Serpents

by

Abiodun Adeniji

Chapter 10: Reluctant Candidate

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Ikoyi club had the air of serene, self-confident wealth about it. Even though its buildings comprised largely of quaint, pre-independence structures, its facilities were as modem and as sophisticated as those in any five-star hotel. However, every new facility was made to bow to the old-money tone of the club. Absent were the effusive, self-proclaiming sheen of the modern day hostelry-: the flashing neon lights, the loud furnishing, the sheer architectural wizardry and other razzmatazz that constitute the "modern" hotel. Instead, the furnishing of the club was rich but muted; its services efficient but not showy. It was an institution that reflected the quality of its patrons; the movers and shakers of the society who knew that they knew that no inflation could eat into their wealth. In the parlance of the patrons, "Old money never stinks!" No riff-raff was ever allowed to pass through its portals as membership of the club was restricted. And it was so easy to be a riff-raff by club standards. Anyone whose annual after-tax income did not exceed twenty million was regarded as a riff-raff. Such "baby millionaires" needed not to apply for membership, and if they did, the club secretary would respond by asking such upstarts to "re-apply when more solvent!" In simple English, this meant "come back when you are richer!" Because many of the Golden Hats belonged to the club, it was selected as the venue for the launching of Chairman's re-election bid.

Two days after the dissolution of the councils nationwide, the Golden Hats met at the club to examine the likely implications of the dissolution on their economic well-being. Self-preservation being the first law of survival, the Golden Hats resolved to back their man, Akilapa, both morally and financially. They regarded him as the goose that lays the golden eggs. With a string of fully paid but abandoned council projects got through Akilapa, the Golden Hats were not about to bruise the feathers of the golden-egg goose.

Not that they approved entirely of Chairman's personal taste and carryings-on. For example, many of them considered him uncouth and barbaric despite his university education. Behind his back, they joked that he had only passed through the university but had not allowed the university to pass through him. His fetish craving for titles, his gluttonous habits and his unrefined bluntness were usually cited as examples of his 'bushiness". Nevertheless, he had been a profitable investment, funneling millions to members of the group. Such politicians should not be thrown away like toilet paper. They should be re-elected for as long as their usefulness lasted.

It was also reasoned that a known devil was better than an untested saint. A new man in Chairman's shoes might prove difficult to control. Besides, many fear that a new man might not only throw a spanner in the works, he might exhume the carefully buried skeletons of their past misdeeds. Many had collected millions for abandoned projects or projects only completed on paper. A new man might decide to probe all abandoned projects and that would bring the Golden Hats into public ridicule.

So, it was decided that Chairman must be re-elected at all cost. They knew that electioneering in Nigeria was largely dependent on money. As a result of acute poverty, a money-bag with enough cash to throw around always won. So, the fifty Golden Hats levied themselves one and a half million naira each to be paid to the treasurer not later than the evening of the following day. By 4 p.m. on the appointed day, seventy-five million naira was in. The Golden Hats then constituted themselves into a Committee of Friends to ensure the re-election of Chairman. The Committee of Friends brought out numerous advertisements in the media urging people to return Chairman unopposed. Entire pages of newspapers and large chunks of air time on radio and television were bought by the Committee of Friends to eulogise and catalogue the "achievements of the action chairman, Akilapa".

No amount was spared to do the saturation campaign in the media. Thanks to the Golden Hats, the campaign machinery of Chairman was in full swing scarcely two days after the dissolution of the councils nationwide. The media blitzkrieg was so effective that ordinary people initially thought that Chairman would indeed be re-elected unopposed.

A week after the dissolution, Chairman was invited to the club for a special presentation by the Committee of Friends. Also invited were reporters from major newspapers and the electronic media. It was a veritable media event that had not been witnessed in the serene environment of lkoyi Club for a long time. There before a million eyes, Alhaja (Chief) Doctor Abibat Shogaju, President of the Committee of Friends, presented Chairman to the public as their man. She also announced a donation of fifty million naira to boost his campaign efforts.

