Friday, June 27, 2008

Arisekola, please don't open the gate

ONE of the challenges arising from the recent death of Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, the self-styled Godfather of Oyo State politics, speaks to the troubled dynamics of social and class relations in Nigeria as indicated by the present circumstances of the hordes of hangers-on who flocked to his home on a daily basis. Now with Adedibu dead, this strong army of poor people appears defeated. In his lifetime, Alhaji Adedibu provided free food for the masses: everyday, a cow was slaughtered in his compound, soup was prepared and yam flour delicacies were rolled off a busy kitchen line. Anyone who felt the pangs of hunger could stop by and have a meal.

The money that Adedibu had collected from his clients in positions of power and authority, he gave a part of it to the poor, to pay their children's school fees and to attend to their other needs. Even if this was a self-serving method of gaining political relevance and popularity at the grassroots level, Adedibu sustained this twice-a-day free meal programme till the end. And this was the source of his reputation as a philanthropist, his appelation as Alaafin Molete and the description of his brand of politics as "amala politics". Every day of the year, a crowd gathered at his doorstep.

But since his death on June 11, that crowd of hungry men and women looking for food as fuel, has thinned out. The hungry mouths kept converging for a few days after the burial, but when they noticed that Adedibu's 19 children had resolved to close the kitchen, tie up the bags of yam flour, and sanitise the compound and put an end to their father's politics of food, the crowd had to disperse. Indeed, one of Adedibu's children speaking for the family had declared, clearly, that there will be no more free food for the poor in Adedibu's household.

The people were advised to "find their level." The children are not willing to step into their father's shoes. Amala politics is over. It is finished. Its author and exponent is dead; that chapter is closed. And so today, Adedibu's once busy compound has become quiet: no more drummers waking up the Alaafin and serenading him with praise-chants, no more thugs hanging by the gate providing protection for the Godfather; the women who used to cook all day in the kitchen have folded their bulbous wrappers and have hit the road in search of new patrons.

But since as they say, "nature abhors a vacuum", and the stomach is a god that can only be propitiated with food, the courtiers of Adedibu's palace have had to go in search of a new patron who can take care of their needs. And it is to the home of Alhaji Azeez Arisekola-Alao, that they have turned their gaze. Arisekola is another prominent Ibadan citizen, a notable Nigerian businessman, the Aare Musulumi of Yorubaland (the generalissimo of the islamic faith in Yorubaland), and in a much quieter way, also a philanthropist. Besides, the late Adedibu reportedly chose Arisekola as the administrator of his estate and executor of his will.

In their simple understanding, the amala crowd may have concluded that this literally means Alhaji Arisekola is Adedibu's anointed successor and the man to inherit his public and social obligations. Last Saturday and Sunday, they gathered in front of his home at Ikolaba in Ibadan - women and youths looking for financial assistance and food. As reported in The Punch of June 23, 2008, p,10, "a 17-year old boy" wants Arisekola to feed him and pay his school fees. And a widow needs money to feed her children. But the gate to Arisekola's house was securely fastened. The hungry men and women at the gate were told by guards that "they were not instructed to open the gates for anybody without prior appoitment". Undeterred, the able-bodied men and women begging for money and food, returned on Sunday but the gates were still locked.

Adedibu may have opened his own gates for the hungry and the poor, but the scenario at Arisekola's house is closer to reality. There is a huge divide between the poor and the rich in Nigeria, standing within that divide are guards, gates, walls and barbed wires reaching the skies. In the home of every rich man, there is a crowd of beggars waiting to knock on the door, knocking on the gates, but the rich have learnt to keep the poor away. You can't barge in on them unless you have an appointment. They have guards, they have dogs that have been trained to keep intruders and poor - looking people away. Their homes are in isolated parts of the city not in open neighbourhoods like Adedibu's Molete. They have electronic surveillance, some of our rich men even have mini-police stations in their houses, complete with cells and uniformed police men who can charge you for tresspass and lock you up immediately. The only way the poor can gain entrance into those gilded cages where the rich live is as employees in the servants' quarters, or as armed robbers who break down the walls and force their way in with the help of guns. The reality is that the Nigerian rich are prisoners of their wealth. They cannot enjoy it because they are constantly afraid that the poor, looking for food and free money, may tear down the walls.

