By Allyn Gaestel



LAGOS – Comrade Agbodemu Ishola Musbau strode through Ebute-Metta, a bustling neighborhood of concrete block homes interspersed with fading colonial houses, their deep brown, mint green and mustard yellow stucco walls stained with watermarks and exhaust fumes. Weaving between bright yellow vans and golf carts—the omnipresent public transport of the Lagosian poor—he passed market stalls crammed with tomatoes, wigs and cell phones. But he didn’t disappear into the masses; all along his way people called out to him from across chaotic intersections, or reached out to shake his hand. When recognized, he lit up, a broad smile exposing his teeth and erasing the frown lines that normally crease the bridge of his nose. He laughed and greeted his admirers.

“They know me! You see?” he asked me, “Everybody knows me.”

A man of the people, shall we say.

It’s election time in Lagos. And everyday Agbodemu, a housing rights activist turned politician, sets off to talk to voters. He twists to the back of markets and sits with herb sellers in their stalls overflowing with leaves and twigs, or sets up chairs on the roadside next to dilapidated bungalows for “interactive campaign dialogues.” He urges voters not to sell their vote to the highest bidder but to vote on issues and judge candidates on their background. “I never claim I’m the best person,” he said, “What the other party has done to the Lagos mainland is to do nothing they promised, so I decided to come out.”

Agbodemu with his campaign van

Even before election season, Agbodemu was prominent, at least in this little corner of Lagos. This is his fifth candidacy for a post in the local government. This time he’s seeking a seat in the Lagos State House of Assembly. When he’s not infused with election fever he is a thorn in the side of the government, which he sees as investing in Lagos for the rich at the expense of the poor. He has been a first hand victim of the human rights violations of the ruling party, the All Progressive Congress (APC), which (despite name changes) has dominated Lagos’ political scene since the transition to civilian rule in 1999. APC tenure has brought marked security improvements to Lagos and on the surface some notable infrastructure upgrades. But construction requires land, and nearly every vaguely habitable patch here houses someone. So attempts to upgrade Lagos have largely been coupled with deadly, violent evictions. Agbodemu has survived four, and attacks on his home have galvanized an obsessive zeal for housing rights.

There are a few famous, visible slums in Lagos, but more so, slums are everywhere you can’t see. Hidden on the banks of the lagoon, just invisible beneath the barriers of the expressway, and down where the road twists and seems to dead-end—round a corner and you stumble across thousands living in plank and tin houses.

A slum dweller himself, and survivor of four violent demolitions, Agbodemu has had enough. “We don’t know what was the offense of the poor because all of their policy arrangements, plans, lands on poor people,” he said. “We are keen to change that system, that callous barbaric system that whenever you have been elected you are free to do whatever you like”

The demolitions, “midnight infernos”, as he calls them, have inspired a militant defensive activism in Agbodemu, first for his local community, but also for vulnerable slum dwellers across Lagos. He runs an organization called the Rural and Urban Development Initiative, which resists evictions and fights for slum dweller’s rights. His election campaign is similarly rights based. He is running with the National Conscience Party (NCP). Started in 1994 by the late human rights activist Gani Fawehinmi to resist then-dictator Sani Abacha’s violent regime, the party’s motto is “abolition of poverty”.

“The ideology of the party is basically to empower the people to fight against poverty,” explained Dr. Olusodo Adeolu Olaniyi a physician and the chairman of the party in Lagos. “We believe that the welfare of the people is the major function and duty of government. Every government must work toward ensuring that the welfare of the people is taken care of to the extent that poverty should be abolished. No Nigerian has any reason to be poor.”

Agbodemu had his political awakening in 1993, shortly after the birth of the first of his 12 children. 1993 was a historic election in Nigeria; popular candidate Moshood Abiola was widely believed to have won what many consider Nigeria’s freest and fairest presidential contest. But before the results were released, then-dictator Ibrahim Babangida annulled them. Abiola was thrown in jail shortly after, where he eventually died.

“I thought they would put in place a good government for my family, for my little baby,” Agbodemu said. “Then I heard in the news that the military dictator cancelled the election. That’s when I started going to the newspaper stand to read newspapers, that’s when I started listening to the radio. I learned [about] the rule of law. That’s when I became an activist, I said I will defend myself and my community.”

