At every election, newspapers and commentators advocate “issue-based campaign”. They call for messages containing ideas that the candidates want the voters to support. Yet, just about 40 days before Nigeria’s presidential election, the ideas of the two main candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, are hardly the subject of media analysis or public discussion, despite sharp differences in their messages. For instance, while Buhari focuses his campaign on the narrow issues of corruption, security and the economy, Atiku sets out wide-ranging talking points about political, economic and institutional reforms. Yet, Buhari is getting most of the attention, while Atiku appears to be lacking momentum in the campaign. Why?
Let’s start with the contrasts between their ideas. Buhari’s manifesto is essentially promising more of the same. If re-elected, President Buhari would do nothing differently, but instead intensify his current policies, including throwing more government money at tackling poverty and unemployment through the social intervention programmes. To be honest, Buhari’smanifesto simply lacks intellectual depth or “the vision thing”. But not so Atiku’s plan. His economic visionis truly radical, underpinned by extensive programme of deregulation and liberalisation. Equally radical are his proposed political reforms and anti-corruption strategy.
Take political reforms. Along standing advocate of political restructuring, Atiku recalls in his manifesto that: “At independence, the various regions were growing at their own pace with the political and economic strategies that suited their individual peculiarities”. But now, he says, “the centre has a pervasive and over-bearing presence and influence on the other tiers of government”, adding that “Nigerian states have been reduced to parastatals of the federal government”. So, what would he do if elected? Well, he would, among other things, “decongest the exclusive and concurrent list in the Constitution”, to devolve powers, responsibilities and resources to Nigeria’s sub-units.
What about Atiku’s anti-corruption strategy? Well, this is far-reaching too. He outlines an elaborate set of “immediate actions”that he would take, if elected. For instance, Atiku promises that, within his administration’s “first 100 days in office”, he would: expeditiously pass critical legislation “relating to whistle-blowing, cybercrime, witness protection, electronic evidence, and asset forfeiture”; set up Major Corruption Case Monitoring and Review Committee that would include “NGOs, civil society organisations and media as observers”; and review and expedite action on the passage of all existing and pending new laws or amendments to all anti-corruption laws currently in the National Assembly. Theseare in addition to medium-term commitments on detection of corruption, sanctioning corrupt practices, institutional strengthening and reward system.
Which brings me back to my questions. If everyone wants an issue-based campaign, why is the ongoing presidential campaign not about issues? Why are Atiku’s elaborate programmes of economic, political and governance reforms not being discussed and scrutinised? Why are comparisons not being made between Atiku’s and Buhari’s campaign promises? And why does Atiku seem to be struggling in this campaign, lacking momentum, despite the intellectual depth and radical nature of his plans?
Last week, one of Buhari’s strong supporters mockingly asked Atiku to throw in the towel now as his campaign was going nowhere. Another tweeted that “Right now @atiku and his running mate @PeterObi are more of a liability 43 days to Presidential election in Nigeria”. But how could a challenger who promises to transform Nigeria politically, economically and institutionally be more of a liability than an incumbent who is focusing his campaign on narrow issues of corruption, security and the economy, in spite of his poor recordon these issues?
Well, there are several reasons why Atiku appears to be struggling. The first is that next month’s presidential election will not be about issues. It’s about who has and can inspire a passionately enthusiastic base. Unfortunately, Atiku doesn’t have the fanatical followings that Buhari, a cult figure, has. Despite the fact that youth unemployment rose from 3m in 2015 to 13m in 2018 (a 263% increase over 3½ years) under Buhari, most of the poor still prefer him to Atiku. They see Atiku, a multibillionaire (allegedly), as part of the problem, and Buhari, a “sandal-wearing ascetic”, as the solution.
In this regard, the 2016 US presidential election holds many lessons for the Nigerian election. Donald Trump, who could wow a strong base, the poor working-class White, most of who could literally die for him, beat Hillary Clinton, who, despite having positive ideas and vision, inspired little passion or enthusiasm among her middle-class and college-educated supporters. Truth is, Atiku’s support base is threadbare, compared with the rural and urban poor who, as someone puts it, “would die for Buhari before they knew why”!
