By Rotimi Fasan
AS I write this about 2pm on the 28th day of March 2015, millions of Nigerians across the country have been out for several hours participating in the process of electing political office holders in an election that has been described by many as perhaps the most keenly contested in the years since Nigeria attained independence.
Although the election is as well for members of the National Assembly as it is for the presidency but it has been read mainly as a presidential contest involving the candidates of the two leading parties in the country, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), with their respective flag bearers, Muhammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan.
Up until the beginning of this year, the election was expected to be a no-contest between the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari who had run for the office of president on three previous occasions without success. He had not been expected to make any real impression beyond his stronghold in the north.
The PDP did not appear to be losing any sleep over the candidature of Mohammadu Buhari. Indeed, the party had clearly hoped to campaign on no greater issue than the apparent political baggage that had held Buhari down and made him unattractive beyond the north on his previous attempts at the presidency.
This was the general perception, based on very solid grounds, that he was an arch hegemonist bent on ensuring the dominance of the Islamic north in Nigerian politics. Buhari was notorious for his advocacy of sharia and advice to the northern electorate to vote for nobody that is not a muslim. His name had ever since been anathema in political circles outside the north. The steep rise in the activities of the terrorists in the north which culminated with the abduction of hundreds of school girls in Chibok about a year ago compounded his case with the Nigerian electorate outside the north.
It was with this heavy baggage that he went into the primaries that eventually produced him as the candidate of the APC. Even this, his emergence as his party candidate, did nothing to change his political fortune.
The PDP was still expected to trounce him without breaking a sweat. This was still the case until the dramatic events that sidelined Bola Tinubu as a potential vice presidential running mate to Buhari, and the subsequent enlistment of Yemi Osinbajo into the race. At this point, Tinubu brought into play his political machinery that bestrides a huge part of the South-west. The race to Aso Rock that was supposed to be a mere walkover for the PDP was never to be the same thereafter.
The party suddenly realised that it had a problem on its hand. It suddenly saw that its famed dominance of the Nigerian political landscape was in fact limited to the south, and at that to the south-south and the south-east in the main. While these are important strongholds, they are quite limited in terms of their electoral value for a potential president. To win the race convincingly, the PDP would have to extend its spread in the South-west. Same logic applied to the APC. Thus, the transformation of the south-west into the ‘beautiful bride’ of both leading parties and the battle ground for the 2015 campaigns.
The PDP relocated its campaign office to the south-west and Goodluck Jonathan became an honorary Yoruba man, as he traversed the nook and crannies of every hamlet in search of votes. What was supposed to be a walkover has suddenly changed into a nail-biting, edge-of-the-chair campaign that took on the taste of gall. It was a bitterly fought campaign, mostly on the part of the PDP that stood to lose the most.
Ever since political campaigns entered the ‘digital’ age in 1993 with the serious mobilisation of the mass media, the 2015 election is no doubt the election for which the leading parties relied the most on technology to drive their campaign. It is not by any stretch of the imagination the most intellectually rigorous or the best planned campaign in terms of strategy and tactics (on these scores it failed royally), but it was the most technologically-driven with millions of cyber warriors and ethnic champions engaging one another in mostly crude name-calling and trading of insults.
The campaign ante was raised precipitously by the PDP which succeeded in securing an extension of the electoral date ostensibly to allow for wider distribution of electoral materials by the Independent National Electoral Commission.
This extension gave it room to rejig and energise its campaign that had practically lost steam. With a huge war chest of slush funds to spend lavishly, the PDP was able to come back into reckoning. Otherwise, there is little doubt that it would have lost the election by a wide margin had it gone ahead as originally planned on 14 February 2015. To what extent the extension it got was able to help it would only be known after all votes have been counted.
But what cannot be in doubt is the fact that the 2015 election was the most keenly contested since 1999 when Nigeria returned to civil rule. Going by historical precedent, the PDP had been expected to win easily. That it was not doing so going by projections before the election- that it was suddenly gasping for oxygen only weeks to the election got it thinking fast.
The result was the shift in the date of the election. And to be on an even keel with the APC it brought all it could muster by way of what money could do into its campaign- from a more robust technologically-driven campaign, to open bribery and intimidation of opponents, the PDP was ready to give the election what it took. The APC on the other hand, despite waning energy due to both financial and physical fatigue, was not about giving up its lead.
It rose heroically to the challenge. These were crucial factors in the keenness of the contest. What the PDP lacked in strategy it could easily make up for with free money that it wantonly deployed to weaken the resolve of the electorate. But its level of success or failure, I maintain, can only be fully measured after the hurly-burly of the election is over.
The important thing is that after this election the Nigerian new breed politicians would, hopefully, have leant one basic lesson of party politics- that it is sustained by a proper mobilisation of the electorate through active marketing of each party’s programme called political campaign, not empty slogans and vile abuses. An active electorate cannot be taking for granted; it must be courted and embraced with party manifestoes and programmes that speak to their needs.