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What Nigeria’s election cannot teach does not exist

“What the 2023 elections show is that every serious and determined candidate can make their own victory.”

NIGERIA’s February and March elections undid many things. One of them was the 63-year-old myth that no wealthy and ambitious candidate could emerge president. Until the last presidential election.

Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s president between 1963 and 1966, came close. But while ownership of his extensive and authoritative newspaper chain made him influential, he was not wealthy. In any case, he was only a ceremonial president.

The other leaders, especially the elected ones, up till now, had neither money nor ambition. And all, without exception, were also not prepared for office. A number of them even said so publicly.

Bola Ahmed Tinubu would be the first Nigerian leader to have money and ambition and publicly say he is ready and prepared to rule and still get elected. Considered to be one of Africa’s wealthiest politicians, he has extensive business interests and investments from real estate and stocks to media.

He would be the first elected president to defy the so-called “owners of Nigeria” who have over the years been obsessed that power in the hands of a wealthy and independent-minded candidate might put the beneficiary beyond their reach.

As it turned out in the February 25 presidential election, ambition alone would not have been enough to get Tinubu over the line, especially after his own party leader President Muhammadu Buhari’s banknote redesign on the eve of the elections threw the country into financial chaos. Money, ambition and dare-devil courage combined to snatch the chestnut of Tinubu’s aspiration from the fire of adversity.

“Do you know why he won the election?” U.S. diplomat and election observer asked recently. “He got the money; he had the best national organisation that worked for him and the ground game.”

What this means for governance, whether it brings more freedom and accountability or inhibitions and opaqueness, would be interesting to see in the days ahead.

But the loss of kingmaker leverage is not the only lesson from the 2023 elections. The unravelling myth of the sitting president as alpha and omega in determining a successor is lesson number two.

In the last election, Buhari showed himself as the master of strategic ambivalence. He did not want Tinubu as his successor. Yet, in his valley of indecision, he knew that the surging wave would land on the shore and was quite pleased, in spite of his misery, to go with the flow. It was not always like that.

President Olusegun Obasanjo made his own wave. As military head of state, he moved heaven and earth to install Shehu Shagari as civilian president in 1979. And in his second coming as civilian president, he went over, above and beyond the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at the time to choose Umaru Shehu Yar’Adua as his successor.

And I remember that after he fell out with the party and tore his card, he told a visiting reconciliation party to Abeokuta comprising President Goodluck Jonathan that after God and Jonathan’s parents, he was the most consequential person in making the former president.

It now appears that those days are going or gone. What the 2023 elections show is that every serious and determined candidate can make their own victory.

The governor-king has been undone, too. And that is lesson number three. For decades, Tinubu, for example, ruled the roost in Lagos. He survived the wiles and deadly onslaught of the Obasanjo era, going for years without one kobo for Lagos councils from the federal government, which illegally seized their statutory allocations following a dispute over the creation of additional councils by the Tinubu administration.

Yet, in what his associate and Minister of Works, Babatunde Fashola SAN, recently described as “blindsiding,” Tinubu lost Lagos to Labour Party’s Peter Obi, a rookie in the presidential race. But it was not only Tinubu who suffered defeat in his stronghold.

Other party stalwarts, including seven governors, failed to get elected to their new retirement home – the Senate. Six states featuring the governors’ preferred candidates on the ballot also flipped.

Lesson number four: Abraham Lincolns come once in a blue moon. Famous among things for contesting and losing eight elections, two of them the presidency, Lincoln could have been a distant political cousin of Nigeria’s former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, in another life. Atiku, the presidential candidate of the opposition PDP, was on his sixth attempt in 30 years.

He did not lose the last election, though. He won it for the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which may have found it far more difficult to keep power if Atiku had let his decades of political experience guide him.

Unlike Lincoln, whose multiple losses taught him that the only way to win the 1860 presidential election was to keep the Republican Party united, Atiku’s strategy to win was keeping his party divided.

Even Buhari, another serial loser, had learnt that his fabled 12 million voter base in one section of the country could not win him the presidency. It took Buhari’s Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) an alliance with the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and three other parties to win at his fourth attempt in 2015.

In Atiku’s world of contrarian politics, the PDP “split” not into two but into four parties – Labour Party, NNPP and the Wike-led Integrity Group. In his next life, no matter the degree of temptation or provocation, it’s unlikely that Atiku would yield to the dissociative political maths of subtraction and division.

Kenyan political veteran, Raila Odinga, shared the fifth lesson during the LEADERSHIP Awards and Conference in Abuja shortly before Nigeria’s election, but we were not listening: “Don’t trust technology too much,” he said, or something to that effect. “They can fail or be made to fail.”

In spite of Odinga, we believed otherwise. The bimodal voter verification system (BVAS) was advertised as the game-changer but widely believed as the miracle worker. Unfortunately, the system was undermined by glitches in a number of areas and the electoral management body, which seemed unprepared for a Plan B, found itself seeking refuge in a backhanded electoral guideline that it was not obliged to transmit results electronically.

Machines fail, just as people fail them. But whether they fail or are made to fail, the recourse must be clear beforehand, and consequences applied.

And yes, the ground game, infamously called “political structure,” still matters. That is the sixth lesson of the last election. Even though Obi despised those who criticised the Labour Party for not having political structures, he still relied significantly on the structures of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to mobilise support.

Obi commanded the social media army. Unlike the APC and PDP, however, his extra-terrestrial troops were largely absent in many of the over 176,000 polling units where party agents needed to be physically present to oversee voting, counting and collation of results. If, as Joseph Stalin said, it is who counts and not who votes that matters, then LP lost the election before it was even held.

Lesson number seven: Polls are like mini-skirts. They are short enough to attract attention but long enough to hide the subject matter. They disappointed catastrophically in the U.S. elections in 2016. It was the same in Nigeria. Nine polls, including those by Bloomberg, CNN, ANAP/NOI among others, projected Obi would win. Only three, including Stears Polls, were close to the mark.

Even where strong anecdotal evidence suggested that the polls would be wrong, the pollsters did not let such evidence get in the way of their will. In light of what eventually happened, there would still be enough humble pie left for pollsters, their sponsors and subscribers to eat before the next major election in Nigeria.

Lesson number eight is that ideology is an elite fiction. Ideology is dead! The tribe is resurgent. Long live the party! Peter Obi, a self-confessed capitalist trader, ended up flying the flag of LP! Apart from Tinubu, who has maintained his progressive bona fides and AAC’s Omoyele Sowore, who has remained unapologetically anti-establishment, other candidates have elevated political flirting to an art.

The courts have blessed this infidelity by ruling that it is the party, and not the individual candidates, that matters. And since the difference in policies and ideas among the major parties is a matter of form rather than substance, candidates have become rolling stones gathering no moss.

With no real incentive to debate or discuss issues in spite of elite consternation over the lack of ideology, candidates relapsed to their primordial strongholds, invoking religion and ethnicity for redemption.

Post-election Nigeria feels like Humpty Dumpty. On top of the serious challenges of inflation, unemployment, stark economic deterioration and insecurity facing the country, not to mention the growing sub-regional instability, the incoming government has to first pick up the broken pieces of hope before it can start the difficult job of putting the country together again.

Ishiekwene is Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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