Dear Mr. Joe Trippi: Congratulations on your first successful presidential campaign. I have often wondered what it means for a famous American campaign strategist to build a career littered with an exceptionally long list of failed presidential campaigns: Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and Howard Dean. Name any failed Democratic presidential campaign in America in recent memory and your shadow is sure to be around the corner.
Such has been my sense of pathos that I particularly felt your pain when you were fired by Howard Dean. Somebody somewhere somehow’s gotta put a presidential victory on this man’s résumé as political strategist, I told myself.
I am glad that my country, Nigeria, via the Jonathan/Sambo campaign, has now added that vital missing item to your résumé. A presidential win is a presidential win - whether onshore at home in America or offshore in Nigeria where your status as a white “foreign expert” was sure to guarantee you the sort of mileage you are not used to back home. Congratulations once again for producing your first presidential win as a campaign strategist and consultant.
While you worked for the Jonathan/Sambo campaign and shuttled between Abuja and America, you also blogged about your work and I read your blog episodically. One of your essays even made it to the Nigerian Village Square, a popular online portal. We shall not get into the little matter of whether you know enough of Nigeria’s social history to have offered that rather reductionist treatise on our country. Suffice it to say that a fellow public commentator, Mr. Kennedy Emetulu, read you extremely perceptively and commended you for always availing your newly-acquired Nigerian readership of full disclosure. I share Mr. Emetulu’s sentiments entirely. I liked the fact that you always declared in your opening sentence that you were working for the Jonathan/Sambo campaign. That way, anyone reading you beyond your opening sentence knew you were a Jonathan operative. Full disclosure matters. That is quite commendable and totally in line with standard democratic ethos in your own country.
Your blog about Nigeria also reveals an underlying social concern and sensitivity to the nature of democratic practice in that country. I thought I detected a sense of pride that you are helping build democratic ethos in Africa and not just making money? If my hunch is right and you went to Abuja not only to work for the campaign that hired you but also to contribute to the enhancement of democratic practice in Nigeria, you must have observed a few things that would have been really strange to you as an American.
Although your handlers must have coached you thoroughly before every trip to Abuja and warned you to always agree with Chief or Alhaji and keep your opinions to yourself, there is just no way that you wouldn’t have noticed the opacity of campaign finance in Nigeria’s democratic culture. Mr. Trippi, electoral and other laws in your country are quite stringent about campaign finance. Transparency is crucial. Americans have the right to know who is contributing what to which campaign. They always demand to know. It is suicidal to bury anything in secrecy. And when campaigns fold up after an electoral cycle in your country, the next phase is the rendering of accounts and the retirement of campaign debts. It is so meticulous that Americans even get to know how much a campaign spent on lemonade for volunteers doing door to door canvassing. And the IRS is of course always lurking quietly around the corner.
I’m a Nigeria sitting down in Ottawa. Yet, I know that Hillary Clinton carried her campaign debt to her new position as Secretary of State. I know that she and her husband, President Clinton, went through thick and thin to retire the debt. I know that she retired most of her debt after paying the last instalment of $1.5 million to her campaign strategist, Mark Penn in 2009. (See: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=asCTv4SyVMUA).
I can perform this check for any politician in America by checking with the Federal Election Commission or the IRS. It’s actually just one click away. Ditto for Canada. We have just finished elections here in Canada. How much each campaign spent, what they spent on strategists like you, and where the money came from is just a click away. I want the same desperately for my country, Mr. Trippi.
I am sure, Mr. Trippi, that you must have noticed that democratic practice in Nigeria is at once primitive and arrogant in the area of campaign finance. Primitive because national awareness is yet to get to a point where our electorate would come to perspectivize full campaign finance disclosure as an indissociable part of genuine democratic ethos. To even raise these kinds of questions is to risk the ire of some of the very victims of Nigeria’s adversarial circumstances. The arrogance stems from the fact that politicians and campaigns behave like they are doing the Nigerian people a favour in the unlikely event of an accidental but minimal disclosure.
So, here we are, Mr Trippi: three elections in one cycle and the campaigns have simply closed shop and moved on. We have no idea how much was made, how much was spent, and where the rest is going. In America, Dimeji Bankole and all those who failed in their re-election campaigns would by now be meeting with their accountants and campaign staff to harmonise the books preparatory to full disclosure. They have moved on in Nigeria. Just like that. And we are never going to know anything unless we put them on notice that we are going to fight for that aspect of our democratic culture going forward. Given the extremely friendly bilateral relations between their personal wallets and the public treasury, incumbents in Nigeria do not incur campaign finance debts like Hillary Clinton. They campaign finance surplus and that is the more reason why Nigerians need to know exactly how much was made and where it came from. David Mark, Bukola Saraki, Gbemi Saraki all ran campaigns as incumbents. They shouldn’t get to just move on as usual, should they?
