It must have been about the most destabilising pressure on democracy in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic. That is the wars that broke out between one godfather and godson here and there since 1999. Each time one broke out, peacemaking freaks put on their peacemaking kits to try to resolve it. The success stories have been very few because, by its very nature, a conflict between a godfather and godson is vaccinated against resolution. Godfathers pick godsons, not the other way round. The choice is never informed by any objective criteria. The criteria are known to only the godfather. The criteria being so specific to him, (godmothers are not so prominent yet in Nigerian politics), makes resolution difficult.
Ordinarily, there is no problem between a godfather and a godson that cannot be trashed out if there is an inter-subjective space between the two. Inter-subjective space means they can sit down and go through what and where a problem might be coming from. The logic of power, however, does not allow the idea of inter-subjective space. How can the boss and the big boy he lifted from nowhere yesterday begin to sit down and trash difference? With that psychology, the inter-subjective space is closed, middlemen enter the space and resolution is ruled out.
In the context of the Fourth Republic in Nigeria, the mother of godfather versus godson wars must be the Obasanjo-Atiku feud. By 2002, the two were already at war which took two more years to blow into the open. Till today, no groups have been able to reconcile the two in the whole of Nigeria, suggesting that only the conflict parties might know what the issues dividing them might be. At the end of the last rounds of efforts towards reconciliation, Obasanjo, the senior partner in the process came out to declare that God would not forgive him if he endorsed Atiku’s ambition to be president of Nigeria. Imposing a theological justification for declining reconciliation would have been considered a frightening way of foreclosing that option but not Obasanjo who holds a doctoral degree in Theology.
He left Atiku with cautioning him in favour of using his evening to guarantee his place in the hereafter, another theologically weighty framing. But, at the end of the day, the two remain politically apart. If only they spare a minute for the price that people who have absolutely nothing to do with their conflict have paid, they might have thought otherwise. But, it is not in the nature of such combatants to reflect beyond where the fight concerns them.
Was Atiku Obasanjo’s godson? Yes, as far as his becoming the Vice-President in 1999 is concerned. That position had been scheduled to be occupied by the late Mohammed Abubakar Rimi who was the only one out of the original negotiators of the PDP who had not been given any assignment yet. Yet, he was the chairperson of the Finance Committee of the emergent party. It is a different thing to ask if his committee was the source of the finances that gave PDP victory in 1999. The point is that the position is not given to just anybody. It was not Atiku’s own intrigue that made Obasanjo to sidetrack Rimi. That was thanks to internal intrigues within the emergent ruling party. But neither did Atiku suggest to Obasanjo about the need to follow internal democracy in deciding the Vice-President. By his own testimony, Obasanjo, the president-elect called him and asked him if he would obey him. To which he replied yes, mentioning something about the late Shehu Yar’Adua having instructed all of them before to always follow Obasanjo.
It is probably too much to expect Atiku at that point to be the one to have drawn Obasanjo’s attention to the need to follow internal party arrangement. It is more likely to be the inability of the party to compel its presidential candidate to follow the established consensus that is more crucial pointer to how the godfather versus godson crisis evolves in a manner as to be beyond resolution. Today, Obasanjo-Atiku split is, arguably, the mother or ultimate signifier of that threat to democracy in Nigeria, the source of the current versions of it in Senator George Akume versus Governor Samuel Ortom tussle in Benue State and mandarin of the ruling All Progressives Congress, (APC), Ahmed Bola Tinubu versus his main godson, Governor Ambode of Lagos State.
Interestingly, Akume-Ortom version shares a lot with Obasanjo-Atiku’s. Before the preference for Ortom, there was a candidate with some elementary populism and, therefore, potentials. Like Obasanjo, Akume swung round and Ortom became the winner of the swing. Today, the two are unable to hold back against each other, saying things which elite members rarely say against each other publicly even when relations between them breakdown. As things are now, only God knows what democracy holds in store for Benue State. As he leaders are busy dealing with each other, the state grinds to a near total halt. It used to be said that elite do not allow their own internal squabbles to hold down the society. This is not the case. It is not clear if that is the scenario in Lagos State as the two big players tear at each other. It would seem that some states such as Lagos, Kano and Rivers can better absorb shocks than poverty ridden ones such as Benue.
The dynamics of the godfather versus godson war in Lagos are still unfolding. It is still possible Governor Ambode recaptures the initiative in correctly reading his boss and reclaiming the temple. As Chinua Achebe hinted in Anthills of the Savannah, correctly reading the boss can be such an impossible task to accomplish. It is not getting it right that is the problem but never knowing just what’s up at any one time is the bigger complication.