Agbodemu (left) and Olaniyi (right)
Agbodemu (left) and Olaniyi (right)

Agbodemu grew up in a slum called Otto in Ebute-Metta. As a child his neighborhood bordered a vacant marshy land, common in Lagos, much of which sits below sea level. Tall grasses grew from slushy dense mud—“ if you fall, you sink—it’s not water you can swim in,” he said. But the community started filling the land with trash, and eventually built plank homes on stilts on the newly reclaimed ground.

Land in Lagos is often claimed by multiple parties and the most complicated relationship is between the “oba’s”, the traditional monarchs, the state, and those living on the land without proper title. Royal families claim vast swathes of land in Lagos, forcibly collecting rent from those who live upon it and acting as an often-corrupt intermediary with the government.

Such was the case in Otto-Ilogbo extension, the community that sprang up on the newly reclaimed land. In the late 1990’s, Agbodemu and others went to announce to the Oba Oloto that they were there, and were granted a certificate acknowledging their community on two conditions—that landlords in the slum pay an annual fee and that the royals guaranteed no defense if the government came to question or remove the community. In exchange they were promised representation on state committees.

Otto-Ilogbo, Agbodemu's neighborhood
Otto-Ilogbo, Agbodemu’s neighborhood

By 2002 the Oba had failed to give the community any representation in the government so Agbodemu said he would not pay the rent, which led to the community’s first forcible eviction. The community built right back, and Agbodemu still refused to pay rent, organizing his neighbors to do so as well. In the meantime he approached the government seeking official recognition for the new neighborhood, which they earned in 2008. But they still faced demolition threats. The following 6 years were a constant tussle between competing authorities: the royals, various factions of the government (which rarely work in tandem) and the courts. The most recent evictions were in 2014. The slum was razed and Agbodemu was shot in the stomach.

Now the slum is mostly vacant, but Agbodemu built back the school he runs, the “young leaders academy: arms of slum dweller liberation forum” as the soot stained sign declares. He showed me a video of the students back at school just days after the fire, sitting on white plastic chairs on the black ground. I could barely hear it but he started singing along with the kids, “we want government to come to our rescue!”

“With no roof, maybe god will see and punish [the royal family],” he said.

In the lengthy process of defending his community he has learned about housing rights, laws and the various forms of resistance, and expanded his advocacy to the myriad other slum communities facing eviction. His LinkedIn profile identifies him as “slum dweller Agbodemu”. It is a title and a descriptor he wears proudly. He has agitated at slum evictions across Lagos, stared down the “bulldoza’s”, and staged a sit-in at the governor’s mansion. In one video he shows me on his cracked Techno tablet he’s wearing a t-shirt that says, “if you don’t fight back then they’ll keep hitting you.” He printed it himself.

All these experiences, he believes, makes him well placed to represent the people. “Because I’m a slum dweller I can challenge them,” he said, “the big men, the oga’s sons, they can’t challenge the system because they are the beneficiaries. Slum dwellers behave differently because we feel the pain.”

To walk around with Agbodemu is to wander with the classic Nigerian optimism, “I’m the one that liberates the others,” he declared. He has run unsuccessfully four times before, but he says of the APC dominated politics in Lagos “we have tested them for the past 16 years and they have failed us. We need an alternative, so I will win!” and laughs.

The NCP, according to Olaniyi, is the oldest political party, always a rabble-rouser, and historically mostly symbolic in its resistance to the political status quo in Nigeria. It has only won two seats in state level assemblies and when founder Fawehinmi ran for president under the party banner in 2003, he won only .41 percent of the popular vote.

While everyday headlines scream about President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP party, and the lead opposition APC, Agbodemu proudly showed me a four paragraph story on his candidacy buried deep inside the National newspaper on Valentines Day.

Which is to say, outside Ebute-Metta, Agbodemu’s political swagger is wildly misplaced. He is the quintessential underdog.

Agbodemu mostly campaigns in small groups and meetings. One evening, he arranged chairs on the side of the road down a quiet street not far from his one-room office. Teenage boys pasted campaign posters with his deadpan portrait up on the walls already littered with the visages of mostly male candidates.

Campaign posters in the rain.
Campaign posters in the rain.

“The other parties just come to the community, give money, rice, confuse the people to vote for them. So NCP party is here to tell people the truth!” He exclaimed.

The audience of around 20, many elderly, with a few youths filling in the back rows listened patiently as he pontificated, until one of the women assisting him came around with a case of sodas in glass bottles. Aging mamas happily guzzled their cokes as Agbodemu wrapped up his speech in the gathering dusk.