Before handing over the cheque to Chairman, Alhaja (Chief) Doctor Shogaju, chairman, chief executive of Shogaju Construction Company took time out to eulogise the achievements of Chief Akilapa:

"The Committee of Friends is very proud to be associated with Chief Akilapa, illustrious chairman of our local government council, the Lagos Island Local Government Council. In the three years he was chairman, he had done so many wonderful things fur this local government. In a short space of three years, he has transformed this local government into a model for others to emulate in terms of social facilities, cleanliness, financial buoyancy and industrialization."

"E.G.!" shouted a reporter from the crowd, asking the president to cite particular examples of those "achievements". His colleagues laughed boisterously, making Chairman to squirm in discomfort. He signalled to an "aide" – euphemism for a political thug – and told him to deal with "that stupid press boy". Two minutes later, the offending reporter was literally thrown out of the club, his camera and tape recorder shattered.

Meanwhile, Alhaja Shogaju continued her speech as if there had been no interruption.

"Chief Akilapa is a man of sterling character. He is hardworking, forward looking, brilliant and honest to a fault. Many times he had to sacrifice his personal salary and comfort to ensure that his workers got paid. He inherited so much debt that many people thought he would never achieve anything. But today, he has cleared all debts and left a self-balancing account at the council. The Committee of Friends notes with pride that he has initiated many laudable projects which he must be allowed to complete in his second term. As business men and intellectuals, we know the value of continuity. A change of baton right now can only jeopardise the pace of work at the City Hall. It is for his reason and the Chairman's excellent and impeccable records that we hereby endorse his re-election and hereby donate to his campaign coffers the sum of fifty million naira."

A loud ovation greeted her announcement. Chairman himself was bowled over by the staggering amount. His hand shook a little as he accepted the cheque. His voice, too, quavered as he delivered his acceptance speech. It was unusually terse. He thanked the Committee of Friends for its contribution to his reelection campaign. He said their contribution was a reflection of the confidence they reposed in him and assured them of a most judicious use of their donation. He also promised that when re-elected, he would continue to be hardworking, diligent and industrious.

"I also assure you, my friends, of a handsome return on investment. Thank you!"

The crowd applauded, loudest of all the Golden Hats who understood the hidden meaning of "return on investment". In simple English, Chairman had just assured them that they would recoup their financial investment a hundred-fold as soon as he stepped back into the City Hall.

From that night onwards, Chairman's campaign had a fillip. It became what journalists tagged "a mega-buck campaign". Wherever he went, large crowds followed Chairman, not because they loved him but to get a share of the mint-fresh fifty naira notes he distributed while campaigning. From all appearance, Chairman was heading for a landslide victory. Two days to the close of nomination, nobody indicated interest in contesting the post with him. So, his supporters sang a victory song, saying that he would win un-opposed. But their confidence soon evaporated when Code Six stepped on the scene.

They were six angry youths with one common goal - to engineer the defeat of Chairman. They had little money but bubbled with abundant energy and effervescent bitterness. They were mainly primary school teachers who had not been paid their salaries by Chairman for over a year. They vowed to frustrate Chairman's re-election bid by campaigning vigorously among the youths that Chairman should not be re-elected. They called their anti-Akilapa group Code Six to distinguish it from the rabbles and ruffians in town. The name Code Six had an intellectual ring which was pleasing to the ears of the youths.

The first meeting of the group was held in the small sitting-room of Tajudeen Abati, the protem chairman of the group. At this meeting, the group mapped out its strategy. They decided to invite disgruntled interest groups on Lagos Island to a general meeting where a unity of purpose could be forged.

These "disgruntled interest groups" included: The Primary School Teachers Union, P.S.T.U.; the Young Entrepreneurs Union, YEU; the Market Men and Women Association, M. W.A.; the Transporters Union, TU; the Lagos State Students' Union L.S.S.U.; and the Young Managers Union, YMU. Code Six sent out letters of invitation to these groups, inviting them to a general meeting at Saint Barnabas Primary School where Abati worked.

