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Tinubu’s tomorrow from today

In this concluding part of early analysis of the chances of the four leading candidates in next year’s presidential election, it is only appropriate to…

In this concluding part of early analysis of the chances of the four leading candidates in next year’s presidential election, it is only appropriate to start with the issues that will not hurt the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. So far, among opposition candidates and their supporters, discussions on Tinubu have focused rather too much on issues around his age, health, background, wealth, and of course the composition of his presidential ticket. Even as recently as a few days ago, those issues dominated talks about Tinubu on Twitter, at least among the supporters of other candidates and parties.

With the exception of the composition of his presidential ticket, these are fair and important issues to raise against Tinubu or any other candidate. But those very familiar with the nature of electoral politics would know very well that in the areas where Tinubu already commands electoral strength, those issues will not weaken him in this contest. 

In the 2016 US presidential election, the Democrats said much worse against then Republican candidate, Donald J. Trump, in that historic contest with Hillary Clinton. Trump won still. Opposition research, as such issues and practices are called, does not damage a candidate among those who already support them, and only a little among the undecided. And for Tinubu in particular, if these issues did not prevent him from winning his party’s primary, there is not much chance that they will work against him in the general elections.

So, if those issues that opposition candidates and their supporters care so much about against candidate Tinubu would not much harm his chances, what are those issues that will help him? And what issues would realistically hurt his chances?

First, Tinubu presently has the strongest, widest and most diverse national base of support. This is illustrated in two ways. On the one hand, the original pact between the core political groups—the CPC, ACN, ANPP and remnants of the PDP, and their voting bases that formed the APC in 2013 and ushered them to victory in 2015 and 2019—is still largely intact. The higher exposure of being in government rather than in opposition, the difficulties of doing things in government rather than merely dishing out opposition press releases, and the rank personal opportunism that is at the heart of all politics in Nigeria have all considerably strained that original pact between these groups. But it remains, by and large, intact today. This is why for all the disaffections arising from the party primaries, the APC still appears less divided than the main opposition PDP, which can only work to the benefit of the APC candidate.

On the other hand, it is the case that in Nigerian elections, the elites and the voting masses of a region don’t always go together in the same direction. Until 2015, the elites and voting masses of the North went in different directions in relation to Buhari. Today, the voting masses of the South East and patches of them elsewhere appear to be going with the Labour Party (LP) candidate, Peter Obi. But there is still little indication that the elites of those regions are with him. Few, if any, governors, senators and leading politicians in the areas where Obi is popular have come out to publicly back him. And although this may change going into the elections, it remains today a drawback for a presidential ambition. Atiku and Kwankwaso currently lack both in sufficient measure.

Tinubu is lucky in this area, however. In the regions he has strength, he enjoys the support of both the elites and the voting masses, at least potentially so. In the South West, the North West, the North East, and even large parts of the North Central, the APC political pact still holds both elites and a majority of the voting masses together in the same direction, even if not as strong as in 2015. That’s four out of Nigeria’s six geopolitical regions, which also includes the first (North West), second (South West), third (North Central) and fifth (North East) in terms of electoral strength. 

In fact, with 41,004,564 million registered voters combined, the North West and the South West alone make up nearly half (43 per cent) of the total 96,303,016 million registered voters for these elections. No other party or candidate comes close to enjoying such a national political “structure” as at today.  

For sure, the candidates of the three other leading parties, for various reasons, will sap into Tinubu’s support in three of these four regions, but there is little indication today that they can dislodge it altogether. There is even much less indication that Tinubu will be dislodged by any of the other three candidates in the South West. If that happens, it will be a first in Nigeria’s electoral history because the Yoruba have never voted against a major Yoruba candidate in a Nigerian presidential election, except where the other candidate in the election is another Yoruba, as in 1999.  

And yet, two other factors work to the benefit of Tinubu. Of the four leading candidates, two would struggle to form a government even were they are elected today. No one has any idea how Obi will form a stable government even were the presidency handed out to him today. Kwankwaso of the NNPP would face the same problem. And so too would former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, though to a lesser extent than Obi and Kwankwaso. Tinubu, however, has the reach and manpower to form a new government. This factor would not decide the election one way or another, but these things still matter in a presidential election.

And then, there is Tinubu’s so-called Muslim-Muslim ticket. Those politicians and religious leaders who have vilified Tinubu and sought to weaken his political hand for choosing a Muslim running mate have had their day. But they may have unwittingly strengthened his hand. As an elderly friend and astute observer of Nigerian politics, then and now, told me in a private conversation last week, Tinubu’s choice of Shettima as running-mate, and the unnecessary outrage that greeted it in some quarters have in fact been interpreted by millions of other voters as a demonstration of a bold courage to stand up for Muslims in Nigerian politics where others might have baulked. This does not make the ticket or the contest a religious one, but it can only benefit the APC candidate going into the election.

In short, then, the electoral map currently looks better for Tinubu than for the other leading candidates. But good electoral maps are not votes counted and tallied. And it must be said that in Tinubu’s strengths also lie his weaknesses. These are many, but three are most significant. The first is the challenge of holding the APC coalition together up to and beyond Election Day. Having selected a running mate from the North East and the ANPP faction, both the candidate and his running mate must assure the other factions in the coalition that they are still in the loop.

The appointment of Governor simon Lalong of Plateau State to head the campaign council is a good step in this direction, but more such optics are important to reassure Christians in the APC, and in the country at large. But Tinubu’s greatest challenge lies in how he manages his association with Buhari and what he offers Buhari’s core voters in previous elections in terms of the concrete policy benefits of voting for him. He might pay an electoral price for straying too far away from Buhari, and pay another if he stays too close. Above all, Tinubu must not assume a direct transfer of support from Buhari to himself among voters. He would need to cultivate a bridge of support at the base as much as he now has at the top. He has started well so far, but how he handles things going forward could well decide his fate in this election, at least as far as the eyes can see from today.