Queries & Questions from Nigerians on “Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror”

During my visit to Nigeria during the 2019 elections, I gave three presentations on my new book about Nigeria’s 2015 elections, Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror. I encountered the most rigorous, interesting and challenging set of questions I have ever faced from public audiences. To get a sense of the discourse, watch the video of my presentation at Nextier SPD consulting in Abuja.

Here is a sampling of some of the questions. I hope my answers here clarify and elaborate on my previous answers, and contribute to the formation of a new research agenda on electoral politics in Africa. My apologies for any abbreviations or potential misrepresentations; please comment to continue the dialogue. For those of you considering the book for course adoption, this list can serve as a resource for developing your lectures.

  • I am not convinced that you demonstrate that the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) engaged in “coup proofing” after the 1999 transition.

The concept of “coup proofing” is used by Jonathan Powell in his article, “Determinants of the Attempting and Outcomes of Coups d’etat.” It refers to the idea that reassuring the military is an important part of many regime transitions. This is important to my study since I write about “pacts” – explicit, though not necessarily formalized, elite agreements that shape the boundaries and rules of governance.

The case against coup proofing might note President Obasanjo’s firings and forced retirings in 1999-2001. This would suggest that the new civilian regime was reigning in the military. As a former war hero and military dictator, Obasanjo had unique credibility with the military and thus some political latitude.

However, Chapter 2 documents how the incoming PDP, as part of a “dual policy” toward the military, also gave the generals important reassurances. This included neglect of important, huge corruption cases, a weak truth and reconciliation committee (whose top pick was apparently assassinated), the promotion – rather than prosecution – of high level individuals implicated in abuses, and an increase in the military budget from about $790 million dollars in 1998 to over 2.2 billion dollars in 2002. Furthermore, Obasanjo promoted nearly 900 officers just weeks before his second oath of office. Taken together, these actions provide a good basis for coup proofing. It worked…but it imposed costs on democracy, which I explore in Chapter 6.

  • Why didn’t you look at party manifestoes? How important is a candidate’s personality?

Party manifestos can provide information about party ideas. There’s some good new research on manifestoes in Nigeria, including Political Parties and Democracy in Nigeria, edited by Olu Obafemi, Samuel, Egwu, Okechukwu Ibeanu, and Jibrin Ibrahim (Kuru: National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, 2014.) It generally suggests that the manifestos don’t amount to much. By documenting what the parties actually talked about in 2015 in chapter 3, I think we get a better sense of how they set their priorities. And since there is a high level of conformity across the elites within each party in the coded responses, we have a decent basis to believe they coordinated their messages. Plus, that’s basically what several state party leaders and activists told me in interviews. Regarding personalities, a charismatic candidate obviously has advantages, but it’s also likely that a good party structure can help compensate for a candidate lacking such strong appeal.

  • There are too many unheard voices in politics. Should Nigeria have a proportional representation (PR) system?

2019 turned into a surprisingly bad election year for women, and I can see something like PR perhaps helping a women’s party into the National Assembly. However, it is also quite likely that it would produce a Shiite party, and a Biafra party, and….you get the idea. Moreover, it is difficult to have PR with a presidential system because the executive has to cobble together a coalition across parties for every legislative initiative; we know this from comparative research on Latin America, for example. To fix that, you could have a parliamentary system. Nigeria tried that with the First Republic, and it didn’t go so well. A trend after the collapse of the Soviet Union was for some countries to have it both ways, with some legislators chosen through PR and others based on geography. That might be something to consider.

Meeting with the Paramount Ruler of Uyo, February 2019.
  • You have a very narrow western view of the state. You reference ideology, but ideology is a function of material conditions.

I can appreciate that there were alternative modes of governance in Africa. Nonso Obikili has a good chapter on state building in my new co-edited Oxford Handbook of Nigerian Politics, which describes some of those histories and their linkages to modern Nigeria.  Katherine Baldwin’s recent book convincingly shows that traditional rulers remain very politically relevant in Africa; the old state models are still around. But scholars such as Jeffrey Herbst (2000) argue that African leaders explicitly bought in to the modern, Weberian state and the Berlin Conference borders when they got together and formed the predecessor to the African Union. When the Nigerian military tries to reclaim local governments taken by Boko Haram, it is asserting control over space and people in ways consistent with a “western” notion of a state.

