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26 March 2015

Fleeting loyalties and revolving doors in Nigeria as the election approaches

As the PDP and APC battle it out on the billboards, alliances continue to shift in a country defined by its political changeability.

By Tolu Ogunlesi

You can tell who owns a major highway in Lagos by looking at the election posters. Along the Lekki-Epe road, a six-lane expressway that belongs to the state government, are messages of support for the All Progressives Congress (APC), which has run the city state in one form or another since 1999. On the Third Mainland Bridge, vandalised streetlights have been strung with banners for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). It is considered a “federal road”. As such, it belongs to the PDP, the party in charge of the national government.

Nigeria has more than two dozen political parties but most citizens would be hard-pressed to name even five. The PDP and the APC are the two main ones. Each wants to keep what it currently has, while desperately wanting what the other controls. Winning the presidential election on 28 March would give the APC the reins to Africa’s largest economy. Winning the Lagos governorship would give the PDP the keys to Lagos State – an estimated $45bn economy,
a similar size to that of Ghana.

The elections were initially expected to take place in February but were postponed in response to the brutal Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east of the country, which has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people since 2009. (Earlier this month, the group pledged allegiance to Islamic State.) The two main competitors are President Goodluck Jonathan, a 57-year-old Christian from the south, and Muhammadu Buhari, aged 72 – the ascetic Muslim northerner who ruled Nigeria as a military dictator 30 years ago and who has been the runner-up in the past three presidential elections. Despite Jonathan’s advantages of incumbency, Buhari appears to have a chance.

Nigerians don’t have a history of polling in elections (we don’t even know our exact population; 174 million is the World Bank’s guess), so there’s not much to help with predictions. One survey last December, by Afrobarometer, put the two presidential candidates at 42 per cent each. Eurasia, a risk consultancy, initially gave Jonathan, who critics say has failed to tackle Islamic militancy or corruption and has mismanaged the economy, a 20-point lead, which it then narrowed to ten. More recently, it reversed the numbers again, giving a 20-point advantage to Buhari, whose candidacy is considered by some as a regressive step in a country where the majority of people are young.

“This is the first time Nigerians have been provided with an opportunity, when a government is not doing well, to change things for themselves,” the APC’s spokesman, Lai Mohammed, told me recently in Lagos. “Before now, if a government was not doing well, the military would come in.”

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The PDP, which has comfortably won every presidential election since 1999, is feeling the pressure. The APC has been courting influential groups, particularly those in south-western Nigeria, which includes Lagos State. Both parties consider this the area that will decide the outcome on election day. It has the largest number of eligible voters in the country – but it also has a history of apathy.

Earlier this month, at the Eko Hotel in Lagos, I attended a meeting of PDP governors who took it in turns to rail against the APC. “If there is any part of [Nigeria] that will burst the propaganda of the APC, it will be the south-west, because of our political sophistication,” boasted Olusegun Mimiko, the governor of Ondo State.

Until last year, Mimiko belonged to the social-democratic Labour Party, on whose platform he was elected in both 2007 and 2012. In switching parties, he was far from unique. Until 2013, five of the APC’s 14 governors belonged to the PDP. This wave of defections almost brought the party to its knees.

This might just be the defining feature of Nigerian politics: the fleeting nature of alliances and the reality that our parties are separated only by revolving doors oiled by the absence of ideological distinction.

Some voters are learning to deal with the complexity by becoming party agnostic – disregarding the partisanship to focus on the candidates. I recently ran into a friend who divides his time between Nigeria and South Africa.

“How long will you be in Lagos?” I asked.

“I’m here to vote,” he said. I asked him for whom. “Change at all levels!” he replied. Given that “change” is the APC’s slogan, I assumed he would be voting for that party. What he meant, however, was that he would be voting for the PDP in Lagos and for the APC’s Buhari in the presidential vote. At every level, he just wants somebody else.