BURNING POT BY PRINCE CHARLES DICKSON
Reflections on Fayose’s ‘stomach infrastructure’
When Fayose defeated Fayemi in the Ekiti State Governorship election in 2014, I took it personal. Apart from a chance meeting with Kayode Fayemi in London around 1998/1999 when he was still the boss of the Centre for Democracy and Development, I never met him in person. Yet, like many ‘public intellectuals’, who deeply respected Dr Fayemi’s poise and polished mannerism, that defeat appeared personal. The election was framed as a contest between a ‘grassroots politician’ and an intellectual.
In an article in this column on June 26 2014 entitled ‘The “Fayemi effect” and intellectuals in politics’, I wrote:
“One of the lessons from Fayemi’s loss therefore is for intellectuals planning to dabble into politics to start creating new narratives that will drive political discourses. Grassroots politicians in Nigerian parlance tend to be short-term oriented – they build new universities even when existing ones are not well equipped because it is what the people can relate with; they prioritize the building of roads over investing in qualitative education because the voters cannot immediately see the effect of the latter and the impact may not be felt before the next elections.
“Grassroots politicians may know how to win the votes with ‘amala’, ‘tuwo’ or ‘garri’ politics but it is not certain they know what it takes to build a society that will be competitive in the 21st century. Therefore the danger of glamorizing ‘grassroots’ politicians is not only the unacceptable subtext that we need to lose our individual identities in order to thrive in politics but even the more dangerous innuendo that the gratification of the immediate physical and sensory needs of the masses is the only way to be a good politician.
“What then happens to the age- old adage that leadership is not - and ought not to be - a popularity contest? In a largely illiterate and poor society like ours, both the visionary leaders and the grassroots politicians have complementary roles to play: we need the ‘grassroots politicians’ to remind the visionary leader (intellectual) that in the long-run the people will be dead if their immediate needs are not gratified; we also need the visionary leader to remind the grassroots politicians that a society that is not driven by a big vision will forever remain ordinary.”
While I still stand by the crux of my argument on the need for both the grassroots politicians and intellectuals in politics to work together, my opinion of Fayose has since changed drastically – and for the better. I had seen him more as a rabble-rouser or show-man. Today, I see him more like el-Rufai in Kaduna state, who will stake a conviction and stand by it irrespective of whose ox is gored.
Rather than allow himself to be ridiculed or intimidated for being an apostle of ‘stomach infrastructure’ – the way the late Adedibu was ridiculed for being an apostle of ‘amala politics’ - Fayose, proud of his polytechnic education in a state that is known for its high attainments in education, has taken the concept mainstream. To drive home the fact that he was not ashamed of the accusation that he was an apostle of ‘stomach infrastructure’, he appointed a Special Assistant on Special Duties and Stomach Infrastructure in 2014. During last Christmas he was said to have distributed about 80,000 chickens, 100,000 bags of rice and cash gifts to the people of Ekiti state under its stomach infrastructure programme. His supporters even accused the national leader of the All Progressives Congress Asiwaju Tinubu, who distributed certain goodies to those in need during last Christmas, of copying ‘the stomach infrastructure’ programme of Ekiti State without attribution.
In politics, language can be used to frame a discourse. For instance to accuse a leader of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), conjures the image of an impending Armageddon, in which the person accused of possessing the WMD is elevated to a potent threat to humanity such that anyone willing to take out such a leader will be seen as performing a humanitarian service.
Fayose’s ‘stomach infrastructure’ is a new framing for a commonplace practice. Vote buying, crowd renting, distributing wrappers, bags of rice, salt and money are common practices during election periods but these banal practices needed to be couched in morally acceptable frames and defended. This is what Fayose has probably succeeded in doing with his ‘theory of stomach infrastructure’. According to him, “while physical Infrastructure and urban renewal will continue to play its own role in the development of any nation, it “is only the living who are hale and hearty that can enjoy such Infrastructure.” It can then be argued that ‘stomach infrastructure’ is a kind of welfare that targets the individual and his/her stories and not a programme that targets the collective.
In a sense Fayose’s stomach infrastructure is akin to the notion of ‘liberation theology’ which was popular among Latin American Catholic priests in the 1970s and 1980s and which was based on the notion that the priests and the church needed to help liberate people’s stomachs from the pangs of hunger before trying to liberate their souls from possible damnation.
With the notion of stomach infrastructure going main stream, it may be germane to speculate on how this can be refined so it can become part of the country’s welfare packages:
One, ‘stomach infrastructure’ is different from traditional welfare packages such as El Rufai’s school feeding programme or plans by the federal government to pay ‘qualified’ unemployed graduates a monthly stipend. While it can be argued that welfare packages target the collective, stomach infrastructure’ targets the individual and his/her own unique stories and challenges. Also while there is officialdom and some form of paperwork for official welfare packages, stomach infrastructure is ostensibly driven by empathy and compassion and bypasses bureaucracy and red tape. This implies therefore that what was hitherto left for our ‘dash’ culture and extended family system to take care of is now recognized as part of government’s obligations. People have individual stories that cry for immediate attention.
Two, it is wrong to assume that stomach infrastructure alone will be sufficient to determine electoral outcome. There are circumstances by which voters may be animated by other causes such that ‘stomach infrastructure’ will become inconsequential in determining electoral outcomes. We saw that with Buhari’s supporters from 2003 when he began contesting for the presidency of the country.
Three, we can a hypothesize that when ‘stomach infrastructure’ is driven by genuine compassion, its potency in winning over citizens will be qualitatively different from when it is driven by cold calculation or when it is being used as a sort of ‘bribe’ to voters.
Four, as the ‘theory of stomach infrastructure’ goes mainstream, a crucial question is whether it debases citizens or undermines our democracy?
The key message of Fayose’s theory of ‘stomach infrastructure’ however is to call attention to the dictum by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who famously reminded us that in the long-run we are all dead. In essence, governments should strive to ameliorate the immediate sufferings of the people while trying to implement a grand vision that will hopefully bring rewards in the long-run. Governments should also recognize that there are certain unique individual stories and challenges that do not always lend themselves to be solved through a bureaucracy.
The Sahara Reporters of 22 February 2016 reported that some students of the National Open University of Nigeria have been expelled by the authorities ostensibly for trying to unionize to oppose certain ills in the university such violation of students fundamental rights.
The report by Sahara Reporters may be only a tip of the iceberg of the several ills at the NOUN where the institution apparently takes advantage of the university’s peculiar structure to abuse students and deny them of their rights. Not only are there frequent complaints of sundry fees imposed by the University, it is not uncommon for students to turn up for examination at designated centres and be ordered to go to another centre several kilometres away for the exam. At other times, students can sit for examinations without seeing the results of such exams several months after while their colleagues who sat for the same exam in other centres will see theirs. Quite often aggrieved students will have no one to complain to or there will be subtle threats by arrogant officials of consequences if they continued to pester them. For instance several students who sat for examination in October/November 2015 at the Study Centre, Central Area, Dutse, Abuja are yet to see to see the results of their ICT-based exam while their colleagues in other centres have seen theirs. The government needs to intervene to ensure that a good idea such as NOUN is not destroyed by official arrogance and incompetence.