In barely 72 hours, the D-Day will beckon and the anxiety will shift to the H-hour. I don’t believe that February 16 will be a doomsday for the country because hanging on a cliff is apparently the country’s comfort zone. This will suggest that despite the current tension and possibility of localized violence during and after the elections, the country is likely to come out of it, perhaps not stronger or weaker, but with the usual limp and trudge. As a country we are experts at movement without motion or running tirelessly on a treadmill.
As the D-day nears, we are witnessing several surprises that are altering the permutations of a few weeks ago:
One, several months ago, there was a big expectation that ‘restructuring’ would be the big driver of the campaigns. Well, it has been one of the key talking points for Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, the PDP’s presidential candidate – but apparently not a big deal for the APC. Restructuring does also not seem to be driving the political discourse in the South-west, whose politicians and activists have been the champions of restructuring in its various incarnations – from the clamour for ‘sovereign national conference’ to a watered down agitation for ‘national conference’ to its current reincarnation as demand for ‘restructuring’. While the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo says he is opposed to ‘geographic restructuring’ (in line with Buhari’s position and that of prominent Northern leaders), leading APC politicians in the South-west, even those who previously championed the restructuring agitation, rarely mention it as an important issue during this campaign. Even in the South East and South-South where the political leaders not sympathetic to APC still talk about restructuring, there is a feeling it is merely a mask for justifying a political position they would still have taken anyway.
Two, what was considered the likely electoral map only a few weeks ago seems to have become outdated as we inch towards the D-day. For instance the conventional wisdom was that Buhari is a sort of religion in the Muslim north, and that states like Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Yobe are fortresses for him. However if the sizes of crowds pulled by Atiku in his rallies in states such as Kano, Bauchi and Katsina is anything to go by, then that assumption will need to be revised. Similarly, it had been assumed that the South-West would overwhelmingly favour Buhari not just because the Vice President is from there but also because of a belief that the region has been well compensated in the distribution of infrastructure and strategic appointments and would also see a vote for Atiku as empowering an Igbo as Vice President at the expense of their son, Yemi Osinbajo. However given the fiasco that attended Buhari’s rally in Abeokuta and with the party still fractionalized in Ogun ( and with uncertainties in Lagos and Ondo states), the PDP is unlikely to win the zone but may exceed previous expectations.
In the same vein, a few months ago, the conventional wisdom was that the South-East and South-South (minus Edo State which usually follows the Yoruba political tendency) will be fortresses for Atiku. It was also calculated that states in the North- Central affected by the herdsmen crisis such as Benue and Plateau and Taraba (in the North-East) would be no-go areas for Buhari. However attacks by herdsmen not only dramatically stopped in the run-up to the D-day but also the memories of previous attacks did not seem to have grossly affected attendance to Buhari’s rallies (we are assuming that people who attend the rallies were not hired hands). In the South-East, while Atiku is likely to win clearly, the APC appears to have made serious inroads in Ebonyi and Anambra state, where Governor Obiano is openly campaigning for Buhari’s re-election.
Three, a few months ago, it was thought that Buhari’s alleged clannishness and Northern bias would receive their comeuppances in the south during the election. As if Buhari did not give a damn about these allegations, when he returned from his medical trip from the UK, he removed Matthew Seiyefa (from the South-South) who was appointed Acting DG of the Department of State services by Osinbajo (when he was the Acting President) and replaced him with Yusuf Magaji Bichi as the substantive DG. Just 20 days to the election, Buhari also controversially suspended Walter Onnoghen, (from Cross Rivers State) as Chief Judge of Nigeria and replaced him with Mohamed Tanko. Surprisingly, while Buhari’s alleged clannishness remains an issue in the South, it does not seem to have driven political discourses at the projected level, especially in the South-South, given the recent Onnoghen affair.
Four, while the value of political endorsements remains contentious, it came however as a surprise that the Lamido of Adamawa Alhaji Muhammadu Barkindo-Mustafa, the powerful monarch of Atiku’s home state, endorsed Buhari’s re-election bid despite installing Atiku as the 7th Wazirin of Adamawa in late November 2018. Similarly, the Emir of Daura, (Buhari’s emirate), Alhaji Faruk Umar Faruk, reportedly endorsed Atiku’s bid to replace ‘the son of the soil’ as the country’s President. Atiku also got the wind on his back with the endorsement by the leading socio-cultural groups in the country – Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Northern Elders Forum, Afenifere, Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) and Middle Belt Forum. Of course members of these groups are animated by differing impulses and inclinations so their endorsement of any candidate will auto-generate dissenting voices.
Five, while the PDP seems to have largely overcome the disaffections caused by the initial resistance to the choice of Peter Obi as the party’s Vice Presidential candidate, especially in the South-East and South-South, the crisis triggered in several APC states by its acrimonious primaries seem to linger. It will not field candidates in Rivers and Zamfara, except for the presidential election – a move that will also negatively affect presidential votes in those states.
Six, one of the surprises in this political dispensation is the ‘withering away’ of the anti-establishment activism of Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. Following the injunction by Camilo José Cela, the 1989 Spanish Nobel Laureate in Literature, that a writer is necessarily a denunciation of the time in which he lives, Soyinka’s politics and activism have, over the years been decidedly anti- establishment – as most artists and creative writers are wont to be. But under the Buhari government a new Soyinka emerged – a Soyinka trying to reconcile himself with a government whose officials pay him homage as a sort of deity while simultaneously striving not to completely lose his anti-establishment voice. The consequence has been a sort of identity crisis, in which Soyinka’s anti- establishment jabs, when they come at all, lack both his signature evocative vocabulary and his elevation of rudeness as an art form. Recently Soyinka tried to resolve this crisis by saying he would neither support Buhari nor Atiku and instead endorsed Prof Kingsley Moghalu for President. But the disconnect between his heart and his body language quickly showed, for shortly after the endorsement, he joined his friend, the Minister of Transport Rotimi Amaechi at the test ceremony of the Lagos-Ibadan rail project at Abeokuta, hailing the federal government for the project.
Seven, what seems obvious as we near the D-Day is that contrary to the widely held belief a few months ago, every State of the country is now a battle ground. Winning in each state may not be as important as the margin of a win or defeat. For instance, for Atiku to win he needs to be competitive in the North-West and North-East and ensure that he substantially makes up any deficit from these two zones from his expected advantage in some states in the North Central. Similarly he needs to ensure that his expected advantages in the South-East and South-south will more than make up for any deficit in the South-west.
Eight, a joker in Atiku’s arsenal will be the Igbo vote – if he is able to valorise them and get them to vote across the country. Though figures from INEC show that the South-East has the least number of registered voters among the six geopolitical zones at 10 million, (while the North-West has 20 million registered voters followed by South-West which has 16 million voters), the Igbo are easily the most dispersed ethnic group in the country, often having the second highest population next to the indigenes in most communities in the country. Following from this, if claims by some Igbo groups that there are some seven million Igbo voters in the North and about four-five million Igbo voters in the South-west are anywhere near the truth, then the Igbo may actually be the largest voting bloc in the country (if you subtract Igbo voters in other zones and add them to those in the South-east). If Atiku can be competitive in other zones and capture a substantial part of this voting bloc and the South-South, he will be home and dry.