In Nigeria, godfatherism is ‘nothing new’ and traces of godfatherism can be found going back as early as the independence era. Today, the large sums of money godfathers bring into politics perpetuates their existence, but how did these figures become so influential over Nigeria’s politics?
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Godfathers: An Introduction. Buy the issue here.
In a January 2023 scandal, one of many in the run up to Nigeria’s 2023 elections, current presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, was accused of siphoning federal government funds to his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while he was vice president between 1999 and 2007. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is the response he provided in a BBC interview with regards to these allegations, saying that they were nothing new.
Atiku (as he’s more commonly known) may have been right in more ways than intended. Political finance in Nigeria has a tradition of murkiness and controversy that precedes even the country’s independence.
In 1956, four years before independence, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a leading party in Nigeria’s pre-independence period and the First Republic (1963-1966), was investigated by the British Colonial Government for allegations of financial impropriety on the part of the party’s leader, Nnamdi Azikiwe, then premier of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. Azikiwe had been accused of using £2 million of Eastern Region funds to purchase shares in the African Continental Bank, a company in which he and his family were major shareholders. The colonial government believed this was done to shore up the company’s troubled finances and to help fund the NCNC against the Action Group (AG), the leading party in the Western Region at this time. The commission set up to investigate these charges found Azikiwe guilty of misconduct. These findings, however, had limited impact on his popularity, or the popularity of his party, and subsequent elections in the Eastern Region returned both to power with resounding victories. In 1963, Azikiwe would become the first president of an independent Nigeria.
The experience of Nigeria’s First Republic provides similar stories. In 1962, in something of a reversal of roles, AG and its leader, Obafemi Awolowo, a previous premier of the Western Region, were accused of using public funds to enrich the party and some of its prominent members, draining the financial reserves of the Western Region Marketing Board by over £8 million. The Commission of Inquiry established to investigate these events found Awolowo guilty. Unlike Azikiwe, however, his political fortunes would not recover from these accusations, and they would play a role in the Western political crisis that led to Awolowo’s imprisonment, and that contributed the fall of the First Republic in the January 1966 coup.
The Second Republic (1979-1983) emerging from the Murtala Muhammad/Olusegun Obasanjo regime was mindful of this type of financial misconduct and the destabilizing effects it could have on democracy, enacting more explicit regulations around political finance than had been present during the First Republic. This regulation banned all foreign funding of political activity in Nigeria and prohibited all associations other than political parties from ‘contribut[ing] to the funds of any political party or to the election expenses of any candidate at an election’. This regulation, however, did not explicitly bar corporate contributions to political funds, and set no monetary limits on financial support from any entity. This oversight allowed a flood of money into politics. At one 1982 Lagos fund-raising ceremony, for example, just ten individuals raised N5 million, a sum equivalent to about $7.5 million at that time. This type of fiscal largesse made politics in the Second Republic an extremely lucrative business for those involved, spawning a new class of patron-contractor who invested funds into candidates of their choosing, and reaped the rewards of lucrative contracts and other state favors once those candidates won office. These practices contributed to rampant corruption, which led to the demise of the Second Republic in the 1983 coup that saw Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, become head of state for the first time.
The abortive Third Republic (1992-1993) sought to avoid these issues of party funding through the creation of two state funded parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC), intended to limit the use of private money in politics. While this may have limited direct party expenditure, some, including Enugu State University’s Dr. R.O. Oji, have claimed that individual candidates spent ‘over N1 billion’ in the 1993 presidential primaries. It may also be seen as no accident that the victor of the 1993 elections, Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, was also Nigeria’s richest man. The consequences of this spending and this outcome, however, were never seen, as this republic never came to be.
UNDER UBANGIDA’S UMBRELLA
Approaches to political finance and party funding in the Fourth Republic (1999-present)–Nigeria’s most successful attempt at democracy thus far—have been strongly informed by these past failures. Like in the Second Republic, the 1999 constitution explicitly bars political parties from holding any foreign funds or assets. It further establishes Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and, in addition to its duties in conducting elections, charges INEC with the responsibility of monitoring party finance through annual reports of ‘the accounts and balance sheet of every political party’ to be presented to the National Assembly. The constitution also mandates that political parties provide INEC with yearly statements of their accounts and expenditures, and gives the National Assembly powers to sanction individuals contravening regulations around political finance, up to and including disqualifying these individuals from holding public office.
