The endorsement game
Iam intrigued by the flurry of endorsements swirling over the heads of the two, arguably, leading presidential candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. And I wonder, what effect does an endorsement have on the political fortunes of presidential and governorship candidates?
I know this for sure. We are partly imitating what happens in the United States and partly subjecting the political culture of the Yankees to what is known as the Nigerian factor. In the US, an endorsement of a presidential candidate by politicians who have more or less become political institutions in their own right, is important because it helps to sway their own supporters who rely on their superior political judgement about the suitability of a particular candidate for the highest political office in the land. Those who are sitting on the fence are persuaded by such endorsements to come down and make up their mind about the candidate/s approved by the important political voices. It is about America.
American presidential candidates openly shop for such endorsements because they offer them a massive political capital. In 2008, the late Senator Edward Kennedy endorsed candidate Barack Obama. Obama reaped great political capital from that endorsement. In endorsing him, Kennedy rejected Hillary Clinton. It enraged her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Endorsements by individuals have become part of their respected political culture.
Ours? Well, if we leave out the imitation on the part of Nigerians, what do such endorsements amount to in terms of political capital? What, indeed, is the relevance of endorsements in our political system?
I can find perhaps the reason but not the rhyme for them. And the truth is that these endorsements are for sale. Or, to be polite about it, the endorsee says a big thank you to the endorser. With the 2019 electioneering campaigns kicking off only last week, we are already swamped in a flurry of endorsements by ethnic groups and groups formed expressly to perform this function in respect of particular individuals.
An endorsement in our own political culture is about two things: money and the careful calculation for power grab, otherwise known as power shift. In the natural order of things, individuals and groups that have no electoral values mock the system when they endorse a presidential or governorship candidatebecausetheirendorsements are not likely to translate into electoral capital. No matter. It is a game.
I find three groups that are adept in this endorsement game. The first group is made up of the ethnic associations, such as Ohaneze, the Igbo ethnic group in the vanguard of fightingforandprotectingthepolitical and other interests of the Ndigbo; Afenifere, its Yoruba counterpart, doing the same for the Yoruba and South-South Consultative Forum, their minority counterpart in the South-South geo-political region in the struggle for the collective voice of the disparate tribes in that region to be heard and be reckoned with in the national power calculations. The Arewa Consultative Forum is, of course, trying to be relevant in the tribal struggle too. But it is not as politically aggressive as Ohaneze and Afenifere. Its weakness is that it purports to represent and speak for a region, not a tribe or a collection of tribes. Its leaders are wary of jumping head first into the fast moving wagon of endorsements.
The second group of endorsers are the traditional rulers who are required by our traditional culture to confer royal blessings on presidential and other candidates. They try to do so in an even-handed manner by being nice to everyone who seeks their blessings. You are the one, biko.
In the third group of endorsers are the preachers, aka, men of God, the good and sinless men with private mobile telephones to the divine throne where the affairs of mankind are decided. Perhaps, the most vocal of them is the Catholic priest, Rev Father Mbaka. He endorsed candidate Buhari in 2015, telling the then sitting president Goodluck Jonathan to go home. And the electorate sent him home, perhaps not on the say so of the reverend father. But in the current political season, Buhari has lost his support. He has switched it to candidate Atiku. And the president’s men are grumbling.
The three groups are arguably motivated differently although their meeting point is their claim to be helping the electorate to make a rational choice for the country and parts thereof. An endorsement by a traditional ruler cannot translate into more votes but in our traditional system, the blessing of a royal father is something to treasure by those who receive it. The royal fathers in turn receive a generous thank you from those they bless. Quid pro quo.
The preachers find some relevance in the system because they are the prayer warriors, the only group of people who can forcefully persuade the divine to say yes to someone on whose behalf they harangue him. During the 2011 election season, Jonathan cultivated them, moving from one worship place to another. He was photographed kneeling in a prayer session before Pastor Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. The photograph went viral. The men of God too are given grateful thanks by endorsees in envelopes that look like Ghana-must-go bags.
Of the three groups, the ethnics groups would be considered the true endorsers. Because they represent their ethnic groups. The voters are tribesmen and women. These ethnic groups promote themselves as the spokesmen for the tribes they represent. This claim carries a potential political capital. In their sales pitch, they make it look like if they endorse a particular presidential candidate, their tribes would vote en masse for that candidate.
There is yet no empirical study which shows that a man’s political fortunes are made by endorsements by ethnic groups. But politics is a game, even if, like all games, it needs some detergent. The belief that the ethnic groups have the clout makes it difficult for candidates to ignore them. It jolts the system each time a powerful ethnic group endorses a presidential candidate. The fear that such an endorsement is the holy and collective decision of the tribe is real and can be unsettling.
What is interesting about the ethnic group endorsements is that they do it as part of the calculation for power shift. They throw their weight, naturally, behind the candidate whose end of tenure promises them an easier and perhaps the sure path for a member of the tribe to become president. Although money still talks at this level, the main motivator is the promise of power shift. It is an important consideration, obviously. But it is also important not to forget that these ethnic endorsements are not about the most competent and the most qualified candidate to make Nigeria rise again. They are about ethnic political interests. It is not what is best for Nigeria but what is best for the tribes. It figures.