Cablegate: All Politics Is Local: Tex-Mex Meets Edo Oga

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: N/A

Unclassified but Sensitive


1. (SBU) Summary: Chief Odidi of Edo State spent 18 years
in the U.S., became a U.S. citizen, and made enough money to
return to his native town and go into politics. While in the
U.S., he absorbed American values and political culture, and
now balances those ideas and aspirations against the
realities of life as a "big man" in a small Nigerian town.
End summary.

2. (SBU) Greeting cards in Nigeria have grown steadily
larger and now rival sheets of drywall in size and weight.
Chief Stanley Okpo Odidi, Chairman of the Etsako East Local
Government Council and recent resident of Hemet, California,
has many of these standing around his office. They
congratulate him on his assumption of office two months ago
and, indirectly, on the successful conclusion of his patient,
extended campaign to oust his predecessor and have the
governor of Edo State appoint him interim local government
chairman until next year's election.

3. (SBU) Odidi moved to Texas in 1981 and worked there for
six years before moving to California. He washed dishes and
drove cabs before seeing an advertisement for a training
course as a private investigator. He took the course and
became very good at it. He lived in his car eating Tex-Mex
(which he misses) for days on stakeouts, went into business
with his former instructor, and became an American citizen.
And he made a bundle, enough to launch himself into local
Nigerian politics. He came back to Nigeria in 1999, within a
month of the resumption of civilian rule, to the town of
Agenabode where his father had been a chief.

4. (SBU) Chief Odidi senior, however, had been dead more
than 20 years. Stanley had to remind people who he was, but
enough of a light bulb went on in people's heads to help him
get a foothold. Money was the key ingredient, he says. "It
doesn't take much...a thousand dollars goes a long way here."
He helped a lot of people out financially and was generous
with little favors. And not so little: he built a
"hospital" with his own funds (it may have been only a
clinic) and constructed a little school. Other people in the
district say he became active in the PDP. He got close to
people close to the governor of Edo State and used them to
get a high-profile meeting with the governor that was covered
in the press.

5. (SBU) Money is essential, but it is also the key
vulnerability of Nigerian local politics, Odidi says.
Nigerians do not have a clear sense of the public good, and
are really only interested in what politicians can do for
them directly. They are in a real sense very selfish, he
says; they think about themselves and their families, and the
rest is of no interest. They would rather vote for a
politician who gives them a small cash "dash" than one who
will build clinics, schools and roads. "It is hard to get
people to think about 'issues,'" says Odidi. If the voters
really had their way, no money would be spent on public
projects; the money for them would be split up and handed out
directly to the electorate. This makes Odidi feel
vulnerable. No matter how good a job he does, he can easily
lose to someone who hands out a lot of money, as he did:
"money wins every time."

6. (SBU) Odidi wants to do a good job. His years of
exposure to American political culture were "tremendous" in
many ways, he says. He can still give a blow-by-blow account
of the Huffington/Boxer race in California and has adopted an
American-style notion of community service. Many of his
Nigerian friends who were in the U.S. were similarly
influenced and have come back to try to do something for the
common good. The notion of coming back to Nigeria to work
for the country is not very Nigerian, he says; it isn't
selfish. He is quite aware of the impossibility of
introducing American style democracy here. His notion is to
try to "marry the two ideas," the American and Nigerian
approaches to governance and the public sphere, and move
people along slowly, helping them appreciate the benefit of
public institutions.

7. (SBU) In the meantime there is the problem of getting
his staff to come to work. And dealing with the 50 or so
people a day who come in to the secretariat because they are
hungry or need school fees or clothing. Asked what the
district needs most, he says "everything." The area is
"completely poor" and has nothing, but (particularly among
older people) there is not necessarily a sense of being poor.
People feel themselves to be "ordinary;" they have farmed
all their lives, have no standard of comparison with people
elsewhere, and are accustomed to making do with little.
Young people, however, are aware of the outside world and are
conscious of their poverty. They are angry and frustrated by
it but have no idea what to do. They don't believe education
will lead anywhere as there are no local role models who have
done well through education. They may work as motor bike
drivers, earning perhaps 300 naira a week if they rent the
bike and 1000 naira if they own it. "But don't think they
are going to revolt," he said. "People here are quite docile."

8. (SBU) What youth don't want to do is farm. They look
down on it as old fashioned, demeaning, hard work. Within
the borders of the district is a well-equipped agricultural
school supported by the Leventis Foundation offering free
education, room and board to promising young farmers for
year-long courses. Not one student from the district is
there, but Odidi knows that better farming is the community's
only way out and is trying to help farmers modernize. This
area is Nigeria's agricultural heartland. The district
supported Nigeria's largest farm until it collapsed with the
removal of tariffs on imported grains. Odidi has thus far
organized 40 farmers into loose cooperatives to benefit from
the tractor the district is about to buy. He is also looking
into other ways to improve agriculture: seeds, new crops,
etc. The transport of produce to market, however, is an
unresolved problem, as the difference between local and urban
prices demonstrates. A box of tomatoes selling for 4000
naira in Lagos costs 100 naira locally, Odidi said. Much
local produce just rots.

9. (SBU) Comment: "There are lots of people like me," says
Odidi, "younger, well-travelled Nigerians who have come back
to help change things." At his suggestion we visited one of
his fellow district chairmen (in Auchi) and found someone
considerably less comfortable in English but who nevertheless
had run a modern business and had visited the US for trade
fairs and training seminars. What we find interesting in
Odidi is the calculated blend of old and new: the cronyism,
the unabashed use of money, ancient ties and chiefly
traditional authority by someone who knows why Boxer beat
Huffington and who wants to move his community into a future
it doesn't know exists. Odidi has followed in his father's
footsteps as a Nigerian "big man," but he frets about his
next election opponent and waits impatiently for someone to
bring him his next cache of tortillas and refried beans.

© Scoop Media

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