Nigeria 2019: Eshu Laalu As Polling Agent, By Reuben Abati
Here is yet another account of what I saw in the politics of Ogun State and Nigeria. One of my early teachable moments was the realisation that you are required to dress like the people whose votes you are looking for, and operate at that level, be like them, connect with them. When the 2019 political struggle began, I used to attend meetings wearing suits. Party members looked at me suspiciously. I couldn’t miss the glances, the whispers, the murmurs but I couldn’t quite figure out what was amiss until one Sunday afternoon when I arrived at a scheduled meeting all suited up. As soon as I stepped in, I thought I overheard someone saying quietly: “Even on Sunday evening!” I didn’t think that comment was meant for me. Whoever said that was probably talking to someone else. The pieces soon fell in place when one of our apex leaders accosted me:
“Deputy, e ma de ku asiko yi o. E ku igbiyanju. Oro kan ma ni mo ma fe ba yin so.”
“Go ahead sir.”
“N se ni mo kan de ti e n wo kini na. O dabi e ni pe, you don’t like to dress like us. I see you don’t wear Sokoto and Buba, or any traditional attires. You just like these white man’s suits.”
“Of course, I have caftans. But I prefer to wear suits for work and formal meetings,” I responded.
I also tried to explain that I was just coming from a television programme.
‘Ha ha. Okay. But e joor sir, for this our campaign, you have to take it easy with these your suits oh. In politics, you must always look like the people you want to lead and speak like them. That is the only way they can feel comfortable with you. E joor sir oh. Si so okun mo orun ni igba gbobo yi fe po ju. Please do something about it. In this part of the country, a politician cannot go about wearing ties. Lai kii se aja!”
Of course, my wardrobe went through a quick transformation. I no longer heard any complaints or whispers, or murmurs. I had adjusted. I made friends very quickly. But that was not all. Our principal, Senator Buruji Kashamu operated mostly during the campaigns, from his Lagos office and his office in Ijebu Igbo. The latter is the Omo Ilu Foundation headquarters, a sprawling multi-purpose complex, sitting on about three acres, complete with a hall large enough for over 5,000 persons, in addition to an open pavilion, offices and a row of chalets with about 20 rooms. Omo Ilu Foundation, founded in 2010, is Senator Kashamu’s philanthropic organisation and political structure through which he provides help for orphans, widows and the indigent. We either met in Lagos or in Ijebu-Igbo, and given my position as his running mate, I was constantly present at meetings and activities. It didn’t take a while before the senator noticed that I always came alone. I didn’t travel in a convoy. I didn’t have a retinue of hangers-on. One day, he called me aside and told me:
“Dokita, why are you always walking alone? A politician does not walk alone. In politics, you must have your own team. You must have your own followers. You must have your own structure. I am going to help you set up your own structure and you can recruit your own followers over time. That is how to play politics. You can’t be going about alone. Politics is about people, strategy, hardwork.”
In no time, I had my own team and till the campaign ended, I never walked alone. Bouncers, security men, campaign vehicles, a team of drivers and assistants, party associates, advisers, supporters, family friends, consultants etc. My house became a beehive of activities. In Nigeria, a politician is not expected to close his doors. Men, women trooped in. People I had not seen in the last three years showed up. They sat in the compound, some came into the house and took over the sitting rooms. The house of a politician must have a ready supply of food and drinks. The house was soon flooded with cartons of assorted drinks. Dry gin. Schnapps, Brandy. Beer. Whatever. Some politicians insist that politics is better when it is fueled with the engine oil of alcohol. I had an inner crowd of regulars, male and female. At certain times of the day, someone will raise his hand and say: “De-pu-ty, e fun wa ni amala! Maa-anu n–fa-gi.” Time to eat! I never got a chance to meet this ever-hungry Maaa-nu, the apocryphal carpenter of the stomach!
These are experienced politicians who have been here and there. Some of them have participated in virtually every major political party since the return to civilian rule in 1999. They know every key political figure in the State. If you want to know your great grandmother’s biography, she may have died in the 15th Century, you just join politics, you will hear stories about your ancestors who you never knew ever lived. Interacting with those veterans, I received much education about local politics. They know everyone and their habits. There was never a short supply of anecdotes about the public and private habits of prominent Ogun State politicians, their wives and concubines, children and the underground network that seems to be a strong and dominant factor in Nigerian politics. People came in and out, sometimes staying till 12 midnight. Even if I slept off, they would stay on and have their own conversations. It was a diverse, motley crowd. They argued oftentimes, over this or that, but I admired their dedication, knowledge, experience, their energy and commitment. They have all become part of an emerging political ecosystem around my space. Only a few days away from Abeokuta, I miss them already: the women and their creativity with songs and ideas, the men and their knowledge of the terrain.
I got a rude shock however, in December, when one of my new friends started pestering me to give him money to buy a ram.
“Ram? Se iyawo yin sese bi mo, e fe se ikomo ni?,” Has your wife just put to bed and you need support for the naming ceremony?, I asked.
“No. Rah–rah o, deputy, a fe fi se etutu ni. We want to use the ram to make sacrifice of protection for you. You need some protection.”
What sacrifice? I couldn’t figure out what the man was driving at. But he was persistent.
