A look at Nigeria’s litany of presidential sob story
By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Despite our tough exterior and hard men and women disposition, deep down, Nigerians love melodrama and a good sob story. No wonder then that telenovelas with their ridiculous storyline and long, drawn-out dramas are big in Nigeria since they first made an appearance on Nigerian TV in the mid-1990s.
Incidentally, that was also around the same period that presidential candidates in Nigeria’s elections started pitching their personal sob stories as an alternative to the real substance in their campaigns. Often, this pity stories win over more supporters than anything their campaign teams can package in their manifesto.
For instance, when MKO Abiola was running for president in 1993, the pity story his campaign team pushed was concerning his sick dying mother. She was ill and the young Abiola, the first of his father’s 23 births to survive infancy, was so poor he could not afford the equivalent of the 50kobo medical bill needed to save her life. Unfortunately, she died and that, the story goes, was why MKO Abiola devoted his wealth to philanthropy and ensuring that no one’s mother dies from a disease that money could help cure.
This poignant story gave MKO Abiola personality and a 3D feel. It was inspiring for many Nigerians who thought well, here was someone who could not afford 50Kobo treatment for his mother then, but has risen to become one of the wealthiest men in the country. Not only that, but it also provided a very convincing motive for his philanthropy, which, to be fair to him, he has always had going on before he joined partisan politics. His philanthropy definitely saved many lives.
So when Abiola dubbed his campaign “Farewell to Poverty,” it was really easy for Nigerians to buy into the narrative and vote for him because they could see that he pulled it off in his personal life and they hoped he could do the same for the country.
Sadly, Abiola never had the chance to do this as his election was annulled and he would never live to become president. However, the trajectory of Nigeria’s fourth republic could be traced directly to those annulled elections.
When democracy finally made a return in 1999, it was through Olusegun Obasanjo, a man pushed forward as compensation to the Southwest for the loss of Abiola’s mandate, and eventually Abiola himself.
Obasanjo’s campaign was packaged differently since he did not have Abiola’s wider appeal. Stories of his life in penury as an orphan surfaced but the high point of his sob story was that here was a man who had been given up for dead when he was incarcerated in Abacha’s gulag for a phantom coup. Whether the coup plot was real or not was secondary to this campaign. What was paramount was that if you believed Obasanjo plotted against Abacha, it was because he cared enough about the country he bled for during the civil war, accepted the Biafran instrument of surrender on behalf of, and in retirement put his life on the line to save the country from Abacha’s vicious claw. That was the narrative.
So a man who had already risen to be Head of State was repackaged as the millennial grass to grace story. The tagline: From Prison to the Villa had a nice ring to it and Nigerians lapped it and cleaned the plate. Obasanjo became president.
For Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Yar’adua, there wasn’t a rags to riches storyline to push. The Yar’adua family was reputable and titled. His father was a notable post-independence politician and a titleholder in the court of the Emir of Katsina. His brother, Shehu Musa, was a military strongman who was Gen. Obasanjo’s number two and would have been president in 1992 if Gen. Babangida hadn’t scrapped the transition programme at the time. He too, like Obasanjo, was jailed by Abacha for the same offence. Unlike Obasanjo, the older Yar’adua did not survive incarceration.
So, Umaru Yar’adua had to be packaged differently. Not in a way that would make it clear Obasanjo was compensating the family of his chum, or compensating the north for its support during his own presidential bid, or even as his way of holding onto power considering Yar’adua’s docile demeanour. Yar’adua had to be packaged as a sickly maverick from an old, moneyed family who shunned the trappings of wealth and its consequent flamboyance. Not much of a sob story, but the powers that be were determined to get their way.
But Goodluck Jonathan! Now that is a soap writer’s delight. Son of poor canoe makers who grew up without shoes, somehow had an education and ended up with a PhD. Never quite contested any election but somehow, through sheer providence, rose from deputy governor to governor to vice president and then acting president, all without running for a single office.
When Yar’adua exited the scene by way of death in 2010, Jonathan, his deputy, stepped up as acting president and come election time, threw his famed fedora in the arena. His sob story writers made his “I had no shoes” line a mystic, almost hypnotic chant that reeled in Nigerians. He won the 2011 presidential elections and the man who had no shoes now had the entire country at his feet. A dedicated team of Zee World and Telemundo scriptwriters, working over mugs of chai and maté, could not have come up with a better story.
And then Buhari wept!
In the 12 years Buhari ran for president between 2003 and 2015 when he eventually won, his narrative has had the consistency of the North Star. Here is a man who had the country at his disposal, first as minister of petroleum, then as Head of State then as Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund that controlled billions and simply, despite all the temptations, could not dip his saintly hands in the national cake. So resistant is he to corruption that despite achieving the highest office, his simplicity and lack of affinity for wealth and ostentation was celebrated and became the stuff of legends. The BBC even reported on the fact that he answered his door by himself. It was that big a deal. And photos of him making a beverage drink from a N50 sachet milk and Milo or watching the Super Eagles on a prudently small 32-inch TV became viral.
In 2015, because Buhari did not help himself to public funds, he could not afford the APC’s N55m nomination form. He had to rely on a bank loan to procure the form and on the one-one naira donations by the suffering masses of Nigeria, including a one million naira jackpot donated by a nonagenarian, her entire life savings, to fund his campaign.
So impressed were Nigerians by this simple president that they believed they had finally got an honest man into Aso Rock, one who could change the narrative of the country with his anti-corruption body language. It wasn’t as good a sob story as Jonathan’s (Telemundo probably wouldn’t come up with something like that) but it worked wonders for his campaign, consistently for the five times he ran for office, including the last time as sitting president where a group bought his nomination form on his behalf).
Nigerians are suckers for really good sob stories and get so caught up in the flux of them that the real issues, such as policies and manifestoes, are given a short shrift. They are not developed enough by candidates and are not considered prudently by electorates who should know better than to base their electoral choices on Zee World-inspired scripts. Look where these choices have led us.
We ought to know better than to play Telemundo with our children’s and our country’s future.
First Published in Daily Trust, June 17, 2020