NIGERIA’S NEW BREED POLITICAL MOVEMENT: AUTOPSY OF ELECTORAL DISASTER
By Akin Ojumu
Nearly one hundred and thirty days after the 2019 general elections, the ramifications of the resounding defeat suffered by the next generation political candidates in the hand of the Nigeria’s political establishment continues to reverberate across the country. In a stunning repudiation, the Nigerian electorates dealt a massive blow to the audacious quest of new breed politicians to wrest power from the old guard of Nigerian politics. Rebuffing the advances of the young blood, Nigerians said, “thanks, but no thanks.” From North to South and East to West and everywhere in between, Nigerian electorates expressed their skepticism at the readiness of the new generation politicians to lead the nation.
Leading up to the February elections, many Nigerians held out hope that, this time around, real change was coming to the country. To many of these hopeful Nigerians, the electoral shellacking of the new generation politicians remains a bitter pill to swallow. That Nigerians would reject the energy and fresh ideas of the new breed, for the lethargy and shambolic platitudes of the old breed stings like a sucker a punch. It is especially heartbreaking to see that Nigerians would prefer to handover the affairs of the nation to fossilized politicians – who have proven, time and time again, they are more interested in looking out for their own selfish interests than protecting the national interests – than entrust the future and the destiny of the nation to new hands. As hard as it is to admit, the Nigerian electorate once again allowed themselves to be sold a bill of goods by political mercenaries.
In order to understand the colossal failure of the next generation political candidates to persuade cynical Nigerians to cast their vote for them in the last elections, a brutally honest political post-mortem must be conducted as a matter of urgency. The carcass of this defeat must be subjected to a painful forensic examination in order to appropriately strategize and deploy effective tactics for the next elections. Without a thorough slicing and dicing of this embarrassing loss, a repeat thumping is bound to happen at the next and subsequent elections.
Seventy-three candidates contested in the February presidential election. While two of the 73 aspirants ran under the platform of the two mainstream political parties, the remaining seventy-one candidates were mostly new breed politicians. Many of this new crop of aspirants can be described as “Johnny Just Come” to politics, folks who had never ran for, or even held, any political office. There was the Pastor from the diaspora who pulled the highest votes among the newbies. Amongst the new breed was a political economist, lawyer, former United Nations official, former Deputy Governor the Central Bank of Nigeria, who was also professor in international business and public policy. An also ran was a student union and human right activist, pro-democracy campaigner who is a publisher of an online news media. Counted among the 71 new blood candidates was the business consultant, who is a leadership expert and motivational speaker.
Going down the list of the 71 new breed aspirants, what becomes immediately apparent is that many of these are men and women of substance and quality, and not some riff raffs out from nowhere. They are high achievers and people of proven competence who have attained significant success in their chosen careers. Likewise, they are young, articulate, energetic, highly motivated, and driven. In contrast to the two candidates of the old political class, many of the new crop candidates had clear political agenda and well taught out plans for the development and economic transformation of Nigeria.
So, why did these men and women of substance perform so woefully in the elections? To what should we ascribe their wholesale rejection by the Nigerian electorates?
After weeks and months of rumination, I was able to come up with some answers. Since I'm not a political scientist, this essay is nothing more than an amateurish attempt at finding the root cause of an electoral disaster. It is neither exhaustive nor is it encompassing. People far more intelligent than myself will certainly come up with smarter answers.
Similar to what happens in other democracies, people run for public office not because they are particularly interested in offering public service. Many of the 71 candidates had no business contesting in a presidential election. They ran because the label “presidential aspirant” looks good on the curriculum vitae; it is a status symbol and a bragging right. So, winning was never a thought or a consideration.
Delusion of Grandeur
There is a characteristic trait common to all presidential aspirants, and that is an exaggerated sense of self-importance. To run for the highest office in the land requires a level of egotism not found among normal people. The pervasive pomposity is found in abundant measure among Nigerian politicians. Nigerian presidential candidates have taken narcissism to the nth degree.
For some unknown and unfathomable reasons, many of the 71 presidential candidates actually thought the election was theirs to lose. The aspirants, like Hilary Clinton when she entered the 2007 Democratic presidential primary contest, entered the race convinced they were in it to win it. Attributed to many of them were outlandish proclamations such as,
“We will see at the end of the day the reality is. But I have no question in my mind that I will be sworn in as the next president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
“I’m very confident I will win the presidential election.”
“No doubt, we are winning.”
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote,
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”
A fundamental campaign strategy is that you don’t run in an election you know you are going to lose. Nevertheless, this is a political "Don't" that doesn’t exist in the campaign playbook of Nigeria’s professional political contestants. Undeterred by the futility of their quest, and unconcerned by the loss they'll incur, Nigerian political aspirants press on in their bubble of grandiosity and confined within the walls of self-created alternative reality.
Indeed, Don Quixote has many Nigerian relatives.
In the run up to the last presidential elections, attempts were made by several of the new breed political parties to band together in a merger that would have enhanced their chances of defeating the two powerful political establishment candidates. But the much needed political alliance would never see the light of day. The Presidential Aspirants Coming Together (PACT), as the alliance was known, died in utero, prematurely terminated by the highly potent and toxic abortifacient of undue self-pride and narrow vision. Limited by shortsightedness, the presidential aspirants could not see the bigger picture of breaking the stranglehold on the nation of the powerful interests that have held the country hostage for so long. The inability of the presidential candidates to sacrifice their individual ambitions for the sake of national interest killed any chance each of them had to ever win the elections.
