Buying an African election: Money rules in Nigeria as lawmakers earn 4 times more than Obama

Elections can be no-holds-barred battles with candidates and parties employing armed thugs to bludgeon opponents, snatch ballots and rig results.

WHEN Okey Onwa decided to run for a seat in Nigeria’s House of Representatives, a ruling party leader laid out the terms to the 52-year-old lawyer. He would have to pay 2 million naira ($10,048) as an expression of interest and sign post-dated cheques, forfeiting half of his income as a lawmaker to gain the support of the party boss, commonly known as a “godfather” in Nigeria. 

“When I complained, he told me this was business, that I can try going it alone if I wanted,” Onwa said in an interview in Awka, capital of the southeastern state of Anambra. He said he decided against running because he knew that on his own, he couldn’t raise the 100 million naira he needed for the campaign. 

As Africa’s biggest oil producer prepares to elect a president and parliament on March 28, at stake for most politicians is the power to dispense and receive cash and patronage rather than competing ideologies. The main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has said it will maintain many of the economic policies of President Goodluck Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). 

Obama can’t touch this

With annual salaries and benefits of as much as $2 million a year, Nigeria’s lawmakers earn more than four times Barack Obama’s salary as US president. Whoever wins the presidency has a critical say in dispensing about $70 billion a year in state revenue, more than two-thirds of which comes from oil and gas exports. 

“There’s no country in the world that has that kind of remuneration for its lawmakers,” Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, or CDD, said in a phone interview. “Money plays such a huge role and the political process is very expensive, making it for the richest and not the best. Essentially, the godfathers are the ones that control the parties and determine candidates.” 

Both Jonathan, a 57-year-old southern Christian from the oil-rich Niger River delta, and his main opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old northern Muslim and former military dictator, have pledged to fight corruption and make the petroleum industry more transparent.

Corruption has dogged Nigeria’s political system since independence from Britain in 1960. Transparency International ranked it 136th out of 174 countries assessed in its 2014 Corruption Perception Index. 

Former central bank Governor Lamido Sanusi was suspended by Jonathan last year after he alleged that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation hadn’t remitted about $20 billion in oil revenue to the government. 

State power 

Highlights of a PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP audit into the NNPC said it should refund a minimum of $1.48 billion, with the state-owned company claiming the report had absolved it of Sanusi’s allegations. The full PwC audit hasn’t been released. 

“Anyone who has state power controls everything,” said Jideofor Adibe, a political science lecturer at Nassarawa State University in the city of Keffi, 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of the capital, Abuja. “The group that produces the president can reward itself and punish the others. You can make a billionaire out of an ordinary man overnight.” 

Candidates use funds for their publicity campaigns as well as to influence “opinion leaders” and potential voters, said Gozie Agbakoba, who lost his bid to return to the House of Representatives in 2011 for the Action Congress of Nigeria, which is now part of the APC. “I lost because I didn’t share money,” Agbakoba said in an interview in Abuja. “It’s difficult to win an election in Nigeria without providing inducements to voters, be it rice, other gifts or cash.” 

Revenue allocation 

Apart from the 109 seats in the Senate and 360 in the House of Representatives, candidates are also vying for the state governorships and places in regional legislatures. Each level of government shares in the oil revenue, with the national government receiving 52.7%, the states 26.7% and local councils 20.6%. 

Of the 36 states, only Lagos, which generates 75% of its own revenue, could survive without the monthly cash allocations from the central government by trimming spending or selling bonds, according to National Bureau of Statistics data. 

Since more than 70% of the federal budget is spent on recurrent expenses, such as the salaries and benefits of about a million public officials, there’s little left for capital investments in infrastructure, health and education. Many people who would’ve been entrepreneurs in business or industry seek political office “as a much quicker way to make money,” Clement Nwankwo, executive director of Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, said in an interview. 

Tight election 

With the majority of the population poor and without education, “it’s difficult for citizens to understand the role of the elected official,” he said. “They measure candidates by how much they pay.” 

This year’s races are set to be the tightest ever, with both parties having 42% support among likely voters, according to an Afrobarometer poll released January 27. 

About 68 million people are registered to vote, the electoral agency said. The vote is being held at a time when cash is especially tight, with the price of crude having declined more than half since June, falling below budget projections. 

With ideology less important than the battle to control resources, elections can sometimes be no-holds-barred battles with candidates and parties employing armed thugs to bludgeon supporters of opponents, snatch ballots and rig results. 

In 2011, about 800 people were killed and at least 75,000 forced to flee their homes after Jonathan’s victory was announced. “The big challenge now facing Nigeria is how to make the welfare of people the purpose of politics,” said Onwa. “Right now, for the average politician it’s all about how to make money.”

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