I ran for the Office of the President of Nigeria in the 2019 elections, campaigning across 30 states of the country in a grueling 12-month marathon of road trips and commercial flights, market visits (with lots of dancing in the public square!), road caravans and town halls, and issue-based messaging across various media platforms. Like several other “alternative” candidates, I lost the election at the ballot box. But we won an important victory: we have changed the political narrative. By challenging the status quo, presenting an alternative vision for our country and bringing hope to many citizens who had lost it, we have begun an important, necessary journey towards our national redemption.
Rome was not built in a day. In running (to win, not that “I also ran”) for president I took a bold, calculated risk, sacrificing safety, personal resources and income streams, and quality family life because I was fed up with the failure of governance and economic management in our country. Rising poverty, unemployment and instability remain our agonizing reality. Personal success is increasingly meaningless in such an existential mess.
The 2019 elections were in many locations akin to war. Soldiers, who should defend us from external aggression, were actively and aggressively involved in domestic “special duties”. The process was marred by an orgy of vote-buying, rigging, vote-suppression and violence, all superintended by the chaotic operations of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Voting at my polling unit in Nnewi North LGA, my home town, opened three hours late as a result of card reader malfunction. At some point the card readers failed again. Voting went on manually, against INEC regulations. I observed that there was no privacy for the ballot boxes, so anyone milling around behind a voter could potentially see his or her voting choices. The “business” of vote-buying proceeded merrily apace in a corner of the voting premises. From several states around the country we received credible reports that votes cast for the Young Progressives Party (YPP), my party platform for the 2019 elections, were being diverted.
Much of this was not surprising. But the elections have left me wondering if Nigeria is truly a democracy. Or do we merely have a four-yearly ritual in which political cabals renew their hold on power by using a form but not the substance of democracy? As the character Archie said in the British playwright Tom Stoppard’s play “Jumpers”, “it’s not the voting that is democracy, it’s the counting”.
We must overhaul our electoral laws and procedures, including institutional reform of INEC by reviewing the legal framework for the electoral umpire. INEC must enable and prepare for our citizens who live abroad to be able to vote overseas in 2023. Nigerians in Diaspora remitted $25 billion home in 2018, not far behind crude oil, our god of small things, and yet they can’t vote abroad. How so? If we don’t reform our voting procedures as an urgent matter, we are not serious. Our votes must be counted and must count. Democracy is rarely perfect anywhere, but in Nigeria it’s in a crisis, and it will die if something is not done quickly.
The best path forward is to utilise technology and move to e-voting. We achieved this kind of game-changing reform in our financial and payment systems at the Lamido Sanusi-led Central Bank of Nigeria between 2009 and 2014, when I headed the Financial System Stability and Operations directorates that implemented several of these reforms. Today, every Nigerian can transact banking business and make payments much faster, efficiently and transparently using several platforms like ATMs, online or telephone banking, PoS machines, and the Bank Verification Number (BVN). We achieved these milestones because we were focused, operationally independent from political interference, and had the political will to improve the economy with a modern financial and payments system that is ahead of those of many developed countries.
The other We can adapt these technologies for the voting process, plugging many loopholes for electoral fraud in the present system that is largely manual and antiquated. Yes, there are risks with electronic voting and collation, but they can be managed with effective risk management. In any case those risks are small beer compared to what happened in the 2019 elections.
The political outcome of the polls, reflected in the continuing electoral dominance of the APC and PDP, points to the mindset of our society at this time. Timing and a severe lack of political education in our populace played key roles in 2019. Millions of Nigerians heard my message. Many claimed they loved the message and the messenger. But for sentimental reasons millions, including many of my sympathisers and initial supporters voted for the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari and the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar. PMB voters wanted him to get a second term in office. Those opposed to him voted mainly for Atiku, “atikulating” the view that the Waziri Adamawa was the only one who could take down the incumbent president. So, between the timing of our 2019 run and cynical voter calculations about the ability to win, vision, capacity and policy prescriptions for real progress took second place. Money, of course, also was an issue. I firmly refused to engage in vote-buying, which was perhaps the most insidious plague of the elections. For me though, none of these calculations diminishes the value, validity or impact of my 2019 candidacy.