That a group of narcissistic political actors would be blinded by ambition should come as no surprise to anyone. It’s not so hard to imagine how individuals bedeviled with outsized egos would get so intoxicated with the Kool-Aid of their own self-worth that they’ll fail to see the need to team up to lift up Nigeria.
No Roots in the Grassroots
For those who closely follow American politics, the “Ground Game” is a term you hear about quite a lot. Around election time, overpaid political pundits and talking heads on the television fetishize over the ground game of the political candidates.
Simply put, the ground game is the connectedness of a political campaign to the grassroots. It describes the depth and breadth of the campaign at the national, state, district, precinct, and ward levels. It is a measure of the boots on the ground, the doors knocked on, the success of a political campaign in selling the candidate to the ordinary voter, and how many of the voters they are able to get to the polls to vote for the candidate on election day.
Unlike the two establishment political parties which deployed a robust ground game at the last election, with presence – in terms of campaign offices and campaign officials – in every ward in the country, the Nigeria’s new breed political movement fought their own ground game on social media. Their strategy for winning the presidential race was anchored on a “Social Media Game”. Worst still, many of the new generation political parties did not bother to field candidates for any other electoral races besides the presidential contest; they had no presence at the state or the local races.
Is it any wonder then why 71 candidates only managed to pull a total of 870,000 votes, which is a parsley 3 percent of the 27 million total valid votes tally in the presidential election?
To run a presidential race in Nigeria you need a few Ghana-Must-Go bags full of Naira. To win a presidential contest, however, requires bullion vans “pressed down, shaken together, and running over” with cash in assorted foreign currencies. The success or failure of a presidential campaign is directly proportional to the amount of money the candidate is willing to spend.
In justifying the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential elections, General Ibrahim Babangida cited the following:
“…Evidence available to government put the total amount of money spent by the presidential candidates at over two billion, one hundred million naira (N2.1 billion). The use of money was again the major source of undermining the electoral process…”
If in 1993, the presidential candidates spent over N2 billion on their electioneering campaign, it doesn’t require much of a deductive ability to figure out how much the presidential race cost twenty-six years later.
The first rule of gunfight is, bring a gun to the fight. The second rule is, bring lots of friends with guns. In the February presidential elections, the new breed politicians went to the political gun fight with broomsticks, and the few friends they brought along, came to the fight clapping their hands.
Simply put, the next-gen candidates were drowned out in a tsunami of cash by the two establishment candidates. They were out-raised, out-spent, out-bought, out-bribed, and out-campaigned. In every facet of Nigeria’s electioneering machination, the new breed candidates got their asses handed to them. The fight was lost long before the first vote was cast.
Birthright for a Pot of Porridge
Politicians everywhere, regardless of color or creed, are equal opportunity dispensers of cheap platitudes and empty rhetoric. They often talk good game, promise heaven and earth, swear to move mountains, and vow to level valleys. Scratch a quarter of an inch beneath the surface of their BS, you find they are only out to fool you into voting for them. To get elected and stay elected, politicians count on the electorate to suspend disbelief, surrender sound judgment, and sacrifice common sense. Driven by an ambition to build and protect political power and influence, the typical politician would say anything and go to any length to get his way.
Unlike in countries where democracy has been long in existence, and democratic institutions and democratic processes are more matured, political battles in Nigeria are not fought on bread and butter, kitchen table issues. Political party affiliation and electoral choices are not determined by dogmas or ideologic differences. The prevailing political philosophy, to the extent it can be called a philosophy, is known, in local parlance, as stomach infrastructure. The political scientists have a special name for it. Prebendalism.
Nigerian political establishment perpetuate power through a system of influence peddling, political patronage, graft, and outright violence. The electorates, most of whom are poor illiterates, whore themselves out to the politicians in a pay-to-play predatory relationship. While the establishment grows fat on the national cake, the poor, tired and wretched refuse of Nigeria’s teeming masses go gaunt on the crumbs that fall from the political lords’ tables.
Politics is like playing in the mud, you can’t escape muddying your shoes, dirtying your hands, and staining your shirt. That’s especially true in Nigeria’s political playing field. To achieve meaningful political end and accomplish tangible political purpose, compromises of all sorts are bound to be made along the way with unsavory men and women whose characters ooze a stench so putrid that a rotten fish will smell like sweet perfume in comparison.
To wrest power from the Nigeria’s powerful political establishment, and to bring about a political revolution in the country, the new generation political movement must not only be willing to stand toe to toe with the ruling political class in the mud where the political game is played, but they must also find a way to avoid getting their soul soiled in the murk. Until such a time when the new breed political class becomes adept at playing the political mud game, and until they learn how to beat the political establishment in their own game, the political status quo in Nigeria will remain.
Looking across the political landscape, and examining the post-election utterances and activities of the defeated new breed politicians, it’ll take a miracle – “or something radical”, as a good friend of mine puts it – for the change that we have long hoped and prayed for to come.