Watching the antics of campaigners of the two leading political parties in the ongoing election campaign, one gets the impression that they spend more time trying to paint their opponents black than they do trying to paint themselves in white colours. The impression I get is that neither major party is trying very hard to get voters to vote for it. Instead, each side is trying hard to get voters to vote against their opponent, hoping that this will translate into a vote for themselves.
Last week, PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar told Nigerian women to use their numbers in the electoral register to oust Muhammadu Buhari from the top job. The assumption Atiku obviously made is that voting to oust Buhari from office means voting to install him as the replacement. I do not know why he made this assumption because there are 71 other candidates on the ballot apart from the two of them. Will Atiku be happy if voters oust Buhari and then install someone else, not him, as the replacement?
Correspondingly, APC leaders spend a lot of time on the hustings running against PDP and Atiku, instead of for themselves. For many weeks, APC campaigners said Atiku could not enter the United States. At one point when it looked like he was going to get a US visa, APC leaders went into overdrive and publicly lobbied the Americans not to grant him one. When he finally entered the US last week, they said he was not arrested because he was passed off as an aide to the Senate President. It was the strangest thing I heard in this campaign, that American security officials are big fools.
PDP, on its part, spent a lot of precious time saying INEC National Commissioner Mrs. Amina Zakari must not head the committee to make the International Conference Center ready for the collation of election results. Soon afterwards PDP leaders lurched onto another issue, an audio tape where APC’s campaign director general Rotimi Amaechi allegedly said his party’s candidate does not listen to anyone. I would have thought that is APC’s problem but so much time and energy was expended on it presumably because it paints APC black and therefore will make voters less inclined to vote for it.
Not to be outdone, APC campaigners widely shared a picture of Atiku cozying up to a woman in public. Someone later said the woman was Atiku’s wife but APC had already made much out of it, believing that conservative voters would vote against the PDP candidate on the strength of that picture alone. And then, in the past week, PDP campaigners made a lot of capital out of President Buhari’s slips, his missing a step in Lokoja, his describing Great Ogboru as APC’s “presidential candidate” in Warri, and his strange answer during the televised Town Hall meeting to the alleged Ganduje bribery video.
Where did Nigerian campaigners get this tactic? I suspect very much that the directors general of the two top campaign organisations, Rotimi Amaechi of APC and Bukola Saraki of PDP, have both read the political philosophy of the old American campaign strategist Murray Chotiner and are striving very hard to apply it in this campaign. In the 1970s when I was in secondary school, I read a small book about the Watergate scandal, which was then fresh. There was a section in the book about the political rise of President Richard Nixon in southern California politics in the 1940s, which the authors attributed to the political genius of his early campaign manager, a man called Murray Chotiner.
I read that book 40 years ago but if my memory is still reliable, the passage stated, “Murray Chotiner’s philosophy of politics is very simple. He believes that people vote against politicians, and not for them. If you win an election, it is not because you are popular, no. It is because your opponent is unpopular. Therefore, do not waste your time during the campaign trying to make voters to vote for you. Instead, you should make them to vote against your opponent, and therefore for you.”
The practical application of this philosophy is the dirty campaign, an all-out effort to paint your opponent black. It is often very efficacious. I now think that Murray Chotiner had Nigeria in mind when he outlined this philosophy. In a society where people like to believe the worst of other people, it is time-wasting almost to try to convince them that you are a good person. It is much easier to convince them that your opponent is a worse person. If the ruling APC, for example, tells Nigerians that it has achieved a lot in the last four years, majority of us are unlikely to believe it but if they say that PDP did much worse during its 16-year rule even when oil prices were much higher, majority of Nigerians are likely to believe that. So, if you are a good campaign strategist whose main concern is for your candidate to win the election, which line of attack will you follow? Dirty campaign follows the path of least resistance.
PDP too has opted for the path of least resistance. It is waste of time for the opposition party to try to convince Nigerians that during its rule, this country was a land of milk and honey, that money was flowing and that projects dotted the landscape. However, if they instead say that under APC’s rule, fuel prices increased, cost of a bag of rice increased, the economy tanked, inflation accelerated, value of the naira dipped, minimum wage talks stalled, kidnappers took over the highways and bandits occupied Zamfara State, more people are likely to nod in agreement. Why waste time trying to convince voters that your tenure in office was white, when it is much easier to try to convince them that your opponent’s tenure was even blacker than your own?
I read a post on social media by a young man who said he is voting for Buhari because he has not seen a better option. At the same time, I saw a posting by another young man saying he is voting for Atiku because anything is better than Buhari. What both of them are saying is that they are going to vote for a candidate not so much because they like what he stands for but because they dislike his opponent even more. So, the question I want to ask every Nigerian voter when he or she troops to the polls on February 16 and again on March 2 is, are you going to cast a vote for a candidate or are you going there to cast a vote against a candidate?
Voting for a candidate is hazardous because no politician will ever fulfil all his campaign promises, partly due to his own making, but also because of constantly changing conditions on the ground. A voter who places much confidence in a victorious candidate is likely to be disappointed and supporters of rival candidates are likely to gloat down the line that his confidence was misplaced. On the other hand, if you merely voted against a candidate in an election, supporters of that losing candidate will later say that things are the way they are because their candidate did not win. It is a claim not easy to refute. Right now in Nigeria, supporters of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and of Chief M.K.O. Abiola say they were the best presidents Nigeria never had. There is no way to disprove this assertion, so we just have to live with this gloat.
Murray Chotiner died in 1994 but the practitioners of his political trade are alive and well in Nigeria, including those who unearthed the Chief Justice’s assets declaration forms just before an election, and those who just remembered that one candidate benefitted from a bank slush fund a decade ago. The dirty campaign is here to stay.