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The incumbency factor in presidential elections


We talk of “incumbency factor” in an election in which one of the competitors is the occupant of the position being contested. Otherwise, an election in which an incumbent is not involved is referred to as an “open seat” election. The first election in the Nigerian current republic, the 1999 election that pitched General Olusegun Obasanjo against Chief Olu Falae, and that of 2007 which pitched Umaru Musa Yar-Adua against  Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, among others, pass for an open seat election, while  the presidential elections of 2003, 2011 and 2015 have been elections in which the incumbency factor played out .Olusegun Obasanjo sought reelection in 2003,while Goodluck Jonathan did same in 2015. Jonathan succeeded Yar-Adua who died in office in 2010 and was therefore an incumbent President when he contested and won an election of his own in 2011.

The incumbency factor, in political terms, is the advantages an incumbent has over his challengers. Such advantages include the power of the purse, the fact of visible achievements in office, the fact that he or she needs no introduction, and, significantly, the fact that he or she can still do something great before election day to convince undecided voters about his or her capability and competence to continue to lead society to a prosperous future.

The incumbency factor, in its negative form, has been about perpetuating anti-democratic tendencies. The use of security agents to intimidate voters and opponents, bribing electoral officials to rig elections, bribing voters as well as men and women of proven influence in society for support in an election. In fact, anti-democratic incumbents use public money to bribe potential opponents from small political parties to withdraw their candidacies and team up with the party in power regardless of their assumed ideological differences.


It is principally because of these factors, positively or negatively deployed, that it is rather difficult for a newcomer to defeat an incumbent in an election. An incumbent must have performed extremely badly for he or she to be defeated, and that is where the anti-incumbency factor comes into play.  In the American 1980 election, the defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter was inevitable because of the state of the economy and the Iranian hostage crisis he had been unable to resolve. Since 1900, only five of 14 American Presidents who sought reelection have been defeated.  In the Nigerian comparatively young democracy, Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election principally because of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East of the nation.  Of course, religion and region are potent factors in Nigerian politics.

Hopefully, Nigeria’s incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, if seeking reelection in 2019, will not buy into the negative aspects of the incumbency factor which have for so long defamed our nation in the comity of civilised societies. It will be a great damage to his perception of being a man of integrity if he were to have inherited that crude culture from his predecessors. His recent proclamation of June 12 as Democracy Day, is what one can describe as positive deployment of the incumbency factor in politics. He has righted, what to many, is the injustice inflicted on society and an individual in the person of Moshood Abiola in 1993 when the results of a presidential election adjudged to have been free and fair were annulled by the then military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. President Buhari might have undoubtedly earned himself new friends by that singular act.

I take the position that the new Democracy Day is welcome, while the erstwhile Democracy Day, May 29, can still be retained as Inauguration Day when a new President and governors are sworn into office. I take this position because it will ensure historical consistency in tradition, and Inauguration Day, after all, is a four- yearly affair while Democracy Day is yearly. The number of public holidays will not be affected except by one in the year a new President assumes office. One admiration one has for the Americans derives from the historical commitment they have shown to their date of swearing in new Presidents. Moreover, the change made by Buhari will not be construed as an attempt by him to elongate his tenure by a few days. I am just making a suggestion here.

Be that as it may, it is in the nature of competitive politics that whatever a political leader does or does not do would be criticised by those who seek to profit from such criticism. There are those who have said that the declaration of June 12 as Democracy Day was politically-motivated, geared towards getting votes for the reelection of Buhari in 2019. One may ask, what does a politician ever do that is not geared towards securing support? Those who have consistently advocated what Buhari has now put into effect would, all things being equal, want to reward him in a future election. To quite a number of others, that declaration has not changed anything. When Ronald Reagan signed the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. as holiday into law in 1983, after many years of campaigning for it, there were quite a number of states that showed lukewarm attitude to the development.It was not until the year 2000 that all the 50 states of the American federation upheld and marked the birthday of the great civil rights campaigner as a public holiday.

In the advanced democratic societies, most do not rush into declaring their support for electoral candidates many months ahead of elections as we tend to do in Nigeria. It is all about wait and see. A lot of things do happen in politics and that is why their opinion polls change just as frequently as Imelda Marcos would once change her shoes. The independent or floating voter waits until the very last minute to convince himself or herself where the destination of their vote would be.  For instance, in 1980, there were not a few who believed Carter could still have rescued his presidency if the Americans held hostage in Iran were to have been rescued in the last minute. It would have been considered a great feat in a nation renowned for historical appreciation of strong leadership. In some of these advanced democratic nations, America and Britain, for instance, the independent or floating voter decides the outcome of elections. I believe we are close to getting there in Nigeria.

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