Breathe, for the Battle Will Be Long: Changing Nigeria’s Body Politic

Teaser Image Caption
Osita Chidoka on the campaign trail.

On 18 November 2017, voters in Anambra, one of the 36 states in Nigeria, went to the polls to elect their governor. The election yielded a strong line-up of candidates, including Osita Chidoka, who gave credence to the idea that a young, dynamic leader, widely regarded as a successful public servant, with no blemish on his record, could excite the electorate and secure victory at the polls. As Chidoka said in an election-day press release, “Our campaign attracted the finest and brightest of Anambra. The bold and the courageous were with us as we exerted our best in running the most robust issue-based and technology-driven campaign in the history of our dear state.” He crowdfunded his campaign, rather than take funding from “political investors” whose support could essentially mortgage the future of the state. One week before the election, he won a nationally televised political debate. And yet, the final results at the polls were dismal. What happened?

Patrick O. Okigbo III, one of the leaders of the Chidoka campaign, provides insights that should be useful for budding politicians in Nigeria and indeed Africa.

Perspectives:  After developing an issues-based and youth-focused party manifesto to which the public had a chance to provide input, Osita Chidoka, a candidate in the Anambra gubernatorial elections, received less than 8,000 out of about 448,000 votes cast. Why do you think your campaign achieved such poor results?

Okigbo: Our performance at the polls arises from the fact that the electorate has become very cynical of the political process, and is quite agnostic to politicians of all hues. They have developed a near-doctrinal distrust of politicians. This conclusion probably needs to be qualified with some context.

From independence in 1960 to date, Nigerians have steadily and consistently lost trust in their politicians. Years of sweet promises from politicians that were jettisoned as soon as they assumed office have resulted in the electorate painting all candidates with the same brush. Such disappointments have, in the past, led to jubilation in the streets when the military shot their way to power. However, with the passage of time, Nigerians have realised that the military and the politicians were two sides of the same rusting coin when it came to addressing the developmental needs of the masses. Today, the general feeling is that the Nigerian elite (civilian and military) take care of themselves without much regard for the public’s welfare.

This apathy is deepened by the loss of faith in the electoral process. For instance, about 50 percent of the Anambra’s youthful population are registered voters, yet only 9 percent of the population participated in the 2017 elections. With many years of unabated electoral fraud, Nigerians have come to accept election results as simply fiction. Like the Israelites under Pharaoh’s bondage, they have accepted their powerlessness and resorted to praying for the emergence of a Moses who would magically part the Red Sea and march them to a new dawn. Sadly, such magic only happens in fantastical biblical stories or on the big screen.

How does voter apathy alone explain your poor showing at the 2017 polls?

There are many factors that contributed: identity politics, money politics, the incumbency factor, and the impact of the sit-at-home order from the leadership of the Independent Peoples of Biafra, an influential separatist organisation in southeast Nigeria. These factors are both rooted in, and further feed, voter apathy.

Prior to 2012, identity considerations were not the basis for participation in Anambra politics. However, by the 2017 election, it was widely held that the governorship was zoned to the northern senatorial zone of the state and that, at the end of that tenure in 2022, the position would rotate to the southern senatorial zone. This meant that most of the voters from the north voted for their own. Similarly, voters from the southern senatorial zone voted for a candidate from the northern senatorial zone in a bid to clear the path for their turn at the feeding trough. As a result, except for Osita Chidoka, all the governorship candidates of the major political parties in the race were from the northern senatorial zone.

While Chidoka understands the place of affirmative action, he did not believe that Anambra needed such considerations at the governorship elections. Anambra people have always prided themselves as people who can survive where meritocracy is upheld. Every part of the state has well-qualified candidates who do not need affirmative action to succeed in elections. The unintended consequence of this zoning formula was the cancer of identity politics. A people who have always seen themselves as simply Ndi Anambra (Anambra people) are now beginning to see themselves as being from the north, south or central senatorial zones. Non-existent boundary lines have now been firmly established and will be difficult to erase. Chidoka’s run was an attempt to nip this cancer in the bud. However, being a non-northern candidate meant that, from day one, Chidoka had to swim against the tide.

What role did money play in the elections?

Research evidence shows that money has been fuelling electoral fraud from as far back as the second election in Nigeria in 1951. Nigerians understand that electoral officers can be financially induced to change election results and that miscreants can be paid to stuff ballot boxes. However, the 2017 Anambra elections took election fraud to a new low with a retail approach to vote-buying. The going rate was 5,000 naira (about US$16 in 2017) per vote. All a voter had to do was negotiate this rate with the relevant party official before stepping into the voting booth. Once the ballot paper had been thumbprinted, the voter would raise it up to confirm with the party official that the vote has been cast for his party.

The offer was difficult for most voters – including Chidoka’s campaign staff – to resist. In a state where a senior civil servant earns about 150,000 naira per month and the minimum wage is 18,000 naira, it is not easy for a voter to walk away from such sums. From the start of the campaign, Chidoka made it categorically clear that he would not engage in such shenanigans. His campaign staff and volunteers were trained in this and other values. The hope was that the campaign could convince enough voters to resist the money inducement – or accept the money and still vote with their conscience. This was not to be the case. Against the retail vote-buying, Chidoka’s message stood no chance.

