The gentlemen who come into politics must remember that it takes more than a philistinic fidelity to one’s own ideas to attain power. Getting hold of political power involves a lot of negotiation, strategising, compromising and building bridges. It is a fallacy for anyone to assume ideas by themselves, without a ladder resting on the shoulders of a reliable financial base, which comes from proper engagement and collaboration, are enough to get hold of power.


Too often, the interrogation of Nigerian politics by our public intellectuals comes from a conceited perspective. It is easy to see condescension in reports from the field by those who venture into the arena. With a history of serial disappointment in politics, the intelligentsia readily fronts this nose-thumping attitude. With much of the thought rarefied, even on the part of those who profess to speak for the street, it is not difficult to place the gap in terms of expectation and understanding, between punditry and reality.

Painful and regrettable as the experience of our gentlemen who have ventured into the arena might be, there is no denying that many of the actors dashed in on the wings of naivety. At the base of the failure by many who venture from the platform of idealism into politics is that disconnect between their understanding of what is and what the reality is. Many have refused to embrace an understanding of where the people are and what their needs are, insisting on theorising and idealising out of context.

Politics, in a way, is like marriage. It is a night market. You never truly know what it is like until you get into one. You can be an authority on the outside, pontificating, only to get in to the realisation that you are actually a novice, with little or no knowledge of the intricacies of the game. It is easy from the outside to become an expert, seeing every move, knowing where every pass should go, but it is only when you are able to see with the eyes of those in the game or step into the arena yourself, that you get to truly understand.

Often, the more you think you know, the less you really know. It is when you get in that you realise that many who know hardly speak, and that many who posture in public hardly know. It takes having eyes of humility to understand the game. But then humility is not one of the strengths of the intelligentsia. Apart from a disconnect from the street, the way some members of the class who have stepped into the arena have handled their loss at the polls has hardly helped. It is telling, even if unnerving, to see how failure is processed and interrogated. It is always presented as the fault of the people, as they talk down on the street. It is always a query and thumbs-down of whatever choice the people have made. Once the outcome does not tally with their preference or expectation, it is explained as a by-product of poverty and illiteracy at the bottom of the pyramid. It is presented as a manipulation of the process by the other politicians. Hardly do we see a sober interrogation as basis for strategic engagement for the future.

The impression oft created is that of a heartbroken do-gooder who stepped out of his comfort zone only to have his gesture spurned by his people, out of ignorance or manipulation of the process. The loss, we are told, is not personal but one which the people must appropriate and take responsibility for, irrespective of the quality of effort by the candidate. Often presented is the account of a Messiah who, on account of rejection at the ballot, is swiftly moving on to other things, shaming the people to live with the consequences of their wrong choice or inaction. Yet, this loss even with its collective ownership, has a possible dimension bothering on a failure of process, methodology or strategy which the candidate ought to take responsibility for and interrogate.

One culprit readily cited is money. True, money is a lubricant, increasingly being deviously deployed to manipulate an already lopsided process. Yet, I argue that even with the incidents of vote-buying, inducement, suppression and other deplorable phenomena to which money is being put, these things, in the strict sense of directly determining the eventual outcome of general elections, is not as much an influence as some assume it to be. Money is important, but more so in setting up and oiling the structure, long before the time of election. Loyalty is sustained over time on the basis of shared vision and beliefs. An emergency recruitment of party agents days before the election, as the newbies do, even when they are remunerated, never amounts to much, not even votes from these agents. Their loyalty is already elsewhere; they only take advantage of naïve politicians not able to read the tea leaves.

Voting decisions at the base is more sophisticated than many assume. Many who collect money are not necessarily influenced by it as they are already of a political persuasion before the transaction that take place around the election. They are often a part of existing political structures, even at the base, which have been oiled over time. Some collect money to vote in a direction they are already persuaded. For some, it is an incentive, without which they might not even venture to vote. Many have made up their minds long before the day of voting and only few get to change their minds on account of money changing hands. Some even manage to vote their minds, after collecting money to vote otherwise.

