Ndi Kato: How money, gender, patronage undercut youths in politics

Ndi Kato straddles Nigeria’s social media space as political activist, social worker, and humanitarian crusader. This young lady of grits and guts put herself up as guinea pig for the recently promulgated Not-Too-Young-To-Run law by seeking the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the Jema’a constituency of the Kaduna State House of Assembly. Her experience is riveting, revealing and reflective of the long road to travel yet for young people seeking elective office in Nigeria. Titilope Olayemi Fadare brings excerpts of an interview with Ndi Kato:

What informed your involvement in politics?

Where I come from – you know what follows when you say Southern Kaduna: crisis, turmoil – my work has brought me face to face with these things. I have also served in different kinds of places, met with elders, people who have been fighting this battle and one recurring theme is that the major people who are speaking for the issues, they never get into power. They never get into positions that help them to actualize the things they want to do or create the change to get those done. So there is a different group of people in power and a different group of people in the grassroots. So there has to be a bridge. I also remember in the last election, I supported President Jonathan because he meant something to me. He is from a tribe that people consider a minority tribe, even though Ijaw people are considered many but it is the nature of Nigeria if you are not among the three major tribes. It felt to me that the election was a referendum against us (minorities) to say ‘no you do not belong enough’. His presidency meant to me that it is possible for someone like me to become president in Nigeria. At some point, the way he dressed or his wife dressed, everything was questioned and ridiculed. But that is how Ijaw people dress. They are flamboyant with their laces and all the embellishment on it, that’s the way of the people, they are sea side people. I saw all those insults and I was wowed like this is what is going to happen, so I think more of our kind needs to enter (the political arena). I saw the people back home fighting. There was a time that the kind of Christianity we received in the north, was not particularly the type of ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’. So for a long time, politics was demonized even till now, if you are a good person, they ask why you are going into politics. I talked to those people and I found out a lot of reasons why they didn’t go and I said we can’t continue like this. This journey has to be different. The Nigerian state is such that you have to acquire power to get what you want; so that was it for me. Let’s say these things are not mutually exclusive. I can be a social worker, a humanitarian, I can do whatever I want to do apart from government work and (still) be a politician.

This is your first time to venture into active politics, how you would describe it as a young politician. What are the challenges or benefits?

Age! Your age will work against you. This is the system. Nigeria is a patronage state. More like, hang around the system enough and it would reward you. There are people that have been there since 1999 and when you get into the system, you hear stories, ‘in 1999, when they were forming this, I was in the village in that place.’ And I ask myself, ‘you are still here and still hanging on for the patronage?’ politics is wide. It is a different world that anyone outside has no idea. I think people have been (in it) since 1999 and have not gotten into the House of Representatives and they may not intend to go. They intend to stay there and milk the system. The highest they may get is State House of Assembly. For those of us young people who come, there has been someone who has been in the system since 1999 waiting for his turn in that position that is going to battle you. They ask you, ‘where are you coming from, I have been here since 1999. You have so many years ahead of you’. They are not thinking about all the work you want to get done. And then, your gender of course. They say, ‘you have come, you are so cute. Thank God you have finally come. We have never had a woman run for office. Come and join; don’t worry you will not get it but we will give you appointment and you will win.’ It opens your eyes to the reality of things. This journey of power, you get to learn, you learn how to manage people. It is very difficult. For someone like me who is a recluse, you see my house is on the topmost floor. My help will come and ask if I want them to open the door for the person, if I am not expecting you, you will knock and I won’t open because I am that much of a recluse. I am only noisy on social media (laughs). Even on social media, I like to keep to myself. Age and gender are the major impediments. It is very expensive. You talk about this thing on social media and people think that it is a joke.

I saw a picture where you were asking people to donate to get your expression of interest and nomination forms. How did that pan out?