These constitutional provisions have been further expanded through legislation. The regulatory framework around elections in the Fourth Republic has been guided by the 2001 Electoral Act, and four amendments to this, signed in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2022, each intended to account for social, political and economic change between elections that may influence their conduct. These amendments have allowed such electoral innovations as electronic voting, early primaries, and measures to improve access for voters with disabilities. The amendments have also increased INEC’s independence, decreasing constraints on the commission’s funds, allowing it a greater degree of control over its internal operations, and, in 2010, endowing it with some ability to sanction parties and individuals for violations of electoral law.
Each of these amendments, since 2006, has also sought to regulate political finance by setting limits on individual donations to political parties and their candidates, as well as on the maximum expenditure for political campaigns. These limits, however, have soared since they were first introduced. For example, the 2006 amendment limited campaign spending to N500 million for Presidential candidates, N100 million for Governorship campaigns, and N20 million and N10 million for elections to seats in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively. These limits were doubled in the 2010 amendment, such that campaigns for the Presidency could spend as much as N1 billion, and, in 2022, had increased again, allowing a maximum Presidential campaign spend of N5 billion. Additionally, while maximum individual contributions to political campaigns were capped at N1 million in 2006, this limit had increased to a staggering N50 million by 2022.
Political parties have made claims about their sources of funding that suggest compliance with political finance regulation. PDP, for example, outlines in its constitution that the sources of the party’s funds include fees and levies collected from party members, loans, proceeds from investments, money given as donations and gifts, and ‘other moneys as may be lawfully received by the party’.
Some attention has been given to the cost of party nomination forms, a source of funding included under the fees and levies referenced in the PDP constitution and which, like campaign spending limits, have seen dramatic increases since they were first introduced. In 2007, PDP charged party members campaigning for the Presidency N10,000 for expression of interest forms and N5 million for nomination forms. In 2015, these costs had increased to N2 million and N20 million respectively. Despite these high costs, and while a variety of figures have been put forth for the cost of PDP’s bid for the presidency that year, even the most conservative estimates of that campaign’s expenditures would have nomination and interest fees represent under one percent of its total cost.
Despite a clear, well-established and enforceable regulatory framework around political finance in Nigeria, and parties’ attempts to make their funding mechanisms seem transparent, political parties in the Fourth Republic have consistently shown contempt for oversight of their funds and expenditures. Nigeria’s two leading parties, PDP and All Progressives Congress (APC) have never complied with INEC guidelines around the submission of their financial accounts and expenditures. In 2012, the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) was the only major political party found to have its ‘financial affairs in order’, and in 2019, just four of 91 registered parties—the Action Democratic Party (ADP), Liberation Movement (LM), All Grassroots Alliance (AGA) and the Yes Party (YP)—were compliant with INEC deadlines around financial reporting.
The lack of reliable data around the accounts and expenditures of Nigeria’s largest parties limits much insight into sources of party funds and the ways that these resources are used in campaigns and other political activities. Some research, however, has used what information has become publicly available to consider this picture, with distressing findings. Sulaiman Balarabe Kura, for example, a researcher at Sokoto’s Usmanu Danfodiyo University, suggests that early as 2003, Olusegun Obasanjo’s campaign for reelection to the office of Presidency received at least N2 billion in corporate donations. This was double the limits for financial contributions that would be established three years later, and violated the 1990 Companies and Allied Matters Act, which prohibits corporate entities from making political donations. The 2003 Obasanjo/Atiku campaign would raise a total of at least N5.5 billion, exceeding even the limits set in 2022, and which may have included the federal funds Atiku has been accused of embezzling. Individual donors contributed large portions of this sum, with prominent donors, such as a group identifying itself as ‘Friends of Atiku’ as well as Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, contributing over N4 billion to the campaign.
