596 views | Ife Sarumi | April 29, 2020
6:00am: My alarm goes off, instantly jolting me to the reality of the busy day ahead of me.
My journey into Nigerian politics began in 2018. My mentor had called me the day before and asked me to join their campaign rally in Ogun state, Nigeria which included the Vice President of Nigeria and an incoming gubernatorial aspirant to do some grassroot campaigning in Ogun state.
Before my brain had the time to list the cons of not going. I exclaimed ‘Yes!’. I had met my mentor in 2018 at his town-hall meeting event in London. I made my intentions to work in public affairs in Abuja known to him from the beginning and what followed thereafter was months of me pestering him with emails of various policy ideas myself and the youth party I was working for at the time had designed. The pestering worked I guess because when he saw an opportunity he knew I would benefit from, my name was submitted. I will always be grateful for that thought. It is very essential to pick a mentor that genuinely has your best interests in mind, and as a mentee, it is important to show your commitment to adding value to the relationship.
I catapult myself out of my bed and head to the bathroom. Normally, it takes me about an hour to get ready, but today was different. I had to be at the designated meeting spot at 7:00am and I cannot be late – or I miss this opportunity. A rare opportunity people sacrifice sleep for. I arrive at my destination just before 8am, despite the battle of Lagos traffic.
”Let me sit in the meetings, just let me inside the office. ”Weeks on weeks, I would send proposal emails to policy consultants and politicians only to get an “out of office email”, or I would force my way into an event I knew the person of interest would be at, only to be relegated to the back by their security crew. In my mind, I just thought to get in first, even if you have to fight, then you can figure out how things work, then make your way up to the top, or the last resort- create my own space.
If you look at the background of many politicians around the world, my idealistic plan of entering Nigerian politics is not too far off. Politicians start young; from the grassroots- door to door campaigns, leading student union rallies, hosting town hall meetings, applying for all the placements and internships available in Parliament, long hours of pursing a sponsor or lobbyist to favour your community project, run for Local Councillor, waiting in receptions for hours just to meet with the politician that can change your career at the utterance of a word, embracing rejections upon rejections…
Yet, despite the hurdles they work earnestly, day and night, till the right opportunity at the right time is presented to them. Read the autobiography of your most revered politician, they ‘hustled’ in their youth.
”There’s no manual, self-help book or graduate scheme that prepares you for the uncertainty of the nature of this career.”
I assumed the same approach will work in Nigeria, so before I made a move to Nigeria from the United Kingdom, I wrote out a list of politicians I desired to work with, pondered on possible challenges and how to overcome, then started making a plan of how I would find them and sell my pitch and voila! a job waiting for me. I had told myself before I moved, I would not even mind working for free for a while, as long as I gain insight, knowledge, experience and valuable skills. That’s more meaningful to me at this early stage when building a career in Public Affairs. I spoke to my mentors, and they supported my plan.
So off I went to Nigeria to make my dream come true.
To be frank, I am not sure when I realised this dream may fast turn into a nightmare. It could be the moment when a public servant declared we will never witness the swearing-in of a female Governor in Nigeria. Or it could be when I was posted to the North, to complete my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and a soldier at a checkpoint in Adamawa State (Northern Nigeria) addressed my male driver the entire time during an unnecessary interrogation process whilst ignoring me. Nevertheless, my tenacity did not break and I doubt it will. I have the black man blood in me, concocted by God so that recipe is bound for success.
However, I must clarify, that there is no manual, clear cut structure, self-help book or graduate scheme that prepares you for the uncertainty of the nature of this industry in Nigeria.
Anyway, back to the 7th…
After arriving at the meeting place in Lagos. The next thing I know I am in a convoy with 30 other aides heading to Ogun State (south-west of Nigeria). At first, we get to this large grass of land in Lagos, where the helipad sits and his campaign manager explains that using a helicopter is the quickest method to get to Ogun state in time for the rally. In my mind, I exclaim, ”Hey! Oh! fine by me. I do not mind if I do!”.
