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Alhaja and the politics of the poor in Nigeria

Alhaja is a very experienced practical politician, she's been in politics for as long as the days of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).

We will call her Alhaja. Where titles, religious or customary are widely recognized, even idolized, names disappear. She earned the title because she travelled to Mecca on pilgrimage, perhaps sponsored by a local government as a political reward. She lived a little distance from the house destiny compelled me to live in, my late fathers’ house which I left 48 years ago in search of the golden fleece in Lagos, Nigeria. Both the Alhaja’s house and the house I live in are in the traditional area of Ibadan, what you will call the inner city. When we were young, we had the reputation of being a wealthy family and we were proud of that. We were one of the very few families whose children went to school. Alhaja still carries that mentality in her head even now. Alhaja, now a grandmother sold water and minerals down the street. Our baby of the house, now in a university in the North I had to compel to relocate with the family from a cozy estate in Abijo, Lekki, Lagos to this Ibadan ghetto located Alhaja. We could not drink from the well water in our house because everybody in the compound fetched water from it, everybody with his “buga”, not the ‘buga’ music but the implement for fetching water from a well which the Hausas constructed from used tyre tubes. So, we settled on buying sachet water so that we can have a semblance of safe drinking water. It was from Alhaja that our son bought a sachet of water.

He came home on one of the trips and recommended Alhaja for our mercy ministry. Don’t think that we have big money from which we do big philanthropy, no. We don’t go to Church, even though we are Christians, so we decided to fulfill a ministry we had been given with our tithes and offerings, that is the ten percent of the income of every Christian required to be given to God. We give these tithes to our colleagues’ poor in the area. We also are poor but since we know how to trust God for our upkeep, we decided to meet the need of our colleagues, the poor who may not be so privileged. So as soon as we get the money, we deduct the tithe and offering and send it to our neighbours. They think we are rich, but we know we are not. Alhaja fell into misfortune, her little shop where she sold sachet water and soft drinks was broken into and burnt one night by a gang of thugs who have become a constant embarrassment in the city and which the government has not been able to tame. Alhaja was not the only victim, all other petty shopkeepers were similarly raided. The gang also killed two persons in a house. They had come on a revenge attack on a gang whose headquarters was in the area we live in. Alhaja relocated to her house with nothing again. We followed her home and continue to extend mercy to her. After a while, we began to preach the gospel of Jesus to her and we found though a Muslim, Alhaja has a constant fellowship with Jesus. She had been listening on Radio to Christian evangelists.

Alhaja is a very experienced practical politician, she’s been in politics for as long as the days of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). She has worked for all the big politicians you can mention in Ibadan. “The only edge they have over me is money”, she told us one day as we discussed with her. She knows all the names and could tell you about their history in an instant. Alhaja is what you can describe as ‘Agip’ (Any government in power).’ I tactically asked which party she was in the dispensation of Isaq Ajimobi the late governor of Oyo State and she said she was in the governor’s party, APC. Now she is the party of Seyi Makinde, the current PDP governor. She downloaded the character of major contenders in the current gubernatorial contest in Oyo state. Concerning one of the big gubernatorial candidates she said, ” that one is an assassin, he killed Xya in the time of Adedibu, a late frontline politician in the city and that is why the 2023 election in Ibadan will be very bloody”. “The main party supported by an officially recognized gang of thugs in the name of motor park operators will be face to face with a man who is equal to the task”.

And really, the war has started. During a walk by the party of the contender labeled “assassin”, both gangs clashed, and a person was reportedly killed. In the night the unsettled scuffle was brought to Alhaja’s street. The remnant of a gang that had ruled and made life unbearable in the street had clashed with the gang of the ‘assassin’ during the day over who had the right to paste political posters. Three persons, all innocent persons just about their businesses lay dead after about one hour of incessant shootings. Alhaja was saved by the whiskers, she had just moved into her house and had her children bolt the door from behind when the shootings started. Alhaja had to move to another house for refuge when the shootings subsided. It was a refuge that lasted about three days. Back in her rented bungalow which has seen close to half a century and where her children and grandchildren live with her, the children and grandchildren milled around her running one errand or the other. A noise here, a scuffle there, the scream of a toddler in one obscure corner, an abuse, a curse here and there turned the whole atmosphere into a cacophony.

