Soon after the results of the presidential primaries of the two major parties were announced on Sunday, a friend called me sounding despondent. He had voted for President Muhammadu Buhari since 2003, and was ecstatic when Buhari finally won at his fourth attempt in 2015.
Three years on, however, he is struggling to give Buhari a C, where C is less than average in security, the economy and the fight against corruption – three major areas where he promised change.
By Buhari’s record, trusting him with another four years would be a dangerous leap of faith. It’s not just about what he says or what he means by what he says. What he has done, so far, leaves very little confidence that he’s in charge or can be in charge. He is absent.
If the news from the Eagles Square in Abuja where the equivalent of nearly one quarter of the entire voter population in 2015 was said to have endorsed Buhari was cheerless, my friend was not amused by what happened at the Adokiye Amiesimaka Stadium in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
On Sunday night, roughly half the delegates were said to have voted for former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in next year’s election. Atiku has emerged from third place in the last primaries of this former party and his frequent position as wannabe-in-chief, to flagbearer yet again.
There’s a desperate edge about his quest for compromise and power that hints at a darker, uncomfortable quality about the man. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there – just beneath that veneer of a strategic fighter and a generous heart.
Atiku is not a criminal, whatever anyone might say. But relentless wave after wave of corruption charges made against him since his former boss, President Olusegun Obasanjo, opened the floodgates in 2003 have left him with his head barely above the murky waters.
Besides that, how he and his former boss managed to build their business empires from their supposedly modest incomes and also found money to build some of the best private schools in the country, while the public school system collapsed on their watch, have never been satisfactorily explained.
In short, the only thing starker than Buhari v ‘Go-and-get-your PVC’ appears to be Buhari v Atiku. Yet public analyses of the outcome of the primaries in Abuja and Port Harcourt appear to suggest that the other 24 or so candidates who had also emerged from their parties’ primaries by Sunday, are wasting their time: It will be Buhari v Atiku, period.
Maybe. But just maybe. The figures have not been kind to those, like my friend, fighting off the despondency to accept that it might be a settled fight between Buhari and Atiku. In all four general elections since 2003, the highest number of third candidate vote in a presidential election was 2.6m or 7.4 per cent by Atiku Abubakar who ran on the ticket of the Action Congress of Nigeria in 2007.
And even in that year the gap between him and Goodluck Jonathan who won the election was over 22million votes, while Buhari, who came second, beat Atiku by over four million votes.
The last general election was worse for the third place candidate. The first and second candidates – Buhari and Jonathan – scored nearly 60 per cent of the total valid votes, while the other 12 shared the remaining with the highest among them, Adebayo Ayeni of African Peoples Alliance, scoring only 53,537 votes.
Apart from the historical figures, politics in Nigeria is also structured to make it as prohibitive as possible outside a two-party system. The PDP has, at least in name, remained a constant in the last 20 years, with branches and network right across the farthest parts of the country.
The other two parties that were formed at the same time, the APP and the AD, have, however, morphed and splintered and morphed again with their footprints in the ruling APC and their shells strewn about the different franchises of both the opposition PDP and a dozen other parties.
What we see, at least in form, if not in substance, are two main parties that have used their access to power over the years to entrench themselves, in spite of their woeful performance. While they have yielded to pressure by making cosmetic changes to open up the space they have also ensured that it would be easier for water to run up the hill than it would be to create a level playing field for new parties outside the two main parties.
That’s why even though we have 26 presidential candidates and over 85 parties compared with 14 presidential candidates and 68 parties four years ago, we still appear stuck with Tweedle-dee and Tweedledum.
Yet, it may not be business as usual. Why? Whatever the final number of registered voters, my guess is that two things would happen: 1) voter apathy may be higher than it was four years ago, and 2) there would be a much higher number of undecided voters right down to the wire.
Buhari’s poor performance has created a large army of discontented voters who had flocked to register in the hope that the PDP – or any alliance of other parties – might produce a candidate that would be a genuine departure from the hubris of the last 19 years.
That this particular group is unhappy with Buhari does not necessarily mean that they see Atiku as alternative.
How can millions of young people stage a campaign for years calling for greater inclusion after getting a half-hearted legislative amendment that lowers the barrier to run for key political offices, only to be confronted with the grim prospect of two candidates over 70, both from the major parties, vying for the highest office in the land?
How can millions of youths who have been plainly disenchanted by the fickleness and lack of scruples shown by shameless party jumpers queue up on election day to vote for the same politicians, one way or the other?
How can youths be motivated to vote for Buhari who offhandedly called them “lazy”, even though he has fully lived a life of entitlement, or Atiku whose public life they can barely use as a moral compass? How?
The prospects are truly daunting. If less than 50 per cent of the registered voters turned out in 2015 when Buhari was supposed to be the prince in shining armour, my guess is that his poor performance, coupled with the controversial outcome of the elections in Ekiti and Osun states, could lead to voter apathy, at least in the presidential election.
And swathes of those not completely put off may be keeping their voter card close to their chest looking for who to vote for among the 24 candidates of the other parties.
It’s a moment of opportunity which, given the limitation of time and resources, the smaller, newer parties can only seize by combining their strengths and presenting a common front, possibly in a loose coalition.
That’s the only way to save the presidential race from becoming another pathetic, miserable two-way race.
Ishiekwene is the managing director/editor-in-chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network