Whereas the choices by the people at the bottom of the pyramid is often explained as the lure or influence of money, it is simplistic to explain their choices as only that. Money, I will say, is not a major determinant of the voting pattern, at the point of election. A lot of the money spent by experienced politicians, at the point, is to service an already existing structure for election-day deployment and ensure a hold over those already in their camp. It is erroneous to explain every loss to the influence of money, as a huge war chest, not intelligently and tactically deployed, might not achieve meaningful result.

Some argued, in the build-up to the 2019 elections, on the need to support new faces who showed up, simply for their courage, and the fact that what they set out to do was a disruption of the system. But disruption cannot simply be a new set of fresh faces running for the presidency at every election, as that has always been the case and 2019 did not offer anything new…


That is where many of our idealists miss it. They do not understand that politics is a journey, with a destination often undefined. It is a process, often with no clear end in sight for the person. Just as it comes with disappointment, not meeting a deserved target, it can sometimes come with surprises, delivering beyond expectation. That is why for many, it is often a journey of no return. Preparation for the next election starts before the end of one.

Some idealists confuse politics with ethics. True, there should always be a place for morality but there is no doubt that politics is a hard-hearted contestation for power. To approach it solely at the normative level is not only naïve but unrealistic. Moral sophistry cannot be a substitute for strategic thinking and engagement which should then precipitate action on the part of those who assume the posture that they are advocates for a fundamental turn-around. I do not dispute the place of ethics, morality or even idealism but the point is that they must be framed around a workable political structure with a pragmatic mind-set. How can it be that the great minds are recurrently unable to out-think or out-smart those deemed to be less intellectually endowed?

Politics, as complicated as it might appear, can be quite simple, if approached with a dose of humility. It has its language. In a way, it is like mathematics, with its own formula. Knowing the right formula is half the job done. Adopt the wrong formula and it leads down the valley of the shadow of failure. Especially, where it is a zero-sum game like ours. No two ways to it. No spinning your way. No marks for effort.

Politics might not be an exact science, but it is science still. It is a systematised body of knowledge with its own methodologies and methods. It has its tools for disassembling and assemblying, interrogating and projecting. It has tools for study trends and patterns as basis for making forecasts. Even then, some of the most gifted scientists in politics are not necessarily formally trained. Some do not have the grasp or knowledge of these tools, but they are able to use them informally. Perhaps because politics is also an art. There are fine details of politics that one can’t box or subject to scientific experimentation or explanation. There are aspects that one cannot touch but only feel. There is the place of history, culture, tradition and emotion, in defiance of logic. Without a good nose for these or a firm feel of the street, one can be led astray.

There are always lessons to learn from different actors, no matter their weaknesses. Everyone has a story. To each, his failing. The important thing is not to miss the context of the story, take what one can and apply only where relevant. One must always be willing to learn, look out for patterns, identifying what works here and there and reasons they work. We must always be willing to learn. The intelligentsia spectacularly fails when it comes to working together as a collective. It stumbles when it comes to organising and strategising, unable to see the sense in pragmatism. It keeps grumbling about the lack of money, as if that is all that matters, as if the lack of capacity to organise itself or raise funds in support of a cause is proof of strength. Instead of pontifications that lead nowhere, it is better to humble ourselves to learn. Thucydides says, “history is philosophy teaching by example”. There are plenty of cues in history if only we are ready to learn.

Some argued, in the build-up to the 2019 elections, on the need to support new faces who showed up, simply for their courage, and the fact that what they set out to do was a disruption of the system. But disruption cannot simply be a new set of fresh faces running for the presidency at every election, as that has always been the case and 2019 did not offer anything new or different. Disruption is no wishful thinking. It is no tea party. Running for the office of the president by a newbie does not demystify the office or the process. Running, unprepared, by just about every Tom in the camp of progressive thinkers, only demystifies the struggle. It makes it appear as if the intelligentsia is incapable of strategic thinking and unable to pool together.

