Why did President Goodluck Jonathan lose the 2015 election? Several interesting “theories” abound. The loss was a wonder waiting to happen. One reason why once-upon-a-time coup plotters would make elaborate preparations to capture major media organisations as cornerstone of their strategies was to control the flow of information. The democratisation of the public sphere, therefore, played a huge role. Social media ensured that information spread rapidly. The Nigerian Television Authority’s (NTA’s) monopoly had long gone and in addition to private TV and radio stations, social media platforms had become widely popular. This development fundamentally shaped the spread of information. People could watch videos of all kinds of social issues from relatively innocuous daily activities to epic malfeasance in government. They could also make comments in a multi-dimensional mediascape. Election results of some states, for instance, were widely shared on the Internet sometimes before INEC announced them. It is a sign of the times that Sahara Reporters was the first media organisation to project that General Buhari would win the elections. The social media and online newspaper factor played a major role in the electoral victory, as it made it impossible to alter what everyone already knew.
The Jega factor was critical. Professor Attahiru Jega stood firm and resisted pressure from the ruling party and the president’s handlers. Somehow, Jega led an organisation that had earned a reputation for spectacular electoral rigging, and midwifed an obviously imperfect but commendable election. I hope Professor Jega finds time to write and publish his memoirs. Nigerians need to hear from him beyond the occasional press conference. Future generations need to be able to read about his experiences, temptations, the tempestuous political terrain, activities of key actors, and the drama of the electoral process.
There was also the Madam Patience factor. She hurt her spouse’s chances in an immeasurable way. Mrs. Jonathan came off as unnecessarily feisty and controlling. The president often appeared weak beside the first lady. That was a monumental sacrilege in a highly patriarchal society such as ours. The problem was partly her now world-famous quotable quotes such as “na only you waka come?”, “dia is God o!”, “my fellow widows” among other statements, which questioned the home environment of the president. Those blunders could not have helped the president’s cause. Nigerians felt deeply embarrassed by the utterances and actions of the first lady. I have often wondered if anyone genuinely believed that the president did not make any efforts to hire a private tutor for Madam Patience. The first lady’s main problem was that she seemed genuinely unteachable.
President Jonathan lost partly because of the inept political machinery set up for his re-election. His campaigners inadvertently damaged his candidacy. Many of the public faces of the president’s re-election campaign were discredited individuals. Their words were often perceived as lies until proven true. That can be costly in politics. Jonathan’s decision not to sack some of them, perhaps out of loyalty, was also fatal. The team’s focus on wholesale negativity — ethnic sentiments, religious bigotry and fear-mongering — backfired.
In fairness to the re-election team, the president was not a great product to sell to the Nigerian people: The team was saddled with an impossible mission. Their only hope was to have the elections fraught with massive irregularities in their favour. The socio-economic indicators such as unemployment figures, free fall of the Naira in the build up to the elections, electricity issues, poverty level and many others sealed the loss.
Sleaze in the oil sector, particularly the missing money at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) that was brought to the attention of the president by the former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, Sanusi Lamido, created a legitimacy crisis for the president. Such brazen allegation ought to have been investigated and the culprits brought to justice. The president’s decision to take no action and frustrate whistleblower Lamido from office only worsened matters. It also solidified public perceptions about large-scale corruption in his government.
The president had also lost the support of key custodians of the Nigerian system. The loss of the support of his godfather, General Obasanjo, clearly hurt President Jonathan. The publication of Obasanjo’s memoirs was not exactly a knockout punch but it was damaging to the president. Obasanjo’s symbolic gesture — public destruction of his PDP membership card — clearly boosted morale at APC and depressed the president’s re-election team. It was clear that the PDP was toast.
The president was also guilty of rudimentary rhetorical blunders. His comment about the number of private air planes owned by Nigerians as measure of Nigeria’s economic accomplishments and the totally unlettered insinuation that Nigerian economists were not as sound as those of CNN and the World Bank succeeded in confirming his status as a person out of depths. Those comments were troubling to many people.
Beyond those comments, the inertia at the presidency regarding the kidnapping of the Chibok girls was confounding. The president did not stay on top of the situation; he hesitated for several weeks before acknowledging that children of our fellow citizens were missing. People feared that he was not in charge and was incapable of taking charge of governance. The public knew that the Nigerian military did not lack the requisite skill and personnel to fight Boko Haram. There was pervasive perception of political interference. Perception is reality, especially in politics. The successes recorded in the war against Boko Haram as March 28 approached only confirmed people’s perception about the use of the kidnapping episode as political football.
To be clear, there was nothing wrong with the approach of the PDP vis-à-vis the history of Nigerian elections. They had reaped where they did not sow for many years. PDP’s ability to pull off major electoral victories despite poor governance was a hallmark of the party. The X-factor was that the Nigerian people decided that this time would be different.
The overarching narrative of the 2015 presidential election is the mood of the times. We may never fully know what happened behind the scene: rancour in the PDP and presidency; the role of the international community, prominent Nigerian opinion leaders such as former Heads of State and President Jonathan’s personal convictions, among other factors. What we do know is that the Nigerian people keenly followed the process; they were determined and well-mobilised. Such outcome would be considered a rare moment in the life of any society. It is a story of human tragedy and triumph. The outcome of the election indicates the transience of power and the futility of politics of the belly (aka stomach infrastructure).
‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers.