Re-Inventing the Political Process in Nigerian Films: A Critical Reading of Teco Benson’s The Senator
Barclays Foubiri Ayakoroma, PhD
National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO)
The general impression in Nigeria is that, politics is the shortest cut to the top, the surest way to arrive in the society. To the average Nigerian, politics is a do-or-die affair; and if one has to enjoy its dividends, it is not to be played by the rules. The politicians: the military, civilians, or ‘militicians’ (retired military men in politics), speak from both sides of the mouth. Thus, the legacy of our political tradition is the determination of a group to get revered political authority, at all cost, and hold on to it as long as possible, until they are forced to leave. One shortcoming of the present Nigerian democratic experience is the electoral process that has lacked transparency. As it were, every film is a representation of the economic, social, political, religious, cultural, and technological developments of the producing country. Hollywood films have continued to reflect the American way of life – politically, economically, socially, culturally, technologically, and so forth. Popular films intervene in the political struggles of the day. Incidentally, the political film genre did not received serious attention from Nollywood producers, until the demise of the Gen. Sani Abacha, probably because of economic considerations and exigencies of the political landscape. From a critical reading of Teco Benson’s The Senator, it is posited that the re-invention of the electoral process in Nigeria cannot be achieved with printed literatures alone; and that the films, like The Senator, could be used to bring positive developments in the country’s political system.
The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary defines politics as, the act of “scheming and manoeuvring with a group” (777). It is not surprising then that a politician is seen in a derogatory sense as, “a person engaged in politics merely for personal gain” (Webster’s 777). Though the dictionary says, ‘in a derogatory sense,’ there is no arguing the fact that, this is the reality of the game of politics as played in Nigeria. There is the impression, generally, that politics is the shortest cut to the top and it is the surest way to make it or arrive in the society. The average Nigerian sees politics as a do-or-die affair; and if one has to enjoy its dividends, it does not have to be played by the rules. The legacy is the determination of a group of people to get into political office, at all cost, and hold on to power as long as possible. Little wonder then that the political process is characterised by intrigues. The general thinking is that the electoral process in the present Nigerian democratic experience lacks transparency.
However, every film represents the economic, social, political, religious, cultural, and technological developments of the producing country. This explains why popular films intervene in the political struggles of the day. A study of the contemporary Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, reveals that political genre films had not received serious attention from producers, until the demise of Gen. Sani Abacha in 1998. This paper posits that political genre films have a critical role to play in enlightening the electorate in Nigeria. From a critical reading of Teco Benson’s The Senator, it is argued that re-inventing the electoral process in Nigeria cannot be achieved with printed literatures alone; and that feature films, like The Senator, could be used to engender positive developments in the country’s political landscape.
The Political Process in Nigeria
The political process in Nigeria could be delineated in three stages, namely, the search, the moment of decision, and the time for rebate (Ayakoroma 349). It is necessary to examine the stages to see how they are reflected in the selected film, The Senator. This is pertinent because the political process determines the quality of leadership that emanates in any society.
The search is the process of charting the road towards a political office in the sense that it is the time the idea is mooted and pursued vigorously. Very often, some persons who had had no political ambition are cajoled by followers or sycophants who believe that such a decision would be in their favour. This is the period campaigns for elective offices are carried out, and every means is applied to achieve set objectives; it is also the time for alignments and re-alignments. As it were, terms like cross-carpeting, decamping, sellable candidate, campaign organisation, harmonisation, settlement, and many more, have found their way into the contemporary Nigerian political lexicon.
The moment of decision is the time the electorate decides who should rule; it is the point of no return in the political process. Elections have, over the years, become synonymous with the triumph of the highest bidder. They are characterised by ubiquitous wars – war of words, war of the media, war of party thugs, war of youth wings or vanguards, war of naira, and war of rigging techniques. Chapters IV and V of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, for instance, stipulate the requirements for election to the Legislative and Executive arms at the National and States levels. Unfortunately, such elections are almost always marred by electoral malpractices, ranging from printing of fake ballot papers, duplication of ballot boxes, over voting, snatching or vandalisation of ballot boxes, falsification of election results, to sundry electoral violence to scare the opposition.
When an election is won, it is the time for rebate; it is the time to enjoy, just as the losers count their losses. Party loyalists are usually compensated with appointments while sycophants shout the praises of the leaders to get some attention. Sometimes, the post-election period could be characterised by legal fireworks in the law courts to keep or up-turn the mandate. Thus, for the winners, it is a time to extend a hand of fellowship to the losers so that they would not go to court. Again, these negotiated settlements entail promises of contracts to offset campaign expenses or appointments for the losers or some of their strong supporters. For a Presidential, Gubernatorial or Local Government Chairmanship elect, it is also a time to wave the carrot in the face of the Legislature to avoid being served impeachment notice for no just cause.
