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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 13:05 GMT
The rise of Nigeria's godfathers
By Dr Jibrin Ibrahim
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Ballot boxes in Nigeria
Godfathers are viewed by many as a threat to democracy
The concept of godfatherism is firmly establishing itself as a guiding principle in contemporary Nigerian politics.

Godfathers are generally defined as men who have the power personally to determine both who gets nominated to contest elections and who wins in a state.

Many regard them as a huge challenge to democracy in the country - although the godfathers themselves are staunchly supportive of the practice.

"One thing in politics is that you must believe in godfatherism. If I did not believe in it, I would not be in daddy's place," Reverend Jolly Nyame, the governor of the northern Taraba State, told Nigeria's The Sun newspaper.

"Whether you like it or not, as a godfather you will not be a governor, you will not be a president, but you can make a governor, you can make a president."


Indeed, following the general election earlier this year, Chris Uba - the acclaimed godfather of Anambra State in southeast Nigeria - declared in a moment of intense self-satisfaction that: "I am the greatest godfather in Nigeria because this is the first time an individual single-handedly put in position every politician in the state."

But why do godfathers act through surrogates, rather than take over the positions themselves?

The fundamental problem is that the godfather is either not directly saleable to voters, or wants to protect himself from liability should he later demand that the surrogate engages in illegal activities.

The godfather would therefore prefer that someone else's name be soiled.

In some states, godfathers bind their godsons by getting them to sign undated resignation letters and filming them making resignation announcements.

If the godsons fail to deliver to their godfathers after being elected, the godfathers are able to simply issue the resignation letter and videotape to remove them from office.

In some cases, godsons carry the briefcases and become errand boys before their godfathers anoint them for political office.

Why should somebody agree to be a godson under such degrading conditions?

Al Capone
The term "godfathers" originated with Chicago gangsters, such as Al Capone
It may not be too difficult a question to answer. Godsons by all accounts are often people with almost unlimited greed and avarice. It is an expression that suggests mistrust - and indeed disdain - for democracy.

The godsons believe that you cannot rely on the people to win democratic elections.

It is useful to recollect that godfatherism, in which kingpins of the criminal underworld played a major political role, first featured in political science literature in relation to the US city of Chicago in the pre-World War II era.

The heads of criminal gangs sponsored politicians in elections, manipulated the results to get them elected, and in return received protection and contracts from their political godsons.

This process is consecrated in American political science literature under the euphemism of 'party machine' politics.

The story of godfatherism in some parts of contemporary Nigeria is a fundamental statement about the state of democracy in the country.

As long as ruling parties are ready to depend on godfathers for their electoral victories, the citizens and voters can do little but take a back seat as onlookers.

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