2023: Of Polls, Projections and Partisanship

ENGAGEMENTS BY with  Chidi Amuta

Nigerians are a very impatient people. Our hunger for instant outcomes should have made us the nation that invented the microwave oven. But our impatience is directed at other ends. We can at least content ourselves with the many unusual things that we have reinvented and perfected our instincts in, namely, politics and religion.

Politics is the immediate one on the table. Campaigns for the 2023 elections are raging. Three and half major contestants have acquired pre eminence in an unconscious reincarnation of Nigeria’s original ethnic tripod.  Each one of the hopefuls is suffering from the principal disease of politicians, incurable optimism. The elections are still two months away but the presidential contenders  and the public are eager for the results to be announced even before the first ballots are cast. To fill the gap of anxiety, something interim and deceptive has crept in to fill the void of anxiety. It is the rash of Mickey Mouse opinion polls and sometimes wild partisan projections on the outcome of the presidential elections.

Three and half major contestants have emerged, each one of them suffering from the principal disease of politicians, incurable optimism. Since the elections are still two months away while the contestants, especially at the presidential level, are eager for the results to be announced even before the first ballots are cast. While we all wait, something interim has crept in to fill the void. It is the rash of Mickey Mouse opinion polls and sometimes thinly veiled partisan projections on the outcome of the elections.

Opinion polls and informed speculations on the possible outcomes of an imminent election have become an integral part of election seasons in most democracies. As an intellectual undertaking, an opinion poll is an enlightened guess as to the possible outcome of an election. It takes into consideration known factors and variables in the electoral environment. Poll results, if based on accurate scientific variables, can help politicians and the electorate prepare for the inevitable and the imminent.

In the best of traditions, polls are first and foremost scientific tools and ought to be free from intellectual shortcuts and partisan mischief. One a poll is exposed as defective in method and intent, it loses its validity as a tool for forecasting the future. A pollster with a reputation for dodgy partisan poll results lose their affiliation with the realm of science and head in the direction of superstition or partisan jingoism.

The credibility of a polling company or agency is a function of the tested predictive validity of their polls in repeated instances or repeated occasions on a wide variety of events or subjects. Even then, in order to be respectable and reputable, an opinion poll must of necessity contain certain indices that would reassure the public of their objectivity, fairness and thus credibility.

The public needs to know the size of the polling sample; the basis for the determination of the sample size, the representativeness, geographical spread, age distribution and occupational disposition of the polled sample. We need to know the method of polling (questionnaire, phone calls, online questionaires) as well as the margin of error allowed in the final computations. In the absence of these standard verifiable parameters and indices, a published opinion poll opens itself to questions that can be tricky to answer. The credibility of a poll is independent of how lofty and fanciful its promoter’s or author’s name or status may sound.

Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election in particular has been awash with all manner of polls and speculations. It started much earlier but from more respectable quarters. The earliest polls on who is likely to win the forthcoming presidential polls came earlier in the year mostly from foreign media outlets. Powered by global interest in Nigeria and its precarious plight, a number of international media outlets have published sometimes very impressionistic projections on the outcome of our next presidential election.  

I believe it was Bloomberg that popped the first cork with a poll projection that indicated that the newest entrant in Nigeria’s presidential contest, Mr. Peter Obi, was likely to move into Aso Rock come next May. Obi was by then the newest kid on the political block with a novel message and method. The Nigerian media was literally ablaze with a supermarket of opinions on that poll. Both those who agreed with Bloomberg and those who did not took positions based mostly on raw unvarnished emotions and partisanship as well as the many familiar murky computations (ethnicity, religion, economic interest etc) that condition the political reflexes of most Nigerians.

Other polls and media based projections have since followed in quick succession. In October, a Fitch Solutions and Country Risk Research Report poll indicated that Mr. Bola Tinubu, flagbearer of the All Progressive Congress(APC) would win the Nigerian presidency if the elections were to hold then. Similarly, the influential Economist Intelligence Unit in its 2022 Annual Country Report on Nigeria predicted a Tinubu victory. This particular prediction indicated that Mr. Tinubu’s controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket would be inconsequential in determining his victory in the election.

In similar vein, last September, a hitherto unknown group We2Geda Foundation reportedly conducted a poll among registered voters and predicted that Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party would score a 51% lead over his fellow contestants. In this rash of polls and projections, Mr. Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has not been quite as lucky as his fellow contestants in spite of his solid leadership and experience profile. The least fortunate player has been Mr. Kwankwaso of the NNPP. Some say it is because his name is a bit hard to pronounce while the acronym of his party has one letter too many compared to the three leading contenders!

Polls have come to be recognized for what they are: highly educated guesses about projected electoral outcomes. The validity of polls in democracies is a function of the level of education and enlightenment in the society. The more generally developed the society, the more reliable the polls tend to be because they derive from the general spirit of enlightenment and scientific consciousness of the society. In less enlightened environments, the electorate is mostly illiterate or politically unenlightened. In such places, people neither believe in nor participate in polling exercises. The percentage of undecided voters is very high because people just wait and cast their votes and await the results.

 But even in the enlightened western democracies, polls are never accurate or foolproof but mostly indicative. Professional polling companies and agencies have occasionally found themselves embarrassed by their own projections in specific electoral instances. For instance, nearly every US opinion poll including the famous Gallup was worsted by their miscalculations during the Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton presidential contest in 2016. The pollsters became a little more cautious by the 2020/1 Biden versus Trump race. Accuracy improved even though the margins of error narrowed significantly.