Another reason is the integrity or character factor, and here, again, we can learn from America. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump ceaselessly attacked the integrity of Hillary Clinton, repeatedly calling her “Crooked Hillary”. That fired up Trump’s base, who truly believed Clinton was a “criminal”, but also dampened the enthusiasm of Clinton supporters. Scholars have shown that an incumbent with a poor record can divert voters’ attention and shape the debate in a more advantageous way. To be sure, the APC cannot win on its record, on corruption, security and the economy. But it is relentlessly playing the integrity card, painting Atiku and the PDP as corrupt. That, of course, is what Buhari’s supporters believe and want to hear, and it is energising them. By contrast, Atiku lacks passionate supporters who believe enough in him to counterbalance Buhari’s fanatical supporters.
The truth is that the perception issue is working, or might work, against Atiku in this election. AzuIshiekwene, a Vanguard columnist, wrote last week in the paper that “the indescribable fear of who the real Atiku in power could be – that unknowable quality – makes it a bit easier to forgive Buhari’s shortcomings”. He is right. Atiku, as I wrote recently,“carries a baggage of negative perceptions and is running under a party that still has a serious image problem, a legacy of PDP’s 16 years in power”. And, of course, the APC, despite having its own serious integrity or character issues, with allegations of corruption swirling around the party and the Buhari government, is successfully defining the debate about the issue to its advantage.
Now, another reason for Atiku’s seeming lack of momentum is his lukewarm support in the North. The truth is that Atiku can’t win the election unless he can beat Buhari in the North. Yet, he doesn’t seem to have enthused the North with his radical proposals. For instance, unlike the South, the North is not enthusiastic about political restructuring, some are even hostile to it. Cleverly, if also opportunistically, Buhari has positioned himself as anti-restructuring to appeal to those parts of the North that are hostile to the issue. Of course, Buhari has also warmed himself to the hearts of most of the poor in the North the way that Atiku hasn’t. What’s more, over the past 3½ years, Buhari has cynically, with elections in mind, courted the Fulani herdsmen by refusing to condemn their rampaging and killing of farmers in the Middle Belt and elsewhere in Nigeria. The recent endorsement of Buhari for re-election by Miyetti Allah, the herders’ association, was clearly a reward for his sympathy towards their cause. But, sadly, it bears a similarity tothe endorsement of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election by the racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK)!
The US example brings us to another reason why Atiku appears to be struggling in this campaign: lack of party unity. Following the bitter presidential primaries between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which Sanders’ supporters believed Clinton won with some skulduggery, there was schism in the Democratic Party. Sanders’ supporters refused to campaign wholeheartedly for Clinton and some even probably didn’t vote for her. Some believe that had Clinton made Sanders her running mate, just as Barrack Obama did with Joe Biden, a fellow primaries contestant, she might have won the election.
That example has some salience in Atiku’s case. Although he won the PDP’s presidential primaries overwhelmingly, there are many in the party, including influential state governors, who are not enthusiastically supporting him. A recent report in Premier Times in which a PDP governor said Atiku might lose if “he fails to address the concerns of party leaders over a plethora of issues”, including his controversial choice of Peter Obi as his running mate, is enough to dampen enthusiasm of PDP supporters. Atiku certainly can’t gain momentum, let alone win the election, if his party is not solidly behind him.
Then, finally, there are doubts about the credibility of Atiku’s manifesto commitments. Few believe he can deliver on his radical manifesto promises. Atiku certainly needs a landslide victory to be able to push through his proposed political, economic and institutional reforms, including large-scale privatisation and political restructuring. Without a landslide, which is near-impossible, or a unity government, which is desirable but unlikely, Atiku’s promises are seen as pies in the sky.
So, yes, Atiku has the vision; he also, apparently, has the competence. But he is dogged by several factors undermining his campaign, some created by his desperate opponents, the APC, others by his own party, and yet others by his own controversial personality. But can he turn all these around? Well, we have to wait and see!