Paradoxically, once a person wins an election, it is believed in every quarter that he/she has arrived. It is a time for congratulatory messages to pour in; it is also a time for courtesy calls (or solidarity visits) by political jobbers and even portfolio carrying traditional rulers and elder statesmen. It is a time of celebration because there is the general expectation that such a person has to recover all the money spent in the elections, and that he/she has to be financially buoyant for re-election. Furthermore, ways of choking (dealing with) political opponents are mapped out. Communities that did not give their support during the election are dealt with accordingly. This could be by not siting government projects in such communities, or not giving their sons and daughters political appointments. For strong supporters or those who worked for the candidate, it is a time of harvest: it is their government. To them, any contract they get is a form of compensation so they just collect the mobilisation, buy flashy cars, marry more wives, acquire chieftaincy titles, buy honorary doctorate degrees, and cap it with second burial ceremonies of long dead parents.
It is common knowledge that there are many contracts that have become white elephant projects due to the hydra-headed abandoned projects syndrome. This has been occasioned by the bid by unscrupulous politicians to get a piece of the national cake from the federal allocation, decided in the Federal Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) meeting in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory every month. The truth is that many states in Nigeria are not viable and cannot pay workers’ salaries unless they receive the monthly allocation. The reason is that such states were created by fiat by past military dictators, who wanted to favour their friends and relations, and not with the real intent of bringing government closer to the people. Since most of them cannot generate appreciable internally generated revenue (IGR), they are wholly dependent on the Federal Government that metaphorically holds the feeding bottle, and workers bear the brunt as salaries and allowances are owed now and again.
The situation in the local government councils is even pitiable. Most of the Chairmen are never on seat and hardly having any relationship with the local populace. They barely undertake meaning development programmes in their council areas, only surfacing at the end of the month to share the monthly largesse. Furthermore, they are under the stranglehold of the Executive Governors, who, very often, deduct large chunks from their monthly allocations through the Joint Accounts Allocation Committee (JAAC) to oil their political machinery.
Over the years, those who seek to rule and despoil have adopted political killings and gangsterism as ready tools in the political process. This is definitely not the disposition of those who seek to lead and build. According to Makanju, political violence is
a strategy to hijack the democratic process, an annexation and fraudulent conversion of democratic structures to the antagonistic family estate thereby annulling the majority wish of the people for self-serving purposes… the moment a candidate or a group of party loyalists conspire to rig an election, a political terrorist act has been perpetrated against the people. Political terrorism is not only an infringement against the individual fell by the assassin’s bullet or his immediate family, it is equally an open, and a most unwholesome infringement against the collective psyche of the people (Makanju 3).
Incidentally, the Federal Government has effectively played the role of the chief mourner at condolence visits to the bereaved, via the visible presence of the President, his deputy and/or other top government officials. At such moments, government would consistently promise that justice would prevail, and that everything possible would be done to bring the culprits to book. This underpins the call on politicians, by the National Association of Seadogs (NAS), to put an end to such acts, as a matter of urgency, and spare the nation further loss of lives. It observed that justice remains the only instrument that can douse and assuage the psycho-social and political tension generated by political killings, and that anything short of this would remain, “a grand national illusion and an international humiliation” (Makanju 3).
Film and Politics
Having taken a brief look at the political process in Nigeria, the issue that will be examined next is the interplay between film and politics. The point had been made that every film is a representation of the economic, social, political, religious, cultural, and technological developments of the producing country. In analysing the relation between film and politics, Noel King states that in a broad sense, a cinema of political experience can be expected to deploy realistic characterisation and narrative structure, and that there is need to conceive of politics as an element of the world waiting to be pictured or represented:
The cinema of political experience understands politics as “subject-matter” and makes its calculations in terms of how accurately and persuasively it pictures political events or adequates a subject’s political experience. One consequence of such a cinematic practice is that the viewer is conceived as an experiencing subject… a subject awaiting politicisation by empathy (King 2).
In further explicating the above, King quotes Tony Bennett as remarking that,
not all practices of textual commentary acquire their social effectivity by organising the reader as a subject who takes a meaning from the text with subsequent consequences for his or her consciousness and mode of relating to and acting within a generalised public arena. Others do so by producing the reader as an agent who performs a practice within specific institutional domains to become the bearer of specific certificated competences (as cited in King 2-3).
