What does it take to run for office in Nigeria? Ayisha Osori discovers the answer to this question in her wonderful memoir “Love Does Not Win Elections,” which tells the story of her 2014 primary run for a parliamentary seat in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. In doing so, she weaves a sharp, witty and often infuriating narrative of the ways patronage politics, sexism and ethnicity can confound even the best-prepared candidates.
When she decided to run for Nigeria’s House of Representatives, Osori, a lawyer, opinion columnist and civil society leader, served as chief executive of the Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF), where she worked to increase the involvement and representation of women in politics and other decision-making arenas. Osori drew directly on that experience in her run for office, fundraising, building a team of dedicated staff and volunteers, and working to gain endorsements and assistance from powerful leaders. The book describes these experiences in vivid detail, from the sometimes-humiliating apologies demanded by power players who complained that Osori had not regularly visited them to meetings with party delegates who expected to be compensated for their time listening to Osori ask for their primary votes.
It’s not even clear until the last minute that the primary will occur at all. Leaders in the powerful, then-ruling People’s Democratic Party agreed early in the primary process that they would support incumbents, effectively excluding newcomers like Osori before the race even began. These leaders can make or break a candidate’s fortune. When Osori asks one delegate from her home ward for her support in the primary, the delegate replies that she will need to speak to a more powerful woman, her patron. Osori makes numerous attempts to contact these patrons whose endorsement would lead to support from their clients. Sometimes she is successful, but the battle is an uphill one, especially when she lacks a personal connection to the patron in question.
Patronage — the system whereby political leaders distribute resources and favors to constituents (also known as “clients”) in exchange for their loyalty — defines Nigerian politics. Osori’s experience is no different. Not only can Osori not win votes without powerful backers, but she must also deliver gifts to virtually everyone she meets. These gifts are most often cash but can also be meals, fabric or candy. To outsiders, this might look like bribery, but as a strong social norm, gift giving is mandatory. Her team adeptly distributes discreet gifts ranging from about $10 to $450, the latter being largely for party offices that rely on political candidates’ patronage for their funding.
Osori also highlights the challenges for women who aspire to leadership in Nigeria. She quickly learns that while many speak positively of women’s inclusion — from donors concerned with “gender mainstreaming” (including women and their concerns in decision-making processes and the implementation of those policies) to men who accept institutional arrangements requiring that a certain percentage of primary delegates be female — the reality is that women are often disadvantaged throughout the political system. For example, Osori notes that the requirement to have female primary delegates from each ward led to many party leaders appointing their wives or mothers to those positions rather than seeking out women leaders.
In several cases, Osori faces outright sexism from party leaders who think that women should concern themselves only with home and family. They tell her she is too young, too inexperienced or not serious enough to run, much less win. Osori also faces one particularly challenging political tradition: the late-night meeting. Officials regularly meet late at night, often for hours on end, to make important decisions about who will hold a post, who will be the approved candidate for office or what policy will be enacted. Being in the room for those decisions is essential for women who want to lead.
Summoned from her home after midnight, Osori goes to a meeting with an important leader who can introduce her to an even more important leader. But as she notes, most Nigerian husbands would not allow their wives to leave the house at such a late hour to go meet with a room full of men. And being out so late at night is a security risk in Abuja, where carjackings, sexual assault and robberies are unfortunately common, and police cannot be counted on to protect women who might be victimized.
Osori also highlights the challenge of running for office as someone who, though she was born and has lived her entire life in Abuja, is not part of any of the ethnic groups indigenous to the federal capital territory. Being a “non-indigene,” in Nigerian terminology, poses a considerable barrier to entry into politics in any Nigerian state, and some advise Osori to run in the state in which her family has roots but where she has never lived. Osori refuses, arguing that she wants to represent the place where she lives, pays taxes and seeks to improve her community.
“Love Does Not Win Elections” is a page-turner. It’s a perfect book for undergraduates or anyone interested in elections in Africa. With real-life examples of the ways that patronage, gender and ethnicity affect politics, it’s a teaching tool I’ll be assigning to my African Politics students this fall. I hope my students will realize that the challenges Osori describes are not all that different from the ones we face in the United States. Virtually all politicians use their positions to distribute resources to the places they represent. Established leaders often dismiss the ideas and ambitions of new politicians, using institutional rules and informal norms to keep challengers out — superdelegates, anyone? And political parties tend to be risk-averse, preferring to support incumbents and insiders over untested newcomers, which often favors men over women and whites over people of color. These dynamics are not unique to Nigeria or to Osori’s experience.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict, and development, with a focus on central Africa. She has also written for Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English