The whistle for 2019 has finally been blown as the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) lifted the ban on partisan politics and campaigns on Sunday, November 19 2018. The same day Buhari unveiled his campaign manual, which he called The Next Level. Alhaji Atiku, the PDP’s presidential candidate also unveiled his, known as #TheAtikuPlan – the following day. The campaign documents of the two parties are likely to come under greater scrutiny in the coming days as the two parties try to de-legitimize each other’s campaign promises. Already, the APC, through its own carelessness, seemed to have offered its opponents the ammunition to shoot by adopting a logo and campaign mantra that is allegedly plagiarized from the ‘Next Level’ project of the Winthrop University’s Rex Institute for Educational Renewal and Partnerships, located in South Carolina, United States.
Despite the importance of knowing the candidates’ positions on various policy issues I do not think that the election will be won or lost on the bases of one’s policy documents or campaign promises. My feeling is that most Nigerians have already taken positions on who to support and who not to support. The notion of ‘undecided’ voters therefore has a special meaning in Nigeria. Nigerian voters rarely make or change their choices on the basis of candidates’ positions on policy issues. Rather the issues that affect their voting behaviour often include changes in critical political alignments (such as through defections or party mergers) and the successful manipulation of the fear factor.
How is the fear factor being manipulated so far?
Given the diversity of the country, messages that are tailored to appeal to a particular group, can very easily arouse the suspicion of others, and therefore played up by the parties in parts of the country where such messages could be negatively received.
Take for instance Atiku’s embrace of ‘restructuring’ – a concept that is often imbued with as many meanings as there are speakers. While the concept appears very popular with politicians from the Southern parts of the country, it is viewed largely with suspicion in many parts of the ‘core’ North, where it seems to be equated with a clamour to change the current structure of the country to the disadvantage of the North or to take away some of the current benefits that they believe the North’s size and population rightly confer on it. Therefore while Atiku’s position on restructuring has obviously won him some support in the South, it could also alienate some Northern voters who may deride him as a candidate of the South (the way Obasanjo was derided as a candidate of the North by the Southwest during the 1999 presidential election), which he contested against Olu Falae. Essentially therefore Atiku’s campaign must find a way of ensuring that either its support in the South will more than make up for the voters he may alienate in the North by his position on restructuring or couch his messages in such a manner as to allay the fears of such group of Northern voters.
Atiku’s promise to do only one term could be re-assuring to some people who are looking forward to power returning to the South in 2023. However, for some in the North who would have been attracted by the prospect of power staying in the North ‘a little longer’ or those who believe that given its population and land mass, the North ought to have a monopoly of political power as a lever to the South’s assumed economic dominance, the promise to do one term could be a turn-off.
Atiku’s endorsement by the leadership of Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo, and his appropriation by some Igbos as one of their own gives him a solid base of very enthusiastic supporters but could at the same time reinforce possibility of being derided as a candidate of the South. It could also further cement South-west’s support for Buhari if they interpret such an endorsement as a zero-sum game aimed at edging them out of the government. A crucial challenge for both the PDP and the APC therefore is how to deliver targeted messages that will valorize their bases without such messages being used against the party in other parts of the country. Political campaigns and messages are rarely couched in the dour and arcane language of academic seminars. They are designed to appeal to emotions.
Currently there is a video trending on the Internet, especially in the Northern parts of the country, in which an Igbo Catholic priest is heard telling his parishioners: “God is about to change Nigeria through the Igbos [an obvious allusion to the selection of Peter Obi as Atiku’s running mate]”. The priest continued: “… until Nigeria recognizes the South east, Nigeria does not have a future…. It is an anointing. Every good thing comes from the east- the sun rises from the east, the moon rises from the east and the Wise Men that came to see Jesus after His birth came from the East….It is an anointing”.
Messages like the above are not uncommon in local communities and villages, including churches and mosques, because every group considers itself superior to others in one way or the other. But by making such a video trend in some parts of the country in this campaign season, it becomes a subtle reminder of the assumed Igbo propensity to dominate whenever they are given an opportunity. In essence it becomes a way of de-marketing the Atiku/Obi ticket in the non-Igbo parts of the country.
The same is also true of a story recently credited to Fashola, the Minister of Power, Housing and Works. Speaking in Yoruba at a special Town Hall Meeting on infrastructure organised by the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Orientation Agency in October 2018, Fashola was quoted as saying: “Did you know that power is rotating to the Southwest after the completion of Buhari’s tenure if you vote for him in 2019?… A vote for Buhari in 2019 means a return of power to the Southwest in 2023. I am sure you will vote wisely.” The message was played up in the Southeast as a way of subtly telling them that the APC’s promise of Igbo presidency in 2023 if the Igbos support Buhari is a hoax.
The south is obviously not homogenous – just as the North is not. While the primary contradiction in the North is religion, in the south, it is ethnicity, which is weighed down by the rivalry between the South-east and the South-west. APC will do its best to keep such rivalry alive, even inflame it, since it will ensure that the South-west’s support for Buhari remains intact. Atiku’s candidacy will be disadvantaged if the rivalries between the South-west and south-east are inflamed. The Atiku campaign is also likely to exploit several areas of disaffection in the North, especially between Christians and Muslims or among different Muslim sects and present its candidate as the one to be trusted.
As the whistle is blown for 2019, I believe that both Atiku and Buhari have 50:50 chances. Buhari for now is expected to get at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in all the 19 Northern states – despite the politicization of the herdsmen –farmers clashes in some states like Plateau and Benue. He is also expected to make a good showing in some states in the South, especially the South West and possibly Edo State. Atiku is also guaranteed 25 per cent of the votes in all the 18 States in the South – and is also expected to make some strong showing in some states in the North such as Benue, Plateau and Taraba. This makes it a fairly balanced contest – at the take off stage.
As the race progresses however, other intervening variables will determine how far the candidates can run and who will be able to hold on tightly to his own support base while gaining in the opponent’s assumed support base.
Also as the race towards 2019 gathers momentum, the smaller parties are likely to be drowned as attention focuses on the two main parties and their candidates. I believe many of the ‘serious’ candidates in the smaller parties missed an opportunity of coming together to help them make an appreciable impact on the process. ‘Third way’ politicians may be driven by a certain idealism – which is not altogether bad — because we need ideals as the normative bar for our actions. But idealisms that are not rooted in reality become either what my friend Udenta Udenta calls ‘just a form of madness’, or at best a brand of utopianism, if not a symptom of Messianic complex. For those among them who traverse the length and breadth of the country hoping to change the narrative – we say soldier on, though we also recognize that even in schools of idealism, a tree can never make a forest.