pure focus on the traditional indices of governance.