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The monumental blunder that cost Nigeria’s opposition the election

The monumental blunder that cost Nigeria’s opposition the election
All Progressives Congress (APC)'s presidential candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu (C), now president-elect, accompanied by his wife, Oluremi Tinubu, makes his way through the crowd after casting his vote at a polling station during the general elections, in the Ikeja district of Lagos, Nigeria, on 25 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Akintunde Akinleye)

Bola Ahmed Tinubu eked out a victory to be declared Nigeria’ president-elect on Wednesday but the opposition parties committed a strategic blunder by splitting their forces and allowing the ruling All Progressives Congress to reclaim the Presidency in Nigeria. They will live long to regret it.

An election marred by allegations of irregularities still had one clear message: the country was hungry for change. Eight years of stagnation under president Muhammadu Buhari had brought economic misery and insecurity to many communities and individuals.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and economically important country, was there for the taking for the opposition to the APC, whose vote shrank by more than a third. The ruling party lost Katsina, Buhari’s home state; Abuja, the political capital; and Lagos, the home turf of the president-elect Bola Tinubu.

Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi would have won in a landslide, had they stayed in their alliance of four years ago when they shared the ticket of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

This time, Obi chose to run as a third-party candidate for the previously moribund Labour Party — despite the fact that there were no major ideological differences between him and Atiku, who was once again the standard bearer of the PDP.

A charismatic campaigner whose devoted followers call themselves Obidients, Obi won much praise and acclaim from the international media. But he also cost the opposition the election by slicing off the PDP’s support base in the South. As an Igbo Christian from the Southeast, Obi was never going to gain traction in the Muslim north — and indeed he fared dismally everywhere in the north.

As the most prominent northerner and ethnic Fulani in the race, Abubakar made up a lot of ground in the north. But the APC, which had most of the governorships in the region, maintained an extensive organisational structure and had two Muslims at the top of the ticket, remained competitive throughout the north.

Nigeria elections

Electoral officers collate election results at the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) office in Lagos, Nigeria, on 27 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Akintunde Akinleye)

All of this was not that hard to predict. Tinubu, who honed his skill with numbers at the knee of his mother Abibatu Mogaji, the leader of the Lagos Market Women’s Association, and went on to study accountancy at Chicago State University, well understood the mysteries of demographic arithmetic that determine Nigeria’s elections.

The only way that dividing the opposition made strategic sense was if they were preparing to contest a run-off. In this scenario, whichever of the two main opposition candidates got the most votes would face off against Tinubu in a second round and carry their combined votes.

Tinubu was able to win nationally not only because the four-way split among the main contenders allowed him to win with less than half the vote, but because he maintained enough of a national spread to meet the required minimum of 25 % in two-thirds of the states.

Electoral dysfunction

When it became clear by Monday that Tinubu was likely to prevail in the first round, opposition officials stormed out of the collation centre in Abuja, alleging widespread irregularities. They have since demanded that the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec), Professor Mahmood Yakubu, step down and that fresh elections be conducted.

This echoed the call from former president General Olusegun Obasanjo, a supporter of Obi, who made a direct appeal to Buhari to call the election off, accusing politicians of rigging the outcome.

Tinubu accused Obasanjo of “recklessly seeking to endanger and derail our democratic process for utterly selfish, egoistic and malicious reasons”.

Buhari refused to cancel the election and blamed the opposition parties for inflaming an already tense situation.

There is no doubt that there were flaws in the election and these were pointed out by the international observer missions.

Nigeria elections

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during the general elections, in the Ikeja district of Lagos, Nigeria, 25 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Akintunde Akinleye)

There were late starts at the polls, wrong materials were delivered, there were long lines with some people only able to vote a day late and some not at all. The head of the EU Observer Mission, Barry Andrews, found the entire process lacked transparency and showed inefficient planning.

There were isolated instances of thuggery at polling booths by youths and claims of vote buying — though none of this is exactly new in a Nigerian election.

