by Tolu Ogunlesi
The attention on Abuja’s Eagle Square yesterday, January 13, 2011, was to be expected; Nigeria’s ruling party was electing its presidential candidate for the April 2011 elections. For a party that has held on to the Presidency since the beginning of this latest stretch of democracy, it has come to be taken for granted that its Presidential candidate is Nigeria’s ‘President-in-waiting.’
There were those who thought the results of this year’s presidential primaries were ‘unpredictable’ – mostly because of the existence of the ‘buffalo-in-the-lounge’ issue of zoning, which appeared to rule Mr. Jonathan out of contention on the basis of his Niger delta origins. It was therefore assumed that the North, feeling slighted by Mr. Jonathan’s insistence on dispossessing it of its Aso Rock ‘slot’, would unite to deal a crushing blow to his ambitions.
Heightening the possibility of this was the fact that Mr. Jonathan’s main challenger, Mr. Atiku emerged as the ‘consensus candidate’ of the ‘North’; with all other candidates of Northern origin stepping aside for him.
And so, with bated breath, many waited for the decisive number-crunching that would reveal the victor. But at the end of the day, Mr. Jonathan ran off with an unambiguous victory, and a new possibility emerged – that what has long been referred to as the ‘North’ may be no more than just a handful of self-important elite, as disconnected from reality as they are outnumbered by the rest of the population.
That, or another possibility – a simpler, more plausible one, given the role of money in Nigerian politics – that the highest bidder (amongst the contenders) simply won.
Royal rumble – or Night of a thousand chuckles?
There was a woman amongst the contenders, Sarah Jibril, who has been aspiring for the Presidency since 1992. Four years ago at the PDP presidential primaries in Abuja, she got four votes. If she thought this year would be an improvement, she was mistaken. By the time the ballot boxes were cleared away, there was only one vote to her name. That may have been her own vote for herself.
The truth is that no one took her very seriously. The real battle, clearly, was between the two men – both former Vice Presidents; one a Muslim Northerner, the other a Christian from a Southern minority, in a country deeply polarised by ethnic differences. With the inflammable issue of zoning thrown into the mix, it seemed there was indeed cause for worry: would the ballots fall along ethnic/religious lines, and show Nigeria up as no more than a single, massive, oil-drenched fault-line?
All predictions of a tension-filled day turned out to have been misplaced. The primaries ended up being far more comic than hair-raising, the hilarity mostly a function of the requirement that delegates write out the names of their candidates on pieces of paper.
One delegate wrote out his candidate’s name in Arabic. Several others seemed confused – there were almost as many combinations of candidate names as there were delegates. Some ballots were voided because of the incomprehensibility of the scribbling they bore. Also, despite the fact that votes were cast on state-by-state basis, some delegates’ ballots still managed to end up in other states’ boxes.
And so Nigerians watched as predicted unpredictability rapidly gave way to a comfortable Jonathan lead, spiced with comic relief.
Digital delegates; digital winner
There must have been millions of Nigerians watching through the traditional media – the live TV and radio broadcasts.
Unlike four years ago, however, there was another community observing – those tuned in through social networking media. What that group may have lacked in size (the truth is that there are far fewer people within than outside it) they more than made up for in the aggressive energy with which they pushed out their opinions – on Twitter, 140 unruly characters at a time.
This community didn’t exist when the PDP selected the late Umar Yar’Adua as its Presidential candidate in December 2006. Its members did exist of course, but the ‘wiring’ and ‘platform’ that made it possible for them to ‘network’ and aggregate their voices into one raucous, witty, irreverent conversation didn’t exist back then.
Many of them combined ‘screens’ – TV and computer; or TV and phone. On television they were mere observers of the grand spectacle at Abuja; but on their phones and computers opinionated citizen-journalists, digital VIPs in a universe where self-importance is virtue and not vice.
The delegates in Abuja may have had the final say in the most important task of all last night – the selection of a PDP presidential flag bearer, but the Twitter ‘delegates’ demonstrated their influence digitally: Yesterday, for the first time ever, several Nigerian names made it onto Twitter’s “Trends” list – the listing of the most popular words embedded in the flood of rapid-fire postings of Twitter’s millions of global denizens. “Adamawa”, Mr. Atiku’s home state first made it onto Twitter’s “worldwide trends”, not long after the state’s votes were counted and it emerged that Mr. Atiku had lost at home.
After this the names of the candidates began to show up in city- and country-based trends listings (Lagos, London, New York, UK, US). And then to crown it all, Sarah Jibril’s name emerged as a worldwide trend – her single vote, it seems, had earned her instant fame, accomplishing what the four votes of 2007 couldn’t.
As the world watched the public demonstration of the influence of Abuja’s kingmakers, another kind of ‘king-making’ was going on, in another ‘world’.
The big question
For now there is quiet in the air again. Delegates will return home (dollar-laden, it has been rumoured), the Eagle Square will be shorn of all the decor and the TV cameras and bomb detectors. Twitter’s community of commentators will by now have found other things to rant about. Yesterday’s trends would by now have given way to a new set of ‘fifteen-minuters’.
But Nigeria’s electoral journey has only just commenced. It would be a mistake to treat the PDP presidential primaries as the highpoint of the season. Tomorrow, January 15, the voters’ registration exercise will start across the country. It is another phase of the journey that demands to be accorded as much respect as yesterday’s proceedings at the Eagle Square.
It would also be a grave error to assume that digital ‘king-making’ is of much significance in a country like Nigeria, steeped in the most traditional modes of politicking you could possibly imagine.
Which leads to the most important question of all: can – and will – the digital kingmakers seek to make a difference in the most important arena of all, the real world, where the majority of people have never heard of Twitter or Facebook, but in which all electoral battles are fought and won?