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Tinubu and the ‘checkpoint security’ factor

How did former President Goodluck Jonathan lose the 2015 election? And what lessons should the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and its presidential candidate, Asiwaju…

How did former President Goodluck Jonathan lose the 2015 election? And what lessons should the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and its presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, learn from it? The first question has elicited at least two books: Olusegun Adeniyi’s Against the Run of Play: How an Incumbent President Was Defeated in Nigeria and Bolaji Abdullahi’s On a Platter of Gold: How Jonathan Won and Lost Nigeria.  

When I read both books, many months apart, I thought the authors got their analyses right, but still missed the one factor that accounted for Jonathan’s defeat in that election than any other. It is what I call the “checkpoint security factor”. President Jonathan lost the 2015 election principally because of the things that happened at security checkpoints mounted within and between cities and towns throughout northern Nigeria in the name of keeping security.   

My theory is this. Unless in the context of an all-out war, most violent conflicts occur only in pockets of places within a country. So too are the physical and psychological effects they unleash. In the case of Boko Haram during 2013-2015, the conflict was largely restricted to the three northeastern states: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, in that order of intensity. Most Nigerians in the remaining 16 states in the North and all of the southern states had very little direct experience of Boko Haram violence during those two years preceding the election, other than through news coverage of it. Even the occasional bombings in Kaduna had subsided considerably by 2013.  

Unfortunately, Jonathan’s government mounted checkpoints manned by soldiers both within and between northern towns and cities. In my view, these checkpoints cost Jonathan the election because they did three things to northern voters. First, the checkpoints created a siege mentality among millions of residents in most northern towns and cities, and thereby raised the psychological effects of a conflict they didn’t experience directly to hysterical levels. Going to work, to school, to the market, or back home became a daily nightmare for millions of Nigerians this side of the country. And it is truly a reflection of the staggering imbalance of cultural power in Nigeria that the story of those checkpoints has still not been told fully.  

Second, even though the checkpoints were effectively useless for security purposes, they became hubs for daily humiliation and brutalisation of ordinary citizens by the soldiers who manned those posts within northern cities and towns. Many people endured indignities like frog jumps and floggings. And some were in fact killed at those posts from unfortunate but generally avoidable circumstances. In effect, the checkpoints became symbols of injustice and oppression directed against a people specifically for what the state thought they were.  

Third, politicians and religious leaders in the North then seized upon this situation and turned all talk about insecurity against the government itself. Boko Haram, the narrative went, was simply the Jonathan government itself. This narrative was not true, of course, but the symbolism of the checkpoints, and the terrifying stories that emanated from them daily, lent forceful credence to it in the minds of millions. Jonathan and his government became the ‘real enemy’ to be routed out at the polls.  

It was in this context that the 2015 elections were conducted, and the results were tactically telling on the outcome. In 2011, Jonathan lost the presidential election in 11 northern states, and won in eight. But even the northern states where he lost, he still won the golden threshold of 25 per cent or more of the votes in eight of those 11 states, including in Katsina, Jigawa, Gombe, Niger, Sokoto and Zamfara. He won less than 25 per cent in only Kano, Bauchi and Yobe. These 25 per cent or above that he won in those eight states, not only increased his overall tally but also enabled him to attain the required national spread of 25 per cent of the votes in 24 states to win.   

By 2015, however, the reverse in these numbers by the same voters was staggering. Jonathan lost five of the eight northern states he previously won, and scored less than 25 per cent in all the eight states where he had done better in 2011. In my view, the checkpoints, and what they came to mean to voters across most northern states, had a massive impact on that outcome, even though other factors also played their part. No wonder President Muhammadu Buhari’s first action on assuming office was to order their withdrawal with immediate effect.  

My point, however, is not about Jonathan’s defeat. That episode is long past and Jonathan actually left office on a high as Nigeria’s most celebrated outgoing president. The lesson here for the APC is simple: even a ruling party may not win an election under an atmosphere of pervasive insecurity. And for all intents and purposes, checkpoint security is now back with a vengeance in the North and beyond, if in a different form.

Checkpoints manned by soldiers may have disappeared, but they have been replaced with those manned by bandits, terrorists, kidnappers and sundry criminals of all kinds in too many northern states. And more than that, they have been compounded by other kinds of checkpoints in the economy and society.  

This represents a serious electoral threat to the APC. Going into the 2023 elections, the APC’s winning electoral strategy remains the same as that proved successful in 2015 and 2019: win the majority votes in the northern and southwestern states, especially those states with the most numerical electoral strength. This overall strategy remains plausible, but to work, the APC government must first clear the new checkpoints, and they must do so well before the elections.  

This is where matters get a bit more complicated for Tinubu because checkpoint security this time could significantly depress voter turnout in the North, which can then have serious consequences for the party in the election. The APC, Tinubu and his campaign machine must all realise that it will be asking too much to expect to win the election under the present general conditions of security and economy in the country. Yes, the real voters in Nigerian elections don’t care much about Tinubu’s certificates or the composition of his presidential ticket. This is particularly true of voters being targeted by the APC in this election, as in 2019 and 2015.  

But they care about security in their daily lives, and about the high prices of food, fuel, and other daily needs. They may not turn out to vote, or may not vote the APC and its candidate if the current living conditions in the country are not stabilised to a reasonable level. In other words, the APC, Tinubu and his campaign, and all other stakeholders in the party and beyond must find a way to influence Buhari’s government to stabilise the affairs of the country well before the end of this year.

The APC and its presidential candidate can only benefit from a Buhari government leaving office on a high; or they can suffer electoral damage from the current atmosphere of a new checkpoint security compounded by bread-and-butter issues. This is the lesson of checkpoint security in 2015 which the APC must learn.