According to King, the notion of a cinema of political experience, contrasts to a cinema of political address, which operates on the assumption that the domain of the political does not exist independently of a set of apparatuses, techniques and practices, amongst which one finds cinematic techniques. In this understanding of the relationship between film and politics, cinema is itself treated as a material mechanism capable of various insertions in political domains. The cinema of political address does not try to evoke the experience of these domains (thereby effecting a politicisation of the viewing subject by way of the category of experience), but rather concentrates its attention on the relation between itself as an institution (a set of techniques and practices) and those it addresses.
In examining film culture, politics and industry, with specific reference to India, Srinivas observes that, “film consumption is linked to politics on the one hand and the film industry on the other” (Srinivas 1). He argues that the promise of democracy, whether or not it is realised, is what makes the cinema political. Srinivas submits that film culture is political for two reasons:
It is founded on a democratic promise and it develops around the notion of spectatorial rights. I not only have a right to be present in the cinema hall but have the further right to make demands of the narrative, the star, etc. The cinema has to acknowledge my presence and address my expectations (Srinivas 3).
There is no arguing the fact that over the years, Hollywood films have continued to reflect American way of life – politically, economically, socially, culturally, technologically, and so forth. Douglas Kellner aptly posits that popular films intervene in the political struggles of the day. According to him, the Hollywood film, like the American society, should be seen as, “a contested terrain and that films can be interpreted as a struggle of representation over how to construct a social world and everyday life” (Kellner 1). Taking a cue from this perspective, undertaking an ideological critique of a film involves analysing images, symbols, myths, and narratives as well as propositions and systems of belief. To substantiate his position, Kellner carries out an ideological criticism of Rambo, noting that, simply attacking the militarist or imperialist ideology of the film is not enough; rather, an argument should be made for the fact that the militarism and imperialism implicit in the film serves capitalist interests by legitimising intervention in such places as South-East Asia, Central America or wherever.
As it were, Rambo is one of a whole series of “return-to-Vietnam films,” a film movement that follows the same formula of representing the return to Vietnam of a team of former veterans, or a superhuman, superhero veteran, like Rambo, to rescue a group of American soldiers “missing in action,” who are still imprisoned by the Vietnamese and their Soviet allies. All of these post-Vietnam syndrome films show the United States and the American warrior hero victorious this time and thus exhibit a symptom of inability to accept defeat. They also provide symbolic compensation for loss, shame, and guilt by depicting the United States as good and this time victorious; while its communist enemies are represented as the incarnation of evil, who this time receive a well-deserved defeat (Kellner, 3-6; see also Ayakoroma 27).
In an analysis of the political imperative of cinema in Nigeria, Okome acknowledges the relative successes of Latin American filmmakers like Julio Garcia Espinosa and Miguel Littin in using the film medium to make incisive political statements, noting with dismay that the Nigerian filmmaker fights shy of his political self, not taking advantage of the medium’s potency as a tool for enhancing national growth and cohesion. According to Okome, unlike the significant role played by the print media, the film medium did not help in the political struggle for Nigeria’s independence, and not contributing meaningfully to the political history of the country. He states further that,
Still suffering from the vestiges of colonialism and saddled with a festering political situation, the Nigerian filmmaker vacillates between the mere glamorisation of aspects of Nigerian culture and the uncritical portrayal of some dim historical past, producing in the final analysis films that are politically innocuous and culturally patronising (Okome 73).
From every indication, the political culture in Nigeria is not one that can produce the kind of leaders that would be committed to serve the people that elected them into office. As a point of fact, every elected government has the obligation to provide the primary needs of the people: food, clothing and shelter. Add to these, roads, transportation, water, electricity, education, and primary healthcare, among others. However, when a politician buys his/her way into office, he/she will not be accountable to the people.
In the light of the foregoing, a critical study will be undertaken on how some Nigerian filmmakers have directed their creative imaginations toward portraying the country’s political climate in films. This is of interest because the political genre had not received serious attention by film producers before now, probably because of the economic considerations and the exigencies of the political landscape. Stories reflecting political issues appeared to offer no success formula, until the demise of the maximum ruler, Gen. Sani Abacha; that was when The Stubborn Grasshopper was released. The success of this work seemed to have provided the impetus for the foray into political themes, as seen in The Incumbent, His Majesty, King Makers, Queen of Hasso Rock, Executive Crime, and many more.