You also mentioned the incumbency factor. How did it influence the results?

The 2015 victory of Muhammadu Buhari over Goodluck Jonathan was a momentous occasion in Nigerian politics. Guided by that experience, we now know that the stars can align to lead to the defeat of an incumbent.

However, reality tells us that 2015 was more of an exception than the beginning of a trend. It would be difficult to repeat that feat without campaign finance reforms that put significant restrictions on the sources and uses of campaign funds. In the current situation, where political officeholders have unfettered access to the public purse to fund their campaigns, it would be near impossible for a challenger to outspend an incumbent. It is near impossible to find a challenger who is independently wealthier than the state. While an alternative is to rely on contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations, this is a tricky option because most of the large private enterprises rely on public-sector patronage to succeed through contracts, licenses, etc. Even where the challenger could find such donors who are not entangled with the state, there is the risk that they would expect financial returns which could result in mortgaging the future of the state. Anambra has had recent experience of a governor who accepted financial support from a donor and was expected to return 25 percent of the state revenues every month.

The power of incumbency manifests in other, more interesting, ways. Ndigbo (Igbo people) have an adage that says “goats follow the bearer of palm fronds” and not he who promises to bring food. We heard this adage quite frequently as one reason why political operatives would rather support the incumbent instead of Chidoka, whom they acknowledged had what was required to transform Anambra State. These operatives wanted a sure bet and not one where the odds were too high.

Voter apathy plays into this scenario as well because the electorate, especially the political elite, did not believe it is possible to unseat an incumbent. They would rather follow the incumbent who already has the “palm fronds” rather than a candidate who promises development. Place this within the context of a people who have already painted all politicians with the same brush and do not quite believe that Chidoka would be any different once he assumed power.

Are people, especially the youth, maybe not hungry for change in the end?

Far from it. The people desperately yearn for change but they are also convinced that politicians can’t deliver the desired results. The 2015 general election validates this point. One of the reasons why Muhammadu Buhari won that election was that he was not seen as a politician. He was seen as an outsider who would fight the corrupt politicians when he got to Aso Rock, the presidential villa. In fact, Nigerians were willing to forgive Buhari for his abuses of office as head of state from 1983 to 1985. They were also willing to overlook the questions about his academic qualification and fitness for office because there was a great yearning for change.

The Chidoka campaign had a lot of young people involved. A number of them worked long hours in the 200-seat campaign call centre from where they spoke to all registered voters in the state. Others were supposedly canvassing support at the grassroots. Many of these young people showed a lot of passion and commitment during the campaign. However, this passion did not translate to votes when they had to make a decision between 5,000 naira today and a gamble on the electability of their candidate and the promise of development tomorrow. In retrospect, we should have started the campaigns earlier so we have enough time to inculcate the new doctrine in the people.

All of this paints a dire picture of the state of Nigerian politics. Are attempts to change the situation a “mission impossible”?

Impossible is a big word. From 2003, when Muhammadu Buhari started running for office, no one gave him a real chance of success. His political ambition was the real mission impossible. Yet, by 2015, he had become the “beautiful bride” that led a hastily convened coalition to defeat an incumbent African president. Anything is possible.

However, we must concede that it would be a very difficult feat for a “clean” candidate to win an election in Nigeria absent campaign finance reform and a less cynical electorate. For this to happen, the candidate must show deep commitment to the issues important to the electorate and demonstrate willingness to stay the course, no matter how long. The candidate must also be seen to be electable. With all these in place, the candidate must then hope that the stars align in his or her favour, either through an electorate overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the status quo, as was the case in 2015 general elections, or one that has built up trust in the candidate. In my view, real people-focused leadership can emerge, but it would require commitment to a marathon, not a sprint.

What could be done in the short term to make changes?

I am more interested in the longer-term approach because of its promise of more fundamental change. However, in the interim, Nigerians should be encouraged to join existing political structures and fight for fundamental change from within those structures.

By fundamental change, I mean things like reform of campaign finance, without which there can be no meaningful political change. A system where politicians can use government funds to finance campaigns limits the prospects for significant progress through the electoral process. Nigerians should be able to know the source of the money spent on campaigns. This would ensure that our democracy is not for the highest bidder.

Internal party democracy is also critical to advancing democracy in Nigeria. When politicians know that they have to rely on the electorate for their power, it would incentivise them to learn what is important to the people and negotiate with them, knowing that if you do not treat the electorate well, they will vote you out in the primaries or the main election. It is such systemic transformations that would yield good candidates that can drive development as well as restore voters’ interest and commitment to the electoral process. Once the electorate becomes fully disconnected from the electoral process, it will be difficult if not impossible to engage people in fixing Nigeria’s politics.

What’s next for you in Nigerian politics?

If your question is whether I intend to run for elected office, the answer is, categorically, not any time soon. For now, I am focused on other ways of improving governance through policy work and advocacy. I will always engage in an active search for ways to transform the system. I will always support good candidates who are committed to improving the lives of Nigerians.

Going forward, however, I would ensure that any candidate I work with understands the investment of time and resources required to address the apathy. The journey to fix our politics and, in turn, our society will be a long one. Interested? Take a deep breath and gird your loins. This battle will be long.