Agbodemu himself brought 12 of the attendees. I wondered if the other handful were there for this refreshment.

Refreshments, kickbacks and swag are the currency of campaigning in Nigeria. On the micro scale, not a rally occurs that doesn’t offer a giveaway: sodas, t-shirts, sometimes cell phones. In early February, five people were killed when thugs rampaged the disbursal of cellphones and flatirons at a rally in Ajegunle, an infamous and impoverished Lagos neighborhood. A February report from the National Human Rights Commission tallied 58 deaths already during the campaign.

On the macro scale, politics are also deeply monetized. President Jonathan’s tenure has included three multi-billion dollar oil corruption scandals; the civil service is bloated—200 people work at the national theater, which is now largely defunct; and my entrepreneurial friends are constantly tittering about potential government contracts. The “national cake” is a tired but relentless metaphor for civil service here. “When you secure access, you declare a bonanza and invite some of your favorite friends to the dining table,” wrote Uche Igwe, a doctoral student at the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption in an opinion piece titled “Nigeria and Politics of National Cake”. On voting day, this often means people are paid in cash, rice, or snacks for their votes. There is little expectation that people govern with ideologies or programs, so there is little reason to vote ideologically.

If you zoom out from Ebute-Metta, Agbodemu and the National Conscience Party itself shrink into near total obscurity. Their ideas and ideals—a government of and for the people—have nothing to do with the mainstream Nigerian political scene.

Nigeria is at best transitioning toward democracy. It is mostly the poor who vote, those who would seemingly opt for someone like Agbodemu. But Nigeria’s political class is tight knit and hard to penetrate. Many voters have told me it’s a “selection” not an election, and feel that voting for one of the fringe candidates like Agbodemu, or Remi Sonaiya, an academic and only female presidential candidate, is a throwaway vote since their campaigns are smaller, underfinanced, and unlikely to succeed.

That said, this year’s presidential election is seen by some as a landmark in Nigerian political history for the sole fact that the sitting president may not win.

“This is the first time we can say if you don’t perform well we will remove you. It’s the first time the power truly belongs to the Nigerian people,” Lagos governor Babatunde Fashola said at a lavish Valentines Day dinner at the glamorous Intercontinental hotel.

“Every time there’s been a bad government in Nigeria we’ve had the help of the military to change. This is the first time we have the unique and profound opportunity to change ourselves,” he said. His friendly allusion to the military coups that have littered Nigeria’s political history and the “help” they have offered reflects the fact the Fashola, a lawyer and technocrat, is stumping for party-mate Muhammadu Buhari, the 72-year-old lead opposition candidate. Buhari was himself a military dictator in the 80’s. He was most famous for the “war against indiscipline” that cracked down on corruption—some say with an iron fist.

Buhari has run four times for this post, and the fact that he actually has a chance this time points to the profound disappointment many people feel with current President Goodluck Jonathan, famous mostly for his numerous social and political gaffes and for blatant corruption. The fight against Boko Haram—the Islamist group that declared a caliphate in the North East of the country and killed upwards of 10,000 civilians in the last six years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations—has been anemic at best. Given the lead role the Nigerian army has played in conflicts abroad with the African Union and the United Nations, its failures within its own borders have embarrassed Jonathan and spurred conspiracy theories.

It is still too soon to tell, and with the elections postponed by six weeks, the power that was building under Buhari’s campaign may have deflated. But the symbolic power of a contested presidential election could potentially boost Nigerian democracy more broadly, trickling into the lower level campaigns as well. If so, it will likely take time.

For now, despite the energy of the contest, most people I talk to are disappointed with both Presidential candidates.

Patrick, a boyish, energetic real estate agent, said he sees Buhari as “a man that is desperate and with a vendetta.” He won’t vote for him because “apart from his personal idiosyncrasies…I’ve never seen him act the part of an elder statesmen. Every time he loses an election there’s violence and threats of secession.”

On the other hand, he continued, “Jonathan I’m disappointed with but with all the disappointments I have, I don’t see the alternative as an alternative….I wish there was someone else!” He shouted, shaking his fist.

“Why I’m voting Goodluck is not because I like him, it’s to prevent Buhari coming in. Let me say minus one to Buhari.”

My friend Temie, a young mother who grew up in Minnesota and returned to Nigeria to work in public health said largely the same thing but with the opposite conclusion. She said in the last election she was pro-Jonathan, campaigning against Buhari’s candidacy, but her disappointment in Jonathan’s rule changed her mind. “If 2011 Temie could see me now! Wow. I would never believe I would be campaigning for Buhari, with the war against indiscipline, he’s a former dictator, and he’s a Muslim, but we just can’t have Jonathan again. Anything else.”

