BusinessDay

The candidates who only want to talk to each other

Democracy is many things – including the art of persuasion but in Nigeria, our gladiatorial politics leaves little room for engagement designed to entice or induce voters. The politicians like nothing better than to talk to each other but not to us, which is why it is sometimes tedious to watch the televised political shows – it is a steady stream of men performing for the cameras and pretending enmity when a mere half election cycle ago, they were all in the same political party.

Why, despite low voter turnout and apathy, are contestants in the next general election not interested in engaging with Nigerians and potential voters?

Not even the threat of disruption from Labour Party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, could persuade the presidential candidates of the two major parties to appoint campaign spokespersons that are different from the norm.

Bola Tinubu, the candidate for All Progressives Congress (APC), appointed Festus Keyamo as spokesperson for his campaign a few weeks ago. Keyamo played the same role in 2019 when President Muhammadu Buhari sought a second term and must have made an impression on Tinubu; however, there are several reasons, including the one alluded to above, why this choice is an unwise one…at least for those who believe that candidates all want to attract and retain voters.

First, the Labour ministry has been engaged in negotiations with the Academic Staff Union of Universities, now in its 5th month of industrial strike – this is Keyamo’s ministry where he is the minister of state. Aside from Keyamo being one of the faces of the Federal Government’s failure to get teachers and students back to school, one could argue that if Tinubu and the APC take education seriously, they would not want to distract Keyamo from his primary responsibility as a minister.

Atiku Abubakar, the candidate for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has two spokespersons: Dino Melaye, a former senator who has been a member of both APC and PDP, and Daniel Bwala – a recent decampee from APC to PDP. Both choices are problematic as one of the most generous things that could be said about Melaye is that he is unserious – he is known for taunting those he is in opposition to via videos where he sings and dances. Bwala, while more serious in his mien, is a favourite on the talking circuit and once said PDP is known for never finishing what it starts.

However, for those who worry that the ease with which politicians and party members switch parties is an indication of lack of party ideology and organising values, Bwala is not a good choice as he, and all the things he said when he was a loyal APC member, becomes a topic instead of him setting the agenda on campaign issues.

The spokespersons of both Tinubu and Atiku indicate that both candidates’ gaze is focused on the other and not on Nigeria and Nigerians. They are of the ‘politics is do-or-die’ school and prefer to sling mud and sprinkle innuendo around about the suitability of each other – basically attacking each other and not engaging on the challenges that Nigerians want addressed: insecurity, economic and financial stability and quality public goods.

In their choices, both show their hand as being stuck in the past – in the puzzling but popular practice of appointing editors, columnists and journalists, in other words media – to manage their strategic communications. Managing the media and engaging the press is only one element of strategic communications and how unsuitable some of these writers are at managing information and engaging the public is evident from the troupe currently working in the Buhari Presidency, falling over themselves to exceed Doyin the attack lion Okupe, who now works with Peter Obi.

Another sign that the popular presidential candidates do not appreciate the importance of symbolism and optics is that thinking nothing of their male-male presidential tickets, they missed the opportunity to directly and subliminally engage the majority who are excluded from politics through combative, commercial elections. APC, Labour Party and PDP have many articulate and accomplished women who can be campaign spokespersons.

Women – early and mid-career – who are lawyers, legislators, ministers (in non-controversial ministries), former government appointees, managers of organisations and aspirants and contenders for elective office; but because the political culture seems set in stone, here we are, with five and a half months to suffer through testosterone-fuelled engagement designed not to engage the majority on critical issues such as inflation, fleeing professional talent and a resurgence of police brutality, but to take on each other.

Read also: Five big ideas for the presidential candidates

Some will argue that the gladiatorial communications we suffer during elections is an indication of the audience i.e., the age-old myth about who votes in Nigeria; the majority deliberately impoverished mentally and physically. According to them ‘agbado’ communications, the twin brother to road-side ‘akara’ frying, is what ‘those who vote’ need to be entertained. That is a lie.

What it is, is that the votes are procured from the rural areas where it is easier to rig and easier to enforce community voting. Everything flows from this myth and the desperation to protect it because that has been the formula for winning elections since the 1960s.

The truth is Nigerians are not a monolith – we are such a wonderfully diverse group of people with many talents but also fairly similar aspirations: to have better (hopefully to be better too but we leave that for another day). The people we need in public office, leading us out of the mess and through the global challenges of the 21st century have to be different, cannot be stuck in the old ways of doing and seeing things, and these spokespersons for the presidential candidates give us yet another clue on how to vote during the general elections in February next year.

We still have five months to experience the campaigns; if what we see now – verbal rocks thrown around – continues, then we can be sure that this is what we will get for the entire tenure of whoever of these men wins the elections: our version of the Roman circus through distractions from our woes and setting us against each other.

But if we see something different – if these men are replaced by better communicators, by women and men who understand the importance of engaging and who know how to engage various audiences across the country where they are and how they are, then that would be a clue that we have a chance to deviate from the poor norm.

Let’s collate all the reasons, the pointers, the evidence – big and small – and not just vote, but vote wisely. Our lives depend on it.

Ayisha Osori, author of ‘Love Does Not Win Elections’, writes for BusinessDay for the Nigeria Decides 2023 series every fortnight on Wednesdays.

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