Despite their magnitude, no individual was ever sanctioned for these violations of political finance law, likely because PDP was, in this period, far and away Nigeria’s dominant political party, with no institutions or rival political groups yet powerful enough to challenge it. That INEC had not yet been given its current prosecutorial role also meant that the responsibility for enforcing political finance law laid solely with the National Assembly, a body where, in 2003, almost two-thirds of all members belonged to PDP. It is difficult to imagine how these individuals would have allowed their party to suffer sanctions for funding activities that directly contributed to their electoral success.
Other prominent politicians in the early years of the Fourth Republic raised similarly large sums of money for their political campaigns. Former Delta State Governor, James Ibori, for example, received over N2 billion for his 2003 reelection campaign. In the same year Bola Ahmed Tinubu, two-term Governor of Lagos state and one of the leading figures in 2023’s Presidential race, raised N1.3 billion. Both figures were an order of magnitude greater than the 2006 limits, three years before those limits were set, and both campaigns received substantial amounts of money from wealthy and influential donors and groups.
This flood of money into politics tilted the playing field in favor of well-connected politicians and their parties, who were able to use their connections to funnel resources towards their political ambitions without any fear of consequence. This gave these entities an almost insurmountably competitive edge against their rivals, enabling them to buy larger crowds at rallies, distribute greater amounts of money and material inducements to potential voters, and, on election day, guarantee victory by buying more votes, stuffing more ballot boxes and paying for more violence to intimidate rival candidates and their voters. The chaos of electoral politics in this early period of the Fourth Republic, where every general election until 2011 was marked by widespread irregularity and abuse, meant that these uses of political finance were particularly effective, and generally accepted as legitimate means of political engagement. This conduct weakened Nigerian democracy, eroding the importance of individual votes, and planting seeds for a culture of voter apathy that persists to this day.
Another outcome of these dynamics was the emergence of a new class of political entrepreneur, the godfather, in a role strongly resembling those of the patron-contractors of the Second Republic. These godfathers used the absent enforcement of political finance rules to fund their chosen candidates to a wide range of political positions, and then, after elections, reaped the rewards of their investments in contracts, waivers and other state favors sent their way. In some parts of Nigeria, godfathers were so widespread and so renowned that they began to be known by other names, perhaps most prominently as Ubangida, meaning ‘master’ in Hausa, reflecting their mastery over the Nigerian political realm. Some people in this role went as far as to brag about the control that it allowed. Chief Chris Uba, a godfather in Anambra State, for example, declared in a 2003 interview that ‘I am the greatest godfather in Nigeria because this is the first time an individual single-handedly put in position every politician in the State’.
As the literature around it describes, godfatherism, like other forms of political corruption, harms democracy by putting in power politicians who may feel more indebted to their godfathers than to their constituents, and so may be more likely to pursue the interests of the former against the latter. It further hollows out the image of political office, strengthening perceptions of government positions as vehicles for personal enrichment instead of as means to address social needs. These consequences may cause voters to lose faith in democracy altogether.
The large sums of money godfathers bring into politics may also perpetuate their existence, as politicians who initially decline their patronage may, after losing to well-moneyed rivals, seek out godfathers to better compete in future elections, contributing to an arms race for political funds regardless of their sources or the consequences of their use. The conflict between godfathers and governance becomes most apparent when beneficiaries of godfathers’ funds attempt to break away from their associated influence. When Chris Ngige, a governor of Anambra state, attempted to assert himself against his godfather, the previously mentioned Chief Uba, the state erupted into violence that featured 24 deaths and the governor’s kidnap by armed policemen who forced him to sign a letter of resignation at gunpoint. More recently, attempts by former Lagos governor, Akinwumi Ambode, to break away from Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s hold on that state’s politics caused Tinubu to endorse another candidate, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, against his reelection bid, Ambode’s devastating loss to that candidate in state primaries, and a substantial reduction of his status in Lagos politics.
