Tricky choice of running mate



In the early days of the Second Republic when the presidential system of government was new to Nigeria, there was some confusion as to the meaning of running mate. One newspaper published a cartoon alleging that a state governor was asked about his running mate. He apparently thoughtthat his running mate was the rival party candidate that he ran against, because he boasted that he left him far behind in the polls!

A running mate is the person who runs WITH you on the same party ticket, without which your nomination is not valid. I hope the English is correct. I say so because there was a story I read many years ago about Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who was believed to have four times the vocabulary of an average English speaker.  While World War Two was raging, Churchill received an intelligence report that said “our troops are fighting with the Germans in a small village in Italy.” Churchill took his pen, crossed out WITH, and added a note saying, “We fight either FOR or AGAINST the Germans, but not WITH them.”

INEC said on Friday that all presidential candidates must conclude the choice of their running mates and upload to its portal by June 17.When the extended nomination window closed on Friday, 16 of the 18 registered parties had nominated their presidential candidates. [One party exceeded expectations by nominating two presidential candidates]. Remember, in most countries, you become a “candidate” as soon as you start running for office. It is only in Nigeria that the then National Electoral Commission [NEC] Chairman Prof Humphrey Nwosu forced us to make a distinction between an “aspirant” and a “candidate.” Nigerian politicians and the media have been making that unnecessary distinction for 32 years now.

Once you become a presidential or, for that matter, a governorship candidate in Nigeria, the first task before you is to visit the houses of your defeated party rivals and plead with them to support you. We have already seen PDP’s Atiku Abubakar and APC’s Bola Tinubu doing the rounds. I didn’t see pictures of small party candidates doing similar rounds because most of them were unopposed in their primaries.

Once you finish the fence-mending rounds, you come to your first big challenge, which is to nominate a running mate. In many cases, a victorious candidate would have promised that position to one of his supporters as part of his drive to win the nomination. A candidate could soon find out that he cannot fulfill that promise. Why because, party elders immediately come at you and advice you to nominate a defeated rival as running mate in order to prevent a crack in the party.Chief Abiola discovered soon after winning the SDP nomination in 1993 that he could not fulfill his pre-election pact with General Shehu Yar’adua to make Atiku Abubakar his running mate.

In the US for example, the balancing act is ideological. Both Republican and Democratic parties have members spread across an ideological spectrum, from conservative to moderate to liberal. A liberal Democrat such as John Kennedy balanced his ticket with the more conservative Texas Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1960, while conservative Republican Ronald Reagan balanced his ticket with moderate Republican George Bush Senior in 1980. However, when Democrats nominated the moderate Bill Clinton in 1992, he calculated that his position on the party’s ideological spectrum was so advantageous that he nominated Al Gore, another moderate Democrat, as his running mate. TIME magazine said at the time that rather than balancethe ticket,he intensified it.

In Nigeria, the balancing act is not ideological but regional and religious, with gender and age advocates sniping from the sidelines. The most settled question about a Nigerian presidential ticket is that it must be North/South, in whichever order. Even that, let’s remember, was once honoured in the breach. In 1978, UPN presidential candidate Chief Obafemi Awolowo nominated Chief Phillip Umeadi as his running mate, what today we would have called a South/South ticket. He only corrected it in 1983.

The next, nearly accepted balancing act is the Muslim/Christian, in whichever order. Never mind that adherents of traditional African religion have been totally marginalized.I said “nearly accepted” because it was breached several times by some of this country’s most adored politicians. Both Awolowo and Umeadi were Christians, for example. In 1979 too, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe had Prof. Ishaya Audu of Kaduna as his running mate, another Christian/Christian ticket. Both shining examples do not receive a lot of mention these days perhaps because they did not win the election. In 1979 and again in 1983, NPN’s Shehu Shagari, GNPP’s Waziri Ibrahim and PRP’s Aminu Kano however balanced their tickets regionally and religiously. The 1993 MKO Abiola/Babagana Kingibe “Muslim/Muslim” ticket gets a lot of mention in Nigerian politics because it won the election, which was later annulled.

Regional and religious balancing aside, there are other, unspoken factors in the balancing act of Nigerian political parties. Most of the time, a party nominates its presidential candidate and his running mate only from areas where it has significant following. However qualitative an aspirant is, he stands almost no chance of winning his party’s ticket unless it has demonstrable following in the locality where he comes from. This was why, during the recent major party primaries, candidates from South East had a realistic chance only of winning PDP’s ticket, but not APC’s, because of what President Buhari once called “those who gave you 97% and those who gave you 3%” of their votes. It was fairly clear that if APC zoned its ticket to the South, effectively that meant South West, 5 of whose 6 states are APC controlled. An exception to this rule was Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, who was nominated by PDP despite the party’s lack of strength in his native South West.

Nothing can be done now about the presidential candidates, because they were elected by party conventions. However, since a running mate is chosen essentially by the candidate, regional and religious groups have rushed in to pile up pressure on the candidates to do their bidding. Most strident in this regard are the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, and Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Conference, so-called. The major party candidates, both being Muslims, must nominate running mates from the Christian faith, they said, or else. Former Secretary to the Government of the Federation Babachir Lawal also pitched in with the same argument.

The way things stand, PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar will have no problem meeting this demand. He is already looking South, for that matter to the majority-Christian, PDP-supporting South East and South South for a running mate. He is also very unlikely to look to the South West because PDP is not strong there. Clearly,CAN’s agitation is directed at Tinubu. He is looking North for a running mate, but not automatically a Christian one, because of some hard political calculations.

You see, CAN and SMBLC’s concern is not whether or not Tinubu wins the election, but that he must make a statement by nominating a Christian running mate even if that is not in his best electoral interest. Tinubu’s concern however is to win the election by any legal/political means possible, so his goal and CAN’s are diametrically opposed in this case. He must be looking at the map. Even though, as he infamously boasted at Abeokuta, Yoruba votes enabled President Buhari and APC to finally cross the line in 2015 and 2019, most APC votes came from North West and North East. It was mostly delegates from these regions that got Tinubu elected at the APC convention. To boot, it is only massive support from voters in these Muslim-majority regions that could elect Tinubu as president.Plus, the added risk that Atiku could peel away millions of voters in these regions if Tinubu falters.

Now, the trick is, do you intensify this advantage Clinton-style, or do you make a statement that could imperil it? A question that Tinubu could ask CAN is, if I choose a Christian running mate at your prompting, will you promise me that you will deliver millions of votes to our ticket? I don’t think CAN can do so because, while choice of a running mate has tremendous psychological and media propaganda value, in reality most people vote for the presidential candidate, not running mate. So, while a Muslim/Muslim ticket would attract intense media and Christian community hostility for Tinubu, it may in a perverse way assist his election chances.Especially if, as he privately assured, religion is not a big political factor in Yorubaland.

This is not to say he must try it. There could be a way round the problem. If the people who helped you to win nomination really care for your success in the general election, you can call upon them to make more sacrifices. Such as Chief Obasanjo did in 1999 when, soon after he defeated Dr. Alex Ekwueme for the PDP ticket with the help of Northern leaders, he again asked them to cede the Senate Presidency to South East in order to retain Igbo support for PDP. It is a formula Tinubu can try, with uncertain success.

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