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2023: Why issues-driven campaigns should be encouraged

By  Leo Sobechi, Deputy Politics Editor and Adamu Abuh, Abuja
17 July 2022   |   2:59 am
As Nigerians enter the electioneering season for next year’s general elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the poll would be very competitive and frenetic at the same time

As Nigerians enter the electioneering season for next year’s general elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the poll would be very competitive and frenetic at the same time. But there have been growing concerns as to how to ensure the campaigns are issues-based across the board.

The presidential candidate of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, hinted at the need to hem in all contenders to centre their competition for votes on only issues, devoid of name-calling, character assassination or use of trigger words that could flare passions.
Writing in response to President Muhammadu Buhari’s congratulatory message shortly after he emerged as the party’s standard-bearer, Tinubu assured that he would collaborate with other presidential contenders to agree on issues-based electioneering.  
In the letter titled, “Deep Appreciation,” the APC presidential candidate stated: “I have taken note of the message you sent to all presidential candidates in your Democracy Day speech to the nation on June 12, 2022.
“Our country is going through a very sensitive period and no one should put their personal desires above and beyond the nation’s peace and prosperity. As you said, the ‘message we set at the top will be replicated in our followers.’
“At this point, I will take this opportunity to assure Your Excellency of my commitment to running an issue-focused campaign as we move into the general elections. I will personally engage the candidates from other political parties to urge them to do the same.
“Voters should elect us based on our policies, programmes, and projects. By the grace of God, we as candidates will avoid having divisive, destructive and disruptive campaigns.”
However, despite the mellifluous sentiments he expressed in his letter of appreciation to the President, Tinubu’s choice of presidential running mate in the person of Senator Kashim Shettima, sparked off a mixture of national outrage and commendation, even as the religious affiliation of both threw up sentimental divisions.  
Nigerians who recalled Tinubu’s assurances that he would “engage candidates of other political parties to ensure issue-focused campaigns” wondered whether he engaged with his party men and whether he was capable of engineering national conversations focused on patriotism and development.
Stakeholders that spoke to The Guardian expressed the belief that issues should dominate the 2023 electoral campaigns. They added that security, cost of living, access to education and rural integration are very topical, contending that Nigerians were eager to hear how each candidate intended to tackle the challenges. They also craved assurances of a level playground by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
For instance, Director General of Voice of Nigeria (VON), Mr. Osita Okechukwu, asserted: “Issue-based political campaign is not only possible but a sine qua non of every campaign in liberal democracy. After the hues and cries of breach of rotation convention by our sister major political party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and breach of faith balance by my great party, the All Progressives Congress (APC); naturally the next phase is the content and context of the issues each political party will bring to the table.
“The review and canvass of top issues will be on the front burner and indeed is the ageless tradition of the electoral issues-based campaign. To be exact, the issues-based campaign will willingly engulf all of the 18 registered political parties in the ring now, before and during the 2023 general elections.”
On how to enforce issues-focused campaigns, Okechukwu reiterated that it is compulsory for political parties to contest for votes based on issues, adding, “therefore, it is not a matter of insisting.”
“Political parties, no matter how old, how rich, how well spread is its tentacles or structures and how extended its international outreach, must canvas strenuously via multi-media approach its message,” he noted.
On whether it is possible for the APC presidential candidate to convene a meeting of other presidential contenders to agree on issues-based campaigns, Okechukwu declared: “For what? The Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu I know does not need to convene any meeting. One as well doesn’t think neither Atiku Abubakar nor Peter Obi will convene a meeting. Rather, what one expects each of them to do is to excel in espousing their manifestos.”
But the Executive Director of the Human Rights Writers Association (HURIWA), Emmanuel Onwubiko, noted that Tinubu’s preference for a Muslim/Muslim presidential ticket makes it impossible for him to promote an issues-based campaign.
“No. It is practically impossible because the APC candidate is very divisive and disloyal to the much-canvassed principles of promoting national harmony, unanimity of purpose and national cohesion. He has already said he can only find the Muslim running mate that is competent,” he stated.
On issue-based politics and its possibility, Onwubiko answered in the affirmative, noting however that it is “based on what the people of Nigeria prefer to listen to and watch on the television and media space.  However, from an observation of the momentum that the 2023 poll has attracted so far, from amongst the youngsters, it will be more fruitful for politicians to dwell on issues than on the banality of ethnic and religious sentiments. 
He stated: “Political parties must insist that their candidate’s campaign around the issues adumbrated clearly and unambiguously in their blueprints and manifestos.  Parties must also not be organised in such a way that their hierarchies are set up based on ethnicity and religion.
“The APC will find it pretty tough to get Nigerians to talk about them positively based on issues because they set the divisive template already when they selected only Muslims as Presidential candidate and running mate.”
Yet, on her part, the Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, remarked that issue-based politics is possible, noting however that it is dependent on the people as much as the political parties. She added: “It is necessary so we can hold people to account. But currently, the discourse around issues is missing, as people are allowing politicians to muddy the water, with discussions largely on where a candidate is from and religion holding sway. When are we going to ask the questions?”
Hassan expressed the view that political parties will have to lead by example, instead of calling press conferences or peddling fake news to discredit other parties and their candidates. “They should lead and tell us what their plans for Nigeria will be, to sell themselves to the people and let them know what the choices are.
“And, our leaders must also toe the line of caution and stop heating up the polity unnecessarily. Our power is the votes, let’s mobilise and use it wisely. And APC cannot call for a meeting on an issue-based campaign. Instead, INEC and other stakeholders will have to facilitate such a meeting,” the CDD Director stated.
Seven months to the general elections, four major political parties could be said to be on the front row, including the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), third force Labour Party (LP) and New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP).
The choice of presidential running mates for the four parties, particularly APC, PDP and LP generated a lot of interest among the electorate after their standard bearers, Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi chose their deputies.
While Tinubu and Obi sent in pro-tem running mates, Atiku’s choice of Delta State governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, roiled PDP on the claim that the presidential candidate went against the selection process he signed onto.
But following Obi and LP’s failure to concretise the political understanding it went into with NNPP by getting Kwankwaso to be his running mate, his choice of Senator Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed received the wide acceptance of LP faithful and supporters.
However, for the governing APC, Tinubu’s choice of Senator Shettima, a fellow Muslim, let off a firestorm, with Christian members of the party crying foul, even as they contended that they have been side-lined in the emerging scheme of things in the party.
And, just as the issue of zoning continues to agitate the minds of party faithful in PDP, the APC has also set the machinery in motion to address the concerns of aggrieved stakeholders.
Although President Buhari was said to have calmed down some APC stalwarts peeved by the choice of Shettima as presidential running mate, PDP is yet to begin the fence-mending it promised.
Until these internal controversies within the leading parties are resolved, the feasibility of issues-based campaigns may not be adequately evaluated, just as the electoral umpire is expected to set out the modalities of campaigns expected to kick off in two months’ time.

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