Author and development practitioner, Ayisha Osori, ran for office in 2014 and recently changed how she thinks about Nigeria’s political processes—specifically, the practice of vote buying and selling during elections: ‘I now question the resources that democracy supporters put into this part of the electoral process.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
A blend of children and adult books so that by the time I started secondary school at 11, I had read almost all of Enid Blyton’s book collections (Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, The Magic Faraway Tree, and The Adventures of Mr Pink-Whistle series), lots of comics (Archie, Beano, The Adventures of Asterix & Obelix etc.) as well as books by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jackie Collins, Sidney Sheldon, and Jeffery Archer.
It was from the latter books that I learned that there was a prestigious university called Harvard and I made up my mind to go there.
What’s a book you wish you had read before going to Harvard?
I wish I had read more books that spoke to the impact of slavery on the evolution of the United States democracy and political development such as the one I am reading now, These Truths by Jill Lepore. I also wish I had read a lot more fiction by African American writers, books by the greats such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler and non-fiction like When They Call You a Terrorist by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullors.
If I had read Cullors’ memoirs, I would have been a more empathetic ally to the Black American student I shared living space with (Holmes Hall) who in an angry outburst rejected anything related to Africa (she preferred black American to African American). The conversation has haunted me ever since.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
There isn’t a book I love that I would want to rewrite and for the books that did not resonate or I did not entirely agree with, why bother?
I would rather focus on writing mine. I confess that the books I tend to not agree with are typically written by Nigerian authors and that is probably because the stories are personal to me, in a way that others are not (Sefi Atta’s Everything Good will Come for example) but I still respect the art too much to attempt a re-write.
If we are talking about rewriting movie scripts for books I love (e.g. The Davinci Code), I would jump at the chance but not the books themselves
There isn’t a book I love that I would want to rewrite and for the books that did not resonate or I did not entirely agree with, why bother?
What is the last book/text you disagreed with, and why?
Why Bother With Elections? by Adam Przeworski.
This book was interesting for its provocative theories around the design and utility of elections. One such theory is that successful elections and much of democracy is based on illusions that citizens accept. The book argues that at the end of the day elections do not change much of what is status quo, yet, year after year people participate.
I did not so much disagree but observed that despite the rich material, data, anecdotal history present in the book, not all Przeworski’s theories made sense when applied to Africa. For instance, he said in the book:
Representative government is built on a foundation that some know better and the voters are persuaded of this i.e., the civilized should rule the uncivilized, the men should rule the women, the wealthy should rule the poor etc. Elections merely ratify the superiority of those qualified to govern by their social & economic position.
The superiority claim does not hold up in Nigeria and other African countries (and probably parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America). This is because our candidates are not selected on the basis of intellect, productivity (past contributions), or lived ethics, so we must examine for ourselves what makes our political system tic and the foundations on which it lies.
My theory is that politics and governance in many countries are generally not for contributing to build a ‘good society’ but for taking a shareholding in the biggest business in most countries—a blend of inherited colonial, extractive, and patriarchal systems designed for exploitation.
The fiction is strengthened with the common and popular narrative that the majority of our population, the ones with nothing to lose, are the ones who are most engaged with the electoral process and the political structures; making ours a double lie.
What’s a book/text that recently changed your mind about something?
Max Siollun’s Nigeria’s Soldiers of Fortune: The Abacha and Obasanjo Years made me think differently about vote buying and selling during elections. I now question the resources that democracy supporters put into this part of the electoral process.
I can’t recall an exact phrase or sentence but one of my takeouts from reflecting on Max Siollun’s Soldiers of Fortune was that: it is to the politician’s advantage to make us believe that, in Nigeria, votes go to the highest bidder.
This belief makes it possible for only the rich to win elections; makes it possible to make our politics all about money, cash, and trade, as opposed to values and ethics, experience, track record, and accountability. This belief provides us with a self-fulfilling destiny that only the greediest, most acquisitive, ready to make unworthy compromises can manipulate our elections.
It prevents us from looking beyond vote buying to systemic election theft through the Constitution, electoral system, voter registration, selection of RECs and INEC political officials, election timetables, and how votes are tabulated.
My theory is that politics and governance in many countries are generally not for contributing to build a ‘good society’ but for taking a shareholding in the biggest business in most countries—a blend of inherited colonial, extractive and patriarchal systems designed for exploitation.
What’s a common misconception about African politics or politics in Africa?
This is hard to answer.
Whose misconception are we talking about? The ‘West’ who study and write about us and are typically the experts the ‘global’ institutions want to listen to when it comes to discussing Africa and its politics? Or is it the mass, the impoverished? Or the elite, or the political class; because across these various stakeholders, there are misconceptions.