What have been the other big splits, cracks and fights between godfathers and godsons in Nigeria since the birth of the Fourth Republic in 1999? Two comes to mind immediately: the split between Obasanjo and incumbent President Buhari since December 2016; the split between Obasanjo and former president, Dr Goodluck Jonathan in 2014 and the split between Obasanjo and the late president Umaru Yar’Adua. In this category would be listed the rift between General TY Danjuma and Obasanjo although, the question of who is the godfather and the godson in this case is difficult to decide. TY Danjuma is known to have insisted Obasanjo must take over power as military Head of State in 1976 after the Dimka coup. In 1998, General Danjuma also declared that if Obasanjo did not win the 1999 presidential election, he would go on exile. He has taken time to explain the basis of the statement, to clear it of allegations of hatred against the Igbos. The dynamics of Nigerian politics appears to have brought them together in a loose coalition against incumbent president.
Buhari, Jonathan and Yar’Adua were Obasanjo’s godsons 100%. Obasanjo did not single handedly make Buhari president in the same manner he made Jonathan and, before him, Umaru Yar’Adua but he played no small role in the process. Besides, Buhari served under him in the military and the military rank mentality makes the president the farmer Obasanjo’s godson, politically speaking.
To this list might be added Obasanjo-Sule Lamido split. There are no leaky outbursts from any of them so far. But it was a revealing statement for Lamido to declare recently that Obasanjo is not sponsoring him in his aspiration to be president. That is not the kind of statement expected of a chummy godfather and godson. Still, Obasanjo is the closest Lamido ever came to having a godfather. OBJ did penetrate him by appointing him Foreign Affairs Minister, a reality which closed a gap in his life. Unfortunately, the relationship between him and Obasanjo did not seem to have attained the status of the godfather/godson. That is godfather in the sense of that person who never gets tired in issuing danger signals at every turn as well as ‘enforcing’ the godson’s compliance so that there is no question of the son accepting food from just anyone simply because he was hungry or just because eating a particular food has become fashionable. Sule Lamido had thus been his own godfather in Nigerian politics. Whether the fault is his or Obasanjo’s is a matter for debate. What makes it an issue of current interest is the recent statement under reference.
Lamido’s case is completely different from the split between Obasanjo and Nasir el-Rufai on the one hand and Nasir el-Rufai and Atiku Abubakar on the other hand. In fact, there is a theory that only the three know what caused the rift between them and why any of the two might only smell powers at the Federal level only when Obasanjo cannot block them. There are no signs of a make-up between any of them.
There is the Senator Musa Rabiu Kwankwaso versus Governor Abdullahi Ganduje war in Kano. In their own case, it is not strictly a godfather versus godson since Ganduje even contests Kwankwaso’s seniority in politics. Theirs is rather the successor’s rebellion stuff. Successors in Nigeria tend to run into trouble with their predecessors. There are only few exemptions, especially at the level of state governors as a layer of power. That is why the war is commoner today than the First Republic when the most sensational split was the one in the Awo camp. Again, it is not clear if what happened in that camp was a godfather versus godsons war or a rebellion. Whatever it was, some people would say it is still taking its toll on Nigeria.
It was the Second Republic that paraded the classical godfather versus godson wars. The two most fascinating were the contestation of the late Abubakar Olusola Saraki’s godfather’s status b y every governor he brought to be during that republic and ever since then. There were no less than five of such: two in the Second Republic, two in the aborted Third Republic and two in the Fourth Republic, including Dr Bukola Saraki, his own son who also enacted a war with the late sage. But the most complicated and most dramatic was the revolt against the late Mallam Aminu Kano by the two governors of the defunct People’s Redemption Party, (PRP). Like in the Awo camp in the First Republic, it is a bit untidy to call this a war between a godfather and his godsons. Of course, Mallam Aminu Kano was the quintessential party leader, the one who had acquired the unchallenged stature in that regard in national psyche. And he personally endorsed the two governors of Kano and Kaduna states, Abubakar Rimi and Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa. But, given the issue at the heart of the split, it was more than disobedience of the godfather. Nevertheless, it was a complex, dramatic break up, the story of which might not have been fully told. There is a sense in which it continues till today, if not in the Kwankwaso/Ganduje split, then it not yet here nor there perceived distance between Alhaji Sule Lamido and some young turks around him before now.
It was the late Chief Lamidi Adedibu, the strongman of Ibadan politics who gave an insight into the working of the godfather syndrome. Chief Adedibu said it was more lucrative to be a political godfather or kingmaker than a political office holder because if one was a political godfather and anoints persons into political offices, the returns they bring to one amounts to more than an individual political office holder gets. Is it Chief Adedibu’s thesis that is playing out in this round of the wars or something else? Does Nigeria need to worry about the rash of rifts between godfathers and godsons or it is just part of an election year realignment? Is anybody calculating the costs? Is this what goes on in other places across the world or there is a uniqueness to it in Nigeria? Are Nigerians hoping it would just go away or for divine intervention?