“It won’t cost you a lot of money. Just the money for the ram and something on top. You are our own governor in Ogun Central, as far as we are concerned. Many people have seen you. They are talking about you. We also have enemies within the party. There are cases in court. The party people in Abuja don’t like us. As your own people, we have to protect you. Nothing must happen to you. You can be sure the Ijebus will also protect their own son.”
I waved it all off. December is a delicate month. That is when people use all kinds of trick to get money for the festive season. January is even worse: school fees have to be paid in January. I told the man I was not interested in any ritual sacrifice. The blood of Jesus is sufficient for all Believers! He didn’t argue. He left quietly. But he came back two days later, imploring me to give “Unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. He said I should realise that Nigerian politics is like a Dinner with the Devil and that I would need to acquire a long spoon of my own if I was serious about getting a seat at the table. Before his return, another person, who described himself as a Good Samaritan, had also called to say he was bringing to me a charmed waistband which I should tie around my waist any time we were going out for campaigns. I rejected the offer. I told the man I had no plans to become a shamanist because of politics. Our conversation ended in the shape of an argument with him telling me that I didn’t know what I had put myself into.
“Do you know what all those other people you sit down with have under their clothes? Deputy, Oju lasan ko se politics ni Nigeria yi oh. You must fortify yourself. You need ayeta (local bullet-proof charm), okigbe (protection against machete cuts) gbetugbetu (all-purpose Yoruba charm), awise afogbohun, ma-y-e-hun (charms for commanding persons), eyonu, atewogba (charms for popularity and acceptance)…after the waist-band, we still have a lot to do. Agan ni kini yi, ko se da gbe! A jo ma gbe ni. We are in this thing together. Anybody whose friend is disgraced is the one who has been disgraced.”
I was not scared, but I was worried that 21st Century Nigerian politics was beginning to sound like a return to the inter-tribal wars of the 14th Century.
I wasn’t going to part with a penny for any amulet or sacrifice. I was left alone for a while. We organised political activities: visited key stakeholders, communities, arranged consultation meetings, we stormed the town and other parts of our constituency. The women and my wife had their own group. They focused on markets and house-to-house campaigns. The only thing that worried me was that each time we went to some places, some members of the opposition will later call me to complain that they heard I was spending money and giving people gifts. I would deny of course but they would then proceed to mention the exact place, the person visited and what exactly happened. I became worried. I concluded that there was need to be very watchful. On more than one occasion, persons came to me to show me lists of voters, numbers of Permanent Voters Cards and the phone numbers of their owners. They claimed the voters were under their direct control and they could deliver entire wards and local governments. They needed money to mobilise the owners of the voters’ cards. It sounded strange to me. I didn’t play ball.
Before long, one of my self-appointed protectors came and said he would like me to go to a church somewhere in Abeokuta. According to him, every politician had already visited the church and whatever the man of God pronounced would come to pass. I refused. If the man of God had already promised every gubernatorial candidate, victory, why bother?
The battle for the protection of my soul and life in politics later reached a peak when one of the initial protectors returned to say that even if we did not do anything, we needed to send Eshu on errand, and he had identified the Eshu in the Igbein quarters of Abeokuta as the most potent agent that will ensure our victory in the 2019 gubernatorial polls. I tried to fence him off by showing off my knowledge of the Yoruba belief system and traditions. I even chanted the panegyric of Eshu, the trickster-god, the two faced, Janus member of the Yoruba pantheon. “Eshu Laalu, onile orita, ogirimoko okunrin, a ba ni wa oran bi a ri da, elekun n sun ekun, Laaroye n sun eje…” Eshu is usually regarded as the equivalent of the Devil, but Yoruba traditional thought identifies him as an oxymoronic agent for both good and evil, an attribute translated as drama, form, antonym, and performance in Femi Osofisan’s Eshu and the Vagabond Minstrels. The man was not interested in my anthropological, hermeneutic analysis. I even told him that in actual fact, the most potent Eshu in Egbaland is in Imo, not Igbein and I told him… I was trying to pass a message across. The man flared up.
“Eshu Igbein is very strong. If you give it what it wants. It will stand up and go out and deal with our enemies. It will bring us all the votes in Ogun State! It will go to every polling unit and vote.”
“Is it Eshu that will vote or the people of Ogun State? Is he a human being? Does he have a voter’s card?”, I inquired.
“Deputy, you don’t know this Eshu. After sending him on errand, you can’t come home straight. Otherwise, it will follow you. You must have a special, spiritual bath. Even then, three days later, it will still come to this house to give you a sign to show that he is already working.”
“I don’t want Eshu to come here,” I said emphatically.
“After he has worked for us, once you give him what he wants in return, he will go back. He is our best bet.”
Olawale Folorunso and Bode Sowunmi who were with me and who had been listening to the argument over the proposed recruitment of Eshu as a polling agent eventually intervened. Bode Sowunmi wanted to know if the Eshu could survive in a compound with interlocking tiles and air conditioners and whether he would occupy one of our rooms. Wale thought the whole proposal was bizarre. Bode asked:
“Okay, Egbon, if you believe so much in this Eshu, why don’t you go and do the ritual and send Eshu on errand on behalf of Dr Abati and Senator Kashamu. You are a politician yourself and you are all in this campaign together. Dr. says he doesn’t want Eshu in this matter.”
“I am not the one running for governor. I can’t spend my own money. Anybody that wants to be governor must be ready to give Eshu his due,” the man insisted.
Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesperson, writes from Lagos.