Before I knew it I had blown through 4m (four million naira). You spend a lot. Let’s break down this spending. People don’t understand it from outside and I hope that this interview will really take it. How do I start? Ok! When you arrive the village, you go to greet whoever, you have to drop money. You are not dropping that money as a bribe. Any house you are going to greet, you are going with something. Anybody that comes to you to talk to you, you have to do ‘thank you for coming.’ That is the culture of politics in Nigeria. It is wild, I cannot even imagine. Nobody prepares you for it and you have to go through that. On the day of the primaries, I am not going to say whether or not I indulged but yes, a lot of money goes through. The delegate system is wild. People pay through their teeth. I remember working in a committee in my party the PDP – People’s Democratic Party, which happens to be largest party in West Africa, the best party; you better include that (laughs). I am a child of PDP. I remember we had a strategy review committee and I worked in the funding syndicate with Senator Esther Nenadi, Governor Idris Wada, Iyom Josephine Anenih and part of the work we were trying to do in terms of funding was democratizing the system because the more you democratize the system, people have a sense of belonging. So they would bring their N10 or N5. People in the US for example, pay to attend conventions, but we are paying people to attend conventions here in Nigeria!. That is not functional and that is what keeps this country dependent and everyone feeding into the political system. I had not taken part in politics at that time so I didn’t know the level of what we were talking about. I was talking from an idealistic point of view but I had not experienced it. We were talking about that and how to kill the delegate system. To be honest, PDP is working on that. On a sincere level, not the one that they would say delegate system in one side and do open primaries in another side because you want to eliminate somebody. No we want sincere level. But this is a country where even our census are questionable so how do you tell who is a PDP member or not a PDP member? It is a lot of work and we are still working on it. But back to the issue at hand, delegate system is pretty difficult. A few group of people get to choose for the large group before you present the candidate to the larger group. Wow! It is capital intensive. When people pay as much as N50,000 for state House of Assembly per delegate. My local government has one constituency, 137 delegates. Imagine if you have to pay all of them N50,000 each!

When you were about to commence this political journey, you had a blue print and you had to follow certain steps, where do you feel you went wrong?

In politics, you can do everything right and not get it. You are looking at APC candidate on twitter, Bello from Sokoto, 38 years old. He defeated the incumbent at the primaries. Today, he is on social media screaming that the party submitted a different person’s name. So the nature of Nigerian politics, you just never know. You can get there and be the perfect candidate and they tell you ‘No, it is not your turn. Somebody has been waiting there for long.’

So it depends more on the party?

It is on the people you meet. I think the PDP did its best for a democratic process so my local government, constituency, whatever grudges you may have against whoever, the truth about the matter is, as we sat in that hall, it was free and fair. The people walked there, dropped their ballots, nobody held a gun to their heads, they had the freedom of choice, nobody would have seen how they voted, although there are new methods to catch or make sure people vote for you – it is very wild. However, those people went and put in their votes.

So you believe there is no sort of party influence?

No. For this election, you can be rest assured and I was part of the system or process that led us here. What the PDP pushed for, was for internal party democracy. And internal party democracy reigned supreme. That is why you have seen in a lot of states, the presidential primaries, which candidate in the PDP are you seeing upset. Nobody. I lost my primary. The person that won, he won.

Are you saying there is a high level of unity in the PDP?

Of course. That is what the present National Working Committee make sure. They could have influenced so many things. They wanted more youth candidates, they could have reserved seats for us but No, they wanted everyone to go back and fight for their seats. It is a learning experience for everyone. I on the other hand, of course my mum passed about two weeks after I declared. That had a huge effect on my campaign. I was also new to the system. I maybe a youth, ‘very influential’ on the national level but if you go down to the local level, I need to do more in local penetration of the structures on ground. I need more grass root communication. These structures will win you these things.

In the just concluded party primaries, do you think the Not-Too-Young-To-Run law actually had any benefit for the young people?

Yes it did. Giving us a sense of belonging in the first place. Giving us the strength to come out is a lot. But it is quite difficult in the larger parties. For PDP that has existed in 1998, this party has had structures on ground that young people have not been a part of. Let be very realistic: it is going to be very difficult to penetrate a party like the PDP or even the APC. A lot of young people who got tickets got it in places like SDP, ANN, and others. However, the fact that it got you to the place where you will start, for us in the bigger party, it is a great thing. I would never stand for putting down the NTYTR bill. People say, ‘Not Too Young to Run but do you have the money to run?’ No. it creates a step and normalizes our participation.  You are not going to reap the immediate fruit now. But 10 years from now, it is going to be normal for you, for people our age, for a 25 year old to enter office. It is going to be perfectly normal. From 18, you will start in the system knowing that, at 25 you want to do this. So there are many things. It brings more of us into the system. It makes you more vocal because you want to know you are a part of this. I remember one of the NTYTR protest, we were marching and student in universities that came, some of the girls were asking, ‘what are we here for?’ we responded. They asked, ‘ What is NTYTR?’ they don’t understand. You are not even part of the conversation. How do you partake when you are not even part of the conversation? So making them part of the conversation is a great thing. The foundation we set now, the work we are doing now, you don’t expect to reap it now. As a Christian, do you think Christianity spread at the time that Jesus was here? Or five years? People died. Disciples were crucified, some were stoned to death. It was a lot of things. We may not reap the fruits immediately, but the foundation that Samson Itodo, Hamza, Cynthia and a host of others laid will go a long way. Let me mention Cynthia’s name twice because she is female (and you better include it there). The foundation they have set, we are going to reap it.

Not-Too-Young-To –Run is seen as a pressure group, are there tendencies of its transmutation into a political party to bolster the aspirations of young people?

It should remain a pressure group. Once you put yourself as a group in politics, you can see some of our pressure groups in the last election got actively involved, now when they call for strikes or other things, the effect is no longer there. It is tainted when you get partisan. Politics is a leveler, you can just do all; you can name it something and youths will populate that space but I think it is better that for a level playing ground, all parties should have youths in it. We should be in every structure. NTYTR should stay and push. They are doing a lot of pushing. You will have events and Samson will be there pressuring the party. That is what we need and they are doing a lot of work. I do think that one day Samson would become our INEC Chairman. (Laughs). Why should he get partisan?

Financing is a major issue for young people, do you advice for a legislative review of the NTYTR law especially since young people like you have found out that financing has been a major issue?

I think these things are in place but in Nigeria, the laws which sometimes are problematic but put things in place, and ensure that the system goes well. It is the implementation of those laws. The national assembly can do their best but what about the implementation? There is a donation cap for elections and that’s a million but you have seen donation drives where people do two million. Taking donations during politics, I experienced it first-hand. We had a lot of people donate and then when we lost, there is a thing for young people where they are shamed for losing elections and that is not right. I am a very strong person, I can stomach it but to have to be dragged and you come out and you know it is a lie. I have some friends who were afraid to ask for donations because they didn’t want the fall out. They didn’t want people to weaponize it against them. This is a major problem for young people. I could have just gone to godfathers to give me money but you don’t want to do that, you want to be free, you want to be accountable to the people and then that happens and you know I am going to run my campaign a different way. So that other young people will see and know that this can be done. And then if you don’t pull through, you have all those attacks against you. People knowing that it is malicious to come and say you took their money. Of course, I am not the one to try that with. I will answer back. But I think that shaming young people for losing elections is problematic. Even when it happened to APC youths, I didn’t turn it into a joke. I don’t think whether you are APC or PDP, you should do that. Shaming them for needing funds to run for office is not a good thing and I think that should be addressed.

But will you like an amendment?

I would. But you see these things, it is cycle. People in there know that it is a money game; do you think that people who benefit from that would really want an amendment. This is not an indictment on the National Assembly. To me, I feel the 8th assembly has been stellar given the chaotic nature of the present government. The bills have been excellent. Pull back all the media noise. However, there are some things you have to be realistic with. This is a system that is capital intensive especially if you are passing that bill and you know that the implementation is going to be shoddy. Therefore, you have passed the bill and it can be used against you and not used against your opponent. You see how it works. Do you expect Dino Melaye for example to be partisan to that kind of thing, knowing very well that Dino will go back? Dino may want the bill and not want to throw money but then Dino’s opponent may come around and throw money around. Sometimes, self-preservation is key as politician so you have to be reasonable about these things.

During your political campaign, what was the level of support from women within and outside the party?

(Laughs) (Stares with a smile)

Was it overwhelming? Is it what you expected?

