Lessons From the Ambode Gamble, By Louis Odion
…all said, it is a big lesson to other incumbents on the totality of responsibility: The gradient of performance in office will not be measured only by the surfeit of brick and mortal but also to what extent the owners of the platform – the party’s rank and file – are carried along.
Like Phoenix in the storybook, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos seems on the rebound after political crucifixion at the All Progressives Congress (APC) Golgotha. In his post-defeat broadcast last Wednesday, grace and sobriety had replaced the bile and bitterness in his tongue only three days earlier when he thrust a blunt dagger at the jugular of Jide Sanwo-Olu, his opponent to the ticket for the 2019 governorship. The voice we heard in that speech was no longer that of a rebel, but a penitent covered in ashes and sackcloth at the altar of the party.
His few words – taut with emotions – dwelled on the urgency of healing within the family after the deep hurt of a bitter primary contest.
To those who probably expected open tears, he managed to put up a smile, even if only skin-deep.
That apparently laid to rest wild speculations that he might yield to the temptation of a waiting ticket in the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). But truth be told, those expecting him to so act could indeed not be said to love him genuinely. As they say, he on whose head a coconut is broken hardly ever partakes of the feast thereafter.
He has since followed up with what would seem a carefully choreographed photo op to depict a desire to be reconciled with the estranged party establishment in the State. For instance, we saw him locked in a bear-hug with Babatunde Raji Fashola (BRF) at the APC national convention over the past weekend (the latter is his immediate past predecessor with whom he had been immersed in a cold war since 2015).
In another telling glimpse at the Abuja Eagles Square that night, we saw Ambode in Agbada sandwiched between BRF and Jide Sanwo-Olu in what frames a portrait of restored brotherhood. In yet another newspaper picture, we saw him beaming with a smile beside Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, the man whose support could have made a big difference on the now historic October 2.
While Ambode would do well to sustain the rapproachment with a view to guaranteeing the stability of the remaining months of his administration and futuristically securing total reconciliation with the party establishment, the lessons from his experience should however not be lost on those seeking fresh perspectives on not only the dynamics of politics in a fledgling democracy but also the nature of man and the perils of a wrong choice at a defining moment.
In a way, the epic drama that had unfolded surely mirrors a common morality tale: Never rule out the posssibility of an accident between the cup and the lips. Just when many thought Ambode had grasped the handle to the APC second term ticket came the great turbulence, eventually tipping the fragile mug and content in a ghastly crash.
By the time the storm settled penultimate Tuesday evening, the incumbent Lagos governor would, against custom and tradition, suffer a pathetic loss in the direct primaries, polling only a scanty eight per cent of the roughly one million votes cast.
Most telling, perhaps, is the outcome of the voting at the ward at the Alausa secretariat, the very seat of government, where the challenger polled a colossal 963 to Ambode’s lean 4.
In Ward C2 of the critical Alimosho Local Government, Sanwo-Olu’s fairy tale continued with an emphatic 16724 votes to Ambode’s solitary 3 votes.
If nothing at all, the episode has underscored the supremacy of rank and file as an indispensable factor in party politics and the efficacy of direct primaries to test the popularity of incumbents. Given the tumultuous turnout of party faithful across the 245 wards of Lagos that day, it was too obvious that the matter had transcended Tinubu…
By the time the votes from Lagos’ 20 councils and 37 development areas were eventually tallied by dusk, what we then saw of Ambode’s ordinarily fine, sturdy and chubby visage was almost unrecognisable from what must have been a torrent of concussive electoral blows.
To Sanwo-Olu-Olu’s total 970,861 votes, the incumbent got 72,901.
Now, let us return to the referenced metaphor of turbulence, then transposed to the context of a tempest. We must note that that natural phenomenal rarely occurs without foreboding; it is usually preceded by lightning and foreshadows a storm, resulting in a disruption, even if temporary, of the harmony and balance of nature.
Many saw the tornado of October 2 against Ambode coming.
If nothing at all, the episode has underscored the supremacy of rank and file as an indispensable factor in party politics and the efficacy of direct primaries to test the popularity of incumbents. Given the tumultuous turnout of party faithful across the 245 wards of Lagos that day, it was too obvious that the matter had transcended Tinubu and he would have been risking a revolt of the very mob at the gate, had he succumbed to intense pressure at the last-minute to save Ambode.
