As is typical in Nigeria, the jostling ahead of 2023 elections is overshadowing real governance. That is fine. Also widespread is the belief that the All Progressives Congress (APC) has failed to keep virtually all its promises to the electorate and the country is gradually drifting into a failed state where life is nasty, brutish and short. Motivated by this failure – and just like in 2019 when President Buhari failed spectacularly and still ran for re-election and over 78 presidential candidates lined up to challenge him – all sorts of characters are again posturing as presidential candidates for the 2023 elections.
Of course, we knew how it all went. Besides distracting Nigerians from focusing on the real presidential contenders, these pretenders – no matter how educated and sophisticated they appear – were either fronting for the ruling party or on a foolish ego trip whose sole intention is to get the prefix “former presidential aspirant” permanently affixed to their names.
But these fellows are doing a real damage to the country. They are distracting from the goal of trying to dislodge the APC from power. It is clear from research and studies of elections in developing societies have shown that opposition fragmentation and disunity most times help the incumbent win elections as the fragmented opposition just divide the votes and end up fighting one another rather than fighting together to end the rein of the incumbent.
The opposition in Kenya learnt that lesson the hard way. In the 1992 and 1997 elections, they cumulatively garnered over 60 percent of the votes cast but still lost the election to the incumbent. In 2002, they came together under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) to defeat the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) that had ruled the country since independence in 1963.
Since then, opposition parties have mastered the art of pre-electoral coalition and unity to confront entrenched and often dominant parties. This strategy has successfully changed governments in Senegal, Liberia, Malawi, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, The Gambia and even Nigeria.
Faced with the prospect of a long rule by the governing Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) since the return to democratic rule in 1999 and a weakened and fragmented opposition, the Nigerian opposition parties came together to form the All Progressives Congress (APC) that successfully ended the rein of the PDP that had previously vowed to govern Nigeria for 60 uninterrupted years.
Disoriented by its defeat in 2015, the PDP almost tipped over, leaving the ruling APC as the predominant party in Nigeria. In 2017, as disenchantment with the Buhari regime gained momentum, over 39 political parties came together to form a coalition – Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) – to wrestle power from the APC. They also agreed to present just one presidential candidate. However, by 2018 when they were expected to act as a united front, the coalition went awry and everyone went it alone. We all knew how the 2019 election went.
It appears we have learnt no lesson from the experience of 2019 where, despite Buhari’s deep unpopularity, he still easily won the reelection by a margin of four million votes. The tactics used by the ruling party and president’s strategist was to encourage Buhari’s erstwhile supporters – virtually all in the south – to enter the presidential race and muddy the waters. While Buhari was busy cultivating his voters and was virtually unchallenged in regions where his support is strongest, southern youth and enlightened Nigerians who should also be laser focused on removing him from office, were busy entertaining the pretenders in the name of professionals and debating which of them will be make a better president.
Meanwhile, it was obvious that the candidacy of most of the pretenders were being promoted by paid agents of the Buhari administration on social media since 2017 when it was obvious southern youth and most educated Nigerians were thoroughly disappointed with the abysmal performance of the president and want him out. The strategy was clear: If Buhari cannot have the votes of Southern youth like he did in 2015, the votes should be dispersed across these fringe candidates who stand no chance whatsoever or at best they should be discouraged from voting altogether.
Which brings me to the question of motivation. Certainly these pretender candidates are not naïve. They know they stand no chance whatsoever, have no strategy to build political structures and mobilise citizens; they know their parties exist only on papers and that they are directly working for the success of the incumbent. At a period when INEC gave financial subventions to political parties, I could easily have pointed to financial motives (even though in recent elections, there are credible rumours some of these so-called candidates were actually paid or sponsored to contest). But now, I struggle to make sense of the motivation of this motley crowd, who with one side of the mouth, profess that the APC has failed and does not deserve to continue in government, but with the other, were working directly to enable them win election again.
If we are to discount – and we are not – financial motivations, the only other motivation will be the ego of the average educated Nigerian. Most of these candidates are on an ego trip to be referred to as former presidential aspirants and accrue all the benefits that come with it. They know elections are not conducted and won on social media. They know political structures and brand awareness are indispensable for success in national elections in a diverse country like Nigeria. They know that to successfully contest a national election, one is expected to begin the process of mobilisation and building of grassroots support years prior. But these guys remain ensconced in the cities of Lagos and Abuja and only wake up to contest for the presidency through obscure parties only at the eleventh hour. If educated Nigerians can begin to ask these pretenders very serious questions as they parade themselves on social media and in enlightened circles, they will begin to write them off as soon as they emerge thus saving up discussion and attention space only for serious and credible contestants. Crucially however, only a strong coalition of opposition parties and figures can lead to the defeat of an unpopular incumbent.