Alhaja, “these children, all of them must go to school …”, “yes,” before the reporter concluded the statement, she intruded, ” they are in school, this one is in JS 3″. “Good” the reporter continued “but they must make it to the university”. With this, Alhaja’s countenance suddenly changed, her looks became sullen as if the reporter has said something so distasteful. She kept quiet for a little before she looked down and muttered: ” even eating is difficult”. There is no point probing further, the statement is understood. The children are all in government’s ill-funded and unsupervised free education schools where teachers are neither motivated nor supervised, where books are not distributed and all the pupils have to prepare for their public exams are sketchy notes given to them by their half-baked teachers, where there is no electricity in their houses and consequently no light to read after school hours, where although the fees for the public exams may be borne by the government, which serves only the purpose of political propaganda because the pupils fail in great number and join to swell the army of thugs and prostitutes on the street. For Alhaja and her children and grandchildren, a university education is one hope that is impossible, others whose parents are rich may get it, but it is a luxury unaffordable by their kind. Meanwhile, the wife of a son of Alhaja strolled in wearing the uniform of one of the two most popular political parties, a yellow T-shirt top, and a knicker burger. She needs no introduction; she was coming from a political rally. Soon she came and dropped some money, so professionally done that a third eye or ear may not see or hear the transaction. Alhaja too secretly picked up the money dropped on the bench Alhaji sat on in the narrow passage of their house.

“Alhaja”, your daughter-in-law is in politics too, the reporter quipped. “Yes,” we are passing the baton to them”. What the lady brought was the share of Alhaja from the money distributed at the end of the rally. Alhaja needn’t go to all meetings again, she’s an old organizer. When those sent get to the meetings, they put their names in a register, and monies are paid subsequently at the end of the rally. On Alhaja’s street, the reporter saw men, boys, and teenage girls, some with different stages of protruding stomachs, impregnated by men who are jobless, mothers, all of them walking long distances for Atiku with their organizers following them in their quaint cars. Atiku himself was in town a day before for a rally where the state governor was absent in continuation of the G5 disagreement with him. Seyi Makinde, the state governor is a member of Governor Wike-inspired G5, a group of five state governors in opposition to Atiku because he concentrated all PDP posts in the North.

Very poor yet dependent on the politicians for a pittance that gives no hope. Certain good things in life have become inaccessible to them. And they have accepted it as their lot. The little they get especially during the election period they use to eat and with the little again they get as they follow politicians who get government positions they continue to feed with, “with great difficulty”. A struggling businessman we met on the road jumped into the discussion of my wife and me as we debated whether it was ethical for Femi Falana, a notable civil rights activist and lawyer to defend the governor of Central Bank, Godwin Emefiele who is accused of various infractions. He summed up the precarious situation of the poor in the politics of Nigeria. Through his struggle in a house-to-house hustling, he got some money with which he built a little factory to recycle used plastics. Now electricity has made it impossible for him to operate. The poor have no hope in Nigeria, and he is not going to vote. He has been told in his church, that there will be a coup and after it, Nigeria will be reorganized and be better. As he spoke, a group of young men watching foreign clubs in a soccer encounter suddenly shouted when their club scored a goal. “Look at them, foolish young men, should they shout and laugh like that? Is there anything to laugh about in Nigeria? For me, I will not vote, I will rather wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy. Nothing but a hurricane can change these politicians”.

So, the politicians have the Nigerian poor in their balls. Chinua Achebe, a late Nigerian literary icon spoke with the mouth of Obi Okonkwo in his classic, “No Longer at Ease,” “What an Augean stable! he muttered to himself, where does one begin? With the masses? Educate the masses? He shook his head. ‘Not a chance there. It would take centuries. A handful of men at the top. Or even one man with a vision – an enlightened dictator. People are scared of the word nowadays. But what kind of democracy can exist side by side with so much corruption and ignorance? Perhaps a halfway house – a sort of compromise.’

Tunde Akande is both a journalist and pastor. He earned a Master’s degree in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos.

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