I’m sure you must have noticed all these things while in Nigeria, Mr. Trippi. I’m sure you know that Nigerians still don’t know how much you were paid by the Jonathan campaign. Yet, any Nigerian can know how much you were paid by the campaigns you worked for in America because it is always just one click away. I just mentioned above how much Hillary Clinton paid Mark Penn, your fellow campaign strategist. Because you know that a campaign is not allowed to disrespect the American people by behaving like they don’t need to know anything about campaign finance contributions and disbursements, I’m sure you must wonder, in fleeting private moments, how a campaign could possibly bring in a foreign expert, retain him as a consultant to manufacture online herd and consent for the incumbent, have him out there in the public blogging about whether Nigeria is permitted to have a revolution or not, and not have to declare anything to anybody at any point.
This is where that part of you that so much desires to help build genuine democratic ethos in Nigeria needs to come in sir. Precisely because the secrecy that has surrounded your fees in Nigeria cannot happen in America; because a savvy student of politics like you must have read your terrain in Nigeria thoroughly and discovered that there is often no difference between the public treasury and the campaign purse of the incumbent; because you are not one to tolerate or encourage the appearance of these kinds of uncatholic blights on a democracy you are helping to build; because you know that campaigns in Nigeria are so arrogant that no one in Abuja would deem it necessary to let the Nigerian people know how much of our money was paid to you, it would be immensely appreciated if you took your earlier-mentioned practice of full disclosure a step further by making that declaration yourself.
Rumour thrives in Nigeria, Mr. Trippi. For good reason. Our rulers are way too arrogant and so high above us that they don’t tell us anything. So we fill the void. We speculate. How man for do? Ol’boy, you don hear? The neighbour of my nephew’s cousin who works as a PA to somebody high up in the Jonathan campaign told me that they hired one man from America and put him on a consultancy fee of five million dollars per year. Ah, see this one. Who told you it is five million dollars per year? You are not current at all. Don’t you know that my chairman whose third wife has an Uncle who manages the hotel where they normally lodge that American consultant? He overheard the Jonathan people saying that they pay the man five million dollars per month o. It is per month and not per year.
Mr, Trippi, that is the word out there for now. The figure, five million dollars, is moving and circulating implacably. The said figure even travelled to my ears here in Canada. Five million dollars per month? Five million dollars per year? Rumour is never really concerned with those little details and will pursue its inexorable course, fed by the silence and arrogance of your employers in Abuja, until we arrive at authoritative beer parlour figures of five million dollars per week. And don’t kid yourself that this wouldn’t be believable. Nigerians are assaulted daily by such mindless profligacy on the part of our rulers – ask your principal what happened to the excess crude account – that they would believe five million dollars per day if the rumour acquires sufficient traction and staying power.
You, of course, can stop all this by making a full disclosure of your Nigerian income. That would be an invaluable contribution to the development of democratic practice in Nigeria. It could even have a domino effect. The campaign you worked for may take a cue from you and also make her books public. And people like us could take the fight to the other campaigns – Buhari, Ribadu, Shekarau, etc – and ask them to follow the stellar example of the Jonathan campaign by also making full campaign finance disclosure to the Nigerian people.
I trust that you were careful enough to ascertain the source of whatever you were paid in Nigeria and that Trippi and Associates is doing everything by the book by declaring her overseas Nigerian income to the appropriate US authorities for tax purposes? There is no telling when frustration with the silence of your Abuja employers would make activist Nigerians decide to check things out with the IRS and other requisite authorities in the US.
Despite all the talk about the underdeveloped nature of our democracy, Nigeria still boasts a considerable number of informed citizenry at home and abroad who are all about making sure that Western officials do not lower the standards to make a buck or two when dealing with Nigeria. They are all about making sure that whatever those Western officials consider good enough for their people back home should be considered good enough for the Nigerian people. They make sure that people like you do right by the Nigerian people. Harvard University burned her fingers badly when she came to the attention of such patriotic Nigerians by trying to make a buck or two through a jamboree training fellowship for serving governors. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will make this category of Nigerians accept a let’s-manage-this-substandard-democracy mentality. And they will not go away. In your shoes, I would hurry to make a declaration and not attract the attention of this category of Nigerians.
Thanks, once again, for your service to Nigeria.
Ps: I will check with you episodically and keep this matter alive in public until we hear from you or the campaign you worked for.