The most distinctive dynamic of the 2019 elections seems to be focused on the character of the candidates, rather than their plans or platform. The voting results that took out, in both major parties, prominent people who had powers of incumbency, as well as substantial war chests are, in themselves, a most unique story of the elections of February 23.
Today is a great day for the Nigerian nation as we slowly mature into the system of electing the officials who will run our country, particularly the presidency. This election is another evolution in Nigerian democratic maturity. There have been complaints about elements such as the delay in the announcement of results and there is merit in acknowledging that we are on a long journey of continuous improvement. Nevertheless, there are critical dynamics and powerful learning points in the election that held on February 23 that are truly worthy of deeper reflection and enquiry.
Elections in Nigeria are notorious for the feverish spending often carried out by the incumbent government, as well as the often intense atmosphere in the weeks and days prior to the election day. However, this year appeared to have had a much quieter lead-up to the elections, even though tensions were high. Shrewd spending on this year’s elections was evident in the level of business captured by printers and advertisers, who hitherto had the election period as a time they record the highest income. This is anecdotal information: compared to the lavish spending of the previous presidential election (2015), when it was impossible to find any available printer, this time the spare capacity was evident as printers chased non-political businesses actively. Even more interesting are the dynamic patterns that have emerged in the 2019 elections, beyond the usual ethnic and geographic biases that tend to colour our elections. It is clearer that there are other emergent issues implicit in the election results and the attendant verdicts, particularly at the presidential level.
The first of these was the apparent rural-urban divide. Voting patterns appeared to imply that electorates in urban areas, such as Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory, tended towards the main challenger, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Even in PDP strongholds, electorates in rural areas tended towards the incumbent, President Buhari. Furthermore, while many will raise concerns around the attempted suppression of the voting ability of certain ethnicities in Lagos State, the number of registered voters who did not exercise their suffrage appears to be more of a reflection of the apathy in many urban areas as the economy diversifies from its rentier status quo towards agriculture, which is more rural in its impact, making many switch off from voting. In fact, Buhari earning a significant amount of votes in Benue and Plateau States, in spite of farmers-herdsmen conflict, could be seen as circumstantial evidence that farming communities largely see him as championing agricultural opportunities.
In 2023, the successes and failings of 2019 will be clear enough to affirm the wisdom of the masses of Nigeria, towards rewarding excellence in character and punishing the disdain and dismissal of the millions at the bottom of the pyramid, irrespective of the short-term rewards that are offered to obscure their choices.
Another emergent issue that also seems to be reflected in the voting patterns is the rich/poor divide. The poor, especially in the North, appear to have found their champion and that is reflected in their support of the incumbent through their votes. It can be argued that in the South-West, there are aspects of the same that have emerged. It could further be argued that this is also what is reflected in states such as Kogi and Kwara, and even Nassarawa, which Buhari lost in 2015.
The most distinctive dynamic of the 2019 elections seems to be focused on the character of the candidates, rather than their plans or platform. The voting results that took out, in both major parties, prominent people who had powers of incumbency, as well as substantial war chests are, in themselves, a most unique story of the elections of February 23. The Senate president, who returned to his previous party, and the current governor of Oyo State, amongst other powerhouse politicians, including Senators Akpabio and Barnabas Gemade, were not able to exert influence on the electorate to support their candidacies. The impact was truly bi-partisan. Never mind that the ‘Shadow Overlords’ of Nigerian politics totally lost out in the re-election of Buhari as president. What seems to be reflected in all these is that the electorates made their decisions largely on the basis of the characters and public personas of the candidates. First, in the re-election of a president whose humility, good humour and integrity are without question. It is quite substantive that the message of a president, whose brand and platform is the anti-corruption war and the protection of the commonwealth, still resonated with voters in spite of a concerted campaign, from 2015 when he was elected, to denigrate him personally.
Most public commentators and the elites have made it an article of faith that President Buhari is a ‘failure’. Even further, some of the largest church networks were used by many as a platform to dissuade people from voting for him. Even more challenging, many stereotyped him as an ethnic bigot, as well as unrefined and unintelligent. The public was treated to a diet of a totally incredible characterisation of the incumbent, including tagging him a clone from Sudan, a matter which soon became the subject of international media reports. He was also short-changed by his own communications team, which never properly highlighted the full extent of his achievements, including the fact that his government produced the first agriculture-led expansion in over 50 years.
The 2019 elections are the beginning of a Nigerian nation where politicians will be accountable and privilege will be reviewed. It is clear that more dynamics of February 23, 2019 will emerge when we start to fully review the results. However, this might be the last time that the traditional wedge issues of ethnicity and religion will be powerful.
The emergent diversification of the economy as a result of his tenure, while largely felt by the rural people, appears to have been lost on the elite. In essence, the narrative promoted on public platforms did not destroy his character. For over 15 million voters, he was defined by their experience of him as a champion against looting. And, many everyday Nigerians who voted for him chose to do so in spite of the elite who usually control and influence choices. This is in sharp contrast to the Senate president’s rhetoric and criticism of the APC government, as well as in sharp contrast to denigrating populist rhetoric, which, however, did not resonate. On the other hand, the unanswered questions over why the Senate president’s pensions were being paid from his home state or why the allowances at the National Assembly were so high or why the controversial Panama Papers listed his family, seem to have added to the sense that he represented the over-privileged face of the unaccountable elite.
Similarly, the current governor of Oyo State, in a fit of pique, attacked the institution of the Olubadan and reduced centuries of effective city governance to little more than a laughing stock. His pronouncements were arrogant, demeaning and disturbing, with constant allusions in his stated opinions that those who were less fortunate or less blessed were to be ridiculed. The imperial nature of the exercise of political power and platforms are thus clearly being put on notice.
The 2019 elections are the beginning of a Nigerian nation where politicians will be accountable and privilege will be reviewed. It is clear that more dynamics of February 23, 2019 will emerge when we start to fully review the results. However, this might be the last time that the traditional wedge issues of ethnicity and religion will be powerful. In 2023, the successes and failings of 2019 will be clear enough to affirm the wisdom of the masses of Nigeria, towards rewarding excellence in character and punishing the disdain and dismissal of the millions at the bottom of the pyramid, irrespective of the short-term rewards that are offered to obscure their choices.
Adewale Ajadi, a lawyer, creative consultant and leadership expert, is author of Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria.