It is almost clichéd now to say that the South-west is where the February 14 presidential election will be won and lost. This ‘fresh cliché’ is based on a number of issues. One is the likelihood that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) might even themselves out in the five other zones. Two is the possibility that, in this zero-sum game, the South-west might not vote exactly the way it did in the last presidential election. Three is the suspicion that the zone is still in play and thus open to both parties. And four is the sheer number of votes at stake in the South-west and how even a slight edge here might tilt the scale: around 14 million votes, the second highest in the six zones, and almost 20 per cent of the total registered voters in the country.
Both parties have been boasting about how they will steamroll the other in the South-west. It is the season of boasts, so these claims might be a bit exaggerated. My guess is that what is going on is deft political mind-games on one hand and smart ploy for campaign largesse extraction on the other. Beyond this however, the zone has become very critical to the calculations of both parties as yielding or not gaining ground could be fatal. Even when there are noticeable shifts in zones previously deemed safe for the parties, the South-west remains the main electoral battleground, and one that will be hotly contested. So expect some disproportionate deployment of time, resources and even security in the zone.
The South-west is no stranger to being hotly contested, as there has always been a fierce battle for the soul of the zone/region, an issue I will return to shortly. What is different this time is that this is more than the usual internal battle for control. As some commentators have noted, the South-west is ‘the beautiful bride’ of this electoral cycle. This has never happened before and is a strange spot for the zone. What will the South-west do with this unusual attention and the rare power to determine the outcome of a historic presidential election? What will determine the direction the South-west will vote on February 14? Below are the factors that I think will be at play:
The Balance of Political Forces: political structures are critical to electoral outcomes especially in developing democracies where, through patronage systems, political lords have strongholds on their followers. On the surface, APC has the edge over PDP in the zone, since APC controls four out of the six South-west states. But reality is a bit more nuanced for a few reasons. One, both parties have strong presence in the zone, with PDP controlling five of the six states until just a few years ago. Two, APC is on shaky grounds in some of the states under its control. This however could be more of a reflection of local politics and may or may not be an accurate predictor of how people will vote in the presidential election.
Three is that a sizeable number of non-Yorubas (Igbos, Niger Deltans, Middle Belters and core Northerners) live in Lagos, the state with about 40 per cent of the votes in the South-west. This means non-Yoruba residents of Lagos could exercise more than marginal influence on the outcome of votes in the zone, whether they vote with the mainstream in the region or not. However, that is not a suggestion that all Yorubas and all members of other ethnic groups resident in Lagos will vote in the same direction.
And four is that the South-west today is a fractured political zone. There are too many political lords in the zone, from Senator Bola Tinubu to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, Governor Ayo Fayose, Alhaji Rashidi Ladoja, Chief Segun Osoba and Senator Iyiola Omisore etc. There are also socio-ethnic groups like the Afenifere and the Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC). Most of the political lords and groups mentioned are with or have sympathies for President Goodluck Jonathan and an aggregation of their forces could compensate for the fact that these lords have only localised influence and the groups have limited electoral value. Of the political lords in the South-west today, only Tinubu has a robust inter-state political structure, followed by Obasanjo who muscled PDP into the South-west and is, for now, obviously not with Jonathan.
The presence of many political lords in Yorubaland is a reflection of the ongoing battle for the control of the zone since the death of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1987 and is a throwback to another battle that commenced in the 1940s and which was not conclusively resolved in Awolowo’s favour until the Second Republic. This perennial battle will be fought by proxy in the February 14 election. What will make the difference for the contending lords is their capacity not only to deploy their political machines but also to cobble together a winning coalition. In the main, this proxy battle will be a referendum on the real strength and the fidelity of Tinubu, the clear leader of the pack.
Voters’ Assessment/Perception of the Candidates: It will be reductionist to suggest that the lords always determine outcomes of elections, especially in a place like the South-west where it is not strange for even card-carrying members to vote against their parties. In fact, it could be argued that voters in the South-west have a mind of their own and that it is only when there is a convergence of interests that they vote along with the lords. On this score, it is reasonable to expect that a segment of the voters will vote on what they independently think about or how they perceive the presidential candidates and their capacity to address urgent national challenges.