The most serious claim was that there were problems with the high-tech Bimodal voting system designed to automatically upload results to a viewing portal. This malfunctioned at some places where results were uploaded by hand, leading to charges of rigging. But this was just as likely due to the general ineptitude that has marked much of Buhari’s administration as a conspiracy to rig the election.

Matthew Page, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa programme, described Nigeria’s electoral dysfunction as a long-standing problem of planning, logistical and technical failures.

In fact, some of the worst elections were held under none other than Obasanjo.

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A lot of fake news reports and memes sprang up on social media alleging a conspiracy to electronically tamper with the vote, not dissimilar to the claims put out by supporters of Donald Trump in the wake of his defeat by Joe Biden in 2020.

Certainly, if the APC were clever enough to pull off a vote-switching operation, they surprisingly denied themselves victory in Katsina, Lagos, Osun, Edo, much of the Northwest and Kano, and rewarded Obi with more than 90% of the vote in the Southeast.

The reality is that aside from the politicised youth and empowered middle class in metropolitan areas like Abuja and Lagos, who turned sharply against the APC, the outcome was not far from what one would expect in a nation that still votes largely along ethnic, religious and regional lines.

Thabo Mbeki, who chaired the Commonwealth Observer Group, summed up the situation tersely:  

“Nigerians were largely accorded the right to vote.”

There will be court battles and political noise for some time to come. But the one inescapable fact is that there were more than enough votes for the opposition to prevail if they had not gone their separate ways.

Accepting defeat is going to be bitter for those who were intoxicated by Obi’s campaign, swept along by its extraordinary social media outreach and who believed opinion polls, including by publications like Bloomberg, that made it seem as though he was headed for a historic triumph.

The Asiwaju prevails

Many people who underestimated Tinubu, the Asiwaju of Lagos, are now aghast that he could have pulled this off.

Tinubu was not the most dynamic candidate, especially when compared to Obi who was out on the campaign trail exuding the charm and charisma of a John F Kennedy. He was cast as a backroom wheeler-dealer, the Godfather of Lagos, and faced questions about his vast wealth, his health and rumours of malfeasance put out by his opponents.

But Tinubu is nothing if not shrewd. This was shown in how he handled his testy relationship with the president. To become APC candidate, Tinubu first had to run around Buhari who opposed him in the primaries and then be the standard bearer for a ruling party that had demonstrably failed the country, even while being sabotaged by those in Buhari’s inner circle.

The case that Tinubu made was based on his competent leadership of Lagos, where he was Governor between 1999 and 2007. Under him, Lagos state and the broader Yoruba-speaking Southwest became what he termed the “engine of prosperity in Nigeria”.

Nigeria elections

Ballot boxes on a bench at a polling station during the general elections, in the Ikeja district of Lagos, Nigeria, on 25 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Akintunde Akinleye)

Lagos and the corridor that runs up to Ibadan — the most densely populated urban conurbation in Africa — has been one of the continent’s largest nodes of economic growth. This will form the basis of his call for renewed hope in Nigeria.

Tinubu groomed a younger generation of technocratic protégés, who continued to run and manage Lagos even after he left office.

He brushed aside his disappointment at his defeat in Lagos — even as he became the first citizen of the country’s commercial capital to be elected president of Nigeria — though this was in itself a vindication of the democratic culture in the state.

His job of bringing the country together has been complicated by anger over the election, especially in the Southeast, Obi’s home region, which was shunned and completely shut out by Buhari.  The president devastated the traders who constitute the lifeblood of the region.

The absolute disdain felt towards the ruling party was reflected in the results in a state like Ondo where the APC got less than 1% of the vote.

The election loss will only enhance the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement here in the core of former Biafra, and present the incoming president with yet one more massive challenge that he can thank Buhari for. DM

 Van Niekerk is editor of the weekly Daily Maverick newsletter, Africa, Unscrambled


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    This is why, recognizing they are not perfect, every single thinking citizen in SA should be voting DA. Forget the smaller parties – don’t whatever you do split the opposition vote.

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