August 9, 2014. The long-awaited Osun governorship election has come and gone. According to the results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), incumbent Governor Rauf Aregbesola won convincingly, with 394,684 votes while his closest challenger, Senator Iyiola Omisore, polled 292,747 votes, to come second. The results were announced by the Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Professor Bamitale Omole, who served as the returning officer. Though as many as 20 political parties fielded candidates for the governorship election, it was essentially a two-horse race between the candidates of the APC and the PDP. The others were just in the race as ‘also ran’.
Since the victory of Governor Aregbesola, many are hailing the Osun election as a ‘game changer’. But was it really? And game changing from what to what?
There are several ways we can approach this question: Does it mean that the idea of opposition parties accepting defeat when they lose elections is becoming gradually entrenched, given that the President, whose party lost the election, was quick to congratulate the winner and that the PDP at the national level, also did the same? Though there had been losers in previous elections in the country who conceded defeat, Dr Kayode Fayemi took it to the next level in the manner he articulated his concession speech to Ayo Fayose in the last gubernatorial election in Ekiti state. Certainly for losing parties to concede defeat in two successive elections in the country may be a sign that our electoral politics is beginning to negotiate a new trajectory. True, the APC in Ekiti turned out to be a sore loser by blaming their defeat on everyone else but themselves and Dr Fayemi and his wife were later to diminish themselves by alleging they were rigged out, many believe they were acting under pressure from their party who did not want to demoralize their supporters by the outcome of the election. Again though the defeated Senator Omisore is proving that old habits die hard by challenging the outcome of the elections at the tribunal, many commentators see the move as merely face-saving, an ill-advised action that has denied him sympathy from many political commentators and further diminished him as a politician. In Ekiti, the defeated Dr Fayemi gained in stature by the way he initially handled his defeat while his party, by rejecting the outcome of what was clearly a convincing defeat, was diminished by its stance. In Osun, the PDP at the national level and President Jonathan took the moral high ground by congratulating the winner shortly after INEC announced the results while the party at the state level and the defeated candidate took the moral low ground of becoming sore losers. Despite the contradictory stances between the defeated candidates and their parties at both Ekiti and Osun, Ekiti may actually have set off a trend where people expect losers to toe the path of honour. We may have to wait for a few more elections to see if this trend will be consolidated or whether there will be reversals.
Another way to approach the question of whether the Osun election is a game changer is to interrogate its implications for 2015. On this, the jury is still out. What is obvious is that APC’s victory will certainly revive the party’s flagging self-confidence. In recent times, the party has been punch-drunk and boxed to a corner. In quick succession, it lost elections in Anambra and Ekiti states. It also lost Adamawa state through a humiliating impeachment of the ‘audacious’ Governor Nyako. The party’s triumph in Osun also came at a time that Governor Umaru Tanko Al-Makura of Nasarawa State successfully staved off an apparently orchestrated move to impeach him. Therefore though the wind may not yet be on APC’s back, the party however may have found a way to block PDP’s punches and occasional below- the -belt kicks. Before the Osun election, the party seems to be in dire need of redemption, with many concluding that its implosion was only a matter of time. For APC therefore, Osun election can be a game changer if the party can take the confidence it gained from the election in handling how it resolves the issue of who will fly the party’s flag in 2015. Again since electoral politics tends to be an offensive-defensive game, we will also have to watch out on how PDP responds to the developments in both Nasarawa state and Osun. Which of the two parties will come out with new tricks to batter and put the other on the defensive for a reasonable length of time? Which of the two will come up with strategies that will give it the momentum in the run-up to the elections?
As a pointer to 2015, contrary to what some people believe, Osun was also a victory for the PDP. This is because despite losing the governorship election, the party actually gained ground in the state compared to its performance in 2011. For instance while in 2011, it got 188,409 votes, in the August 9 election, it scored 292,747, a gain of more than 100,000 votes. In essence, while the PDP lost the governorship election, there is nothing to suggest that its popularity in the state has waned. True, a victory for the party would have strengthened its hands ahead of 2015, there is however little to suggest that the state is secure for APC. Everything will revolve around who flies the party’s presidential and vice presidential flags and who the PDP fields. The safest assumption for now is that Osun is a swing state and that both the PDP and the APC will most likely get at least 25 per cent of the votes cast in the state – given the results of the 2011 election and that of last Saturday’s.
A third way to answer the question of whether the Osun election is a game changer is to look at how it has affected the perception of INEC as an electoral umpire. Historically the electoral empire is the whipping boy of every election in Nigeria. After the kudos it received for a fairly well conducted presidential election in April 2011 (partly because Professor Maurice Iwu, Professor Jega’s successor, had set the bar of expectation exceedingly low), INEC relapsed, with very uneven performances. For instance in the last governorship election in Anambra State in March 2014, Jega’s INEC simply bungled the whole exercise, with poor logistic arrangements, which resulted in the declaration of results as inconclusive in many areas. However in both Ekiti and Osun, despite APC’s allegations of militarization and excessive policing, there was a general consensus that INEC did well. In fact according to INEC’s statistics, by 8 AM (when voter verification/voting was expected to commence), 96.25 per cent of the polling units were already opened – compared to the 95.6 per cent it claimed it achieved in Ekiti state. Again on the time it took for the results to be announced, INEC claimed that by 7.30 AM on Sunday (a day after the elections in Osun), the results from all the 30 Local Government Areas in the State had been announced while it announced the results for Ekiti, which had only 20 Local Government Areas, by 9AM. Certainly these figures, if true, indicate a trend towards improved performance and INEC must be congratulated for it. But it must also be reminded that it is not yet Uhuru. The possibilities of reversals are ever there.
While the perceptions of INEC is certainly improving for the better, it must also be conceded that historically an electoral umpire in the country is independent only to the extent that the President’s body language (at the national level) or the Governor’s body language (when it comes to the conduct of local government elections) permits. In this sense, whatever other shortcomings President Goodluck Jonathan may have, we must give it to him that so far, his body language has not indicated that elections are a do- or -die affair for him – especially when compared to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. President Jonathan has routinely congratulated the winners in states where his party lost. The same cannot be said of our governors where, the few that have bothered to conduct local government elections ensured that opposition parties got almost nothing (with the possible exception of Dr Abdullahi Salo Modibo’s SIEC in Nasarawa State, which tried to redeem the image of state electoral umpires) . Therefore, while President Jonathan can beat his chest that he is delivering on his promise of ‘sanitising our elections’, the same cannot be said of our governors, where an incumbent governor’s party is guaranteed to sweep the polls during local government elections and where it will be anathema for the state government to lose a case in court handled by the state judiciary. In essence, while we may be moving towards the consolidation phase of our democracy, this remains only at the national level. At both the State and Local Government levels we have not even started a proper democratization process. Therefore, while Ekiti and Osun can give us pointers about how our democracy is faring at the national level, they are paradoxically unable to tell us how we are faring at sub-national levels.