October 19, 2022

Issue-based campaigns? Not with Nigeria’s deep-rooted ethno-religious politics

Bola Tinubu

By Olu Fasan

EVERY Nigerian wants issue- based politics. Newspapers editorialise, and publish columns and other opinion pieces, on the subject, calling for issue-based campaigns ahead of the 2023 elections. The intelligentsia and commentariats are fixated and gung-ho on the matter.

One prominent journalist on Arise TV can’t hide his irritation whenever discussions veer onto the behaviour and personality of presidential candidates. “Let’s focus on the issues,” he frequently bemoans, as if questions about the integrity and personal propriety of politicians are not “issues”. Of course, they are! 

But by “issue-based” campaigns, most people mean that the presidential candidates should show deep knowledge and understanding of the governance challenges that beset Nigeria and clearly set out and discuss how they would tackle them, if elected. The challenges are existential in nature: comatose economy, debilitating insecurity, extreme poverty, moribund institutions, failed public services, endemic corruption, fragile unity!

Elsewhere, in more civilised or sophisticated democracies, this is hardly a problem. In those climes, political parties and candidates, sensitive and responsive to voters, set great store on investigating the issues facing their countries and proffering solutions in their manifestos.

In a participatory democracy, these enunciation of issues and offering of solutions are the basis of election campaigns and the underpinnings of the social contract between the elector and the elected. The consent of the governed, which is the real basis of true democracy, cannot be said to exist without credible and well-canvassed issue-based manifesto offers on which voters can make informed choices. That’s the essence of issue-based campaigns. 

So, why are election campaigns in Nigeria largely devoid of issues? Well, the answer is simple. Nigeria lacks the sophistication for issue-based campaigns. The first point is that issue-based campaigns can’t exist in a society that lacks the capacity to thoroughly scrutinise promises that parties and candidates make during electioneering.

Take the UK. Once the major political parties publish their election manifestos, the highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies, IFS, will analyse and cost the manifesto promises, and show their strengths and weaknesses. The media would then give the findings maximum coverage and use them to interrogate the parties and their candidates, thereby enabling the voters to make informed decisions. 

By contrast, in Nigeria, if a presidential candidate says he “will build a castle in the sky”, the media will simply parrot him without asking: How much would it cost? How would you fund it? Recently, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress, APC, said that if he became president next year, his administration “will achieve double-digit economic growth”. In 2015, his party promised to make Nigeria “one of the fastest-growing emerging economies, achieving GDP growth averaging 10 per cent annually”. Yet, today, GDP growth is 3.5 per cent. What went wrong? And what would he do differently? 

Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent of credible think-tanks like the IFS to analyse, cost and put the lie to such vacuous promises. And if the media seek to interrogate Tinubu, he will dispatch his proxies to newspaper and television houses; they will dissemble and lie through their teeth, with hardly any TV journalist in Nigeria able to pin down such slippery sophists. So, what’s the value of issue-based campaigns if politicians can say anything and get away with it? Truth is, without thorough expert, media and public scrutiny of campaign promises or claims, “issue-based campaigns” are utterly meaningless. 

But the second, certainly more powerful, force against issue-based campaigns in Nigeria is the people themselves. Nigerians say they want issue-based campaigns, but they rarely vote on issues. Elections in this country are rarely determined by issues, but by ethnic, religious and sectional sentiments, coupled with personality and money politics. Why would politicians focus on issues when most of the voters would vote on ethnic or religious basis?

Last week, Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, was widely pilloried for playing the ethnic card. At a meeting with the Northern Elders Forum, Atiku said: “The average Northerner does not need a Yoruba or an Igbo. This is what a Northerner needs: I stand before you as a pan-Nigerian of Northern origin.”

This is ironic. Hardly anyone is more pan-Nigerian than Atiku. Some of his children are either half-Yoruba or half-Igbo. Also, hardly any politician is more at home with discussing policies than Atiku. His manifesto for the 2019 presidential election was 186-page long. His “policy document” for next year’s presidential poll is equally dense.  So, unless the so-called “Atiku-lated” lacks articulation, why would he play such a blatant ethnic card?

Truth is, Atiku genuinely believes that, with President Muhammadu Buhari not running again in 2023, he could harvest the North’s votes, as the most prominent Hausa/Fulani on the ballot, and he’s pandering to that ethnic politics. In a recent TV interview, Atiku was asked if he was worried that Tinubu chose Kashim Shettima as his running-mate, given that both he and Shettima are from the North-East. 

Well, Atiku resorted to the ethnic card, saying: “If you know the composition of the North-East, you have Borno and Yobe, these are essentially two Kanuri states. Then, you have the other (four) states, which are essentially Hausa/Fulani states. Even if people are going to vote on that basis, I have a more favourable (position) from the North-East.”  So, when it comes to 2023, Atiku, the pan-Nigerian, the policy aficionado, turns to ethnic politics!

But Tinubu, Atiku’s main rival, plays both ethnic and religious cards. His strategy is to replicate the South-West/North fraternity that gave APC victory in 2015 and 2019. So, for the Yoruba’s vote, he plays tribal politics. Last week, in Ekiti, Tinubu told the people: “Don’t vote Peter Obi or Atiku”, adding: “You don’t know them.” Why? Because they’re not Yoruba! And for the North’s vote, he plays religious politics with a Muslim-Muslim ticket.

So, truth is: Issue-based politics will elude Nigeria as long as elections are determined by ethno-religious sentiments, and politicians get away with making thoughtless campaign promises.