Among the middle class of the late 70s to early 90s, a popular misconception was that only ne’er-do-wells need to consider a life in politics—while it is the opposite—our best thinkers and doers, with strong values who should be in politics.
Afro-optimists tend to believe that Africa can rise despite its base politics and manipulative elections, when Africa’s development trajectory and the creation of a sustained enabling environment for productivity and the right foreign and trade policies are bound tightly to our politics, elections, and ethos of governance.
The educated elite think the politicians are the sole problem, forgetting the civil and public service (where their children, siblings, parents work) and the strong sense of entitlement to government office that makes most of us unable to appreciate the fact that in most of our countries, government is the welfare system that we have refused to build.
What about elections in Nigeria? What’s something you wish more people knew about Nigerian elections?
I think people know it already but it’s worth repeating: by the day of elections, as we stand for hours under the sun waving our PVCs, willing actors in an intricate charade of exercising our civic rights, 90 per cent of the battle to recruit the right leadership has been lost.
Because we are merely ratifying the flawed selection of the political parties—which we do not belong to and have no influence over.
If you could give President Buhari a book to read, which book would that be?
I would give one of the most privileged Nigerians who ever walked the earth nothing. Not even a book recommendation.
Among the middle class of the late 70s to early 90s, a popular misconception was that only ne’er-do-wells need to consider a life in politics—while it is the opposite—it is our best thinkers and doers, with strong values who should be in politics.
What’s your writing process like? Do you edit as you write or write a draft first, then edit?
On personal, imaginative writing, yes, I dump and then edit.
On political, social, policy-related writing, I read and research first, widely, and in a way that makes me think I am distracting myself from doing the actual writing.
As I read, I outline the major parts of the paper/book and try to harness what exactly I want to say. Then I write and edit as I go along. Every time I go back to work in progress, I read from the beginning and inevitably edit as I go along.
Your book, Love Does Not Win Elections, was based on some of your experiences contesting in Nigerian politics. What was your process for writing it?
First, I went back to the journal I kept during the experience of contesting the PDP primaries in 2014. I read through the journal and transcribed it into my computer, making additions from memory, including analysis seasoned with the perspective of time and distance as I went along. Then, I wrote the entire book as a diary – (you can tell who has been influenced by Bridget Jones) and then asking someone trusted for feedback.
The feedback was that while the stories were interesting, the format did not work and I should consider writing it in chapters that spoke to key elements of the experience. I considered it and as I re-wrote the entire thing, I enjoyed the process a lot more than the diarized format. Also, at the back of my mind, there was the sense that I would have two versions and did not lose anything by re-writing.
I personally edited several times and with the publisher, several more times. When I read it now 4 years after it was published, I see lots of opportunity for even more editing. The lesson is, there is always room for more editing but there is also room to say ‘good enough’ when there are absolutely no typos left in the document.
What’s one further edit you’d make to Love Does Not Win Elections?
More edits to typos (still have a few—horror!) general language and expression but not much else because the book is only a sliver of a story and not meant to be more than what it is.
What’s one book everyone should read before running for office in Nigeria?
I feel tempted to say that it is not reading before running for office that is important; it is studying the process, knowing the ethos of our politics and elections, and critically understanding and accepting why a person wants to run. Honesty about the reasons for running will become a divining wand and make it easy for a candidate to do what needs to be done (or not done).
I recommend any book that can help with all or one of these three areas and more Nigerans are documenting their political experience, e.g. Jude Feranmi of Lead the People and Gbitse Barrow’s Let’s Get Involved. As such, we have our own experiences to tap into. I would also recommend books of political upsets (such as Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin on Obama’s 2008 win).
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Edit. Edit. Edit. Don’t fall so deeply in love with your own prose that you can’t delete when you should.
What’s more important to you: the story/topic or how it is written?
The two are intricately wound together. How a story is written is as important as what is being written about.
With politics and history (my favorite topics), there are many people with valid insider information about the political machinations of our countries but I cannot read them because of how they write. I want to read and bask in the power of beautifully spun words, I want to read and be part jealous and part inspired by the craft of writing.
And what’s a word people should use more often?
Don’t fall so deeply in love with your own prose that you can’t delete when you should.
Who is an Author You Wish You Had Discovered Earlier?
African and African American writers in general such as Octavia Butler.
