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On Patronage

14 January 2007 (My flat in Ugbowo, Evening)

In an earlier post, I introduced NEPA, the former name of the current power-holding company in the country. NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) used to be government-owned. In the midst of “democratization” NEPA was privatized and is now called the Nigerian Power Holding Company (NPHC). This doesn’t really mean much in the way the corporation is managed or owned. In response to World Bank and IMF directives toward a “free economy” and democratization, the government managed its own version of privatization. The beast is still the same, just new skin. Where military officials sat on managing councils for these types of things—e.g., electricity, petroleum production and distribution, agricultural export—now the very same individuals are found on the boards of these newly refashioned companies. This is as it was during the colonial period, when the heads of trading companies (Thomas Holt and Elder Dempster) had voting rights in the colonial governing structure here. Today we have the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), who is now constructing fueling stations for private profit. It is a private company that channels access through government patronage. Those military officials now turned governors and senators are also the top businessmen in the country.

This is how Nigeria has instituted its version of governmentality: generals exchange their uniforms for agbadas, regale their cronies to dominate the political scene through their one political party, and stage an election where the choices are limited to ex-generals and ex-military cabinet members, and their family members too. Anyone who runs in opposition is subject to intense scrutiny and legal harassment along the lines of corruption, and everyone is corrupt. Obasanjo has been effectively using the tool of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to censor his opponents.  It’s a mockery: IMF, you want free trade, we’ll pose for you; World Bank, you want democracy, we’ll dress the part! I wonder if the IMF and World Bank actually reflect on the implications of their directives, which seem arbitrary to the average person on this end. Without fundamental institutional change from the ground up (and I mean really cleaning house…violent visions occur to me here…), such initiatives get translated through the local grammar, and all we have at the end of the day is a changing same. Perhaps officials in these international bodies also get their own cuts and percentages from such policies in a broader, global network of patronage.

I now personally know “the NEPA guy” in our neighborhood, Mr. Salami. He lives in this neighborhood, and we can easily trek to his office, which is responsible for this section of town. Whenever the light is out for longer than usual, we can call him up and ask; he can tell us what exactly is the problem, and how long it will take to fix it. Upon paying him a New Year visit, with the promise of a bottle of wine and prompt payment, he immediately followed us to Chicago to repair a faulty wire which had left us on the verge of a perpetual power outage. He now expects a visit from us regularly, and in exchange we get quick information about our situation here in the neighborhood. We also hope that he will take special interest in making sure our neighborhood gets more regular electricity.

We personally know the plumber for this compound. His name is Friday and he is constantly making us laugh with his stories about quirky clients. His favorites are either foreigners or “been-to’s” (folks in the diaspora who return to build homes or retire). When he is around, a few other folks in the compound use the opportunity to request repairs. They do not have his number. Somehow, Efe has it. But then again, we pay him promptly and refer him to the others. We have also promised him a New Year drink (no alcohol; just a round of Malta). I think our enjoyment of his stories pleases him as much. Laughter is always a good thing.

Michael, who lives in the back of the compound is a recent graduate and works at Efe’s bank. We usually work through him to speedily process our daily transactions; otherwise, the wait in queue is insufferably long. He and Efe have been friends since Efe moved to the compound. They are of like minds: prompt, courteous, and conscientious. If Michael ever leaves the bank for another, or if Efe moves away, Efe will switch banks. Michael is the main reason for banking at UBA Bank.

Chijoke, my cousin Jite’s colleague and friend is the webmaster at UniBen. He not only helped me get an appointment with the Vice Chancellor, he also helps me get a fast internet connection in his office when NetExpress (my preferred cybercafé) is down and I am desperate. We’ve fast become buddies in the past few weeks. He has really helped to ease my frustration with campus bureaucracy. He has been behind UniBen winning a Commonwealth award for internet accessibility. Chijoke is definitely a diamond in the rough. I don’t know how he copes in this environment of debilitating bureaucracy…he works round the clock to make it happen, in spite of it all.

All of these people form my web of survival. They all greased the daily machination of my existence here. In order to accomplish anything, one must make personal connections. Along the way relationships grow and we all meet each other understanding that we in some way contribute to each other’s wellbeing. This is how one survives. Patronage is varied and deep here. From the president to the common man, we all work within circles of interdependence and patronage. Everyday, I mobilize my various networks, either as client or patron. In the struggle to formalize my presence at UniBen, I had to implore my uncle, with Chijoke’s help, to act on my behalf to meet with the Vice Chancellor (me as client). In our own Chicago hostel, Efe and I are mini-patrons: I am the financial arm and Efe is the brain of our little outfit. In exchange for improving folks’ quality of life with the generator, and personal connections with Mr. Salami and Friday, as well as Efe’s know-how with electronics, we receive general good will and little everyday favors from our neighbors. And so we go along…

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