BOURDILLON AND BULLION VANS
The 2015 general elections were a watershed moment in Nigerian politics, not just for the fact that they were the first to see an incumbent president lose a reelection bid, or that they saw the first transfer of power between political parties in the country’s history. These elections were also the first where the party with the highest campaign expenditure did not also go on to win the election. Though INEC’s report on party finances for the year have not yet been made public, and while available figures vary, sources such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Leadership News have claimed that PDP spent anywhere between N4.8 billion and N9.7 billion on former president, Goodluck Jonathan’s reelection bid. These sources are more consistent for the expenses of APC, the party whose candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, would go on to win the election, and suggest that APC spent around N2.9 billion, a figure well below even conservative estimates of PDP’s spend.
This disruption of the relationship between political finance and electoral outcomes may reflect the deep unpopularity of PDP’s candidate, and the promise many saw in Buhari, who many Nigerians believed could offer an answer to Jonathan’s ineffective handling of corruption and insurgency. APC also attempted to portray their campaign’s financing as removed from the godfatherism that had funded previous successful attempts at the presidency, offering new ways for Nigerians of all classes to contribute to the campaign, such as through dedicated bank accounts, internet-based donation services, text messages to dedicated numbers, and the purchase of party ringtones and scratchcards, setting an ambitious goal of raising N10 billion from these types of contributions. These, and the apparent dethronement of some godfathers in the early years of the Buhari administration, such Bukola Saraki in Kwara State and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso in Kano, seemed to suggest that this new governing party was making some progress towards removing the instruments of governance from the hands of the country’s privileged few.
This progress, however, may only have been surface-level. Despite their multibillion-naira goals, APC was only able to raise N54 million through direct donations, just around 2 per cent of the total amount raised for the Buhari campaign. Additionally, many of the godfathers who suffered losses of their power during Buhari’s administration, including Saraki and Kwankwaso, had themselves joined or supported the APC in its campaign against President Jonathan. Their dethronement, then, instead of an APC play against political corruption, may more likely reflect tensions over power and control within the party, as reflected by the years-long standoff between Saraki and the Buhari administration, and Kwankwaso’s now-famous feud with this former godson and political successor, Abdullahi Ganduje. That Ganduje remains a powerful APC member, and, in some respects, has become a budding godfather himself, despite his implication in brazen political corruption, lends to a degree of skepticism around the genuineness of APC’s anti-corruption and anti-godfather stance.
Perhaps most damning has been the power enjoyed by influential APC godfathers, the most prominent of whom has been Tinubu. Over his two decades at the forefront of Fourth Republic politics, the Asiwaju of Lagos, as Tinubu is also known, has been implicated in a host of controversies around financial misconduct and state capture. Much of this is featured in ‘The Lion of Bourdillon’, a 2015 AIT film that accuses Tinubu of, among involvement in other crimes, siphoning Lagos State funds towards his own private accounts, fantastically enriching himself in the process. Just five days after it was first aired, a N150 billion libel suit filed by Tinubu banned the film from Nigerian television.
While Tinubu has emphatically denied any financial wrongdoing during his tenure as governor of Lagos or in the years thereafter, he has also failed to ever provide a consistent account for his well-known and immense wealth. He has, however, been considerably less tight-lipped about the ways this wealth has been used. In 2019, amidst controversy over two bullion vans seen leaving his sprawling Lagos mansion on the eve of that year’s elections, Tinubu famously quipped ‘I have money to spend…if I like, I give it to the people free of charge’. While some of his allies in APC have since attempted to explain this statement away, and have offered some other dubious reasons for the presence of these vehicles at a private residence, this type of event gives Tinubu the appearance of a man prepared to use any and all available financial resources to pursue his political ambitions.
The 2023 elections, and APC’s selection of Tinubu as their party’s flagbearer, have seen these concerns return to the fore. This started even before primaries, when Tinubu, perhaps worried that he may not receive the endorsement of his erstwhile ally, President Buhari, boldly claimed to have put the President in office. These same concerns arose during APC primaries, when candidates were accused of issuing bribes to party delegates in exchange for their votes. Despite considerable enthusiasm around other figures vying for APC’s nomination, Tinubu emerged from these primaries with over five times as many votes as his closest competitor, current vice president, Yemi Osinbajo. This victory was quickly followed by videos posted on social media purporting to show APC delegates cashing cheques received over the course of the primary.
