Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Godfather: A new model, perhaps?

YOU have the power to elect a U.S. senator," Obama, told Emil Jones, Democratic leader of the Illinois state senate many years ago. Jones looked at the ambitious young man smiling before him and asked, teasingly: "Do you know anybody I could make a U.S. senator?" According to Jones, Obama replied: "Me."

Everyone who has paid attention to Obama's political evolution knows that Emil Jones Jr. was, to put it simply, his 'Godfather'. Jones it was who helped Obama master the intricacies of the Legislature. When Democrats took control of the state Senate, Jones, though he risked offending colleagues who had toiled futilely on key issues under Republican rule, he tapped Obama to take the lead on high-profile legislative initiatives that he boasted about in his presidential campaign. And when Obama wanted a promotion to the U.S. Senate, Jones provided critical support that gave the little-known legislator legitimacy, keeping him from being instantly trampled by the front-runners.

It wasn't due to a similarity in ideas or ideology. Far from it, the 72-year-old Jones, whose mobile-phone ring-tone is famously the theme song from The Godfather movie, is an old school politician in every sense of the world. He doesn't share Obama's message of 'hope' and 'change' and indulges as well as promotes Chicago's wheeler-dealer style of politics. In his memoir "Dreams from My Father," Obama dismissed this same man as "an old ward heeler". In 2008, after getting vital help from Jones for almost a decade, the man had now become, in Obama's words, "a powerful advocate for those who need a voice" and someone with "passion for public service."

It was all simple. Obama had the personality and intelligence to succeed; but he needed a major political figure in his corner - someone who could get unions, county chairmen and potential donors to consider the new guy with the strange name. And here we are now. Living in a country where 'Godfathers' are just one step down the ladder from Lucifer, and the very moniker conjures visions of corruption, election rigging, and a nothing-good-can-come-out-of-it odour, imagine the confusion in partaking of the universal admiration of the man Obama, whose inspiring ascension would have been impossible without the help of, yes, a Godfather.

If Lagos State were to be considered a location of strategic importance to international news agencies like the BBC and the CNN, there would have been inevitable comparisons between Barack Obama and the Governor. Whilst Adams Oshiomhole was initially granted the 'Nigerian Obama' stamp by default, it is Fashola who now inspires awe, whose name has become a symbol of vision and good governance, whose admiration has become a national pastime. Like America, we now have a leader we can speak publicly of in admiration without feeling that familiar tinge of self-consciousness.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Fashola, like Yar'Adua, was supposed to be a failure. He was supposed to be a bumbling, overwhelmed man pushed into a task for which he was unprepared. Fashola - and even he will not deny it - was a result of that 'rotten' system of Godfatherism. A nondescript employee of the former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, he didn't impress anyone when it was discovered that a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) was in the 'lowly' position of Chief of Staff.

He was not even a contender for elective office, and wasn't possessed of a public profile qualifying him for even a local government chairman run. Put beside political heavyweights like Ganiyu Solomon, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, and Remi Adiukwu-Bakare the very mention of this non-starter invited ridicule. But like any state governor in Nigeria (save for Peter Obi of Anambra!) seems able to do, within a most magical six months, Governor Tinubu had made Babatunde Raji Fashola a front runner, and delivered to him a prominent public profile built almost overnight. Indeed, one suspects that sometime soon, political communication experts will have to study that phenomenon.

While the Lagos populace was geared for a contestant with name recognition like Musiliu Obanikoro or mass appeal like Jimi Agbaje, there was yet something compelling about the colourless, no-drama, technocrat personality who hardly knew how to put on the agbada (and has quickly discarded it upon the conclusion of campaigning) and when he became the Governor, no one was surprised. His backer, Tinubu, was after all the man who single-handedly built and established Nigeria's only credible opposition party. Tinubu might be a wheeling-dealing politician of questionable character, a dodgy past, and ambiguous achievements, but his credentials as a power player are impeccable at the least. So Bola Tinubu is enjoying a third term. On its own that should be a cause for disgust. However if this is the kind of third term that ensures a peaceful change in government, rapid development, and peace of mind, then small wonder there are many people who don't mind at all.

