By Ola Bello
Two divergent visions of Nigeria’s political and economic future were presented by the leading candidates in the just concluded presidential contest. Both the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger
Atiku Abubakar offered policy details in their manifestos. Encouragingly, it was on a level that is unprecedented in Nigeria. Their competing visions have been ‘atikulated’ and a winner now declared. It confirms that starting 29th May, Nigeria indeed will be heading onto the ‘next level’, whether for better or worse. Patriots nationwide hope
that it’s the former. Meanwhile, a number of lessons have emerged whichwe must reflect on to build a more democratic and harmonious future.
THE NUMBER GAME
Atiku fought a valiant battle. His bid though was seemingly circumscribed by at least two difficult sets of trade-off. The first is about numbers, challenging him to reconcile the cold electoral arithmetic with his oft-repeated principled priorities. Few could have faulted Atiku’s repeated assertion that President Buhari must appear more of a unifying national figure, pursuing steps meaningfully to douse tensions. It is a valid observation, whether in reference to the Igbo sense of exclusion, anxieties over farmer-herder conflicts in the middle belt, or other myriad existential challenges that have festered since 2015.
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Consistent with unifying, Atiku chose as his running mate Peter Obi from the Ibo heartland of southeast Nigeria in a widely applauded move. Obi and his famed personal integrity was also seen as a veritable foil for
Atiku’s corruption perception challenge. To win comfortably, Atiku though needed to muscle in on Buhari’s numbers in the most populous regions, particularly the northwest and southwest (respectively stronghold to President Buhari and home region to Vice-President Osinbajo). If Atiku had chosen a running mate that did not reflect his own avowed stance on inclusiveness, that would have left him open to charges of unprincipled opportunism among some commentators.
Ultimately, the numerical pathway to victory for the Atiku-Obi ticket would have been much wider were Nigerian elections not so riven by ethnicism on all sides. In the end, neither Atiku’s choice of running mate nor his raft of policy announcements through the campaign homestretch persuaded enough of the Buhari loyalists. Uncommitted voters and Atiku-doubters also did not gravitate away from Buhari’s orbit.
The challenger was never going to muster superior numbers from the southeast and south-south alone to unseat the incumbent. Atiku’s lack of competitiveness in the northwest, especially, which largely contributed to Buhari’s over three million lead nationwide, sealed the contest.
Just as important as numbers, this election also turned on both perceptions of economic competence and personal integrity and trust. That runs counter to the challenger’s party strategy, which focused the campaign almost exclusively on Atiku’s promised economic revitalisation. With arguably an unassailable edge over Atiku on
managing security and fighting corruption, Buhari’s campaign proved astute in presenting his candidacy as the pro-poor one in a narrower economic sense. His promise of more inclusive, distributive growth proved to be a major draw for many voters.
To be sure, Atiku’s broader promise of growing the economy did resonate. Nevertheless, his specific plan regarding ‘sale’ of the NNPC state oil company, whilst failing to add the necessary policy nuances, probably alarmed more voters than were reassured. Moreover, Atiku’s expressed preference for recovering looted assets without prosecuting the perpetrators, plus his casual justification for ‘enriching friends’, likely proved fatal in the wider public perception.
By contrast, Buhari pushed populist schemes such as ‘trader moni’, which doled out public funds to market women. He consistently rehashed his administration’s ‘pro-poor’ and statist preferences. From managing the naira exchange rate to expressing doubts about the wisdom of wholesale privatisation of state assets, Buhari’s key campaign mantras
seemed to have played well. Most importantly, Atiku the challenger erred in donning the toga of an insensitive impresario. He countered Buhari in ways which unfortunately cemented his image as candidate for the rich.
If anyone doubts the need to strike a pro-poor tone beyond trickle down proposals in this election, they should look at the polling figures for Lagos. Though it is Nigeria’s economic nerve centre with an unmatched concentration of successful business people, many of them with serious misgivings about Buhari’s statist preferences, the proportion of Lagos residents who actually voted is dismal. The two leading candidates split the vote in Lagos. Atiku failed to secure a clear numerical advantage over Buhari in the wider southwest. These patterns held consistent
nationwide except for the southeast and south-south where Atiku swept the stakes. Sadly, pockets of violence and lousy election day logistics further depressed participation in these solidly Atiku regions with
their relatively smaller number of registered voters.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Many observers have expressed doubts about whether the 2019 presidential election represents a clear advance on progress recorded in 2015. INEC’s late night postponement of the votes by one week was unfortunate. It interfered unhelpfully with the process, arguably depressing turnout in opposition strongholds more than in president
Buhari’s bastions. This highlights an important lesson for INEC on improving its overall organisational approach. Otherwise, it risks damaging its reputation as neutral umpire for future elections.
Nigeria’s democratic maturation also seems stuck in reverse with presidential contenders that have spurned all opportunities to partake in presidential debates before fellow citizens. This must change in
Finally – and most worryingly – voter apathy continues to grow. This renders the whole democratic exercise almost meaningless. There cannot be a progressive democracy without voters. With just over one million of Lagos’s six million registered voters contributing to the final presidential tally for example, it is time to take urgent measures to
promote meaningful participation. Seamless voter registration that is information technology driven will help, as will better overall election logistics. From updating the voters’ list to the actual vote, quantum
improvements are needed.
Recent hard-won legislative changes saw nearly one hundred parties contest this time. This underscores how a technology-enhanced voting process will be needed to prevent unwieldy future polls. It is perhaps time for Nigeria to consider imposing fines for wilful absentee ballots, but government must first do its part to ensure all necessary enablers are in place. Only then can it take the punitive moral high ground. Overall though, the sense of greater citizen oversight and vigilance of the voting process is growing. That offers perhaps the only truly bright
spot in this year’s election.