Concerns over the use of money to influence outcomes in the 2023 elections have also been cited as a reason for the federal government’s controversial decision to issue new Naira notes, which some believe might limit the money available to politicians and godfathers to coerce voters. Some also believe that this decision was designed to target Tinubu in particular, a belief that has been expressed by some of the former governor’s political allies, including current Kaduna governor, Nasir el-Rufai. Tinubu himself seems to have seized on this belief, with increasingly critical comments about Buhari’s administration since the new notes were announced, and recently issuing praise for a Supreme Court ruling extending the deadline for the validity of the old Naira notes.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE KINGS OF NIGERIA
While the true goals of the new Naira policy and the veracity of videos claiming to show political corruption may be questioned, both demonstrate many Nigerians’ feelings about Tinubu’s most vital political asset: his money, and his willingness to use it. These concerns, however, may not be limited to just one candidate. Atiku also stands next to Tinubu as one of the Fourth Republic’s most influential politicians, and has been implicated in considerable financial misconduct beyond the scope of this particular story. Kwankwaso, ANPP’s candidate, is a former Kano state godfather himself, and, like his successor, is also not free of allegations of corruption. Peter Obi, perhaps the presidential candidate who has been least connected to financial misconduct, may also not be entirely unconnected from godfatherism. Obi has been alleged to have played the godfather role in Anambra, a state where he was governor, and where news outlets such as the This Day newspaper have claimed he helped install his successor, Willie Obiano. Chief Chris Uba, the previously mentioned Anambra godfather, also recently claimed Peter Obi as a beneficiary of his influence in that state, though some of Obi’s supporters, like former ambassador, Bianka Ojukwu, have disagreed with this characterization.
With how pervasive godfatherism has been in Nigeria, it may appear difficult to imagine means to separate the Nigerian electoral process from its corroding influence. Some measures discussed in literature, and that may be gleaned from a consideration of the history of Nigerian political finance, however, may help to bring a degree of structure to this political space.
One such measure may be a reassessment of spending limits set on political candidates and their campaigns. It makes little sense that the National Assembly, in 2006, would enact limits that were ten times lower than PDP’s campaign spending three years prior, or that the 2022 limits are just around half of some estimates of PDP’s expenditure on Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign in 2015. The National Assembly may find value in spending limits that flag campaigns with particularly high expenditures but are permissive enough to reflect real conditions in Nigerian politics. These higher limits may also give parties a fair shot at being able to remain competitive while complying with the letter of the law and may encourage them to be more transparent about their spending. It may also be worth reevaluating that the same limits for State and Local Government campaigns are applied in all states, despite considerable social, economic and demographic differences between these. There may be merit in allowing local authorities more involvement in determining the maximum expenditure for campaigns in these types of elections, to better reflect necessary differences their demands between states.
Additionally, the electoral landscape in Nigeria as whole stands to benefit from ongoing trends that have increased INEC’s operational independence and ability to fund itself. These, as well as INEC’s capacity to sanction individuals and parties that violate laws around political finance should be expanded as much as is possible, to ensure that the commission remains free of partisan considerations, and to strengthen its ability to enforce the already existing regulatory framework around elections, including those pertaining to money in politics. Other bodies established to regulate the Nigerian political space, such as EFCC, may be similarly strengthened and made more independent, as has been the case in recent years. A stronger EFCC would help prevent large political donors, godfathers and otherwise, from using their contributions to pressure elected officials into prioritizing their interests over those of the Nigerian public, and better protect whistleblowers who bring instances of abuse to the attention of authorities.
Finally, there is a need to continually engage Nigerian media and civil society around issues of political finance to better hold politicians and their parties to account. Nigerian journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens have shown great courage in holding truth to power and confronting political leaders and their allies about their disregard for the laws they are meant to uphold. While much of this has come at the cost of real human lives, as the case in the Lekki Tollgate #ENDSARS protests in 2020, these voices must be supported in their work, as it is work done on every Nigerian’s behalf. Godfathers, like Anambra’s Chief Uba, have shown their willingness to wield their power and influence against the public in defense of narrow interests, sometimes with fatal consequences. Those that take risks to stand up against this immense pressure deserve the full measure of our support⎈
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