It is also interesting to consider the variety of sources of ideology, which is quite often not a function of material conditions. Salafism comes to mind (see Alex Thurston’s recent book), as does the rise of “post-materialism” in developed countries. This latter idea, explored in the work of Pippa Norris and Robert Inglehart, shows that once people reach a certain level of material well-being, they are much more likely to care about the environment, secularism, and other issues. Different ideologies are then based on demographics and other characteristics.

  • What is your theory of the demographic shift? You suggest that it contributed to the decline of the PDP, but you don’t really show that.

It’s part of the story of the decline of the PDP told in Chapter 2: Nigeria has a young population with one of the highest growth rates in the world, but the average age in the House and Senate increased with each successive election since 1999. It’s one data point that makes sense alongside other factors, such as the suffocated ambition that contributed to the massive wave of party defections in 2014. I hope that it is an invitation to new research on “slow moving” variables such as inter-generational change in Nigeria. I did meet with YIAGA and youth groups as part of my research. But I can’t say we have much of a theory yet about demographic age gaps and their broader political impacts yet.

  •  Didn’t PDP lose in 2015 because of ethnicity, because they ran a southern candidate?

Maybe. That’s the obvious counter-factual, and it is a compelling one since President Jonathan was a southern Christian and many northerners felt it was their “turn” to rule. But I’m not sure that the hypothetical northern candidate would have had broad appeal across the south, which would have been necessary to win. It’s also somewhat encouraging to look at the map of states in Chapter 5 which shows the distribution of states where the candidate got at least 25 percent. Finally, it is interesting that the survey data shows that 14 percent of Muslims voted for Jonathan – and that there are more Christians in the north than anecdotal knowledge suggests.

  • Your content analysis ignores informal campaign structures.

Not exactly. The coding of campaign comments by party elites covers a broad range of topics, which are then aggregated into five main issues. If party elites were not talking about issues at all, I did not to code the comment; the methodology is explained in the book. Two things are important: first, after dropping these comments, the PDP had less media coverage compared the APC. Second, the PDP lost in 2015. So the informal campaign strategies – attending funerals and weddings, or ranting about colonialism in the opinion pages – were not very effective for the PDP. They would have been better off talking about reducing gender disparities in school enrollment or highlighting recent economic diversification.

  • Your content analysis is not accurate because it does not include local radio or social media.

This has come up a lot. I did a content analysis in 2010 (in Africa Today) that included radio and print, so it is possible. But when you are talking about a presidential campaign, it is reasonable to assume that when the candidate makes a comment, that comment is quoted across different mediums. This would not be the case if we were talking about a lower profile person. Nor does my analysis necessarily exclude local issues, such as coded local language meant to appeal to a region. For example, Jonathan might go to the Niger Delta, the oil producing region, and say “resource control.” But because we talking about a national campaign, those comments become smaller data points in the overall picture because the goal is to win a national office: the presidency.

Finally, I think 2,390 articles from three different newspapers produced a representative sample of the campaign content.

  • Would this analysis of campaigns hold at the state level?

Probably not, and that would be a great project. Michelle Kuenzi and Gina Lambright did a rigorous and unique study of gubernatorial rhetoric in the 2007 elections. Governors have to talk about different things to get elected, and after 20 year of democracy, we still know little about their actual linkages to the center. The topic is ripe for research. I would start with a good empirical analysis of coattail effects to see how running on the same ticket as the president affects the governor’s likelihood of winning. But even that would be hard because of “split ticket” voting in Nigeria, where a voter votes for one party for governor and another for president. This was common in 2003.

  • What does your analysis tell us about which kinds of communication are actually effective? How would your research design differ if the book was about 2019?

Evaluating effectiveness of different rhetoric techniques would probably require some sort of additional “discourse” analysis. The brief discussion of #BringBackOurGirls in the book suggests that the PDP’s rhetoric and messaging were both ineffective and counterproductive.

