Why Buhari Won – Again, By Suleiman A. Suleiman
…the PDP failed to recognise that the real battleground was northern Nigeria, and not the South-West. Buhari’s real strength lies only in northern Nigeria, which, incidentally, also has the highest number of registered voters. Also, northern voters, in this election at least, were much more motivated than voters elsewhere across the country.
The 2019 presidential election has effectively ended. As Nigerians, we should congratulate ourselves for yet another peaceful, free and fair election; at least, to the extent that elections can be peaceful, free and fair in our political context. But how do we explain the Buhari and All Progressives Congress (APC) victory, again?
I personally prefer to see this election as one which the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) lost, rather than one the APC won. The APC ran a lazy campaign at best, but I can think of three reasons why it has won. One, the PDP ran a generally weak campaign, strategically speaking. The PDP campaign was largely based on the same dynamics and strategies as the 2015 presidential election, which it lost. This is why – with a few exceptions – this election bears a striking similarity to that of 2015, across the states and geopolitical zones. But elections are won or lost long before the votes are cast or counted. At no time in the past four years had the PDP done the sort of soul searching and sober postmortem needed to take power back after a surprise defeat. There was no attempt to re-brand the party as different from the one that lost the 2015 presidential election. Millions of voters still view the PDP as a party that caters only for the rich. This is not necessarily true, but in politics, perception is reality. To win, the PDP needed to change the entire dynamics of 2015, to re-brand itself as a new party and change its strategies completely. It didn’t.
Two, the PDP failed to recognise that the real battleground was northern Nigeria, and not the South-West. Buhari’s real strength lies only in northern Nigeria, which, incidentally, also has the highest number of registered voters. Also, northern voters, in this election at least, were much more motivated than voters elsewhere across the country. To win, the PDP needed to take back at least five out of the 13 states in the North-West and North-East zones, split the North-Central states in half, and then retain lead in the states it won in 2015. To do that required a specific strategy and message for the northern voters. It was not for nothing that Chief Bola Tinubu, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and other leading APC politicians from the South-West all campaigned with the promise of power returning to that zone in 2023. That’s campaign messaging specifically targeted.
Unfortunately, the PDP campaign did not have this for the real battleground voters in the North. In fact, throughout the campaign, there was little attempt by the PDP to put out policies that would be specifically attractive to northern voters, despite the relative under-performance of the Buhari government in the North in areas like job creation, education for out of school children, rejuvenation of the manufacturing industries like textiles in old hubs like Kano and Kaduna, and even in the area of infrastructure development. Buhari already occupies the ‘moral space’ in northern politics today, but the ‘material’ or policy space remains vacant for the PDP to occupy. It didn’t.
…perhaps most significantly, the bond of trust between Buhari and his northern voters is still very strong, despite the challenges the president and his government have faced, and despite the underwhelming performance of the government over the past four years. Buhari’s voters have not deserted him since 2003.
Nigerian politics is predominantly regional in both form and content. It is regional in political rhetoric, in voting behaviour, and in policy ambitions, if not execution. It is certainly regional in the distribution of federal office. And the political economy too is almost entirely regional, and has been since 1914. But the stark reality is that the Buhari presidency has not really achieved much for the north in terms of policy and development that any other Nigerian president would not have done. The North’s most important problems have remained, and they have not even been addressed in this government in terms of political talk, public policy or political action. This presented the PDP with an opportunity to offer an alternative vision for northern voters, a vision that speaks to its major problems. President Buhari may occupy the moral space for northern voters, but morality is not food, nor a job. And by the dictates of human nature, people are drawn to the moral as they are to the material, if not more so to the latter. So in order to break President Buhari’s support base, the PDP needed to have had a specifically northern electoral strategy and campaign messaging that focused on clear policies and then used that to pummel the APC in the northern states. After all, their candidate, Atiku Abubakar is also a son of the North. But the party did not do so.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the bond of trust between Buhari and his northern voters is still very strong, despite the challenges the president and his government have faced, and despite the underwhelming performance of the government over the past four years. Buhari’s voters have not deserted him since 2003. They still trust him and believe in his ability to do good on their behalf. In my discussions with people throughout the states of northern Nigeria over the past two years or so, I get the impression that people accept that his performance has been below par so far. However, they also still have hope that he will perform better for them during a second term and they trust him enough to give him a second chance. The PDP could not break this bond, even though it is not as cast in stone as it appears. And it did not even try. Furthermore, Buhari’s new voters in the South-West still have a strategic reason to vote for him. This still boils down to trust. His principal partners in the APC alliance still trust him to support them in their own quest to take the lead for presidency in 2023. And that’s enough motivation to back him a second term, otherwise President Buhari is not a genuinely popular politician anywhere outside of the north. But his APC partners in the South-West still have a strategic reason to support him again, even if it means winning one less state than he did in 2015, in the face of a stronger PDP campaign there.
Whether the president will deliver to both groups and to the country at large in his second and final term remains to be seen.
Suleiman A. Suleiman, PhD is an assistant professor of media and politics in the School of Arts and Sciences, American University of Nigeria, Yola; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.