Let’s look at young women on social media. If you are talking about reasonable help that contributed to my campaign, there are so many names. Jola, there is Ire Aderinokun who would take hundreds of her own thousands because she believed. There is also Carol, DuchessK, the one that does the sanitary pad thing and a lot of young girls. Proud feminists like myself. Put that twice. (Laughs). Proud young feminists who actively contributed that helped towards my campaign because there were so many things in campaign season that would not help. I found them stressful I must say. Conference upon conference on how women should participate in politics, they were starting to give me a headache. You are going on discussing the same thing. And then you hear tales of how you should tell your husband when you are going for meeting. I mean nobody is not going to tell their spouse right? But I don’t think in male gatherings, that is even a conversation. They say ‘if your husband is jealous take him along. Why should we have night meetings?’ it is the same thing over and again. At some point, I was like, I am not going to do this. My party have never said, ‘she is so intelligent, send her to the women’s wing.’ No. it has never happened. PDP has never treated me by gender. PDP has treated me by capacity. This person who happens to be female which is just a gender can do this and therefore let the person do it. That has been it. The party has never pushed saying, ‘you are not capable because you are female.’ No. it is a very competitive space and PDP opens the door like, come and compete and if you can we keep pushing. For every time I came back to the women space, I have to deal with- come and sit down for conference, older women, younger women. There was a particular one that I was told ‘you are not going to win this election. She has declared. Are you serious? You won’t win o but just carry on.’  I don’t thing that is the way to go. Young women on social media took me on their head. Some of these people have never met me before. Some days you will get tired, there are 10,000 or 15,000, 20,000 who say ‘my career is not where it is but please take my money. It is only 2,000 I have please take this.’ And that is what actually helps you during campaign. Putting your pictures, letting people know you are running. Come and speak for visibility and make more people come into politics. Some say, ‘I like what you are doing, can you come on this radio show, let more girls hear.’ That is what helps and that is what a lot of your women did in that space.

So do you plan to contest again?

I will definitely serve in office when my party wins. I know my party knows my capacity. I believe Nigerians are tired of ineptitude and when that happens I will serve in the system and bring about the change I want to see. I may run in 2023. Definitely not state house of assembly. Let me not say because in politics, you never know but I may and I may not but I will continue to serve in government as a politician.

Depending on the likelihood, how do you intend to sustain your ground in terms of the gains made in this just concluded run for party ticket?

We are entering campaign period now. I am going to be very integral and this is how you build structures. People are working with you, they are getting to know you better. You are helping other people win election. It was after my primaries people began to understand my reach of a politician on many levels. That she may not be present but there is a certain level where she is influential. It is a give and take system. You learn the game, I hate to call it a game. I believe I still have my structures on ground.

What future projects political projects do you have for women?

One of my major project for women is to bring more of them into politics. I have any organisation called ‘Politishean’ so it is to tell the stories of women in politics. I would be doing a lot of empowerment programs but not the one of share rice or sewing machines and it disappears. Where I come from, we are predominantly poor, they are farmers. I would want projects that if these people farm, their products are commercialized and their money comes back to them. I want more empowered women. My empowerment is not by mouth. I like to see the product and at the end of the line, it brings your profit back and watch you grow your money. That growth makes women more free and trickles down to family system. You will see the effect if a mother is financially free. It is not just farming so many other things but this is the method I intend to follow. I also intend to form a club for girls in schools and I want it to be politics inclined. Let girls know they should be socialised towards leadership. Yes. You are born to be a support system; not just girls, every human was born to be a support system. So if you think you are a help meet. A male is a help meet too, my dog is a help meet. Everybody is supposed to help the other person. You are not to come into this world and labour in the background. If that is your choice, you are free to. My mum socialized me into leadership from birth she had let me know,’ this is where you come from, I am not raising you according to gender rule. Your brother is going to cook, you are going to cook. At certain age both of you will be learning, we are going to have a house maid so that both of you can learn and you will be free.’ She had raised me like that. So when people come and say ‘your daughter has too much mouth’. She is very sure of herself, ‘leave her she is my daughter.’ She protected me that much. She let me know I could grow. I would want more girls to enjoy what my mom did to me and to create that future.

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