Not all of the analyses are so specific or thoughtful—the official party lines are more polarizing and simplistic. Dapo, a middle aged jetsetter with royal blood who flies frequently between Lagos and London and appears to live off the profits from his family’s oil block and properties, came to my house bearing PDP paraphernalia and spitting party lines. “I don’t want Buhari because of his religion, he’s an extremist, he’s too into his religion and you know these Muslims they just kill kill kill,” he told me. I asked if he really thought Jonathan had earned a second term. “No he’s not done a good job, I just think this other guy is worse.”

I met Dapo last year, and bumped into him in the security line at the Nairobi airport en route to Lagos in January. He said he was coming in from London, but it had to be a quick trip “I have to get out before the election” he said. For all his vitriolic campaigning, he had no intention to actually vote.

Neither did Temie. For all her pro-Buhari tweeting and campaigning, when I asked if she would be voting she said, “I’m not voting oh! I’m going to a resort that weekend with my family.”

My friend Folakunle, a sculptor and gallery owner, was one of the lead organizers of a citizen’s voices effort called “talk ya mind.” In a school bus converted into a mobile art museum, Fola and a crew of energetic young cinematographers were interviewing passersby in several Lagosian neighborhoods about their opinions on the election. As earnest as many of the interviewees were, Fola himself just couldn’t wait for the elections to be over. “You know the Nigerian dream is you have your own house, your big walls and you stay inside. No one wants to go out and vote, I’m not voting. Everyone just wants it to be over, so the business can continue. Everyone is just waiting.”

These politically impassioned non-voters are middle and upper class Nigerians, in this society that is deeply stratified with entrenched hierarchical norms.

That hierarchy was poetically visible at the APC campaign “mega-rally” which brought all the opposition candidates to a stadium in the Surulere neighborhood in Lagos. Poor masses covered the stadium lawn, sweating in the sun and getting drenched in a sudden afternoon downpour. Few of these attendees had wandered in out of self-motivated curiosity; most were organized and directed to attend. I met teenage hairdressing students who said their teacher had cancelled school that day and required them to come dance in the crowd.

Above them, shielded from the elements in the stands, behind barricades and rows of security was the VIP section. On one side sat rows of women. In front were smartly dressed ladies in wax print emblazoned with the APC seal, wearing fancy sunglasses and carrying ostentatious purses; they were members of an association of wives of Lagos state civil servants. Behind them, with more weathered faces and less detailed tailoring were women market leaders, also party members, influential in their communities, but poorer and so tucked in the back. Through a heavily guarded gate were the slightly more important VIPs, former ministers and local government chairmen. Their swag was more detailed, shiny hats embroidered with the APC logo, scarves, and the women were in heels and elaborate head wraps. Above them all were the padded seats for the candidates, behind yet another barricade and beefy security guards.


The APC mega rally
The APC mega rally

Few people question this hierarchy, everyone just hopes to become a “big man”. When a cab driver asked me to pay double the going rate for a ride, I asked him why, and he told me “you’re a big lady, ma”. There was nothing accusatory in his statement, he just saw me in a certain social position and asked me to trickle down the economy. In politics this hierarchy means that once leaders are in power people bow and cower before them, and just hope they throw some crumbs to their constituents. “We always have respect for that man at the top, it’s almost monarchical, royal. Once he’s at the top you can’t tell him anything,” explained Victor Ehikhamenor, an artist and peace activist at a political analysis panel discussion at the Goethe institute.

At the same event, Cheta Nwanze, a well-known political commentator called Nigeria an “anocracy”, and said it’s a system where you have decision by the elite. “Once you crack the elite you can make decisions. Before you are elite you can make a lot of noise, and we do, but we can’t really influence decisions.”

Ehikhamenor called it a “vodou democracy,” the moderator Tunji Lardner agreed, “its all magic, smoke and mirrors.”

So my middle class friends aren’t voting, because it’s hard, because it’s dangerous, and because they assume that their vote doesn’t really mean anything. The poor are the ones who vote, and they are pawns. By and large they sell their votes. Over and over poor people have told me that on Election Day they are told where to go and who to vote for.

