The hidden positive trend in Nigerian politics

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It is easy to be cynical about African politics, especially in Nigeria. Pointing out the glaring shortcomings in each election promotes a negative view of democracy on the continent. But to do so is to fail to see the forest for the trees. There is a hidden positive trend. When the 20 years since the return to democratic rule in 1999 are viewed carefully, it becomes clear that the country not only has turned the tide from military dictatorship, but has moved away from one-party dominance toward an increasingly mature and competitive political landscape.

Case in point: over the summer, drama unfolded in Nigeria’s historic Benin City, as the incumbent Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki, was disqualified from running for re-election under the banner of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC.) Obaseki promptly defected to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and bigwigs of his new political home cleared the field for him. Obaseki had fallen out of favor with his predecessor, former Governor Adams Oshhiomole, who now serves as APC National Chairman and looms large over the party’s state chapters.

Edo State (as well as Ondo State) will showcase fierce APC vs. PDP political battles in this autumn’s gubernatorial elections. On the surface, at least, the campaign dynamics resemble those of Republicans vs. Democrats in the US, Tories vs. Labor in the UK, or NPP vs. NDC in Ghana. Though underneath, skeptics will point out that the electoral shenanigans, voter intimidation and outright vote theft are far from vanquished. Time will tell if Nigeria’s version of a 2-party state will resemble the flawed system of Mozambique, or the politically-stable model of Ghana.

That trend has solidified since the world watched a nail-biting Nigerian election of 2015, which posed the biggest test for the continent’s most populous nation and one of the world’s largest democracies since the end of military rule.

The stakes were extremely high, pitting a Christian from the South against a Muslim from the North – and nervous international observers wondered not what could go wrong in such an epic battle, but rather how large the death toll would be. Fortunately, the country exceeded expectations.  Things could have been much worse, but the quick concession of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan kept post-election tensions to a minimum.

Jonathan’s party suffered politically in the intervening years. After Buhari’s initial election, PDP loyalists in the south chafed, scarcely comforted by his Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian Pastor from the southern commercial stronghold of Lagos.

Also, infighting plagued them in the aftermath of their first-ever defeat.  Factions feuded bitterly, which facilitated numerous high-profile defections to the APC. Also, the PDP found it difficult to adjust to being in opposition, having ruled for so long. Because they failed to articulate the shortcomings of the new ruling party, the motto “APC – Change!” still featured prominently among attendees at Buhari re-election rallies.

But then the PDP did something seemingly cynical, but which will be remembered years from now as a sublime act: when “zoning” its candidates for the 2019 presidential race, it reserved the position of President for the North, which nearly guaranteed that Buhari would face “one of his own” – a Muslim from the same region.

As a result, the PDP made the 2019 election about something more than regionalism or sectarian bitterness. With two Northerners on the ballot, voters would have to look beyond ethnicity or religion to decide who deserved their support.  With these tensions removed from the equation, a relatively peaceful climate prevailed.

The election returns also tell an encouraging story.  The APC, even in most of the South-South and South-East states where it is weakest, had a floor of about 25% (compared to less than 5% in the previous election), which makes it a viable national party.  If the APC could have been dismissed as a cynical marriage of political convenience when it formed in 2014, 6 years later it is a fully functional national party, capable of competing in all parts of the country.

Because it has proven itself a vehicle to power, it will last, even if only by appealing to the self-interest of aspiring leaders. Take for example Akwa Ibom State, in which the Senator and former Governor Godswill Akpabio took a political gamble and switched from the PDP to the APC leading up to the 2019 election. As such, his profile grew: he held a prominent position in the Buhari campaign and would likely have become Senate President had he not lost his seat. (He is currently Minister of the Niger Delta.) Akpabio brought with him to the APC all of his considerable political machinery, which equates to real and tangible popularity for the party.

Nigeria is a now truly a 2-party state.  The partisan battlegrounds of gubernatorial contests in the states of Bayelsa, Kogi, Edo and Ondo since the last presidential election prove it. Though it will take time, this political free market will lead to greater accountability in individual states, as candidates will market their parties as less corrupt than the competition, and voters will want evidence. 

This binary choice is a stepping stone to more mature politics, as the parties are likely to mirror each other’s “zoning” of the Presidency in years to come, forcing voters to look past religious or regional considerations and begin to consider each party’s ideology and election manifesto, as began last year. 

Yes, Nigeria’s democracy is far from mature and yes, there were too many unnecessary deaths in the 2019 election. But the naysayers and prophets of doom have got it wrong by focusing on that bad news. Compared to the country’s past: military dictatorship or one-party dominance of the PDP, or the harm to national cohesion resulting from regional resentment or outright sectarian violence, tolerating nasty partisan political campaigns is a good problem for Nigerians to have. The transition to a 2-party state is a (deceptively) big step forward for Nigeria.

George Ajjan is an international political strategist and election consultant.

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