A Critical Reading of The Senator
The Senator (2003) is a two-part film produced and directed by Teco Benson for TFP Productions. Since his entrance into Nollywood in 1994, first as an actor, Teco (as he is popularly called) has made a mark as an action-movie director, starting with Waterloo. He has also directed several Christian films for Helen Ukpabio’s Liberty Gospel Ministries Films, including the highly acclaimed The Price, starring Richard Mofe-Damijo and Eucharia Anunobi. Some of his other credits include End of the Wicked, Executive Crime, State of Emergency, Wasted Years, Broad Daylight, War Front, and Explosion.
The Senator, one of the few films that reflect the Nigerian political process, portrays the innate desire of a young boy, Larry, to actualise his lifelong ambition of becoming a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Right from high school, young Larry (played by Young Ujah) learns in a typical Machiavellian way that, “the end justifies the means,” which explains why he uses the instruments of blackmail consistently to get whatever he wants. He capitalises on the amorous acts of his mother (Rachael Oniga) and father (Laz Ekwueme) as instruments of blackmail to collect money from them to take care of his financial needs. When Linda dumps Mike for another boy, Piccolo, Larry again blackmails Linda by threatening to reveal to her mother and the Principal of the school that at a very young age, she had already committed abortion. Piccolo becomes his next victim for befriending Linda, as he confronts him with an armed robbery operation he (Piccolo) had earlier carried out.
In the university, Larry (Hanks Anuku) comes to the rescue of Mike (Emeka Okoro) when the leader of the Black Belt cult group, Jasper (David Nwajei), starts going after Mike’s girlfriend, Rose (Nkiru Abazie), and threatens that he would bathe her with acid if she refuses his sexual advances. Larry decides to take the war to the cult group in line with the belief that the best form of defence is to attack. They take the fight to the hideout of the Black Belt cult group in the bush, late in the night, and kill Jasper and three others.
Faced with the problem of making Mike to pass his exams in the Department of Sociology, since they were admitted to read different courses, Larry contracts Magnus (Desmond Elliot), an intelligent classmate of Mike to help write the exams for a fee of one thousand naira per paper which comes to the sum of eight thousand naira for the eight papers, to pay half the amount before the exams and the balance after passing the exams. Complications set in after the fifth paper as the invigilator catches Desmond and Mike, thereby making Mike to fail the remaining three papers. To ensure that Mike passes all his exams and graduates, Larry blackmails Mike’s lecturers, beginning with the Head of Department, Professor Adigun (Festus Aguebor), who had killed a colleague that had keenly contested the headship of the department with him.
As the plot unfolds, Larry meets a brick wall in Dr. Mrs. Eunice Okoro (Amaka Ezeonwukwe), in their final year. He records her husband on camera asking an orange seller out and brings the tape to her, thinking that it will make her accede to his request that she should help to pass Mike in her course. Unknown to Larry, Mrs. Okoro had been looking for strong grounds to divorce her husband for about ten years and he (Larry) had just provided her a concrete evidence to do so. Angry that the woman is obstinate, Larry assassinates her.
While Larry proceeds to do a Masters programme after their graduation, Mike opts to go into supply business since he does not have the intellectual ability for postgraduate studies. Larry dissuades him from the supply business on the ground that one is owed payments for years; thus, they agree to go into partnership and look for contracts in the construction industry. On getting vital information that National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) is awarding the Obanikoro building contract, which Julius Berger is likely to get, Larry visits the chairman of the Tenders Board, Alhaji Bamanga (Michael Adingi), and blackmails him into re-awarding the contract within one week to their company, Tin Can Ventures. The damning evidence is a printout of the Alhaji’s several foreign Swiss bank accounts, which run into millions of dollars. To secure the necessary funds to execute the contract, Larry again blackmails a Bank Manager (Val Nwigwe) to get a loan of thirty million naira without the necessary collateral. The manager capitulates out of fear because Larry confronts him with evidence that he is a fake “Toronto graduate” who had smartly married the governor’s daughter, and so, cannot afford a scandal of such magnitude.
In another sequence, Larry faces a heavier business challenge when Mike informs him about a contract for the construction of the Bakassi-Ikom Road, worth five hundred million naira. In consonance with his modus operandi, he visits the NNPC Director of Finance (Tony Ezimadu), and blackmails him with the murder of his female lover, Rosa Martins, who had attempted to blackmail him to the tune of five hundred thousand dollars. Reflective of the soap opera tradition, the first part of the film ends on a suspended note, as Larry confronts the Director with photographs of the murder.
The story continues in Part 2, as Larry tightens the noose around the NNPC Director by disclosing that he had a video recording of the criminal act; and will not only tell his wife, but also the Police. He instructs the Director to influence the award of the Bakassi-Ikom Road contract to their company or risk going to jail. When the Director reports back later that one of the Board members, Professor Oyewale Banjo (T.J. Morgan), is defiant, maintaining that the contract can only be awarded to them, “over his dead body,” Larry visits him to make a passionate appeal. The gesture fails to make any impression on Professor Banjo, and Larry double-crosses him on the road and assassinates him and his driver.