If the poor succumbed to the weaponisation of their status by politicians, our educated middle class and elite are just as culpable of a warped mindset. These are the men and women who ought to lead a change in voting behaviour. But no. Cynical of the possibilities for real change, they band with the status quo politicians in order to secure economic opportunities in a rentier economy. The reluctance of the middle class to play a positive role towards a paradigm shift is a huge lost opportunity for our democracy.
As for the youth, they made much noise on the overrated social media but did not vote in their numbers in 2019. Many young people also succumbed to the ability-to-win argument, leading the charge for the old establishment candidates. Some were discouraged by the failure of the new generation alternatives to produce a consensus candidate in a coalition. That’s a lame excuse. Coalitions are not formed by force or at gunpoint. Only candidates truly willing to form a coalition (which is very different from “forming” the desire for one) can do so. Behaving as if anyone owed them a coalition or consensus candidate was therefore a cop-out from having to make an informed democratic choice. They should instead have voted for the “youth” candidate of their choice.
I certainly had hoped that a coalition of younger, vibrant candidates could come together. But many shenanigans got in the way. The most important but less obvious reason it didn’t happen was that many so-called alternatives were in fact agents and puppets of the status quo establishment politicians and therefore were not truly independent candidates. Subsequent and recent events in the elections and the run-up to them have pointed to this truth. The puppet masters, who viewed my candidacy as a potentially serious one and were somewhat nervous about it particularly because of the question of its timing, encouraged several of these youth candidates to remain in the race and so divide the youth vote. As it turned out, the youth themselves did not vote in their millions for our candidacies, let alone dealing with the matter of “divided votes”.
Despite pressures, I declined to step down for the presidential candidates of either the PDP or the APC and have no regrets for that decision. I was running on a vision for our country’s future and not for opportunism. There simply was no question in my mind of abandoning my followers mid-stream and cutting a deal for myself. I became the only presidential candidate targeted by a covert fake news campaign on social media by BOTH PDP and APC in the last days of the campaign. The fake news, vigorously distributed to millions of voters in both the northern and southern parts of the country by Whatsapp and other means, claimed that I had “finally” agreed to step down for either President Buhari or Atiku Abubakar. My campaign vigorously rebutted these false propaganda, but as it was already very late in the game, many voters were swayed by these tricks.
Looking back, there were four high points for me in our campaign for the presidency. First, we set the pace. We launched the campaign in February 2018 in Abuja, where I was joined on the stage by my wife and children as I concluded my announcement speech. This was a departure from the norm, as was my precedent-setting choice months later of a woman as my vice-presidential running mate, and setting out my vision in a book, “Build, Innovate and Grow (BIG)” with ideas that were subsequently plagiarised by several other candidates! Second, it was energising to have met with ordinary Nigerians like market men and women, widows and students around the country, and to have been received so very warmly in the North, South, East and West.
A third high point was the official presidential debate. This debate was viewed and heard by an estimated 60 million Nigerians, and turned out a great opportunity to have shared my vision and policy stances with so many compatriots at the same time. Finally, the endorsements and support I received from a number of individuals and groups who courageously went on the public record with their views, was deeply encouraging. I have in mind the endorsements from the Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka and his Citizens Forum group, His Royal Majesty Oba Enitan Ogunwusi, the Ooni of Ife, the Christian Social Movement of Nigeria led by Solomon Asemota SAN, the Southern and Middle Belt Youth Forum, and the newspaper columnist Femi Aribisala.
I am glad I stood up in 2019 to be counted for Nigeria. “Do not despise these small beginnings”, the Good Book says, “for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand”. At least I can say to my children: “I did something to make the future of your generation a better one”. I may not be a direct beneficiary of this struggle. It doesn’t matter. To everyone who voted for my candidacy or otherwise supported me I say: Thank you. Daalu. Na gode. Ese gan.