But, before I can pull myself up to the step, fear grips my hands. My eyes quickly scan the fields searching around for my mentor and soon I notice he is entering another helicopter with the VP, and I immediately breathe out and relax my hands. See, I am scared of heights and no matter how much I want to campaign, my life matters first… but surely if the Vice President is getting on then I should be safe.
”Flying across the seas was mesmerizing, God truly took his time when creating Nigeria thus, we should do our due diligence in protecting it”.
I board and after a few splutters and whirring of the wings of the helicopter, we are propelled in the sky and I am introduced to the beautiful plains of greenery and blues the Lagos landscape has to offer. From this height in the sky, no pollution can be smelt or felt, no noise drowns my thoughts, just Nigerian nature in its full splendour. My mind immediately starts thinking of how we can capitalise on these sights for the Nigerian tourism industry. Flying across the seas was mesmerizing, God truly took his time when creating Nigeria thus, we should do our due diligence in protecting it. The sea seemed to collide with the land so beautifully it almost looked like a painting, the blue and brown making a perfect mirage of art sculptors can only attempt to recreate. We flew past the tallest of trees, they reached out to greet us with their long branches even the birds seemed to acknowledge they had visitors flying in the sky with them as they curtailed the wings of the helicopter. As we journey further west, the sun kisses our faces and welcomes us to her abode as her rays beam straight into our eyes- suddenly the headpiece cracks and the pilot announces we are halfway to our destination. My heart leaps into my mouth, anxious of what will meet us when we land, yet excited to be thrown into a world unknown…
When in Ogun…
We arrive in Ogun state just before 10 am. Immediately we are thrust into the thick of the crowds. The Ogun State campaign rally was magnificently mad. “ SAI BABA, SAI BUHARI” was the loud chanting the crowd greeted us with as we arrived at the meeting stadium. I quickly skimmed around the seas of faces and I counted nothing less than ten thousand Nigerians, eagerly chanting and pledging their allegiance to their leader- before he had even spoken to them. For them, just seeing a glimpse of him, being so close to him, hearing the Vice President speak directly to them and not through a medium, was a once in a lifetime event, enough to convince them that they’re making the right choice, that there is hope and this administration will bring back their light. Right there and then, I concluded that the most effective campaign strategy remains face to face interaction.
The thousands moved with him. He moved to the left, they swayed with him, he chanted the arty slogan and they sang along without skipping a beat. I was astounded. Despite the sweltering hot sun beating down on our backs, in the early hours of the day, the people of Ogun state moved with him, from post to post, so attentive to every one of his words as if they were storing it in their minds to regurgitate to their housemates later.
I stood next to a trusted friend the whole time, he works on the VP’s team and we had quickly forged a friendship from the helicopter ride. I am so grateful for his physical support on that day. One of his unofficial tasks that day was to shield me from over-eager supporters trying to grab me into their embrace. He pulled my arms to run alongside him, so I catch up to the next stop where the Vice President was.
I loved it. The running, the pulse of the continuously growing crowd, the music, the loud sirens ushering the convoy of the VP’s team, the megaphone being used as an instrument to convey the Party’s promises of ‘Change’ to the crowd, it was a sight of history being made. I felt like I was part of a moment bigger than me, that I too was part of the people bringing light to those that have been kept in the dark. Then I stumbled. In a moment, the heat overcame me, the masses of people around me in a closed space caused my head to overheat, my body starts wavering and my knees start feeling weak.
I have attended several campaign rallies in the United Kingdom before, but I had never been exposed to this. I was both terrified and mesmerized. But do you know what is amazing about politics? The way it brings the most polar opposites together as we pursue a common goal together. The crowd continues pushing me back and as I was about to give way to the ground, a young boy not even up to four foot grabs my arm, pausing my drop to the ground. He had the most eager eyes and soppiest smile I had seen a while, he beams at me exposing his teeth as he shouts “Sai Baba”, as I managed to mutter ‘‘Sai Buhari”. At that moment it felt as though two strangers with nothing in common, shared a mutual feeling that we needed to express to each other to motivate us.