After completing the Masters Degree programme, Larry enrols for a Doctorate degree in the Eastern University as part of his political agenda of becoming the Senate President. However, things take a fortuitous turn with the sudden death of the military Head of State (inferring supposedly to the demise of Gen. Sani Abacha in 1998). The next military junta that takes over power signals some hope in the sense that it promises that within a year, power was going to be handed over to a democratically-elected government. This gives room for politicking and it dawns on Larry that it was high time he got into active politics. The first incredible thing he does in this direction is to ask to be quickly awarded the doctorate degree, when he had just spent 14 months, and still had 18 months left to complete the programme. To actualise this, he again uses the same instrument of blackmail and succeeds because the evidence he uses to confront Professor Onyeama (Philip Okpoko) is that in his bid to become the Dean, he had visited a native doctor and sacrificed his father as requested by the medicine man.
Larry eventually joins the P.E.P. to run for the Senate when the position of Senate President was zoned to the East. For purposes of eligibility to contest, he adds six more years to his age. With Mike as his Campaign Manager, he plots his strategy, going to his home village to cultivate the right political atmosphere. He schemes in his usual way and gets the endorsement of the Igwe (Mike Manafa) of his community, gets a chieftaincy title, and crowns it by forcing Chief Nicholas Uwakwe (Enebeli Elebuwa) to step down for him. The grounds for the blackmail are that Chief Uwakwe’s son had been involved in drug-related offences in the United States, while his daughter, Daphne Ifeoma Uwakwe, was a commercial sex worker in Milan, Italy. The road eventually becomes clear for Larry to coast to victory, not only as a Distinguished Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but very likely the Senate President.
Within this period, Larry had also traced his background and found out that his grandfather had been confined to the evil forest when he incurred a debt while trying to sponsor his father to school in Onitsha. The poor man was wrongly accused of being a thief and was strangled, ostracised, and buried in the evil forest. Having found out what actually happened to his grandfather, Larry conveniently blackmails the grandson of one of the persons who committed the crime and makes him confess to the Igwe that his own grandfather had confessed to him. This clears all barriers that his questionable background would have placed upon him, which was why the Igwe installed him as a red-cap chief.
Teco Benson calls The Senator a political explosion; but one would rather quality it as a morality tale on the current style of politicking in Nigeria. It portrays the type of politics that is built on character assassination, blackmail, and elimination of opponents, among other vices. Incidentally, the plot of the film is very thin in the sense that there is nothing substantial apart from the instruments of blackmail which Larry uses from one victim to the other. In terms of structure, the usual trend in advanced film cultures is to handle crime stories in such a way that the criminal is brought to book, no matter how smart the person may be, so that the viewer achieves a certain level of purgation at the end of the film. This is not the case here because Larry is not punished at the end of the film.
The film portrays a society where vices like blackmail and murder are more or less glorified. This is the impression that one gets, as Larry, in spite of all his high level of criminality, was not brought to book at the end of the story. It could be recalled that he gave Mike money for Linda to procure an abortion; he mercilessly murdered Jasper and three other cultists, in addition to Mrs. Okoro and Prof. Adigun, all in the bid to have his way. Furthermore, to achieve his political ambition, he blackmailed his parents, Linda, Piccolo, university lecturers, Alhaji Bamanga, the “Toronto graduate” Bank Manager, the NNPC Director and Chief Uwakwe. Ironically, he is not brought to book because the film ends with himself and his friend celebrating. Most crime stories are usually morality tales in which the criminals are brought to book and punished. Rather than follow this structure, the criminal is let off the hook in the film, which subtracts from the whole story.
