By Cheta Nwanze
Coined by James Carville in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” was meant for the internal audience of Clinton’s campaign workers. The Clinton campaign then took advantage of the then-prevailing recession in the US as one of the campaign’s means to successfully unseat George H. W. Bush.
As with all election years, Nigeria in 2019 will revolve around the general elections. The coming of a Nigerian election year typically causes apprehension in domestic and international circles over the country’s political stability and the security of life and property. 2019 is no different. Whether these anxieties increase or decrease depends on how the political actors and the relevant regulatory institutions conduct themselves before, during and after the elections. On 14 December, both the US Embassy and SBM Intelligence said that in the event that the polls are compromised by significant fraud and irregularities, neither party will accept the results. The choices have crystallized with the two major candidates being President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), who is seeking re-election, and Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) seeking to inflict an implausible upset.
In 2015, Buhari and the APC rode into power on a cresting wave of populist promises. His main areas of focus were security, corruption, and the economy.
The year before Buhari was elected, Boko Haram seized huge swathes of territory in the North-East, abducted hundreds and triggered a crisis of confidence within the Nigerian military so acute that desertions and mutinous altercations became frequent. As a candidate, President Buhari harshly criticized the Jonathan government, haranguing it for failure to secure Nigerians, and promised to rout the insurgents. Within six months of taking office, military successes enabled Buhari to claim that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated,” a phrase which persists in official propaganda.
The opposition will argue, with some merit, that insecurity has dramatically increased and that while Boko Haram was the principal threat confronting the country in 2015, Nigeria today faces a deluge of threats that has rendered us more insecure than we have ever been. From bandits that have seized communities in Zamfara, to herdsmen and ethnic militias blazing a trail of death in the Middle Belt, and even a resurgent Boko Haram that has inflicted some damage on the military in 2018, the opposition will insist that Buhari has been incompetent as Commander-in-Chief.
President Buhari made “the anti-corruption war” the centerpiece of his administration and has portrayed his challenges as the consequence of corrupt oligarchs fighting his measures. His campaign will regurgitate attacks on Atiku’s alleged corruption. On his own part, Atiku’s campaign will point out that Buhari had no problems of principle in 2015 when he accepted Atiku’s support and flew in his private plane. They will highlight the many unaddressed corruption scandals that have plagued this administration and the President’s seeming unwillingness to sanction the prosecution of indicted figures. They will argue that despite Buhari’s self-appointment as minister of petroleum, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is as opaque as it has ever been. The PDP will insist that hypocrisy and double standards are the defining traits of the APC government.
But it is on the economy that these elections will likely be won and lost. Nigerians have become noticeably poorer over the last three years, and the economy has shrunk from more than $500 billion in 2015, to roughly $400 billion today. The Atiku campaign will seek to make the pre-election debate a conversation about executive competence in terms of the economy.
The APC will point to policies such the Tradermoni scheme as evidence of President Buhari’s commitment to changing the material conditions of ordinary Nigerians. They will argue that the administration’s schemes represent the largest effort by any administration to institute some form of a social safety net for the most vulnerable Nigerians.
On his own part, Atiku will portray Buhari as an old-fashioned statist whose policies are antagonistic of free enterprise and whose incompetence is hurting the economy, and paint the Tradermoni scheme as a means by which the administration is trying to buy votes ahead of the polls. In contrast, he will present himself as a pro-business candidate with an impressive record of successful investments and entrepreneurial accomplishments. He will reference his time as Vice President when he chaired the National Economic Council and oversaw the Obasanjo government’s privatization exercise and claim credit for the growth that was recorded during that period. The Atiku campaign will also point to Nigeria’s first recession in a generation, and the weak growth that has characterized the country’s exit from recession. They will also point to a 40% unemployment and underemployment rate as evidence that the government has failed to tackle probably Nigeria’s biggest challenge.
In the end, there is a sense that both Buhari and Atiku are figures that divide attention albeit in different ways. This is important as there is a risk that in both men, Nigeria has two candidates whose flaws and strengths so familiar that they will be unable to inspire sufficient turnout at the polls.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.