Can anybody blame Alhaji Arisekola-Alao for locking up his gates and instructing his guards to shut out uninvited and unwanted guests? The man may have been Adedibu's friend in his lifetime, but he is not a politician. He is a businessman. And he probably doesn't like the idea of poor people messing up his well-manicured lawns and polluting his abode with their body odour. Nobody should be surprised if Alhaji Arisekola recruits armed guards to beef up security at his home or if he seeks police protection, and puts up a sign: "Intruders and tresspassers will be shot on sight, Be warned." With their desperation since their patron died, the Amala crowd of Ibadan has now helped to advertise a seemingly positive value of Adedibu's peculiar mess. But this is a comment on the state of the Nigerian society.

There is a growing crowd of poor people out there which feels shut out of the Nigerian system. The crowd exists nationwide, not just in Ibadan. Its members are worst hit by the failure of the Nigerian economy, the specter of galloping inflation, unemployment and the sheer incompetence and ineffectuality of government at all levels. It is government that should be blamed.

The blame belongs to the leaders at all levels who loot the treasury and years after the fact, claim innocence. The villains are those in the positions of authority who fail the people only to erect walls around their homes. It is so comical seeing the Nigerian rich not being able to enjoy their wealth: at the root of this is the failure of enlightenment on their part; in other societies, both the rich and governments help to create a welfare society so the fears of the poor may be addressed. It is so pitiable seeing that many Nigerians, living on less than one dollar per day, face the indignity of having to go to another man's home to beg for food.

The greater danger is that whoever provides that food can use the poor for any purpose at all, and this was the gap that a man like Adedibu took advantage of. He was in that sense as much a creation of the imperfections of the Nigerian state as those he fed were victims. Also in this plane are the boys turned militants in the Niger Delta who are being used by Adedibu-like figures to wage war against Nigeria; also here are the almajiris of the Northern parts who can be asked to go out and cause mayhem by an influential master, whose purposes may not be noble. Perhaps when the rich can no longer sleep in their homes, when their gates and guards and their bullet proof cars can no longer protect them, Nigeria will be forced to address the crisis of poverty not as effect, but as the root-cause of much that is wrong with our politics and society.

In the Adedibu case, a Kano-based cleric, Alhaji Muyideen Ajani Bello, delivering a sermon at the eight-day fidau prayer session for the late Adedibu had advised the rich men and women in Ibadan and Adedibu's children "to open their gates for the jobless, downtrodden masses and feed them." He said: "if you are not careful, armed robbers will increase in Ibadan. Once those that are feeding in Adedibu's house realise that there is nowhere for them to feed again, they will go out and rob houses. For you to avert this situation, be ready to feed these hoodlums and the jobless. Open your houses for people to come and eat, if not armed robbers will begin to burgle your houses." Why should anybody feed others if this were a well-organised society? Many of the people looking for food are not physically challenged ( even if they were?), many of them are educated or are skilful in some ways. They need jobs and opportunities, and guarantees that anyone who is willing to work will find something to do. The true challenge is in turning Nigeria into a land of opportunities where human dignity can be assured.

Nigerians also need a social security system that caters for both the vulnerable and the privileged and raises the quality of life. Because many hungry mouths exist, to be exploited and used for political purposes, that is why there has been so much unedifying talk about Adedibu's likely successors. Institutions of state would still have to be strengthened to provide succour for the helpless, and to check the resort to criminality for either ideological or existential reasons. Leaders must stop stealing money and votes and focus on the people's welfare. It is the failure to do this that will produce the next Adedibu, and the effect on society would just be as bad as the menace of armed robbery that the cleric fears.