Secondly, the film exposes most of the intrigues employed by politicians against their opponents, except that other dimensions of the character of Larry are not really exploited. For instance, he is never found indulging in other activities, for example, drinking, meeting with political associates, going to the party secretariat, campaigning for the elections, and so on. The character is quite dysfunctional because the only thing that gives him pleasure is when he is blackmailing or killing people. The fact is that when a person commits a crime, naturally, some kind of nervousness is expected, which is not the case with Larry because when he is committing a major crime (or after), he becomes extremely calm and calculative.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the intrigues of Larry, in his attempt to fulfil his dream of becoming not only a Senator but the Senate President, sustain the story. Though Nigeria is seen as a country where just anything goes, it is a little bit off-handed to write a story that seems to be a one-way track, in which Larry commits all sorts of crimes and gets away with all of them. Somehow, it is curious that Larry seems to know the past crimes of people before he gets to the spot and there is nothing to tell us how he got that power of clairvoyance. Questions as to how he got to know that his mother was dating a family friend, that his father was dating his secretary, that Professor Adigun killed his colleague, that Dr. Mrs. Okoro’s husband is flirting with a mere orange seller, and that Professor Onyeama killed his father for a ritual, are all begging for answers. The exception here may be the classified information on the children of Chief Uwakwe because he actually called a friend to investigate and send him the findings through a courier service. This amplifies one joke of a stand-up comedian, Michael Ogbolosingha, that politicians should not waste time to write autobiographies because their opponents would write them (Ayakoroma 407).
In terms of thematic pre-occupation, The Senator centres on blackmail as an instrument of political advancement. Basically, this is the type of politicking that characterise most African countries, not just Nigeria, because the political terrain is replete with questionable characters, people who are prepared to engage in all kinds of projects in order to achieve their selfish aims. The film portrays Machiavellian schemes employed by Larry to achieve his political ambition. Larry grows up with a compelling dream to become a Senator and works assiduously towards it; and like many politicians, he is very ruthless and would not hesitate to destroy any obstacle that comes his way. Larry’s parents, like most parents, did everything possible to put him on the path of morality because his mother kept reminding him that it was not advisable to use the instrument of blackmail to extract services, or as a way of asking for a favour. His father also kept reminding him that if he kept using blackmail as an instrument for achieving his goal in life, he will one day come across somebody who would not want to shift ground and that it was going to greatly affect his ambition. It is thus not a matter of coincidence that this was confirmed in his encounter with Dr. Mrs. Okoro who refused to be blackmailed. In other words, his extermination of Jasper, Dr. Mrs. Okoro, Professor Banjo, and his driver, all show his ruthlessness to overcome every opposition. Added to the above is the series of blackmails he masterminded all in the bid to achieve his ultimate aim.
The filth in the academic system is also highlighted as Larry sets out to get his Doctorate degree in just 14 months, when he had up to 18 months to complete the programme. While the Dean says the institution does not award “Toronto degrees,” he capitulates under Larry’s threat of blackmail. The recurring decimal here is the rot in boardroom politics and even citadels of learning. People believe that once you are in a position of authority, you have made it; so, they do everything possible to get there.
In another breath, the film also explores the sexual excesses of the elites, especially the political class in Nigeria. Firstly, Larry capitalises on the extra-marital pleasures of his parents to blackmail them. Secondly, he attempts to use the sexual escapades of Chief Okoro to blackmail his wife though he fails, as the woman was very much aware of her husband’s base nature. Thirdly, he hounds Chief Uwakwe to step down, using his daughter’s involvement in prostitution as one of the instruments of blackmail. Also significant or symbolic is the use of costumes. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Larry wears jeans, and the jeans become more rugged when they enter the university; but toward the end of the film, he changes to the typical agbada dressing of the political class. Symbolically, his wardrobe had changed to reflect his new status.
The predisposition to maximising profits is reflected, among other aspects, in the production design. For example, to avoid the problem and huge cost of managing a large crowd in the handling of a political rally, the director resorts to footages of crowd from different events, a political rally at the Eagle Square, Abuja, and some other stadia in the country. The implication is that the sequence is more of an appliqué or mosaic of pictures, in the sense that the cut away shots of crowd, the picture quality, the mood, and the dais for the political campaign speeches, are all at variance or cross-purposes.
The Political Context of The Senator
At this juncture, it is pertinent to relate the film to the realities in the Nigerian political terrain. Despite the many politically motivated assassinations, as highlighted earlier, none of the perpetrators have been brought to book. For instance, sometime in May 2007, a former Inspector-General of Police, Sunday Ehindero, purportedly paraded suspected killers of Bola Ige, the assassinated Attorney-General of Nigeria, before a masked witness but members of Ige’s family and the suspects countered that the whole exercise was a charade (Okezie & Ukpong, 2, 4). In the bid for politicians to get into coveted political offices, they perpetrate many crimes but go unpunished. It is therefore possible that the film is trying to highlight the abnormalities in our political landscape by putting the ball in the public court for us to judge.
