Ekiti: May The Best Rice-Sharer Win - by Abimbola Adelakun

On Saturday, June 21, 2014, the citizens of Ekiti State will go to the polls to choose their governor. Other things being equal – most likely a recourse to the law if those inhibited from winning refuse to agree – the winner will be governor for another four years. And since some of the 18 candidates have been sharing rice in various guises to woo the electorate, my prayer for Ekiti State is for the best rice-sharer to win.

For the two major contestants, my hope is that the one who, somewhere deep within him, means well for the people of the state – even by the slimmest margin – should “moon-slide” on Saturday. And, any which way things go, the contest should be remembered as the day rice won!

For the incumbent, Kayode Fayemi of the All Progressives Congress, “rice-sharing” has been tactically worked into the various initiatives of his government whilst his major opponent, the Peoples Democratic Party candidate, Ayo Fayose’s rice-sharing, is far from subtle. Fayose’s was done in his typical brash and exhibitionistic attitude: line people up and then “dash” them the souvenirs of their poverty. There is no altruism in the “rice-sharing” but rather, a build-up to Saturday’s rigging.

The incumbent is a touch understated with his soup kitchen concept. Nothing wrong with running one but soup kitchens and similar charitable activities are, typically, run by civil society groups. When it becomes a particular candidate’s initiative, one who also happens to be the incumbent, the effort takes on a coloration that ultimately favours him.

There is zero use invoking the law on rice-sharers since there is a slim probability any action will be taken against them or their campaign team for the illegality of inducing voters. The culture of inducing voters’ favour by distributing various items is by no means new and no major party in Nigeria can feign sainthood when it comes to that route to voter inducement. It goes as far back as the earliest elections in post-independent Nigeria – 1963, I think – and even the 1993 elections saw people bribed with money.

In the 2011 elections, all manner of materials branded with the names of candidates contesting elections –from noodles to recharge cards – were freely and openly shared. Some of those items were of course, given out as campaign materials, meant to promote a party or candidate whose face and party logo were embossed on the items but even a donkey knows there is a difference between handing out a T-shirt and a bag of rice.

No one could have been left in doubt the true intent of the distributors of these items: they are desperate for the votes of the poverty-stricken masses. Now, while theoretically speaking, it is appropriate to condemn voter inducement and ask whoever found guilty of such to be condemned to voters’ hell, one cannot ignore extant reality – the existential condition of the average Nigerian voter.

How do you tell people that have been mentally whittled by years of poverty to reject a few cups of rice? To them, it might as well be a down payment on their dividend of democracy. After the rice, who knows when next they would be remembered? And, since from their experience, the fact that someone refuses to share rice does not make him/her a better candidate than the one who shares, so why not take it when they offer?

Also, as a contestant, what do you do when your opponent begins to distribute foodstuffs from community to community and gains public approval? Do you up the ante on your campaign promises and insist on principles or you quickly arrange your own “rice”? How does a candidate with ideas and vision compete against a rice-sharer in a place like Nigeria where the bulk of the population live in mind-controlling poverty?

A couple of years ago, I had a rather memorable conversation with a middle-aged woman. I had told her that I was in Ibadan to carry out a study and that I would be working with the women population.

She retorted, “Ha, you really should do research on women o. Do you know that during the last elections, XXX party shared money from agboole to agboole? The men got up to N3,000 while we the women struggled to get even N1,000. Tell me, is it fair? Why should we be shortchanged because we are women?”

I was genuinely amused by not only her faith in academic research and its potential to redeem a social injustice (as she conceived it) but also her absolute lack of scruples about being financially induced to vote a candidate in an election.

The not-so-amusing part was trying to redirect her sense of values towards not only looking at the imbalance in her story as based on gender differentials but the equally big picture of the unfairness of a big and rich party inducing voters with money to the detriment of poorer opponents. I tried to explain to her that free and fair election does not begin -and end- with vote counting but in the sanctity of the process that leads to it. Therefore, distributing gift items is as bad as rigging votes.

All forms and acts of injustice, I told her, are mutually reflecting and she could not be merely concerned about how she was disadvantaged as a woman but also consider the electoral candidates who had also been disadvantaged when she accepted the N1,000.

In the course of my political sermon, I also realised the futility of trying to convince a woman who sold roasted corn by the roadside the immorality of collecting either N1,000 or N3,000 when her markup per day was probably less than a tenth of the former amount?

No, this is not to argue that accepting to be bribed with “rice” is all about financial poverty. Amongst even the elite, there is also a general sense of collecting their share of the national cake. It is about our warped sense of values. We have reached a stage where the line between what is appropriate or not is so blurred that it is no longer considered an issue.

In a democracy where the limits of actions you can take are properly defined, sharing rice would cost candidates the election and for the rest of their lives, they would need the sun to set before they venture out of their houses. But this is Nigeria where rice-sharers are idolised by a crowd of poverty-stricken folk who see them as God in human flesh.