When I first read her (Kindred) in 2014 I could not believe I had never come across her work or even read about her. One of my methods for expanding my reading list is to pick up references from articles and books (I love books that refer to literature and art such as Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness) and I have a never-ending list of books to buy and read from this curating style.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
My reading interests are eclectic and related to what I am curious about and sometimes dictated by where I am–every time I travel to a new place, I like to read about the place preferably from writers from that place. When I spent a year in Germany, I read a lot of German and European history and fiction written by Germans.
These days, my non-fiction revolves around elections, politics, democracy, history, racism (When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele is a must-read), nation building, gender, pop-culture, and geo-politics. These Truths by Jill Lepore and The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks—books which I am currently reading—tick some of these boxes.
I finished Max Siollun’s Nigeria’s Soldiers of Fortune earlier this year (recommend) and I am looking forward to reading Politics in Africa by Nana Poku and Anna Mdee, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and The Light that Failed by Ivan Krastev & Stephen Holmes amongst others.
My fiction reading is suffering—by the time I squeeze out time to read for work e.g. the impact of COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccine politics as well as developments related to rising authoritarianism, insecurity and its drivers, and assaults on economic and human rights, there is little time left to read purely for pleasure.
The last work of fiction I read was On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (did not enjoy it really) and before that, Dog Eat Dog by Niq Mhlongo (also no raves but lots of laughs). I am looking forward to Ogadinma by Ukamaka Olisakwe when next I pick up fiction.
On writing—this has also suffered over the last two years. My writing has been limited to articles related to COVID-19, elections, and democracy: ‘How tenure elongation and a lack of term limits weakens the integrity of elections in Africa’ and some of my experience with cancer: ‘The Personal is Political’.
What’s something that surprised you about writing on your experience with cancer?
That I had no desire to write and writing was now a slow and painful process.
For the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I found myself totally disinterested in writing, not even about what was happening to me.
One could say with each round of chemotherapy (16) and radiation (25), the desire to write evaporated a little more. Like mining bitcoins, fighting cancer takes immense amounts of energy. I have not quite regained the energy for writing that the pre-cancer me had.
One of my methods for expanding my reading list is to pick up references from articles and books.
You’re an advocate for women’s rights and a former CEO of the Nigerian Women Trust Fund. What is the most significant problem women participating in Nigerian politics face?
The most significant problem women face is the culture of politics and what it means to be responsible for governance in Nigeria which is in summary: to exploit the people and extract collective resources for personal gain.
The power that comes from being responsible for the commonwealth and managing and deploying state resources is corrupting and there are no real checks and balances, making getting into government and being on the ‘side’ of government (speaking to private sector connivance and involvement) the most lucrative business in the country.
This ethos is the root of why it is so difficult to let anyone who might do things differently into the political structures. It is why our politics is ‘do-or-die’ and why opposition is so weak—because access to public funds and power over state institutions is what drives the ability to win elections.
Which comes to the impact on women who are traditionally (since independence and particularly with military rule) not part of politics and so do not have the resources to be in politics and win elections in the way that it takes to win in Nigeria.
This ethos is why despite good recommendations from the Uwais Electoral Reform Committee (in 2008) such as adoption of ‘proportional representation’ (to ensure those elected are more reflective of the diversity of our society), those in charge prefer the winner take all system of ‘first-past-the-post’, because the benefits of being ‘winner’ are too lucrative to give up.
Layer on misogyny and patriarchy—in a culture where women and girls are objectified and meant to be ‘looked after’ and it makes it additionally difficult for women to contest and win elections without the cover (some might say endorsement) of a strong man.
When we do the work of reforming the mindset about what politics and governance should be, when we have serious conversations about the type of society we want to be, we will have more women in politics.
What can we expect you to write about next?
I want to do more non-fiction writing and I have been toying with a made for TV series (guess what about?) that has not gone anywhere yet.
While I pine for that opportunity, I will continue to research and write about democracy, elections, and politics in Africa in particular and across the world more generally as this fascinates me especially the links between the current models of governance, standards of economic progress, and our global history of slavery, colonialism, racism, organized religion and patriarchy.
I am also curious about the evolution and adaptation of civil society and philanthropic institutions to meet the complexities of modern-day challenges; what it takes to re-orient people and societies away from harmful cultures, thoughts, and habits; and towards effective organizing. I tend to write about what I want to understand.
Question from Dafe Oputu: What’s a book/work that doesn’t exist yet, but you wish someone would write?
I feel quite certain that books about it exist in different languages, cultures that I have not been privileged and/or opportuned to access, but a book about the intersection of self love-hate-loathing, family, the prison of the past (dna / upbringing / culture) and the triumph of the human spirit in a Nigerian setting.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
If your work would never be published, would you still write? Explain your answer⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]