How Ideas are Replacing Identities in Nigeria’s Electoral Competition
The 2015 defeat of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) at the polls was Nigeria’s first “electoral turnover,” giving us a new narrative for the decline of dominant parties. How the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) won offers some encouraging news about parties and electoral strategies in Africa, as well as some valuable lessons for the February 2019 presidential contest. Muhammadu Buhari is running for re-election, and the PDP recently selected its former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, to carry the flag.
In my new book, I demonstrate that Buhari prevailed with a compelling economic critique and credible promises to fight corruption. Interestingly, the APC also emphasized “electoral integrity,” appealing to youthful voters and former PDP supporters. My content analysis of campaign references shows that the APC and PDP consistently campaigned on different issues. The PDP blundered with a polarizing message on insecurity in the midst of Boko Haram’s sprawling violence in the northeast. The party also failed to highlight various socioeconomic gains for women under President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration (2010-2015), mentioning such issues half as often as the APC.
I also statistically analyze individual voter motivations and electoral patterns across states, concluding that the APC’s campaign resonated with voters. Specifically, tests demonstrate that citizens’ evaluation of past economic performance, their expectations for which party would improve the economy, and their individual level of wealth all strongly correlated with voting intentions. Moreover, I find that states with weaker economies and higher debt levels overwhelmingly voted to keep the PDP, suggesting a fiscal basis for political dependency. Ethnicity, and increasingly religion, do interfere with some of these relationships. But my conclusions echo recent research that African elections are no longer solely associated with ethnic politics and parochial patronage; candidates can and do win on policy appeals and programmatic pragmatism.
Can the PDP retake power in 2019? Buhari may have his strongest case to make on corruption. According to Afrobarometer surveys, 6 in 10 Nigerians say the government is performing “fairly well” or “very well” fighting corruption, an increase from only 21 percent who said so in 2015; there have even been a few high-level corruption convictions.
However, Buhari is vulnerable on both the economy and national security. Relying on constitutionally suspect authority, he forgave massive state debts and then embarked on protectionist policies and a wave of borrowing to compensate for declining global prices. The cost of domestic debt servicing grew over 37 percent from early 2017 to early 2018, and inflation is over 11 percent. The economy has slowly begun to recover from the 2016 recession, when the economy contracted -1.6 percent. But the World Bank’s GDP growth forecast of 2.1 percent for this year hardly offers the APC campaign bragging rights. Meanwhile, farmer-pastoralist violence has exploded, protests by the Shiite religious minority are repeatedly met with massive lethal force, and a wave of banditry has paralyzed many northern communities. Boko Haram’s insurgency has seen an overall decline, but the humanitarian crisis it precipitated remains daunting: 7.7 million people in the northeast require humanitarian assistance, at least 2.4 million people are displaced, and two states – Borno and Yobe – recently declared cholera outbreaks
As a candidate, Buhari benefitted from a flood of PDP defections, which my book traces back to informal elite bargains that over time suffocated politicians’ ambition. Now it is the APC suffering losses, including powerful figures such as the Senate President. As Abubakar told me in an interview, “we have a president who is not prepared to work with anybody else except the CPC,” referring to Buhari’s former political party and the preferential treatment its members received within the APC.
To win, the opposition PDP in 2019 will have to find the right portfolio of issues, and the APC will need to take note of women’s rising voice and the widespread elite alienation noted by Abubakar. If 2015 is any guide, both parties will have to take seriously citizens’ attitudes about the economy, their demands for electoral integrity, and a message of public safety calibrated on policy for peace and not fear.
A. Carl LeVan’s new book Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror is out now. He is the co-editor of three books, including most recently the Oxford Handbook of Nigerian Politics (Oxford 2018), a collection of 44 new essays, edited with Patrick Ukata. He has also published on the Boko Haram insurgency, power sharing in east Africa, the economic performance of coalition governments, comparative authoritarianism and property rights and migration in Nigeria.