On the Nigerian presidential election, by far the most contentious recent polls and projections on the 2023 presidential election are those that have come from Mr. Atedo Peterside’s ANAP Polls and of course the speculative projection by THISDAY Newspapers last weekend. The NOI/ANAP poll on the 2023 presidential contest in Nigeria gives Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party a solid lead over his two other frontline contestants. The NOI/ANAP poll could have been left to defend itself with its less than transparent parameters. But typically, the organizing and overriding intelligence in this enterprise would seem to be the political slant and interests of Mr. Atedo Peterside, banking and finance oligarch. He has been most reluctant to distance his personal partisanship perspectives  from ANAP polls and their findings. Following the release of the latest of his contentious polls, he was on Channels Television to rationalize the veracity of the polls and its conclusions.

Quite worrisomely, the credibility of the ANAP poll is not helped by its previous doubtful outings. In the run up to the 2015 elections, ANAP predicted a slim victory for Mr. Goodluck Jonathan against Mr. Buhari which ended up being the reverse. Similarly, ANAP predicted a narrow margin of victory for Buhari against Atiku which was wide off the mark.

Ordinarily, the chances of credibility for ANAP’s poll predictions could probably have improved but for Mr. Peterside’s frequent personal editorial interventions either as a defender or explainer of the rationale for these dodgy polls. Nothing is wrong with an oligarch owning a polling outfit. It may even serve the partisan ends of the oligarch in question if his polling company or outfit were to become reputable and reliable. That way, the polls could become an instrument of power mongering and influence peddling. But to engineer an apriori  skewed opinion poll and still proceed to editorialize in defense of its partisan drift is enlightened self interest driven to the brinks.

On its part, the THISDAY’s speculative projection predicts that the elections may be decided  in a runoff since either of the contestants is likely to score 25% of voters in two thirds of the states of the federation. By the THISDAY projection, Mr. Atiku will lead the pack in 23 states followed by Mr. Tinubu in 22 states. Mr. Obi and his Labour Party are projected to come third with barely 25% score in16 states. The newspaper predicts a possible runoff between the two front liners , namely, between Mr. Tinubu and Mr. Atiku with Mr. Obi clinging precariously to a third position. The fact that the THISDAY projection has grated rather adversely on the political perceptions of even the newspaper’s most ardent readers must concern the authors of that troubling projection.

Thankfully, the THISDAY projection makes no pretensions to being an opinion poll by any stretch of the imagination. It lays no claims to the familiar known polling parameters as guideposts. As a national newspaper, THISDAY can justifiably lay claims to a certain familiarity with the national political terrain to be able to project on possible outcomes in the forthcoming presidential elections. But to proceed from a free ranging speculative projection to allocate percentages of votes to different geo political zones is a bit worrisome and presumptuous.

A projection like THISDAY’s seems rooted in a certain fixation with Nigeria’s known political indices: religion, region, ethnicity etc. However, a projection like this also fails to capture the national landscape in its dynamic and vastly altered state. Nigerians now live and vote everywhere in the nation irrespective of their ethnicity. There are hardly any pure ethnicities in the country. We are all mixed up and interspersed now. Religion has become a political determinant only in so far as a prevailing political order has weaponised it to make it a factor in the choices that voters have to make in 2023. Other critical indices of political choice have emerged.

A critical mass of citizens have since attained voting age. The demographic profile of the country has since altered in favour of a youth bulge of persons aged between 18 and 38, making persons aged 38 and under the majority of the population. The issues that will determine where and how people are likely to vote in 2023 have vastly been changed by the actions or inactions of the incumbent order. Suddenly, insecurity, unemployment, failing education, cost of living, quantum poverty have popped to dominate public discourse and election campaign rhetoric. A more perceptive newspaper -based election projection ought to reflect these new variables in the Nigerian environment in a more methodical and systematic manner.

In a politically charged atmosphere such as the current situation in Nigeria, every poll is subject to suspicion except where its scientific veracity is impeccable. More so, in a political atmosphere, a poll can become victim of the use of an intellectual tool to influence the outcome of a democratic process. There have been far too many instances where polls have been used to deceive the public or market an outright falsehood. On the eve of the last APC presidential primaries, one such poll was advertised on the front page of literally all national dailies indicating that the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was the clear choice of his party. The survey was complete with graphs, holographs, statistical computations, demographic and geo political distribution etc.

On the contrary, the disguise of a politically motivated partisan speculation as an opinion poll or valid electoral projection is basically fraudulent and mischievous. This is made more dangerous by the fact of our illiterate and gullible populace and an electorate that is easily swayed by elite predispositions. As elite often at the helm of fancy media on corporate outfits, the ordinary people look up to us to proffer enlightened and reasonably honest leads to the direction of political developments. To deliberately feed the public with individual or collective partisan biases and dress it up as respectable opinion polls or credible projections is elite mischief carried to the extreme.

As an instrument for the prediction of who becomes Nigeria’s next president, the various elite polls and projections have limited value. The majority of those whose votes will determine the outcome of the elections do to care about fancy intellectual polls.

Even up to this moment, no one can determine precisely where the pendulum of outcome is tilting in terms of the outcome of the 2023 presidential elections. The reason is that most of the parameters for past predictions have largely been overtaken by recent developments both in the demographics of the Nigerian electorate and the issues that will determine how and why people will vote.

In a world ruled by a flux of factors, the safest place to anchor our expectations is to seek refuge in the best available technologies to deliver outcomes that we can at least believe in. That, perhaps, is where we are in Nigeria on the eve of the crucial 2023 elections.

Related Articles