The substance of the letter read:

"Dear friends and compatriots, we are living witnesses to the greed, avarice and daylight robbery which had been perpetrated in the last three years in the name of political governance. Before the ascendancy of this cabal of unprincipled rogues to power, our local government was a model of decency, neatness, prosperity, modernity and good governance. However, since we allowed these miscreants to seize power three years ago, Lagos Island Local Government has become a shadow of itself. The indexes are glaring: social facilities are not working, workers are not paid, and life has been made totally unbearable for the common man. A new election is round the corner and we must not let this opportunity to slip through our fingers. We must band together to protect our common interest and wrest power from this soul-less cabal of political prostitutes and emergency contractors. Since democracy is a game of numbers, it is our bounden duty to pool our resources together to achieve our common goal. In line with the above sentiments, we hereby invite you to a meeting of like-minded unions where we shall deliberate on the political (and by extension, social and economic) future of our illustrious local government”.

The time and venue of the meeting was indicated and the letter was signed by Esther Adasu, protem secretary to Code Six.

Code Six worked hard to mobilize these unions. Two days to the date, two unions had responded positively. They were the Lagos State Student’s Union and the Primary School Teachers’ Union, Lagos State Branch of which Sunday Afolabi, protem publicity secretary to Code Six was an ex-officio member. So, Code Six was quite sure of a reasonable turn out. In fact, the two groups comprising teachers and students were the most formidable and the strongest in number of all the invited unions.

On the day of the meeting, however, even Code Six was staggered by the turn out. All the invited unions sent representatives. Individuals who only heard about the meeting also came. To the pleasant dismay of Code Six, the hall was jam-packed with people and many others who could not find standing space in the hall followed the proceedings from outside. Said Tajudeen to Esther: “Indeed, our cup is full and over-flowing”.

At 4 p.m., the meeting started. Abati delivered his welcome address. After thanking everyone for responding, he explained the rationale behind the formation of Code Six and the purpose of the meeting.

“Everything boils down to one question. Are you going to give Akilapa and his fake contractors another chance to rape this local government?”

“No o o o!”

“Are you ready to be second-class citizens in your own local government?”

“No o o o!”

“If not, are you ready to take your destiny in your own hands and vote out these pen-robbers?”

“Yes s s s!”

The crowd cheered and clapped their hands for a long time. Abati then called representatives of each union to address the gathering. First to address the crowd was Elder Gbadegesin, State Chairman of the Primary Teachers Union. He stood on the rostrum and dramatically lifted his agbada to expose his flatulent belly. The crowd was horrified.

“My friends and compatriots, I have not eaten since the day before yesterday. You can see my ribs sticking out of my skin. I have not eaten today, not because I am fasting, but because I have no money to buy food. My family is dying of hunger because I can’t provide them with chop-money. My landlord has booted me out of my house because I could not pay the rent. I am owing him for one year. My children have been sent out of school because I can’t pay the school fees. Today, I squat with another family in a two-room apartment. We are twelve crammed into that small space. I have become a useless father to my children and an irresponsible husband to my wife. My ageing parents are dying for lack of care, my brothers and sisters daily curse me for being a teacher. But it is not my fault. It is the fault of Chief Akilapa, the former Executive Embezzler of Lagos Island Local Government!”

The crowd roared and clapped at his description of Chairman.

“As I stand before you, I’m representing the five thousand hungry and humiliated primary school teachers of Lagos Island Lagos Government who had not been paid any salaries in the past two years by Chief Akilapa. To us, he is a devil. In fact, anyone looking for Satan should not go too far. He should head for Chief Akilapa’s palatial house in Ikoyi!”

Another round of applause greeted his last sentence.

"Having been pauperised and de-humanised by Chief Akilapa, my five-thuusand-strong union members have resolved thus: all our votes shall be cast against Chief Akilapa even if a dog is contesting with him! We teachers are no longer content with taking our reward in heaven. We want our reward here on earth in naira and kobo! Thank you!"

The cheering that followed his speech was so loud that the roof of the hall reverberated with the sound. Other speakers spoke in the same vein. They all narrated what they had suffered in the three years of Chairman's rule.

Ted Aghaya, chairman of the student's union, narrated how Chairman announced on radio and television that he had given students of Lagos state origin a bursary of one thousand naira each.