However, it is also the case that once a producer is working within a particular genre, some level of adherence to the structure of that genre is expected, and in this instance, it is a crime story. Larry is somebody who wants to become a Senator, by all means, not even the moral scruples of his parents can stop him; and not even the obstacles placed in his way by his political opponents would stop him. He is and unstoppable political machine rolling towards and over all his opponents. In all of these, no conscious attempt is made to investigate any of the crimes. Nobody asks any questions on the murder of the cultists in the university or Mrs. Okoro. These aspects of the story violate the structures of crime stories. It is not true that the Nigerian society has become that depraved because even if the culprits of the several political killings have been not found out, attempts are usually made to investigate such crimes.
In the film,Larry dreams of becoming a Senator, and pursues his childhood dream assiduously. This is the reality of the political process in Nigeria because no politician thinks of giving up on his/her dream, unless there are circumstances beyond his/her control. Also, taking cognizance of the fact that politicians pay very high premium on paper qualification, Larry resolves that he needs a Doctorate degree as an added advantage. It would be recalled that Gen. Abacha was pursuing a degree programme in the University of Abuja before his death, though he never attended classes; and President Obasanjo was the first student that the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) registered. There was the case of Alhaji Salisu Buhari, the first Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives in the Fourth Republic, who was disgraced out of office because his false claim of having a university degree from the University of Toronto. The same could be said of the Evan or Evans Enwerem case in Imo State. These are some of the reference points in the paper qualification craze in Nigeria, especially among politicians.
The film also straddles the Abacha transition programme up to the time he met his sudden death. To the Onuigbos, the demise of the maximum ruler was, “good riddance to bad rubbish.” This was the reaction of the notable radical lawyer, Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), when Gen. Abacha’s death was announced. On getting the death news, Mike equally expressed concern whether the person taking over (obviously referring to Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar) would continue with the transition and hand over to a democratically elected government.
Despite the fact that royal fathers, as custodians of the people’s cultures and traditions, are expected to be apolitical, most of them are actively engaged in politics. This is to the extent that many of them are domiciled in their state capitals or the Federal Capital Territory, hardly seen in their domains; and some of them are even involved in businesses, actively bidding for juicy government contracts. Little wonder then that Larry consolidated his position by getting the backing of his traditional ruler, because the act of receiving the blessing of royal fathers to score a political point subsists in the country. This comes mostly in the form of chieftaincy titles, which evidently confer status on such beneficiaries. As a point of fact, such titles are highly monetised in the sense that persons acquiring such chieftaincy titles pay dearly and this goes a long way in enhancing the economic and social status of the monarchs.
It had been noted that the campaign period is always heated, and that it was a time to arm-twist one’s political opponents to step down. Chief Uwakwe as an experienced politician would not want a political neophyte like Larry to challenge him in the party primaries. He talked to him with contempt, thinking that as a starter, Larry would eventually come and beg to be settled, as it obtains in the political process. On the contrary, he was rattled when Larry eventually confronted him with a dossier on his rotten family background. He realised that news of his son’s involvement in hard drugs in the United States and his daughter being a prostitute in Italy would cause serious damage to him at the polls, he had no option than to step down for Larry. It brings to the fore the self-centred disposition of politicians, because Chief Uwakwe stepped down for Larry in order to protect his children. This is rather unfortunate because in taking that decision, he heartlessly abandoned his followership mid-stream. This is the tendency of many a Nigerian politician, who while agreeing to negotiated settlements, do not consider their numerous followers.
The point of Larry escaping the long arm of the law is also of interest in The Senator because this seems to underpin the several unresolved political killings in the country. Many political aspirants, maybe because of lack of self-confidence, think that the best way to overcome the opposition is through outright assassination. Of course, they have no qualms doing that because of the failure of the policing system. Larry progressed from one blackmail to the other and from one killing to the other to actualise his political ambition. This substantiates the point about the assassinations of Bola Ige, Pa Alfred Rewane, Marshall Harry, A.K. Dikibo, and Funsho Williams, which are just a few of the unresolved murders that have shaken the country down to its foundations. Perhaps, this has given perpetrators of political crimes, in the likes of Larry, the confidence to carry on their heinous deeds with impunity.
