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Lessons from the Third Force Nigeria's 2019 Elections in Review

Every Nigerian election cycle is encapsulated by a stirring act or image that essentially captures the emotions, feelings and other intangibles of the electorate which are obvious to the uninitiated. The 2015 election cycle was characterized by the ‘coalition of the disgruntled’, referring to the manner in which the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) was able to recruit some big wigs from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) with no underlying philosophy other than their antipathy towards President Jonathan. These big wigs included then-Senator Bukola Saraki, Kano State Governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso and Rivers State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi. At the time, this meant that going into the elections, for the first time in the Fourth Republic, the states of Lagos, Rivers and Kano—the states with the highest number of eligible voters were all in the hands of one party—the opposition party.

In 2019, one of the resonant images of the election cycle took place at what had been billed a Presidential debate. The debate, however, effectively served as a beauty pageant between the Third Force candidates of Kingsley Moghalu, Oby Ezekwesili and Fela Durotoye.

BREAKING THE APC/PDP DICHOTOMY

The ‘Third Force’ served as the colloquial term used to refer to political parties and candidates outside the dichotomy of the ruling APC and the sixteen-year ruling PDP. The idea of a Third Force entered the national lexicon after one of the now trademark letters of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo. In the infamous letter, Obasanjo condemned both the APC and PDP and spoke of the need for a ‘coalition of the concerned and the willing – ready for positive and drastic change, progress and involvement’ as an alternative. It was from here the notion of a ‘third force party’ gained currency. The Nigerian Intervention Movement led by distinguished lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba framed itselfas a ‘3rd Force Coalition’. The body consisted of figures like former Central Bank Governor, Charles Soludo, former Cross River State Governor, Donald Duke, Professor Pat Utomi and former Education Minister, Oby Ezekwesili. The coalition made limited impact as some of the aforementioned actors would go on to pursue their ambitions away from the platform.

In the 2019 elections, the Third Force largely comprised of a crop of technocrats and repatriates who argued that their ambitions could not be pursued within the stale and corrupt frameworks of the APC and PDP. With this in mind, they set about taking advantage of the country’s pluralist political system.

GONE IN A FLASH

On January 19 2019, a ‘presidential’ debate organized by the Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria, in partnership with Nigerian Election Debate Group took place. President Muhammadu Buhari of the APC, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, Kingsley Moghalu of the YPP, Oby Ezekwisili of the ACPN and Fela Durotoye of the ANN were billed to participate. President Buhari was a no-show, while Atiku made it to the venue and was even pictured with his fellow contestants but opted against participating due to Buhari’s absence. Atiku’s absence meant Durotoye, Ezekwisili and Moghalu would square up against themselves. The best of the rest.

Third force parties failed to make a splash in the general elections. Ezekwesili would go on to drop out of the race. Durotoye, Moghalu, Donald Duke and Sowore cumulatively all failed to earn 1 per cent of the votes. The largely unknown Felix Nicholas of the strategically named People’s Coalition Party (PCP) came third in the elections owing, arguably, to his party’s similarities to PDP, name-wise. This and the failed attempt at a coalition raise a sensible question about the odds and realities that go into seeking office in the face of a likely defeat i.e. How feasibly can the APC/PDP dichotomy be broken?

HOPE AS THE OPIUM OF THE POLITICIAN

Hope is the currency in which politicians deal. No two politicians in recent times have embodied this better than former US president, Barack Obama, and Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari. Obama’s iconic 2008 campaign used the slogan ‘Change we can believe in’ and the chant ‘Yes, we can’. Those slogans spoke to the limitless possibilities in a country like the United States, which, with its history of racial inequality, saw itself embracing an African American constitutional law lecturer. Obama’s successful campaign was the embodiment of the American Dream—that American ethos articulated by James Truslow Adams that projects the notion of ‘a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.’ Anchored around the idea of meritocracy, Obama—the Hawaii-bred son of a Kenyan father and white American mother—who spent a year in Indonesia and got an Ivy League education twice was a testimony to the best of those American values.