"It was a bloody lie! The bursary was awarded and distributed only on television. Chief Akilapa, the Paramount Embezzler of Lagos embezzled the thirty million earmarked for our bursaries. And when we went to his office to protest, he ordered the police to scatter us with teargas. I and other executives were arrested and detained for a week until Lawyer Gbami came to our rescue. We students have, therefore, resolved to vote against Chief Akilapa. Thank you!"

After him spoke Aloysius Nwere, general secretary of the Market Men and Women Association.

"We traders no know big English o. Na money we count, we no count many hooks."

The crowd laughed, calling him such names as "Alhaji Kudi!" and "Mister Spare Parts!"

"As I said before, we traders no know grammar. De ting we know be say Chief Akilapa no do anything for us. New markets o, e no build. Old one, e no renovate. All we toilets for Lagos Island markets don pafuka, but e no repair dem. Yet e dey levy us every day and council men no gree us rest. Na so –so wahala e take three years make for us. So, we don do meeting come decide say we no go vote for am. If na donkey carry box against Chief Akilapa, na dat donkey market men and women go vote for. Thank you!"

The grouse of the young managers was that the council under Akilapa had been badly managed. They lamented also the decline in living standards, in social amenities like pipe-borne water, light, education, roads, and so on.

The young entrepreneurs also lamented the problem of "business apartheid" introduced by the Akilapa administration. He was accused of giving contracts only to "old, corrupt and fake contractors who collected money without executing their contracts". The transporters condemned Chief Akilapa's neglect of township roads and his harassment of their members with various levies. All the unions agreed that Chairman did not deserve a second chance. So did individuals who spoke after the union representatives. At this point, Tajudeen Abati pointed out that Chairman was likely to be re-elected unopposed because no one had filed any papers to contest the post with him. He reminded the unions that whoever wanted to contest with Chairman had only two days to file his nomination papers. He suggested that the unions should there and then nominate people of "good character and sound education" who could be nominated and be voted for. Various names were suggested but none enjoyed the full support of the unions.

John, the son of Baba Ijesa was a friend of Tajujeen Abati and was also present at the meeting. He followed this proceeding with some misgivings. Even though he did not approve of Chief Akilapa, he found it difficult to be vocal against his prospective father-in-law. What would Vic say if word got out that he was opposed to her father’s re-election bid? But as the catalogue of woes was rolling forth John’s earlier sympathy for Chairman evaporated. So, when nobody was found fit to be nominated by the group, John suggested the name of Pastor Job.

The thunderous cheers and claps that greeted his suggestion were evidences of Pastor Job's popularity. Most of the people present had followed his crusading saga in his church, culminating in the imminent dis-investiture of Chairman as Seriki of Christ Torch Cathedral. They admired his courage, honesty and firmness. Everyone agreed that he was the perfect choice.

So, Code Six was given the mandate to secure Pastor Job's consent and file appropriate nomination papers for him. The meeting elected the original officers of Code Six as substantive officers. Two representatives of each union were also elected as members of the executives. The next meeting of the group was fixed for the day after to review the progress made by their representatives.

"I'm not interested in politics!" said Pastor Job without hesitation. He was in conference with the expanded Code Six. John was also present, having been elected an executive member on his personal merit. They had spent the last two hours trying to persuade Pastor Job to contest the post of Chairman with Chief Akilapa. They had narrated Chairman's catalogue of misdeeds but Pastor Job remained adamant. He said Nigerian politics was too dirty for him. After two hours of fruitless appeals Code Six left dis-spiritedly. But Abati left the nomination form behind, saying they would come back the following morning for his final decision. The next day was the last day for the submission of nomination papers. If Pastor Job could not be persuaded to contest Chairman would win unopposed.

When they had gone, Pastor Job began to meditate on the issue. Is there any law banning priests from contesting political office? None that he could remember. In fact, the examples of former governors, of Taraba and Benue states were still fresh in memory. One was an Anglican reverend while the other was a catholic reverend father. Yet, both contested and won in their respective states. So, why has he refused the youths' nomination and sponsorship?