My friend eventually found me and before I could tell him what had just happened we’re on the move again, and as I attempt to catch my breath and convince my legs to run, the crowd swallows me. I try to reach my friend’s hand, yet the thrusting of the crowd behind me shoves me to the side, the force from their stampede dissolves my grip. To the crowd, I was an obstacle against their race to get to the next street, to see their hero, the Vice President again. I did not even blame them.
”It was joy everywhere fueled by the love of the Leader, the Party, the Country.”
As we keep moving, the convoy stops, and both the Vice President and the Governor aspirant, Dapo Abiodun step up to the podium. Standing on the podium, with his cap now shifting to one side, the sun beaming down on his face, as though he has been anointed for that moment, breaks out into a Yoruba song, ‘‘Oke oke ni a n lo”, translated to ”We’re going higher”. The crowd instantaneously catches the rhythm and everyone around me begins to dance to the beat of the drums, some market women begin with adlibs, wriggling their waists to the sounds of the African drums, whilst some children gather in a circle to perform a dance-off, in an attempt to gain the Governor aspirant’s attention. I look behind me and see some children grab brooms (the symbol of their Political Party) and lifted them above their heads creating the image of a brown sea. It was joy everywhere fueled by the love of the Leader, the Party, the Country. The speakers continue to belt out the instrumental of the song, the VP smiles and intensify his voice and the crowd gets even more lively, like the sound of his voice had induced some more Oxycontin into their bodies which they could not get enough of.
The VP was a great crowd puller; he knew what the inhabitants of Ogun state had been longing to hear, so he appeased their chants with the promise of a greater life in the language that bonded all of them together- Yoruba, so they know he has been listening to their needs. Like a carnival, we all danced to the next location, brooms over our heads and colours of green, red, white and blue flags engulfing the sky held by beaming faces shouting ”PROGRESS” on the streets of Ogun.
Evening dawns on us and we head to our last spot, which was the community of the Hausa’s- people from the North of Nigeria. They welcomed the VP with adulation’s, plenty of handshakes and utterings of ”Ina Oni” swarm us. Those following the VP are asked to stand back so he could have privacy with the leaders of the community.
I walk back into the convoy bus, exhausted yet astonished by the uniqueness of the day. I ponder about my job; one day I am in the office writing press releases, the next day I am chasing a convoy bus with a crowd. I slumped in my seat looking out to the now empty streets, whilst relishing the thoughts of Change the VP had promised earlier to the crowds. Above all, I just felt proud that I got to see this exhilarating campaign rally first hand. A rare opportunity people sacrifice sleep for.
”I was just glad to be able to say I was part of History.”
After the last stop, we head back to Lagos in the convoy with the team who had made this campaign rally happen. I do not know how long we were on the road for but I know I woke up from sleep just in time to see ”small chops” being served around. That made me really happy, but above all, I was just glad to be able to say, I was part of history.
Just so you know, the Governor aspirant and his Deputy Governor, Yetunde Onanuga who the Vice President campaigned on behalf of, won during the general Nigerian Elections, so I feel even more proud now.
The All Progressives Congress Campaign team at the State Conference Centre Dinner Celebration, Circa March 2019.
So what did I learn?
1. Women working in male-dominated spaces such as Politics, Technology, Finance need allies in Men. Without them, their access to the working space decreases. My male mentor recognized my expertise and ambition, he acted on that by deciding to support me by giving me opportunities to prove myself, without that I would not have open doors to enter these spaces. In Nigeria, there are 8 female senators out of 109 and only 11 female House of Representatives members out of 360, earning us the lowest number across Parliament in Africa. If you have the chance to increase these numbers of female representation in politics, how would you implement it?
2. If there are no opportunities, create yours.
3. Take up every space, opportunity and experience…eventually, something will click.
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