Thursday, January 10, 2019 09:27 AM / The Verdit By Olusegun Adeniyi of Thisday, Twitter @Olusegunverdict or Email: email@example.com
Incumbent presidential elections are usually framed as a referendum on stewardship. But where the opposition is either weak or running a less than coordinated campaign, power holders have been known to turn the narrative into one of choice. The electorate is then presented with this kind of proposition: ‘You may not like me, but can you trust my opponent?’ With little over a month to the presidential election, that exactly is what we are faced with in our country today.
Aside Tolu Ogunlesi who has been using his Twitter handle to showcase what the current administration has done in the area of infrastructure and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who is hopping from one market to another and visiting families and communities, the campaign of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is essentially targeted at the person of the former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and what they believe to be his character weaknesses. With the inability of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to launch a serious counter-offensive beyond releasing a series of audio tapes, the APC strategy to present the main opposition candidate as unworthy seems to be working. It is therefore no surprise that President Muhammadu Buhari is playing the same game, except where his party operatives attack Atiku, he focuses his darts at the PDP. That much was evident during his interview with THISDAY last Sunday.
Although ARISE Television was initially billed to be part of the session, the Villa had by Sunday afternoon restricted it only to THISDAY with a proviso that NTA would record proceedings and hand us the tape afterwards. I was not part of the negotiation between THISDAY Managing Director, Mr Eniola Bello and the Special Adviser on Media to the President, Mr Femi Adesina. With my own experience of that delicate terrain, I have nothing but tremendous respect for Adesina and his colleague, Mallam Garba Shehu for giving us the raw video tape which is the exact copy of our own audio recording.
I leave the judgement of the content to viewers, but there are a few issues that should be considered.
One, whatever the merit of the president’s position on the minimum wage controversy, the view canvassed in his engagement with us cannot be helpful to ongoing negotiations with Labour.
Two, appointing as Nigerian ambassador to the United States a man who was considered unfit by the Senate—due to poor health and advanced age—just because he once gave a judgement in his favour is a clear abuse of power.
Three, finding a ready excuse to every national problem in the “16 years of PDP” is not only hollow, it betrays a lack of ideas. These, aside the insecurity challenge, growing poverty in the land and whether or not the president has a grasp of issues, are what you might expect the main opposition to focus on. But all we get are audio tapes.
However, the president may be carrying his luck too far by outsourcing his campaign to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, a throwback to 2015 when the APC propaganda machine was running at full throttle, though not in this brazen manner. At that period, Buhari allowed so many of the top party members to make all manner of promises before the story changed the moment he got to power. For those who may have forgotten, on 29th August 2015, Garba Shehu issued a statement to distance the president from two popular pre-election documents containing promises as to what he would achieve in his first 100 days in office. He claimed they emanated from the party’s “many centres of public communication which, for whatever reason, were on the loose.”
As a consequence of these publications, all of which bore the party logo but were declared not ‘authorised’ once the election was over, expectations were “raised unreasonably that, as president, Muhammadu Buhari will wave his hand and all the problems that the country faces — insecurity, corruption, unemployment, poor infrastructure would go away” said Garba Shehu who then added rather sensationally: “He (Buhari) didn’t put a Kobo to finance the power sector. Yet, reading his body language alone and knowing that there are things you cannot do and get away with under Buhari, electricity supply all over the country has risen to unprecedented heights. In this period of three months, government certainly deserves a pat on the back for improved power, reform in the energy sector, foreign relations, fight against corruption and insurgency and the fact of Nigerians being at peace, not only among themselves, but with their neighbours and the rest of the world.”
The jury is now out on those initial ‘accomplishments’ that were based on body language but we cannot forget that Garba Shehu concluded his treatise by promising that President Buhari “will turn out to be a leader in the tradition of Lee Kuan Yew and India’s current reform-minded Prime Minister Modi with strong and clear emphasis on detail and execution. He may, however, differ with them by not micro-managing things.”
While I subscribe to the view that micro-managing is bad for a president, outsourcing responsibility is far worse and that is perhaps the most egregious charge against President Buhari, even by his wife. Ceding his campaign to Tinubu falls into the same pattern. Unfortunately, Atiku is neither offering anything different nor challenging what is going on beyond some occasional tepid statements from his campaign office. And no matter how damaging the contents of audio tapes may be, those are not things that sway Nigerian voters one way or another. The sooner PDP strategists realise that and get serious, the better.
