Anon reflects on a politician friend…
Ever since I read A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe in secondary school, my perception of the average Nigerian politician has never been far from the Achebean model. Half a century after the inimitable novelist’s impeccable portrait of a politician of the first republic, the impression has not changed by much for me. Perhaps that is why I have never voted all my life. No apologies.
The modern equivalent of the villain, Chief the Honourable Minister M. A. Nanga, in a book that, some now claim, presciently predicted Nigeria’s first military coup, remains almost the same – greedy like a hog and fat like one, self-obsessed and ever out to do voters in at the slightest opportunity.
So, I have always been wary of politicians just as I am suspicious of butchers. Both are quick to tell you they will give you the best cut, represent your interest. In reality, everyone knows who they really set out to please.
“Oga, I know fit cheat you o because you be my person,” my butcher used to assure me, ever smiling, as he sharpened his knives. But once he starts cutting the beef piece by piece, his expression changes completely. In place of the smile there is a hard and concentrated look, passed on by wily generations of butchers, perhaps, suggesting that, however eagle-eyed a buyer is, he will still be hard done by.
And truly, my portion keeps getting smaller while his pocket keeps bulging with naira notes, stashed in careless bundles in different denominations the way ram sellers do.
If ever there is a man who has combined those attributes of the politician and the butcher, my friend lays a good claim. For now, let us call him P. P never hesitates to let it be known he has lived all his life for others, looked out for friends and even foes. Lest we forget, P is a Ward Chairman in his local council, deferred to respectfully as “My Chair” by the scores of flunkies who come around him.
Whether or not P set out to be a politician, I can never tell. Perhaps, providence played a part in it. After all, didn’t an obscure school teacher rise, step by step, to become the number one citizen of his country? Or it may have been a carefully calibrated compensatory scam that got P where he is today.
When politicians go on the campaign trail, they meet voters one-on-one, begging for their support, glad-handing all the way, with artisans, market women, youths, community and religious leaders. But once elected, they become aloof, no longer enthusiastic about meeting the very people at the grassroots.
Thus were Ward Chairmen created to, ostensibly, liaise directly with the elected officials and to also inform them of their community’s needs. The truth, however, is that such Ward Chairmen became direct beneficiaries of what should have gone round to all, some kind of middle men who receive on behalf of those at the grassroots but offer only crumbs to them.
Thus did P grow gradually in wealth and importance, dispensing with a beat-up Toyota for a four-wheel ride that he tools around with today. (By the way, he told me recently that, God willing, he would soon trade that for a snazzier car.)
This last Sallah break, I got to know the kind of politician P was. By his own admission, a top politician gave rams to all the Ward Chairmen in his council. P benefited from the largesse. A Christian, he gave out his beast to a Muslim member of his ward who was hard pressed for cash to buy one. He told me all that himself but conveniently neglected to add that he collected money for the free gift.
P never misses any opportunity to let people know how much he gives to those who come to him for this or that assistance but never the allocation he receives daily, except Sundays, from touts who troop to his office now and then. It would be naïve, of course, to expect a politician to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Those who know insist it is second nature to them.
But what shocked me most was the remarkable transformation of P when I saw him recently. The reedy lad I used to know has morphed into a real Big man, a Nigerian Big man in every sense. Shirts and trousers had been discarded for oversize traditional wears, with customized sandals to match. I suspect P has searched in vain for nifty shoes to reflect his new status. His outsize feet have been clearly in the way.
In describing P’s physique, Peter Clemenza readily comes to mind: a pudgy face matched with a generous paunch. But where Clemenza bounds around, Lupara in hand, to whack any enemy of the House of Corleone, P will be a sitting duck for any desperate rival who has him in his crosshairs.
His distended belly controls most of his movement, as if propelling him forward against his wish, hands parallel to his body, barely swinging. I once imagined him ambling up a staircase. P cannot raise his head more than 20 degrees above eye level because of the rolls of flesh on the back of his neck.
Almost every action of his comes with a great effort. Sitting on his chair one afternoon, he leaned across to pick a pen on his table. He grunted. He was suffering, medically speaking that is.
“Epele o,” somebody said to him. I almost exploded with a belly laugh. I yawned instead.
Sitting down is worse for P. He more or less slams himself on the seat, as if his legs were cut from under him leaving the rest of the body smashing down on the sofa.
“I was not like this o,” P told me one day. I didn’t ask him why. It was obvious: unexpected windfalls like the daily deliveries to him can only lead to one predictable end: conspicuous consumption, and there are abundant avenues to indulge in such excesses.
Like some of his colleagues, P likes to party. And so one evening, he told me he was going to a party, a birthday bash for a young woman he had never mentioned to me before. “Is she your friend?”
“No,” P replied.
“But she is a friend of the house?” Which house? I wanted to ask him but stopped just in time.
After we parted, I imagined P living it up at the soiree, with other politicians for sure, basking in one another’s importance, a life band zinging up the mood, the birthday babe herself all smiles, curtseying here and there, with paparazzi, androids, smart phones, ipads or whatever handy gadget there was recording everything for posterity.
It didn’t take long to comprehend fully what someone once thought of the connection between politicians and showbiz. “Showbiz and politicians both play to the crowd. The politician and the performer equally require public attention and feed on popular adulation.”