The existence of this segment of voters holds promise for both President Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari. It means that irrespective of the disposition of the lords, they can make their case directly to the electorate, especially the undecided. Some of these voters might be persuaded by Jonathan’s achievements and think he deserves to be re-elected, while some might think otherwise and be inclined towards Buhari. Some might be unimpressed by the alternative being offered by Buhari and decide to stick with Jonathan. Here, expect to see voters who are not really voting for a candidate but voting against another. For voters who will decide based on their assessment of candidates, this election will most likely be a referendum on the incumbent, just as is the fate of incumbents everywhere else.
Sense of Stakeholding: Some voters in the South-west may also be decided by their appreciation of how much stake they think their zone has in the competing tickets. This is not only in terms of positions already offered or available to the zone in APC and PDP but also in terms of the values/worldview of the zone. The selection of Professor Yemi Osinbajo as the vice-presidential candidate of APC gives the opposition party some edge in this regard.
Personally, I do not think a Yorubaman should be number two and a heartbeat away from the presidency shortly after Obasanjo’s eight years. But it is nevertheless a deft political move by APC to give voters a motivation to come out and vote in large numbers in a zone that, rightly or wrongly, feels marginalised by the present administration and could hold the ace in this election. The fact that PDP’s foot soldiers in the South-west are people like Chief Buruji Kashamu, Alhaji Jelili Adesiyan, Omisore and Fayose reinforces APC’s advantage for the interest-driven voters.
However, this advantage is not absolute as Osinbajo has no political structure of his own, had little name recognition in the zone prior to his selection and has just started growing on the voters. But he is from the zone, he is running on the platform of a party with a strong presence in the region and his being on the ticket has energised a base that values projecting an educated, articulate, decent, and cultured face to the rest of the country.
The Potency of Frames: Success in electoral politics is sometimes determined by how effective candidates are in framing their opponents as the undesirable other. Here, the PDP will have the edge in having a lot to negatively frame on Buhari and hoping those frames will resonate with voters in the South-west, where even if you take away the influence of Tinubu and the presence of Osinbajo on the ticket, the APC candidate is enjoying some unusual bounce.
There will be attempts to vigorously paint Buhari as a religious and regional bigot and an enemy of the South-west with the treatment his regime gave to Awolowo and the cancellation of the Lagos Metroline Project. These frames may sway some voters. But their strength may be diminished by the fact that the South-west is mixed and liberal in terms of religion and that Buhari’s running mate is a pastor of a multi-parish church who is also married to Awolowo’s grand-daughter. But don’t discountenance the potency of these frames among those who have serious issues with Buhari’s antecedents and his present, those who believe in southern solidarity, and those eternally against ‘Hausa-Fulani hegemony.’
The Power of the Stomach: With the way that appeal to stomach infrastructure was elevated to a major decider in the Ekiti gubernatorial election, it is safe to expect the inducement of voters to be a major electoral strategy in the South-west, possibly much more than in any other zone. Because of federal might, I expect the PDP to have the edge here. However, it will be naïve to think APC will not have a heavy war chest also.
I have argued on this page that the power of stomach infrastructure is overrated, that it can help you only when your opponent is electorally vulnerable and is of little utility when she is not. This is especially so in the South-west where voters can collect your ‘stomach things’ and still vote their conviction. I hold on strongly to the thesis that if you won through stomach infrastructure, you would probably have won without it. That said, there are still voters who will decide on the basis of who lines their pockets/stomachs the most.
In conclusion, the existence of many likely deciding factors and the difficulty of accurately ascertaining the weight of the factors add to the unpredictability of South-west votes and increase the zone’s value as a battleground. But I will make two bets for now: both parties are likely to secure the required 25 per cent in this zone and the party that scores at least 51 per cent in the South-west may as well go ahead to win the presidential election.