Nigeria’s election and the pollster’s albatross, By Azu Ishiekwene
With all the predictions of Armageddon and doubt about whether Saturday’s presidential and national assembly polls would hold it does sound a bit silly to contemplate life after. Even those who grudgingly concede a life after fear it might be worse. Optimism is like playing the Ostrich.
Nigeria’s history of electoral violence in the sixties and even in the mid-nineties might justify these concerns. But the last six election cycles in 24 years have proved that in spite of the hysteria about its viability, Africa’s largest democracy defies the odds.
Saturday’s election would, yet again, prove the sceptics wrong. Despite the political fire and rhetorical brimstones, not to mention the bank note misery, there will be a morning after.
That said, the next most frequently expressed concern is who will win? There are two answers – a short and a long one. If you believe the polls (at least four of the major ones), the Labour presidential candidate, Peter Obi, will likely win.
Less than nine months after switching parties and pitching his tent with the little-known Labour Party, Obi has turned the party into a formidable stage, bestriding it like a rockstar. Once without hope or a chance, he has grown from being a potential run-off maker to a real threat, a likely winner.
That is the short answer if you believe the NAP, NOI, Stears, or Bloomberg polls.
But there’s a long, far more complicated answer. Polls being polls, even the most carefully conducted ones can, and do sometimes go wrong. I had a long and interesting conversation a few days ago with a friend and former Obi-skeptic turned believer who was prepared to swear by the results of the polls, especially the latest ones by Stears and Bloomberg, tipping Obi to win.
That conversation gave me the chance to share the long reasons the polls may be wrong and why Obi may not win.
The polls banked rather too much on voter discontent arising from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Muslim-Muslim ticket.
APC’s decision to field Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Kashim Shettima, both Muslims, in a country with roughly equal Muslim-Christian population was always bound to hurt the party at the polls.
Though they agree that religious conflicts predate President Muhammadu Buhari’s APC government, a number of Christian leaders have expressed the view that the president’s ghastly indifference has enabled the rise in deadly sectarian conflicts in states such as Benue and Plateau in the north-central; Kaduna and Sokoto in the north-west; and Taraba in the north-east, among others.
APC’s Tinubu-Shettima ticket was like rubbing salt in the wound of Christians in these and a number of other states. A backlash in Saturday’s poll would hardly come as a surprise.
Yet the scale of this surprise appears to have been exaggerated in the polls.
While identity politics, sometimes disguised as religion, continues to play a role in Nigeria’s politics, any polls that do not account for the growing number of agnostics and more liberal voters who increasingly make up significant numbers of the younger voting population may be in for a surprise.
Of course, politicians still play the ethnic card but studies including Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: Contemporary identity politics and the struggle for survival, and Yuval Noah Harari’s epic, 21 lessons for the 21st century, continue to highlight the receding salience of religion in electoral outcomes.
Stears acknowledged this. “Nigerians are adamant,” the analysis of its polls said, “that religion does not dictate their vote: just 4% of respondents selected religion as one of the three main factors determining their candidate choice.”
There’s another reason a shorthand answer predicting Obi as likely winner in Saturday’s poll could be off the mark. A number of the polls, particularly the ones by Stears and Bloomberg, indicated a margin of “undecided” voters of about 35 to 43 percent. If the 2016 election in the US thought pollsters anything, it’s to beware of the “undecided”, especially the coyishly silent ones.
They may swing Obi’s way, as Stears predicted, especially in parts of Lagos and Abuja with their cosmopolitan outlook and relatively high number of south-easterners and areas the Christian population are feeling hard done by. But there are three reasons the Tinubu-Shettima and the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) Atiku-Okowa tickets may eventually get more “undecided” voters than Labour’s Obi-Datti.
Role of state governors
State governors continue to play a significant role in Nigeria’s politics and in electoral outcomes. We saw this most tellingly in 2015 when the sudden and dramatic exit of five governors decisively tipped the scales in favour of Buhari. Even now, the face-off between five PDP governors and their party continues to hurt the party’s electoral chances. It would be foolish to assume that the 21 of 36 APC governors are all working for Tinubu-Shettima to win. But with APC controlling governors in at least five of the country’s 10 vote banks where Labour has zero in an election in which money could affect the eventual outcome, pollsters could be in for a surprise.
Bank note backlash
The bank note chaos, a fallout of an attempt by the Central Bank to redesign three of the country’s eight currency notes, is also a reflection of the chaos in the ruling party’s inner circle. But as governors, ranking ministers and finally, the party itself broke ranks with Buhari over the timing and motive of the redesign, the Tinubu-Shettima ticket could benefit from sympathetic voters in what appears to be yet another malicious last attempt to stop Tinubu at all costs.
Obi’s rise and rise has benefited largely from the agitation for Biafra, especially among the youths in the south-east. Although Obi himself has not canvassed secession, and has in fact pledged to unify the country, his meteoric political ascension appears to many youths from the south-east region to be the best chance in decades to realise the Biafran dream. While non-easterner sometimes view the Biafran battle cry as a symbol against systemic injustice, the surge of Biafran flags at Obi campaign rallies has raised concerns about what his presidency could mean for one Nigeria. The “undecided” who view secession as a bridge too far may recoil at the prospects of voting Obi, however exaggerated their fears may be.
Devil in the details
Finally, the pro-Obi polls tended to exaggerate his strength in areas where historical voting patterns hardly favour him. A few quick examples. In three of the six states where Stears said it obtained its booster samples Lagos, Kwara, Rivers, Benue, Plateau and Kano, for example, only three Lagos, Plateau and Benue are have a historically likely chance of fetching Obi more than 25 percent of the votes cast.
He will be lucky to get an average 10 percent in the remaining three, where APC and PDP run a tight ship. Also, ascribing 48 percent of the votes in the south-south to Obi as Stears did, is widely optimistic. Where will votes come from? Rivers? Bayelsa? Delta? Akwa Ibom? Cross Rivers? Or Edo? These are traditional PDP strongholds which have now become battleground states, not for Labour, but between PDP and APC.
Elders in the south-south are rooting for Obi to right decades of injustices. But expecting these elders to make any difference would be stretching their electoral value a bit too far!
Without a doubt, Obi’s emergence will redraw the 2023 electoral map. It’s already giving the presumptive frontrunners – Tinubu and Atiku – a cause to look over their shoulders, with the latter bearing the brunt in the south-east and south-south, but potentially outperforming the pollster’s forecast in the north-east and north-west.
To leap from the prospects of an exciting race, which Obi’s candidacy offers, to a forecast of a surprise victory on Saturday on the basis of an ambitious polling trend is to go out on a limb. The short of the long story is that the Labour Party candidate would likely be the best third place finisher in decades.
Ishiekwene is the editor-in-chief of LEADERSHIP