President Buhari’s 2015 campaign took a leaf from Obama’s and went simply ‘Change’. This was possibly a result of the engagement of Obama’s ex campaign chief, David Axelrod as a consultant to the APC. The vagueness of the campaign proved to be a strength as it enabled voters to project the ideals they sought in their prospective president on it. Change from corruption? Tick. Change from Boko Haram? Tick. Change in the economy? Tick. Buhari’s campaign was able to use Buhari’s person as a signifier for the change it was ostensibly proposing. A president whose past as a military dictator was referenced as a potential sticking point opted for a more visually inclusive campaign. Buhari was pictured wearing the native attires of the three major ethnic tribes. The general was reformed as a civilian, and Buhari referred to himself as a ‘converted democrat’. Change indeed was here. Or so we thought.

Arguably, Buhari and Obama were exceptional outliers in their respective domains. Politics is often a zero-sum game where the ends can be used to justify the means and it is understandable that political candidates, during campaign season, will look to accentuate their strengths in the hope that the electorate will be able to buy into it. There’s also the psychological effect of effectively admitting defeat before going to war. I saw this firsthand during this election campaign as my good friend, Olaseni Makanjuola, attempted to unseat Nollywood favorite Desmond Elliot as the representative of the Surulere constituency in the Lagos State House of Assembly. ‘Seni was running on the platform of Youth Party, a party that was registered as part of the most recent batch of political parties. I’m still not sure if he truly believed he could win but each time I spoke to Seni during his campaign, his rhetoric was defiant. He believed he was the best candidate in the race and held on to this view despite the fact that Elliot’s celebrity past and incumbency put him at a distinct advantage. This psychological ploy of reassurance could explain why politicians are most lucid in defeat.

PARTIES AS A STALKING HORSE

The episode surrounding Ezekwesili’s withdrawal from the race revealed the more cynical nature of politics outside the two-party duopoly. ‘Aunty Oby’, as she is more affectionately known, withdrew from the race less than a month to the elections citing a ‘focus on helping to build a coalition for a viable alternative to the #APCPDP in the 2019 general elections’. Shortly after her withdrawal, the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN) under whose platform she was running effectively threw her under the bus suggesting she was negotiating a bid for the Finance Minister position within a potential second Buhari administration. This did not seem to prevent the party from going on to endorse President Buhari.

In the post 1999 democratic era, third force parties have at times, held the role of spoilers. With the right candidates, these third force parties can make inroads knowing that while victory remains unlikely, they have built strong enough platforms upon which they can trade horses with the major parties. This is particularly common in the days leading to the elections where the stakes are higher. For example, former Lagos State governor, Bola Tinubu, surreptitiously supported the PDP’s presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan in 2011. More recently, we saw this in 2018 during the Osun gubernatorial election where Iyiola Omisore of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) ‘collapsed his structure’ into that of the ruling APC as a re-run election loomed.

This is a mode of self-preservation by way of alignment with a bigger party. For those outside the major parties, these political platforms are used as stalking horses, which raises the question of how the hegemony of the APC and PDP can be challenged when a large number of the parties on the fringe, arguably, seek to serve as their proxies.

WHAT NEXT?

Looking forward, it remains to be seen how the wave of third force parties can take advantage of the disaffection with the status quo by throwing up compelling personalities who can also win electoral contests. At the presidential level, it is unlikely that people can be convinced to vote idealistically for candidates in whom they trust but are ultimately unknown quantities. The stakes are lower at the representative levels and securing those type of seats is perhaps more realistic.

The ACPN’s disavowal of Oby Ezekwesili highlighted one of the oft-cited weaknesses of the third force parties—their structural deficiencies mean they could always be picked off by the proverbial big boys. That episode underlined the importance of building a structure from the bottom up as opposed to piggybacking off an already existing platform with well-hidden skeletons. In the future, third force parties will need to take a long-term viewpoint and start doing the necessary groundwork of engaging voters at the grassroots level or they risk making the same mistakes in 2023