That I have never been as unexcited about a presidential election in Nigeria as I am about the coming one is both sad and ironic considering that under the current dispensation which started in 1999, we have also never had as many interesting candidates as we have today. But I understand the Nigerian political terrain enough to know that the February election is principally between Buhari and Atiku. This much was confirmed in the latest report by the Eurasia Group, regarded globally as number one in the field of political risk assessment. ‘Top Risks for 2019’ highlights how “risks created by bad actors inflicting damage” could engender an unprecedented escalatory cycle this year in many countries but of greater interest is the analysis of the coming presidential election in Nigeria which it also describes as a straight contest between Buhari and Atiku.
A second term for the incumbent president, according to the report, “would mean the country at best muddles through the next four years, with little progress on critical policy priorities like tax reform or a restructuring of the energy sector”; stating further that a re-elected “Buhari would be a lame duck from day one, with powerbrokers in his own party quickly shifting their focus to the next electoral cycle in 2023.” On the other hand, while an Atiku victory could “create a brief, superficial boost to the country’s image”, according to the report, the former vice president is also not likely to undertake “the difficult and politically unpopular tasks necessary for reform” and may in fact return the nation to the path of “an even more rent-seeking governing style.”
Both prospects offer no comfort at a period our nation is confronted by pressing issues that this election should be about.
How do we resolve, once and for all, the problem of funding our public universities and restore a measure of sanity to our education sector? Does it make sense to continue to budget hundreds of billions of Naira every year to subsidize a consumption item with all the corruption associated with it? Is the current political structure which devotes substantial resources to servicing a largely unproductive public service sustainable? How do we revamp the security architecture in such a manner as to successfully tackle the insurgency in the North-east and restore law and order across other parts of the country? How do we get millions of our children that are out of school enrolled by providing the necessary incentives?
These are some of the issues you expect would be engaged in a campaign season but the only candidates offering any sensible ideas are those who do not have credible structures to support their aspirations and may have unwittingly already been schemed out of reckoning by the unwritten ethno-religious cum geo-political consensus that defines Nigerian elections.
Meanwhile, I am disappointed in the PDP that has refused to learn from its own experience. Having spent the 2010/2011 academic session researching incumbent presidential elections across the world, my finding (https://scholarsprogram.wcfia.harvard.edu/publications/divided-opposition-boon-african-incumbents) is that the odds are usually against the opposition, including in the United States where the rules of engagement dictate a more level-playing field. History, according to Ross Baker in a piece titled “Beware of the incumbent advantage”, published in USA Today, “demonstrates that it is a dauntingly difficult job to unseat an incumbent president who is seeking a second term. Indeed, the number of presidents who have won a second term is almost twice the number of those who have failed to gain the favour of voters a second time.”
Throughout the 19th century in the United States, as I once explained on this page, only five incumbents failed to secure second term in office. John Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in 1800; John Quincy Adams lost to Andrew Jackson in 1828 while Martin Van Buren was ousted by William Henry Harrison in 1840. Incidentally, Grover Cleveland who lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 went on to defeat his successor four years later in 1892. Being the only man elected twice with another president in-between, Cleveland was 22nd and 24th presidents and this accounts for why Mr Donald Trump is the 44th American to be president yet officially recognised as the 45th president.
In the 20th century, there were only four incumbents who failed in their bids for second term: William Taft was defeated by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 while Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter himself was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the second term aspiration of George H.W. Bush was derailed in 1992 by Bill Clinton. There were of course incumbent presidents who failed to secure their parties’ nomination for a second term. They included John Tyler (1844); Millard Fillmore (1852); Franklin Pierce (1856); James Buchanan (1860); Andrew Johnson (1868) and Chester Alan Arthur (1884). Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were among the six presidents who did not seek second term.
While the Nigerian and the American political circumstances are markedly different, the odds are even more daunting for the opposition in our country where the incumbent is usually more powerful, controls all the resources, has the heads of security agencies at his beck and call and is not bound by strict rules to which his opponents are subjected. Therefore, whatever may be the failings of Buhari in the past four years, both the PDP and Atiku have to do more in the coming days and weeks. Otherwise, they are setting themselves up for a big disappointment at the polls.