So what is the problem with the other Godfather arrangements in the country? How come Adedibu's Alao Akala is a plodding disaster? How come Obasanjo's Gbenga Daniel has become a bull in a china shop? Or to compare apples with apples, how is it that instead of fighting the problems of their states, Governors Amaechi (Rivers), Chime (Enugu) and others are fighting the former Governors who were solely responsible for putting them in office? Surely it cannot be a lack of political acumen on the part of the Godfathers. Neither can it be a lack of well-developed political structures in the respective states. The mistake? They were thinking only of themselves.

The difference in Fashola's case seems to be that, this time, his backer was a man who loves to play with power, but who was able to balance this desire with vision and an understanding that politics is a social contract, where if you deliver on your promises, the people will deliver on their votes. It would seem to tie in with Tinubu's public persona as a man of empathy, one who has an understanding that people make the nation - one who understands the extents and impacts of democracy as a form of government.

So in seeking to maintain a stranglehold on power, he was conscientious enough to position a successor with a head on his shoulders. He played this chess game brilliantly well - depositing the other contenders, career politicians like him interested only in the pursuit of power, in places where they are less likely to do harm. Like Obama also learnt, some compromises are necessary.

Tinubu is the politician, and Fashola is clearly the administrator - one is in search of political power, the other completely unimpressed by it. Ladies and gentlemen, admit it, that arrangement is working. Fashola has been a rolling stone of vision, focus and development, unencumbered by the worry of second terms and political patronage. Not only that, he has also been able to implement and perfect many of the visions that Bola Tinubu could not execute properly because he was busy fighting Kofoworola Bucknor, Gbenga Daniel, Olusegun Obasanjo and any other enemy that crossed his path.

And because of Fashola's success, Tinubu has become a force to reckon with in Nigeria's politics, a man to fear in the South West and an all-purpose colossus. Maybe that's what Godfathers should be about - creating an enabling environment for true leaders to emerge rather than being oafish stumbling blocks with no shred of vision. Indeed, as an aside, it baffles me how one politician feels he can hand over to another politician and still retain power even though time and time again this arrangement has proven toxic?

Two years ago, when Ribadu's travails were yet to even begin, someone close to the Yar'Adua campaign had taught me a crucial lesson about the make up of the politician. Politicians are men/women who play with power, he told me. You can mess with bank executives and 419ers, but not professional politicians. Politicians will use that very plaything called power to hunt you down - that's what they are about. By the time the politicians had systematically decapitated Ribadu, his prediction played out exactly as outlined. So when one politician hands over to another one would expect knowledge that the other will desire and eventually create a parallel political structure on and from which he can bounce power in whatever direction he wants. That is the lesson Tinubu obviously learnt when he swept aside friends and colleagues and picked a non-politician to succeed him.

An editor of the Financial Times Alan Beattie recently published a book, False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World. Much has been written about why some economies thrive while others flail and many fix it to systems - Capitalism! Democracy! - but Beattie refused to be dogmatic in his analysis. Corruption may have killed nations in Africa, he notes, but it worked rather well in South Korea, where bribery attained tax-like precision. Indeed, he says, any society can choose economic success with any political system - you arrive at the destination with the method that works for you.

I have always suspected that herein lies Nigeria's problem. We do not seem aware as a people that there are alternative political systems that we can choose from as they suit our unique make up - and that is how come we are stuck with an expensive Presidential system of government, a bloated legislature, a warped electoral system, a three-tier government where the local government is only an extension of waste, and why we have a satellite in space that has brought more controversy than development.

We have a knee jerk reaction to phenomena. We do not think them through before we criticise or praise. If a governor is a PDP governor, we automatically believe he must be deserving of opprobrium regardless of the facts, if Grandma Ayoka Adebayo tenders a resignation letter, we do not pause to interrogate her motives before declaring her a hero; that same knee-jerk is responsible for the universal detest of Godfathers: we don't care to think that perhaps it is the bathwater that is the problem, not the baby.

It can be expected that, based on the continued success of Lagos State, soon other governors and office holders will start using the Tinubu-Fashola Politician-Administrator model - and it is the people of Nigeria across board that will be better for it.