Given such widespread and seething hostility, how strange then that Ambode’s handlers ever imagined they could still pull through without the support of not only Tinubu but also the influential Governor’s Advisory Council (including Vice President Yemi Osinbajo), 57 council chairmen and party hierarchs, at both state and ward levels.
In seeking to proceed regardless, Ambode was probably inspired by the literary fulmination of Earnest Hemingway that, “To be defeated and not surrender is the ultimate victory.”
But at some point, it had become too obvious that, even though a brilliant accountant, the retired bureaucrat from Epe was however acutely lacking the aptitude to comprehend the elementary arithmetic of politics: Little things truly matter more. While it is true that the civil service weans and conditions you with its cardinal value – anonymity, the Ambode tragedy, it would now seem, sprang from the inability to overcome the social limitation imposed by his professsional career.
One, introversion is never an asset in realpolitik. Those who have interacted with Ambode personally often recall a certain shyness. Viewed through the lens of psychoanalysis, shy folks are known to prefer to conceal their fragile condition in self-withdrawal which, in turn, could be mistaken for arrogance by the casual observer.
Had he the luxury of a second chance, perhaps Ambode would have realised by now that, in realpolitik, not just the party leaders deserve attention, but also the ordinary rank and file, who expect their calls be answered, no matter how late and a response given, no matter how unreasonable their demands.
In some cases, what the ordinary folks want is not necessarily silver or gold, but a mere feeling of belonging – the thrill of access, being made to feel like part-owners of power. To such class of party faithful, mere handshakes or selfies during project inspections are more treasured than meal tickets to the next party buffet.
…if anyone has profited from Ambode’s gaffe here, it is ironically Sanwo-Olu himself. By responding in a language that is far more civil and gracious, and taking the stated allegations apart with proofs and exposing the inconsistency and illogic therein, the challenger undoubtedly succeeded in turning the tide against the accuser.
Again, what the episode has underlined is the danger of surrounding the throne with men of shallow vision or feeble character, incapable of telling the king the truth, even while the Titanic is fast approaching an iceberg. The pest of sychophants and freeloaders, that is.
This was very much in evidence in the way and manner Ambode’s handlers continued to live in denial, even against the backcloth of widespread hostility. To say nothing about the insolence that underpined the messages framed and retailed.
In egging Ambode to take-off precipitously, even in the face of gathering dark clouds, it was clear they were only setting him up for a big crash.
Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than the “world press conference” arranged for the governor two days to the primaries. It was an unqualified disaster, in both form and content.
As Ambode lobbed grenades at his challenger during the question and answer (Q & A) session after his address that Sunday afternoon, how pathetic it was to watch the nest of palace courtiers and jesters laughing aloud in one corner (as captured by live television cameras), while engaged in bear-hugs and backslapping.
That is often the mentality of poor tacticians more interested in cheap sound-bites; fixated, as they say, on the condition of the axe’s blade in the frenzy of felling a giant tree, without a thought for the direction the trunk is tilting to ominously. They seemed carried away by the ceremony of the moment. If at all they knew, they did not show any appreciation of the enormous cost of the course of action they were nudging the governor to pursue.
First, deploying a teleprompter would have helped project a governor affecting confidence by establishing and sustaining eye contact with viewers, sparing him the embarrassment of struggling with sheets of paper in the open air on a rather windy afternoon, made worse by the incoherence of a statement apparently scrapped together in the storm of a difficult moment.
Again, note, the contest was purely an internal affair. So, pitching communication to a national audience only showcased the deficit in tactic and vacuity of strategy. Unless, they only wanted to whip up public sentiments. Even if any public applause was generated at all, how could that have translated to votes at an exercise that was purely a domestic affair of the party?
Worst of all was the off-the-cuff comments made by the governor during the Q & A in which he literally hit his opponent below the belt with grave allegations not only against the latter’s personal integrity but also his mental health.
But if anyone has profited from Ambode’s gaffe here, it is ironically Sanwo-Olu himself. By responding in a language that is far more civil and gracious, and taking the stated allegations apart with proofs and exposing the inconsistency and illogic therein, the challenger undoubtedly succeeded in turning the tide against the accuser.
Well, all said, it is a big lesson to other incumbents on the totality of responsibility: The gradient of performance in office will not be measured only by the surfeit of brick and mortal but also to what extent the owners of the platform – the party’s rank and file – are carried along.
Louis Odion is a Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (FNGE).