Was the Bible against the participation of priests in politics? He thought hard but could find no injunction in the holy book banning pastors from politics. In fact, some Old Testament priests wielded some political power or intervened in the politics of their day.

If heaven belonged to God and God has given the earth to the sons of men, should political power not be in the hands of born again Christians? Who should rule this world? Satan's children or the sons of God? Would political power not enable him extend his campaign against corruption to the rest of the society? Certainly, yes! So, why had he refused to participate in politics?

After thirty minutes of brainstorming, he had to admit that his main problem was the fear of contesting with Chairman. In truth, he did not want to aggravate the already tense relationship between the two of them. He and his family had had enough harassment over the chieftaincy issue. Jumping into the political arena with Chairman would be adding petrol to a smoldering fire. Only a born fool lies in the path of a speeding truck!

But does the Bible not say that righteousness exalts a nation while sin condemns it? The same Bible adds that a nation lives in peace and prosperity when righteous men are in authority, but groans in poverty and oppression when evil men seize power? Furthermore, the Bible says that when evil men get punished innocent men usually share in it. So, was he not being foolish and cowardly by refusing to contest with a man universally acknowledged to be a rogue?

Pastor Job fell on his face and prayed very hard. He prayed and prayed until he had the peace of God which indicated that it was God's perfect will for him to enter the political arena. Still, he feared to go into the murky, mud-slinging, name- spoiling and moneybag politics of Nigeria. His nagging fear besides personal safety was his relative poverty. He knew that Nigerian voters often sold their votes for "a mess of potage".

As a priest, he was comfortable and contented with what God has blessed him with. Moreover, he came back from America with dollars which he changed to naira at a fantastic rate. So, in comparison to his colleagues, he was very well off. But “thousandnaires” don't go into politics in Nigeria. It is an arena for millionaires. By Nigerian standards, Pastor Job was still a “thousandnaire”. Where would he get the kind of fabulous funds to print thousands of color posters, do saturation publicity in the media and even pay campaign staff?

He went to bed that night without resolving the dilemma. For the first time in ten years of marriage, Pastor Job kept his ambition secret from his wife. He did not want to alarm her unduly until he had made up his mind to run or not. Keeping a secret from his wife did not give him any peace of mind and he slept fitfully with masquerades and monsters chasing him in his dreams. By 8 a.m., he was at his office. He took out the nomination form and read it. Everything had been filled for him by Code Six. The only thing left to complete the form was his signature. He still had at least one hour before Code Six would return. His appointment with them was for nine.

At 8.30 a.m, his dilemma was resolved dramatically. John had told his father all that transpired between Code Six and Pastor Job. Baba Ijesa regarded Pastor Job as his saviour from disgrace and humiliation and poverty. If Pastor Job had not appointed him chairman of the probe committee, his contract money would not have been paid. Now, he was comfortable enough to engage Chairman in a fight-to-finish. He knew he was not popular enough to challenge chairman and win. However, he endorsed the choice of Code Six. At 8.30 a.m., he entered the church office to persuade Pastor Job to run against Chairman.

"You must run o, pastor," he announced as soon as he sat down. "You are our only hope, our saviour and the good work you have started in our church will be in vain if you don't run. Don't you know that leadership is the root of corruption? But with an honest and god-fearing man like you holding political office, this local government will become a paradise on earth; And if you refuse, you will be shirking your responsibility, don’t you know?"

"Well, I know that, Baba Ijesa. But politics is a dirty and ever so costly venture."

"Don't worry about money. I am ready to do all in my power to aid you financially. You know that I have a printing press, a standard one. I will print all your posters, handbills and other materials free of charge. I will even buy the paper myself!"

"That's generous of you, Baba Ijesa, but..."

"No buts, pastor. I will also be responsible for the massive publicity you will need in newspapers and radios and television."

"All that will gulp close to a million naira, Baba Ijesa!"

"It is nothing, pastor. It is small compared to the cost of putting a robber in office!"

