by Mark Amaza
Whenever the time for elections and political campaigns come around in Nigeria, there are broadly two demographics that politicians and political parties try to win over in exchange for votes: those who are won over by the policy proposals of politicians, their characters and records; and those for whom the most important things are the ethnic, religious or regional backgrounds or their combination of the political candidates.
The first demographic, mostly the educated, exposed middle class, is unfortunately, not taken with all seriousness because their numbers are not large enough to solely win a politician an office. Most Nigerians and Nigerian voters are still beholden to their ethnic, religious and regional sentiments before being nationalistic.
Despite all the public statements and appearances of politicians in which they portray the entire voting public as belonging to the former group of voters, the truth is that their real desire is to win those in the latter group. This can be discerned by reading between the lines of their statements, newspaper articles and informal discussions on “the streets”, or sometimes seen overtly, such as in the zoning debacle that almost tore Nigeria apart in 2011.
Before I get to the crux of this article, let us do a little history lesson:
It is a fact that in the 52 years of Nigeria’s independence, power has been held by one region for 37 of those years – the Northern region. Admittedly, of those 37 years, only 13 of those years were held by democratically elected governments with the rest shared among various military governments.
This fact, together with such policies as the federal character principle and quota systems for admissions into government schools perceived to favour a less competitive North over the South, and events such as the annulment of the June 12, 1993 elections adjudged to have been won by Chief MKO Abiola, a South-Westerner have served to entrench an anti-North sentiment in general among Southern voters.
It was due to the annulment that the Northern power bloc came together at the onset of the transition programme of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, the last military ruler in Nigeria, to sponsor former President Olusegun Obasanjo to become president as a way of appeasing the South, and the South-West in particular.
Fast forward to 2010, when Obasanjo was already out of office for three years, and his installed successor, Umaru Yar’adua had already passed on and his vice, Goodluck Jonathan sworn in after a lot of power intrigues which sought to keep him away from being constitutionally sworn in.
A hitherto known zoning principle within the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party reared its head, causing a bitter fight and dividing the country along North-South lines. Jonathan went on to run for President against 3-time candidate and former Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, which he won.
Unfortunately, the results caused riots in many parts of the North, which turned religious in some places and led to the mob killings of eight National Youth Service Corps members serving in Bauchi. In turn, it deepened the anti-North sentiment in the South.
However, what many have failed to realize is that President Goodluck Jonathan’s victory in 2011 is a first, not just for the fact that he is the first ethnic minority and indigene of the South-South to become President, but also because it confirmed the fact that the new power bloc in Nigeria was not the traditional Northern establishment, but Northern minorities (chiefly the North Central or Middle Belt and Northern Christians).
It was the first time in the history of Nigeria that anyone had become the President or Head of State without the support of the North-West and North-East, who have had a tight grip on power in this country even before independence.
Jonathan had long been assured of the fact that he was going to win his home base of South-South, and the neighbouring South-East, which was aided by the fact that his opponents did not take their campaign trains as far as those areas.
The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) was expected to sweep its South-West stronghold, but surprisingly came off winning only one state, Osun. This led to conspiracy theories of its strongman and main influencer, the former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu being paid off to deliver the region to the PDP. Another theory goes that the people of the region were drawn to Jonathan who kept his promise that the elections would be free and fair in the aftermath of the National Assembly elections which saw the PDP left with only one senatorial seat and six House of Representative seats in the entire region. Once again, the opposition candidates did not cover the region as much as the incumbent president did.
But the shocker for many, especially those who are not astute political watchers and have been made to believe that the North votes as one, was his winning seven out of the 19 Northern states (Adamawa, Taraba, Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa, Kogi and Kwara) and gaining up to 25% in another 8 states.
This is because besides the anti-North sentiment in the South, there is an increasing desire by the North-Central and Christian-dominated areas in the North-East and the North-West to be politically independent and relevant as the Middle Belt.
What has caused the need for this political independence?
On one hand, it is the result of many religious crises such as chiefly those in Kaduna and Jos, raising anti-Muslim sentiment among Northern Christians. It became a bond for Northern Christians from Zuru in Kebbi State all the way to Southern Borno, more than the bonds of ethnicity and battle-cry of “One North” that was popular during the time of the charismatic Premier of the Northern Region, the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello.
On the other hand, it is the desire by ethnic groups in the North to be independent of what they have termed “the Hausa-Fulani hegemony”. These ethnic groups, which are sometimes religiously mixed such as those in Kogi and Kwara States, believe that the use of the Northern regional card is just a ploy by Hausa-Fulani politicians to get ahead at their own expense.
These are the factors that played to Jonathan’s advantage in winning the 2011 presidential polls and as far as it goes, these factors remain the same.
A PDP presidential ticket in 2015 headlined by Jonathan would still see him retain strong support in the South-South and the South-East. The North-East (Borno, Yobe and Bauchi States) and the North-West remain strongholds of the opposition (CPC/ANPP/APC), while barring any 2011-like miracle, the South-West would go the way of ACN/CPC/APC.
These are facts that the opposition which is fast merging under the banner of the All Progressives’ Congress is not unaware of. This is reflected in the various combinations that have been mooted for a presidential ticket – a Northern Muslim (North-West or North-East) presidential candidate and a running mate from the South-East/South-South.
However, they seem not to have factored in the new power bloc in Nigeria into their calculations, and unless efforts are made to woo them, 2015 is likely to be a repeat of 2011.
So what must be done then?
For one, the opposition must resist any attempt at handpicking a presidential candidate, especially if that candidate ends up being a Hausa/Fulani-Muslim that those in the Middle Belt are not usually comfortable with for both religious and ethnic reasons. So far, all the names that have been rumoured to be likely picked as presidential candidate for the party fit this description. The party must make every effort to show that it is offering candidates from every part of the country a level-playing ground, as anything other than that could be used to skew the narrative against them.
Secondly, the opposition must make genuine efforts to gain the support of Northern Christians by winning their trust, especially if the presidential candidate ends up being a Northern Muslim. One main reason for this is the fact that Buhari still finds it hard to gain the trust of many Christians in general, especially Northern Christians since his alleged statement in 2001 that Muslims should vote for only Muslims. The new party could be seen as his party, since his CPC is a major partner. This trust would not be achieved by just picking a pastor as a running mate as in 2011 which many saw as a cosmetic treatment, but at genuinely reaching out to the community through its opinion leaders, who are more often than not, not politicians.
Controversial as these may sound, they also show the reality of our political environment, and a politician must keep these in mind while developing strategies for his/her campaign.
This new power bloc has the power to change electoral fortunes in Nigeria and every politician must aspire to keep them happy.
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