I do show in Chapter 3 that the parties systematically talked about different things. The statistical analysis in Chapter 4 then shows that the party that got more votes across states – the APC – actually emphasized those same clusters of issues: the economy, corruption, and electoral integrity.

A study of the 2019 elections would require a rather different research design. I would likely want to look at social media’s “amplification effects” rather than the content of campaigns. And maybe how different sources of news shaped voter preferences differently.

Voting in Lagos, 2019
  • Illiterate people tend to vote on ethnicity or religion. Their understanding of politics is simple and issues don’t really matter to them.

From the slums of Port-au-Prince to the forests of Adamawa State, that has not been my experience. Poor people may operate on different “information shortcuts” and they might use simple language. But they often have relatively sophisticated ideas about politics.

Chapters 4 and 5 show that lower income people overwhelmingly voted for Buhari in 2015, as did people with more negative perceptions of economic performance over the previous year. This is consistent with a study that I did with Matthew Page and Yoonbin Ha, published in Review of African Political Economy, using slightly different data.

The big question in Nigeria is where the new middle class stands, and what it is willing to tolerate from the current political class.

  • What about “group think”? It seems to be a missing link in your causal story.

Great point. With regard to the tests on insecurity, I do draw from social psychology research and ideas of “affective intelligence theory,” which suggests that traumatic incidents create a heightened sense of political awareness or scrutiny. (We might observe these effects, for example, with increased voter turnout or incumbent vulnerability.) This is less explicit with regard to the hypotheses examining economic voting, but given the winning candidates’ consistent messaging, group think of some kind is a reasonable idea.

  • How did the two major parties in 2015 approach gender differently?

It’s hard to say without going back and re-reading what they said, with that question in mind. My main point for now is that it is an unclaimed issue. I believe a coherent party agenda around women’s issue priorities, and the recruitment of more women mainstreamed into the party, can help that party win. Neither party in 2015 understood this, and PDP made a mistake by not sufficiently emphasizing the progress Jonathan’s administration made in girls’ education and several other gender indicators.

Looking to the future, I would also hope to see research about how Internally Displaced Persons are likely to disrupt conservative social structures in the northeast. There are millions of women and girls who have now practiced leadership through the necessity of survival, often without the usual patriarchical structures around. What will they do with these skills and expectations once the war is over? Research by Hilary Matfess raises important questions along these lines.

  • You assume that the Independent National Electoral Commission was transparent. I disagree.

I do not think INEC was or is sufficiently transparent. The law requires all the electoral results to be published down to the polling unit level. Where are they? And why haven’t the donors (or civil society) made post-election information management a higher priority for technical assistance?

I do discuss two important things: in Chapter 3, I show that the APC promised better and more transparent primaries, and it campaigned on electoral integrity more than the PDP. Other scholars such as Darren Kew had already noted this; I provide some additional empirical evidence. Second, in Chapter 5, using a statistically sampled nationwide survey, I show that PDP supporters were less skeptical of INEC. The APC’s skepticism corresponded with its promises for electoral integrity.

  • Can there be a “third force” in politics? Does Nigeria need one?

It’s hard to imagine an independent candidacy or a third party being successful for the foreseeable future. The two largest parties got 95 percent of the vote in 2015, and this is the culmination of a long trend in that direction. I know many people in Nigeria support independent candidates. But who would be viable? A really, really rich person. I also think the constitutional requirement to have a presence across the states is a good one, and hard requirement for an independent candidate to meet.

I think popular movements such as #BringBackOurGirls or campaigns like #NotTooYoungtoRun are the building blocks of reforms. If such movements can build real momentum, with a nationwide presence and the ability to make vertically integrated decisions with a grassroots base, I can see them pushing their way into a party and shaping it. But they also have to identify new winning issues.

  • I am running for president in 2023. Does populism win?

It does for now. But as we have seen in Venezuela, and as we will soon see in the United States, it is hard to sustain. Don’t formulate your platform yet.

The question and answer session at Nextier Abuja, during the book launch for “Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror”

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