It comes across as if it will rather continue to operate in silos, seeking self-glory rather than group redemption. Stepping out in sub-zero to play competitive football at the highest level, without the proper gear, cannot be described as courage or an attempt at disruption. What it shows is a lack of preparation. Some will even call it stupidity. Disruption is not by mouth. Disruption starts with an understanding of the system. It has to do with not just identifying the gap, but identifying the opportunity in the gap. It has to do with developing a product, properly positioned to meet the need so identified or one so engineered. Disruption is about doing things differently. It is not about simply throwing a new product into a saturated market, expecting a miracle. Disruption is all about strategic thinking. Disruption is not by mouth.

The terrain of politics is definitely not for saints. For the outsider desirous of impact, vilifying all politicians as below par and shutting down possibilities that might open for collaboration is counter-productive. Democracy has variants. But democracy, as practised here and there, is still about making choices among available contenders and their ideas…


The gentlemen who come into politics must remember that it takes more than a philistinic fidelity to one’s own ideas to attain power. Getting hold of political power involves a lot of negotiation, strategising, compromising and building bridges. It is a fallacy for anyone to assume ideas by themselves, without a ladder resting on the shoulders of a reliable financial base, which comes from proper engagement and collaboration, are enough to get hold of power.

The terrain of politics is definitely not for saints. For the outsider desirous of impact, vilifying all politicians as below par and shutting down possibilities that might open for collaboration is counter-productive. Democracy has variants. But democracy, as practised here and there, is still about making choices among available contenders and their ideas, not among critics who bark, but are not able to engineer a strategy to successfully bite their way into success in the political arena. In politics, the door that idealism will struggle to open, pragmatism will easily bring down.

All politics is local, it is often said. Largely true, as the tap-root of politics runs deep down. Even though the fruits might be more evident at the top, the bottom nurtures the top. Contrary to what is often put out, the bottom shapes the top, just as much the top is influential at the bottom. But this is not even about the drop-down or bottom-up dialectics but about how localised politics is. What rocks the boat in one locality will not move the boat in the other. What will rattle the cage in Lokoja will not move the needle in Ogoja. To each locale, its own peculiarities. Each has the song it dances to. Each has issues that are close to its heart, determining the direction the pendulum swings.

To not understand the peculiarities of each community, the contours and rivers that run a ring around its belly is to indulge in fantasy, the kind we have seen some ‘idealists’, out of naivety and arrogance, engage in. You can hardy disrupt from the top, without a thorough understanding of the bottom. You cannot take on the task of seeking to disrupt politics in Nigeria without an understanding of the localised nature of politics. You cannot approach politics with a wholesale mentality, designing solutions at the top, with the mind-set of Abuja or Lagos. What is troubling those who live in Monguno is not what is of interest to those lounging at Maitama. To each its own. To be successful, it is necessary to approach it at the retail level, dis-aggregating the issues, localising strategy, men and materials.

A lot of the issues that bother the top do not resonate at the bottom. The spirited discussion among those at the top, often do not percolate to the bottom. The concerns at the bottom are local. It is up to that smart political anaesthetist to be able to localise the anaesthesia for the purpose of addressing the localised concern. I believe that those seeking to disrupt are in strategic error to assume that it can be approached through a messianic wholesale mentality, from the top, as we saw with many of the new entrants into the last presidential election.

For the army of idealists out there, frustrated that their dogo turenchi is not resonating with the bottom, perhaps that should prompt in them a change of mind-set. It starts with accepting that all politics is local. It starts with designing a strategy that comes to that recognition. They might want to consider the Natasha Akpoti model in Kogi State. She is proof that the secret lies with going local. The way to disrupting the top lies there at the bottom. The way to disrupting the top lies there at the bottom.

Politics might be a night market but it has its own mores and codes. It is naïve and unwise to be detached from the system, especially at the bottom, stray in close to election, unprepared without an inclusive mind-set, properly fabricated long-term strategy, expecting a medal around the neck for simply being a gentleman. It doesn’t work that way. Success hardly comes before involvement transcending multiple election cycles. We must be humble enough to see where we are missing it. We die the day we stop learning.

Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi