As the Long Campaigns Commence

Postscript by Waziri Adio

In exactly ten days, the political space will become more electrified with the official kick-off of the presidential campaigns. The about four-month break between the primaries and the campaigns has an unusual, limbo-like feel, but it has been anything but boring. Clearly, the candidates and their supporters have been campaigning even if unofficially, doing just enough not to be in breach of the electoral law but devising creative ways of staying in circulation and signaling strength. The dress-rehearsals and shadow-boxings, which have given ample intimations of the temper of the coming campaigns, will soon give way to the real duels for the minds of the voters. This will go on for almost five months, not a mean amount of time.  

It is important to restate upfront that the overall value of having nine months between primaries and the general election is suspect. Yes, there is a compelling reason for giving the electoral management body enough time to organise credible elections. But the need of INEC has to be balanced with the direct and indirect burdens a long electioneering period places on other stakeholders. The human and material resources that the candidates and the parties need for campaigns increase in proportion to the time allotted. Even if unintended, a longer campaign period invariably advantages the deep pockets and those who either have access to state resources or are in a position to dispense patronage. 

Also, a long electioneering period means elected officials will have to devote more time to campaigning for themselves or their anointed, and thus potentially reduces the time they have for governance. The no-campaign period will be successfully gamed by politicians and their supporters because it is difficult and useless policing it. The bandwidth of the electorate is also not infinite. All things considered, a six-month gap between primaries and elections is about right, and hopefully this will be addressed in the next amendment to the electoral law.  

Until an amendment, we should make the best of the novelty of this extended electioneering period. 

If the pre-campaign period is a good guide, the coming campaigns are likely to be the most intense since 1999. For one, the 2023 general election is not likely to be the usual two-way contest that we witnessed in the past six election cycles. Also, the fact that the incumbent is term-barred, which is happening for the second time since 1999, makes the election a potentially more open one. The subtle and pronounced regional, ethnic, religious and generational factors and alliances at play in the coming election have increased the interests of many within and outside the country. These factors and others combine to fire up the candidates, their followers, and the electorate at large, raising the intensity profile of the coming landmark polls. 

We look set for five months of political theatre, with potential twists and turns. There will be smart and ludicrous packaging and messaging. There will also be subtle and savage attacks and counter-attacks, as competing camps project themselves ahead of others and battle for the hearts and minds of the voters and the general populace. There will be plenty of fake news, half-truths, twisted statements, and outright lies. And there will be a multitude of vacuous prescriptions and promises. At the end, we may see a mix of heightened interests and old methods.

The point here is that unless the voters signal that a different way of campaigning and politicking will determine how they will vote, the politicians will not have the incentives to dump their tried-and-tested strategy of merely telling the people what they want to hear or just appealing to their base sentiments and emotions. The heightened intensity and the long electioneering period may not necessarily translate to quality decision-making at the polls. And if that happens, it would amount to much benefit to the society. 

One clear upside of a long campaign period is having enough time to scrutinise the candidates, their ideas and their conducts. But the quality of scrutiny is not just a function of how much time is available. It is much more about how well the voters, the media and others are ready to carry out this important responsibility. An average politician will want the spotlight only on their opponents, not on themselves. They and their supporters will play a lot of optical and mind games. Politicians cannot be stopped from doing what politicians do. It is left for the voters, the media and others to do their bit, and do it well. 

In trying to project themselves as the desirable ones, politicians go to great length to de-market their opponents. They coin funny names for the other candidates, expose their pasts, challenge their records, ridicule their ideas. While some may be squeamish about it, negative campaign is not illegal or immoral if the materials used are based on facts. We can’t legislate a mode of campaigning for politicians. The demand should be that they keep the engagements civil, given how verbal exchanges can easily spill into physical showdowns, especially among supporters in a tense and fractious environment such as ours. 

But lying to gain an advantage should be a no-no. However, if politicians and their supporters incur no cost from vending outright lies, why would they stop? Beyond asking politicians and their supporters to keep it clean, we need to start aggressively fact-checking claims and counter-claims, including scouring beneath-the-surface platforms like WhatsApp where false and dangerous messages can be easily circulated to devastating and dangerous effects. 

Campaigns are necessarily about promises. Candidates usually reel out what they plan to do if elected. In most instances, the candidates speak either in general terms like ‘if elected, I will create jobs,’ or they merely state what everyone knows such as ‘inflation at 20.52% is too high’. Some of the candidates produce glossy manifestos or policy documents bursting at the seams with promises that are mostly pies in the sky. Many do not even bother to produce any manifesto, content with just mouthing soundbites and slogans. 

Whether or not they have manifestoes/policy documents, candidates should be taken to serious task on what they plan to do in office. And this is not just during the usual two-hour debates that some of them still manage to dodge or through rallies where all they do is sing and dance and fire up their supporters. The voters, the media and civil society should have structured and non-antagonistic ways of scrutinising the plethora of promises from candidates. If someone promises to tackle insecurity, it will be necessary to see their specific plans, how much the plans will cost, where the funding will come from, the implementation timelines etc.

This level of scrutiny will reveal how seriously the candidates have taken themselves, the assignment they seek and the electorate. It will also show how reasonable and realistic such plans are. Most candidates got elected in the past merely on the basis of being more liked than their opponents or by simply being good at running commentary on the state of affairs or merely on the strength of sticky slogans. If we had such a luxury in the past, we don’t have that now.

As we approach 2023, it is worth reminding ourselves that Nigeria is at delicate and desperate pass. Insecurity is more widespread, even after due acknowledgement of the recent advances by our gallant security forces. Our public finance is a shambles, hobbled by low revenue, high debt, and soaring deficit and subsidies. The rates for inflation, unemployment, and poverty keep rising. Despite record-high oil prices, there is little accretion to our foreign reserves due to precipitous fall in oil production and increasing subsidies on imported petrol. These are just some of the challenges today. 

We need to hold presidential candidates to a higher standard than in the past based on the enormity of the tasks at hand. So, as they get into the campaign groove, we should enjoy the colour, the drama and the entertainment, then ask for much more. It is important to ask them specific questions and go through their plans with fine combs. Yes, we need to know their antecedents and examine their records and fit for office. But we also need to weigh their plans against current realities.

As this extended electioneering enters a critical phase, we need to move beyond the usual poetry of campaigns. We need serious interrogations of the promised prose of governance.

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