Olaniyi, the NCP chairman echoed this. “The poor people vote, and the poor people suffer,” he said. I asked why the poor vote, and he explained, “Because an average Nigerian will say, ‘voting? Why am I voting? Voting for who? These ones?’ So they will stay home and not bother about voting. But the poor one sees it as a way of making money so the poor one has to vote, not because they believe they will do things for them but…because they want to collect money.”

VIP section
VIP section

It’s a depressing reality, but logical in its own way. Never has there been democratic accountability—the idea that a bad president could potentially be voted out this year has invigorated the opposition and the youth, and spooked the incumbent. Many people assume the postponement of the elections by 6 weeks a mere week before the scheduled vote was a political decision by Jonathan to drain the opposition’s campaign funds, take the wind out of APC’s sails and buy himself time for crowd pleasing gestures. Politicians rarely run on any kind of platform or with any legitimate program. Jonathan is running on “continuity”, Buhari on “change.” Campaign promises are vague—school lunches! Better electricity! With little explanation of how they can be implemented.

The way forward could be a revolt of the poor as Agbodemu hopes. At the campaign event he urged his gathered listeners, “Some other parties are getting people to vote, paying them and then they go share the money amongst themselves. Enough is enough, you should vote the right party. Don’t make this mistake anymore.”

But the system in place is deeply entrenched, Olaniyi sees a shift toward issue-based voting to be a long haul, and for him the campaign, even if they lose, is a public lesson on what democracy should be. “Whenever we go out the majority of people ask us for money, so we are not disappointed, we are not surprised…because in this country politics are highly monetized,” he said, “we are doing our best to reorient them.”

A more realpolitik solution I’ve heard proposed by people across the social spectrum is to end universal suffrage. Nwanze, the political commentator at the Goethe Institute event said, “I don’t think the majority of Nigerians should vote. The majority of Nigerians are poor and uneducated so don’t know the value of that vote. Universal suffrage works when you have an educated and enlightened electorate. The reality is the majority of Nigerians can’t think beyond tomorrow. Someone who makes 500 naira per month [about U.S.$2.50] would be crazy not to take ten times that to vote. Why think about 4 years from now when tomorrow is not sure?”

Even Olaniyi, speaking he emphasized, not for his party but for himself wondered if there should be limited suffrage. When I asked him who should vote, he exclaimed, “A select! Maybe based on your profession, maybe based on your family position, there’s nothing bad in it. The person must be enlightened, must be able to know what it is so he can vote.”

*   *   *

I asked a friend who knows Agbodemu what she thought of him, and she suggested I read Chinua Achebe’s “A Man of the People” a political satire by one of Nigeria’s most respected authors. I wandered into the book district in downtown Lagos, down an alley where rickety wooden tables are piled with colorful dated textbooks, motivational texts and how-to guides. I asked one of the vendors if he had the book and he ran off into boutiques I hadn’t even noticed, the doorways to the tiny dark foyers buried in stacks of literature. He returned bearing a flimsy, bright orange copy. Clearly photocopied and riddled with typos, the story nonetheless paints a bleak portrait of a young school teacher who reluctantly finds himself drawn into politics first as a guest of a smarmy minister and later as an idealistic leader of a new opposition party, the “Common People’s Convention”. The further he dives into the political sphere the more bloated his ego grows, the more narcissistic and greedy he becomes—lusting after the minister’s second wife, and dipping into party funds to further his personal aims. His continued resistance to the status quo ends with him beaten unconscious and his party co-founder dead.

 Inside the school Agbodemu runs
Inside the school Agbodemu runs

It was certainly a relevant read. Even if Agbodemu could somehow clamber his way into the halls of power, despite his Pidgin English and his fierce ideals, he already has the ego and “oga” mentality creeping into his comportment. He relentlessly interrupts and talks over anyone around him in his brash, assertive voice; his diction is consistently in the first person. His goal, he told me, is to “put my name in gold, so if people read the story of my life, they can learn one or two things.”

I asked what he meant by that and he compared himself to Jesus, to Mohammed, to Nelson Mandela. “Those people were not rich, they stand for what they believe in, that projected them all over the world.”

“I want to impact life,” he said, “Its not that I want 100 cows or big cars or a house in an estate, I want to put my name in gold. So it’s like this ordinary slum dweller, kids learn there was this guy not from a rich family, who was shot, who fought, but he stood for what he believed.”

It’s a noble goal, but also has a worrisome messianic tinge to it.

As one foreign friend told me, “every time I think I find a leader in Nigeria I’m disappointed.”