Opinion: The influence of big money in Nigerian politics

by Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú

Nigeria ElectionsThe high cost of political campaign for office seekers and the present ways of meeting the costs ties the hands of elected officials because they must recoup their investments by pandering to the whims of moneybags, godfathers and special interests who funded their campaigns.

Politics is speech, money is also speech, but whose money speaks in politics? In politics, money is not just speech, money is power! It was revealed that Mr. Jonathan spent N2trillion on his failed campaign to secure his return to office. We have no idea how much the All Progressives Congress (APC) spent on the campaign trail for General Buhari to win for comparison. However, we witnessed the open bribery of monarchs, Church leaders, community leaders, militants and anyone they could find.

The issue of campaign finance is a difficult one in politics. It is more difficult in a country with a high index of intergenerational poverty like Nigeria. The high cost of political campaign for office seekers and the present ways of meeting the costs ties the hands of elected officials because they must recoup their investments by pandering to the whims of moneybags, godfathers and special interests who funded their campaigns. A politician cannot represent the interests of his or her community/constituency when he has solicited and taken contributions from special interests to finance a costly election. Such politician can only be governed by a sense of obligation to his/her benefactors. From the 2015 campaigns at all levels, we have seen that the infusion of cash has great ability to influence electoral outcomes.

That is the reason why cash and kind inducements in our democracy poses a significant challenge to the idea of equality expressed in the “one man, one vote” principle upon which strong democratic ideals are built. In Lagos State, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) opened the cash spigot for Jimi Agbaje and it almost won the state for them. It is also on record that Governor Rahman Mimiko of Ondo State paid voters at the polling booths N1,000 each, and every voter who took the cash inducement presented evidence that he/she thumb printed for the umbrella, the PDP logo. When moneybags, special interests, businessmen and money stolen directly from the treasury have greater power to influence elections than the average voter, it means the outcome of elections can be determined by the amount of money spent on political campaigns. For this singular reason, the influence of money violates the principle of equality that is fundamental to any democratic government. Of course, it can be argued that money alone does not dictate the outcome of elections. After all, Buhari did not spend anything near what Jonathan spent and he won the election. Well, campaign strategies, public opinion, media coverage, policy positions, and the prevailing political atmosphere do shape electoral fortunes and the superiority of these factors in the APC camp propelled Buhari to a win. However, big money still sets the agenda. It defines the development and deployment of campaign methods as well as the policy. It takes skilled candidates, favourable media coverage, and strong organisational efforts to offset the power of money. Buhari won because he is an idea we all adopted and was the symbol of our aspirations. A lesser known candidate with lesser moral profile wouldn’t have been able to withstand Jonathan. The six weeks postponement showed how money was used to narrow the gap and prevent wholesale rout of Jonathan.

We cannot fold our hands and allow the debauchery of our political process repeat itself in 2019. We must begin to see galloping political spending as economic war by other means. Slush funds for political campaigns from any source stands in the way of a fair and just political system and in the way of an economy that works for the working poor and the middle class. Have you wondered why all the big companies and monied men contributed big to Jonathan’s campaign? Big companies and the rich poured money into the 2015 campaigns not for political convictions. Those who funded Jonathan in 2011 were rewarded, big! Their businesses thrived; those with monopolies solidified their grips; those who can collect subsidy got big payouts. As the country rolls into financial doldrums, big money prospered! They do not give because they want to, they finance politicians because they are investing in favourable policy outcomes. Every Naira or dollar spent lends them the chance to reshape the Nigerian economy in their own image. That is why there is little political will by the federal government to break international and domestic monopolies, stop bogus subsidy payments at a time when the nation is neck deep in infrastructural deficits, underinvestment in our future and pervasive despair. While the poor and the hardly breathing middle class suffer, the richest have pulled away from the rest of Nigeria by getting richer.

No one has ever captured the influence of money in politics better than Mark Hanna, the acclaimed republican kingmaker of the late 19th century and William McKinley’s political brainbox. He said, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” For Nigeria to develop meaningful political equality, we must work hard to prevent the capture of government by powerful economic interests and create policies that would further the interests of majority of Nigerians. Powerful economic interests give campaign contributions to keep weak regulations, subsidies and tax free concessions on the books for the rich and powerful and to keep out laws and unions that can pose challenges to the profits of their businesses.

We are the way we are because the story of the hunt is usually told by the hunter and it glorifies none else than the hunter. The rich and the political godfathers are the winners in our political landscape and they write the rules. If we must curb the influence of powerful political and economic interests in our politics, we must be prepared to address the supply and demand side of the equation. Rich Nigerians and their operating concerns make financial investments in politics with the hope of improving their economic position, while politicians demand money because it helps them win elections and secure power. If money does not matter, no politicians would want it. The supply side is a long-term problem, that can be tackled in installments. With active interest we can start reducing the influence of money on the demand side. Our politicians need money to buy staples to induce voters, they need money for campaign staff, for posters, souvenirs like T-shirts, block wax prints, wrist bands etc, get-out-the-vote operations, and, the most costly of all, television advertising.

We can make the use of staples unnecessary by embarking on voter outreach and education and that will go a long way to stem the need for people to take money, rice and kerosine. A level playing field of equal opportunity for all can also eliminate the need for inducement. It is about time to push for public financing – federal government funds will be set aside to pay for the valid expenses of candidates’ political campaigns in the primary and general elections. It will be a step in the right direction if the government can work with the media to grant free airtime for candidates.


Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú tweets from @olufunmilayo

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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