After much persuasion, Pastor Job signed the nomination form. When Code Six received the signed form, they were overjoyed. They grabbed the completed form before Pastor Job could change his mind and rushed to the National Electoral Bureau, NEB, to submit it.

Pastor Job had hoped to break the news gently to his wife later in the day but fate decreed otherwise. Shade had just come back from her office when the radio blared the news that Pastor Job of Christ Torch Cathedral had joined the political race against Chief Akilapa. The newsflash stopped Shade dead in her tracks. The glass cup in her hand fell and shattered on the floor. She was shocked and wrathful. She screamed obscenities at her husband for being so stupid and uncaring. Hadn't they had enough problems with Chairman without looking for more?

She grabbed the telephone and dialled Pastor Job's direct line at the church office. Fortunately, her husband picked up the receiver. She demanded the truth and Pastor Job confirmed the story. She threw decency and Christian ethics to the wind and rained abuses on her husband. She warned him to rescind his decision immediately or she would pack out of the house.

Pastor Job tried to pacify her to no avail. She was angry beyond reason. To allow her anger to cool down a little, Pastor Job decided to work later than usual in the office. During that time, he sketched out his campaign strategy. John later came to see him. Together, they discussed possible campaign objectives and necessary facilities. They were still at it by 8 p.m.

He arrived home at 10 p.m. and met his parents in the sitting-room. Shade was also there, looking rather stormy.

"Good evening!" he saluted, but nobody responded. Instead, his father tore into him.

“Why do you want to kill us before our time? Why? If your nose is itching you, must you scratch it with the fangs of a life cobra? Have you not caused us enough heart-ache that you now put your head in the mouth of a hungry lion? Are you so much in love with death that you spread a mat to sleep on the expressway?"

"I'm only doing my duty, Papa."

“Which useless duty is that? What has light got to do with darkness? What has a man of God got to do in politics? Does your own Bible not tell you that Christians should not be unduly yoked with unbelievers?"

"But Papa, the Bible does not forbid us from trying to bring righteousness to the governance of our country. The Bible says we are the light of this world and no one lights a candle and puts it under a bushel but on a candle stick where the whole world can benefit from it."

"You, a candle? Why are you never serious? If you are a candle, the likes of Chairman are the wind that will blow out your flame!"

"That's not true, papa. The celestial flame of God's candle can never be blown out by any wind. Men of God who play active role in politics and excel abound all over the world. Evil prospers when good men do nothing!"

"You're talking of civilised countries, not Nigeria!"

"Even here, Papa, men of God had held political office, In Taraba and Benue states, two men of God have been state governors. So, why can't I aspire to the lower office of local government chairman?"

"Stop arguing and listen to your father!" shouted his mother.

"Just leave him to me. Now listen to me o, I know that you are determined to spoil my name. I know that you enjoy it when people abuse me. That is why you are doing all this rubbish. You are just behaving like Ewure Ibiye."

"What has Ibiye's goat got to do with the matter at hand, papa?"

"Shut up and let me talk! You want to tell me you have not heard the story of Ewure Ibiye, the trouble-some goat. Ibiye is deaf on the right ear; her goat is deaf on the left ear. Ewure Ibiye is a stubborn goat and people abuse it as a deaf goat. Are you not abusing the owner who is also deaf?"

"Papa, I don't see the relevance of all this. I've been called to serve and 1 shall not shy away from the task."

"I see that you are not prepared to see reason. So, I won't argue with you. If you like go and commit suicide. But you won't gamble with the life of my little grandson. I have therefore decided to take him to my house immediately until your madness cools down."

"You can't do that, Papa! It's illegal!"

He ran into the house to lock his son's room but found it empty. He ran back in alarm.

"Where's my son?" he shouted at his wife who ignored him.

''He is already safe at my house!" announced his father as the two old folks went out. "And if you think you have two heads, I dare you to come and carry him!"

Pastor Job knew when he was beaten. He sank into a chair and sighed wearily. His wife laid his meal on the table. Without uttering a word, she went to the bedroom and locked the door. Pastor Job needed no soothsayer to tell him he had to sleep in the guest room that night.

 

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Abiodun Adeniji

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