Re-Inventing the Political Process in Nigeria
A critical look at the above analysis brings to the fore the imperative of re-inventing the political process in Nigeria. In this direction, the following recommendations, which are by no means definitive, need to be taken into consideration:
- Operate the Legislative arm of Government at the Federal, State and local Government levels on part-time bases. This is premised on the need to for people to take political offices as a call to service, not as an avenue for self-enrichment;
- Adopt practical Fiscal Federalism in Nigeria where States and Local Government Councils would control their resources and only pay agreed taxes to the Federal and State Governments, respectively. Where there is no national cake to share, the prospects of people scrambling for political offices would be reduced considerably;
- Reposition Local Government Councils to enjoy some level of autonomy because they are currently being operated, more or less, as Parastatals of the State Governments, where an Executive Governor can dissolve and appoint Caretaker Committees, whenever he likes and whenever elections could hold;
- Abolish the States’ Electoral Commissions as they are under the direct control of the Governors and are incapable of conducting free and fair elections;
- Adopt staggered elections on the six geo-political basis so that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) could conduct elections in about six weeks. This will enable the security agencies to provide adequate security in all the affected states and not work under very strenuous conditions;
- Ensure transparent electoral process – the principle of, one man one vote should be pursued vigorously so that the people imbibe the culture;
- Ensure that cases of electoral malpractices attract grave consequences to act as deterrent for future offenders;
- Review the educational qualification requirement upward for those aspiring for political and elective offices to a minimum of Masters Degree to reduce the propensity for unmitigated and uncivilised aggressions;
- Subject corrupt public officers to face the long arm of the law instead of their walking around with impunity; and
- Carry out intensive public enlightenment campaigns to sensitise the citizenry on the need to hold public servants accountable for their actions and inactions.
In concluding this study, it is necessary to reiterate that re-inventing the Nigerian political process is imperative to produce acceptable and effective leadership. Eventually, the leaders that are likely emerge would have the desire to serve the people and not to despoil them. This can only be guaranteed from an electoral process that is not froth with violence and all forms of rigging.
It could be surmised that the critical analysis of The Senator, produced and directed by Teco Benson, reveals the kind of politics that is not salutary to national development. The only thing that sustains interest in the film is the desire for the viewer to find out whether Larry would end up becoming a Senator or face retributive justice for all the crimes he had committed. It is when one sees that he achieved his goal with impunity that one is jolted and feels a sense of indignation.
It is apparent that the film acts a warning to the political class that there are better and more decent approaches to playing politics. Re-inventing the political process means engendering the kind of politics where the people would be highly enlightened to discern those who have the interest of the masses at heart; where leaders seek political offices to actually serve and that which is based on personal gains; where leaders emerge from credible elections that would be acceptable to all parties; where leaders are truly accountable to be people and are held accountable by the people at every point in time; and where the generality of the people will be happy with the quality of the leadership and would gladly re-elect them into office without being induced financially. It is only then that Nigerians would be proud to say the political process has been really transformed and re-invented.
Ayakoroma, Barclays F. “Trends in Contemporary Nigerian Video Film Industry: A Study of Selected Genres.” PhD Dissertation, Department of Theatre Arts, University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 2007.
Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Abuja: Federal Government Printers, 1999.
Ekwuazi, Hyginus. Film in Nigeria. Jos: Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC), 1987.
Kellner, Douglas. “Film, Politics, and Ideology: Reflections on Hollywood Film in the Age of Reagan.” 15 Feb. 2007. http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/ essays/filmpoliticsideology.
King, Noel. “Reconsidering the Film-Politics Relation.” In Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, 6(1): 1992. 15 Feb. 2007. http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/6.1/King2.html.
Makanju, O. “Assassinations and Unresolved Killings in our Land: The Disturbing Trend of Political Terrorism in Nigeria.” 5 Sept. 2006. [Electronic Version]. 4 Dec. 2006. www.bayelsaartsng.com.
Okezie, B. & Ukpong, U. “Ige: Drama as Suspects Lambast Ehindero.” Sunday Sun. 27 May 2007: 2, 4.
Okome, Onookome. “Cinema and Social Change in Nigeria: The Political Imperative.” In O. Okome & J. Haynes (Eds.), Cinema and Social Change in Nigeria (73-83). Jos: Nigerian Film Corporation, 1995.
“Politics.” 22 Jan. 2007. http://www.answers.com/Politics.
“President can’t Remove VP from Office.” Being text of Judgement at the Federal Appeal Court, Abuja. The Punch, 22 Feb. 2007: 38.
Srinivas, S. V. “Film Culture, Politics and Industry.” Seminar 525 (2003): 47-51. 15 Feb. 2007. http://www.iisg.nl/~sephis/pdf/srinivas4.pdf.
The Senator 1 & 2. Prod/Dir: Teco Benson. Perf: Hanks Anuku, Laz Ekwueme, Enebeli Elebuwa, Emeka Okoro, Rachael Oniga, Johnpaul Nwadike, Grace Amah, David Nwajei, Desmond Elliot, Young Ujah, Tony Ezimadu. TFP Global Network, 2003.
******Being a Presentation at the Society of Nigeria Theatre Artists (SONTA) Annual International Conference at the University of Lagos, Akoka-Lagos, Nigeria, from 26-29 August, 2014.