• Monday, December 04, 2023
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We need to talk about how expensive Nigerian elections are

We need to talk about how expensive Nigerian elections are

It is estimated that the cost of a frontline presidential campaign in the U.S. now sits somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion. Assuming an exchange rate of N580 – $1, this means that it costs anything from N290bn to N580bn to become the president of the United States. In Nigeria comparatively, such figures are not available due to an absence of public declaration requirements for political campaigns. All we have to go on are the numbers that can be approximated from estimating total media buys, campaign tour expenditure, and lobbying expenses.

In the 2015 presidential election, which is thought to be the most expensive election in Nigeria’s history to date, it is estimated that the 2 frontline parties spent nothing less than N5bn each on primaries, delegates, media buying, and campaign expenses alone. This figure is arrived at by aggregating industry figures from the media and advertising industry alongside estimates for expenses like printing posters, lobbying primary delegates, paying election day party agents, use of foreign strategic communications entities like AKPD Media and Message, and undeclared under-the-table expenses for illegal efforts like vote-buying and election day bribery, which are hidden but substantial.

In absolute and proportional terms, the cost of running a successful American electoral campaign is much higher than in Nigeria, but the key metric that should be used for comparison is the sheer difference in per capita income. Whereas the US has a per capita income touching $60,000 per year, that of Nigeria stays stuck stubbornly at $2,000 per year. What this means is that the US economy is structured to be able to afford and absorb such a high cost of politics and elections. Nigeria on the other hand absolutely does not have the facilities for this.

 In other words, our very system of changing power is what itself guarantees that the majority of government funds earmarked for development continue to vanish into black holes

Nigeria is too poor for politics to cost so much

Last week I wrote something about the current futility of trying to run a presidential campaign in Nigeria using an independent political platform. These platforms, I said, have little to no on-ground presence across most of Nigeria, and offer zero electoral value to the hopefuls. What I neglected to mention in that column was that the primary reason for this is the absence of a single magic ingredient – the secret sauce of all that is Nigeria’s electoral politics. That secret sauce is money. Copious, unthinkable amounts of it. Whoever intends to win an election in Nigeria without keeping the entire process generously lubricated with wads of naira and dollar bills from the point of declaring; to the primaries; to the election itself; to the inevitable election results tribunal, might as well be trying to shoot at Boko Haram positions with a water pistol.

Money is needed to “confer with the kinsmen” before you can declare for the election. Money is what turns that declaration into a spot on the ballot at the party primary elections. Money is what wins the primaries and the inevitable court challenge to that win. Money is what prints tens of thousands of full-colour posters, t-shirts, stationery, and promotional materials. Money is what pays the creative agencies and the media for the TV ads, the radio jingles, and the print and online ads. Money is what keeps the party agents stationed at the polling booths on Election Day to prevent any hanky panky by INEC. Money is what mobilises police and occasionally soldiers to defend the sanctity of the elections where the opponent may have decided to employ the electoral dark arts of disrupting the vote in one’s stronghold.

The problem with all this is not the inherent greed, selfishness, and myopia that it creates in the politicking and electoral process. To be sure, those are problems in their own right, but the elephant in the room is that money is never simply wasted on such a large scale every 4 years with no return or expectation of return. That is not how capital behaves, and whether the capital has been invested in a stock or in a winning electoral candidate, returns are expected on the investment. In the case of Nigeria, such “returns” can only be fraudulent or inflated contracts awards and kickbacks, results of influence peddling, proceeds of tenderpreneurship and official cronyism, and every other type of public sector corruption we are accustomed to.

In other words, our very system of changing power is what itself guarantees that the majority of government funds earmarked for development continue to vanish into black holes. While most Nigerians have little access to mains power supply, a few will inexplicably continue to run into cash windfalls that buy property in Dubai and London after every election – the very system of choosing leaders guarantees it.

Read also: Pre-election spending to spur inflationary pressure in 2022

A legislative solution?

In the United States, there have been legislative attempts to tackle the runaway costs of elections and the existential problems they create for the basic concept of democracy. In addition to campaign donation reporting requirements and spending declaration rules, individual donations to presidential campaigns are capped at $2,900 annually. Of course, these rules have been entirely undermined by rulings such as that of the Citizens United vs FEC case in 2010 which legalised unlimited political spending by so-called Super PACs, but there has at least been an attempt to address the problem.

In Nigeria, INEC rules officially prohibit corporate bodies from donating to campaigns and restrict individual contributions to N1,000,000. The rules also restrict the amount of money a presidential candidate may spend on their campaign to N1bn; a gubernatorial candidate to N200m; a senatorial candidate to N40m; a House of Representatives candidate to N10m, and a state HoR candidate to N10m. This is what it says on paper at https://inecnigeria.org/voter-education/faqs/. In practice, however, these rules are simply not enforced. A gubernatorial candidate in Lagos, or Rivers, or Delta, or Edo, or Akwa Ibom who intends to go through a successful campaign spending “only” N200m most likely has no real ambition of winning his party primaries, let alone the governorship election itself.

In my opinion, since such rules are impossible to enforce and are too easy to get around, the entire mechanism of political campaigning and party primaries needs to be rethought. I believe that in this internet age, there is little reason why political parties must hold an event called a “national convention” where several bags of naira and dollar notes briskly make their clandestine way around.