Mr LA: Political will, constituency building and public support, By Abdul-Azeez Suleiman

The 2019 elections took place on the tails of the worst economic crisis Nigeria has ever faced, which had resulted in widespread poverty and unemployment in the country. Consequently these elections were described by many as the most important since the country’s independence in 1962.
Most of the politicians coming forward in most sates, to serve in the federal legislature during these crucial times were therefore young, with fresh ideas and boasting of impressive backgrounds and experience across the range of fields considered necessary to drive Nigeria forward.

In Kaduna state, one of the most popular such politicians to contest the senatorial election was a young gentleman named Lawal Adamu Usman (Mr LA) – a first time candidate running a grassroots campaign against the then incumbent Senator Shehu Sani and the most powerful member of the states ruling cabal, Uba Sani.

Mr LA is a new breed politician who came to prominence following that dramatic electoral challenge against the state’s entire government force and its ruthless ruling cabal.

A new brand to the world of archaic politics, Mr LA’s eminent showing during those elections is a compelling example of how a new generation of political players are committing themselves to overturning the politics of polarisation.

His progressive and conscience-led approach to politics makes him an important symbolic figure of change during this pivotal moment in the state’s history. Indeed, against a seemingly rising tide of populist politics around the country, Mr LA’s story is one of inspiration and hope for positive and inclusive forms of political engagement. Very few politicians in Kaduna state share a common interest in social equality, and in the power of grassroots movements with him.

I spent three months in the run-up to the election as a member of Mr LA’s team – or ‘Team LA’ as it was officially known. During that time, I also found myself in the midst of the Peoples Democratic Party, Kaduna state election campaign, constantly surrounded by politicians and key persons associated with the party.

I quickly learned that LA’s senatorial campaign, and in particular his electoral prowess, was seen by the party at large as critical for the PDP to achieve an overall victory in the state. After all, he carried the greatest load – that of booting Governor Elrufai and his cabal out of government. Thus, it was LA’s presence in the PDP campaign that was often highlighted across the state as being uniquely significant. In the public eye, he was regarded as more than just a political figure, he was like a celebrity, a role model, someone who was lauded as a hero.

LA’s overflowing popularity was strengthened by the hard-won support he gained from the people of Kaduna Central District. Despite the All Progressives Congress spending the previous four years in power, its representation here has often been described as a rather dismal state of affairs; people had become resilient to its false promises resulting in exercising rather high levels of suspicion towards politicians generally.

At LA’s constituency office, where I spent much of my time and was able to speak with a number of constituents, the political neglect they had experienced under previous representatives was an all too familiar story which I encountered time and again. Neglect, along with substantial levels of corruption and highhandedness, seemed to be the norm under the APC government which left the constituents of Kaduna Central, and the ordinary person across the state, powerless and without representation.

LA understood the effects of the APC political neglect on the average person very well and was therefore passionate about running a grassroots-oriented campaign with the goal of empowering constituents and promoting community action for change. He did so persistently and tenaciously, aiming to bring to fruition his “people first” philosophy: that no person should feel diminished under a political system; rather, that people should be placed over politics. Indeed, he created a very popular slogan for his campaign based on this ethos – “Mr LA Alheri Ne” – which garnered incredible support not only from those in Kaduna Central, but across the state. People began speaking of LA as a future governor.

Mr LA possesses a number of qualities and achievements which were carefully blended in just the right amounts to produce his exceptional popularity. First of all, his philanthropic credentials and his record of putting this to use on behalf of the community granted him immediate credibility. Interestingly, LA himself would play his philanthropic success down, which in turn gave him a rather humble persona that did not go unnoticed by the Kaduna people.

The second reason for his sweeping acceptance during the campaign, was his natural ability to resonate with constituents. LA ran an intense door-to-door campaign to ensure he met every single one of Kaduna Central residents and that they knew who he was. Despite being situate in the heart of the state capital where the APC ruled for four years prior to the election, Kaduna Central remains one of the most deprived and under-developed constituencies in the state: there are high numbers of people who are unemployed, there are few community amenities, and violence amongst youths and gangs is on the increase.

Voters in the 2019 election soon realised that LA understood these issues in a very personal way, which is unusual for a well-educated politician. And his ability to connect with ordinary people on these issues helped him gain their trust. Trust was one of the biggest obstacles for candidates to overcome in convincing the electorate in Kaduna Central, given the long history of their neglect by politicians. But LA was able – uniquely amongst politicians in the state – to form genuine friendships with people which then allowed him to build an earnest and enthusiastic grassroots movement.

Furthermore, although he had only to appeal to voters in seven local government areas that make up the Kaduna Central, LA also expended enormous resources, time and energy getting to know and assist people in all the other local governments. His aim in doing so was to help nurture and revamp PDP’s reputation and relationships with the electorate across as broad a geographical space as possible.

A third reason was his focus on making politics an instrument of the peoples will. LA’s campaign therefore stood out throughout the election period because he made it a fundamental requirement that all campaign plans be developed in partnership with the people rather than being dictated to them. Throughout the campaign, he listened to ordinary voices and made ordinary people’s involvement the driving force behind the power of his campaign. Many of these people had never been involved in politics before; but through LA, they found themselves on public platforms speaking up for their community.

In establishing an ideology based on inclusivity and empowerment of ordinary people, LA was effectively also providing a fresh outlook on politics in Kaduna state. As a consequence, he attracted an exceptionally high level of acceptance in the 2019 election, including amongst people whose party affiliations traditionally lay elsewhere and those who had spent years in the shadows of self- serving individuals.

Through the efforts of Team LA, ordinary people either found or reclaimed their voices – and made themselves heard. I spent many occasions during the campaign with Mr LA himself, and was able to gain a good insight into what motivated him. He told me that he was never really into politics since he had grown up with constant reminders of how the political system was failing ordinary people. His underlying sentiment was that, although political mechanisms are flawed, real political action happens when the establishment is rattled.

Involving local people in his political campaign, indeed making them the beating heart of it, was strategically imperative in order to foster real and positive political change in the state. There is no doubting that his strategy revolutionised politics in Kaduna state.

But for him, political action is not just about lobbying for votes, it is also about empowering the ordinary person. He believes in dismantling both the internal and external limitations that prevent people from reaching their full potential. His strategy can therefore be read as: placing people at the forefront of action and change, building genuine grassroots politics and making it mainstream, part of the norm of political action.

There were, however, aspects of LA’s personality that added a level of allure and attractiveness to his campaign. Unlike other candidates I observed, LA has an air of charisma and enigma that draws people to him, that makes them want to listen to what he has to say. He flirts with, and plays on words seemingly effortlessly and takes to the podium without notes, thereby giving his speeches a sense of being alive and in motion, rather than seeming rehearsed. Indeed, he inspires and taps into people’s raw emotions, and is able to move them. Consequently, he has attracted large number of votes at the polls and built a mountain of followers, exceeding the expectations of seasoned political pundits and many others.

Grassroots political campaigning is vital in helping speak truth to the power of incumbent elites, and to deep, pervasive, inequality-based political structures. In Kaduna, LA has shown the way by mounting a heroic people-led onslaught against the state’s hegemonic political structures and personalities.

We should take note of such movements, and of the ‘people over politics’ ethos that underpins them, if we want to better understand how to preserve democracy.

Suleiman, a journalist, is Special Media Consultant to Mr LA. He writes in from Kaduna.