Nigeria’s elections are over and we have a new president as well as new governors, senators and representatives. Congratulations to Mr. President-Elect and his fellow politicians!
But anyone who thinks that only Buhari and the political class have emerged victorious isn’t seeing the bigger picture. The real winners in the recently concluded elections are Nigeria’s democracy and its ever more influential media, its fourth estate which is ultimately a crucial aspect of any functioning democracy.
Nigeria’s young democracy wins, not just because PDP lost the presidency after 15 years in power, but because of why PDP lost. This election was about more than a party in power and its opposition; it was about how each faction told its story to the wider public. This election was about shifting narratives, from a story of “people don’t matter in governance” to the tale that “the people are everything. ” The political party that was most able to sell this story through the media won.
I am not at all claiming that the ordinary citizen now sits atop the political party agenda, just that a change in rhetoric places the citizen superficially at the top. APC successfully packaged the story about the citizen’s right to change a government in which it has lost confidence and rode this narrative straight to Aso Rock and large gains in the National Assembly.
Changing public opinion is no small feat. The changes began a few years before the elections, as the President Jonathan failed to control the growing narrative in the media about his administrations incompetence – perceived by the electorate to be responsible for widespread corruption, insecurity and very recently, with the global fall in oil prices, economic failures. By the time elections came around, citizens felt empowered to demand change, making ample room for a media campaign based on kicking out the underperformer and replacing him with a reformer.
APC’s ability to run a change-themed campaign that focused largely on the promise to deliver results emphasizes how important the media is to shaping public opinion. For the first time since the late 1970s, candidates have had to appeal to everyday people – making public opinion all the more important in deciding political outcomes.
Slogans like “change” and “forwards Nigeria” permeated online and traditional media as each faction tried to make a case to voters for how their party will deliver (or has delivered) results for a better Nigeria. They used varied forms of evidence (from the semi-factual to the downright ridiculous) that the opponent would neglect everyday people and use political office for selfish gain. In other words, Nigeria experienced a robust political process with all the trappings – positive and negative – of media participation in a democratic system.
While it is unclear whether the media’s new-found influence will continue when the Buhari administration settles down to govern, this emerging media narrative about its new relevance is an important change in the political power dynamic, and it could mean real progress for Nigeria. Everyday people now believe they have power over Nigeria’s governance structure. Our newly vocal electorate, with new sources of information from a reinvigorated print and local broadcast media, and new platforms for expression through social media, now has the tools to act on the idea that the public has a right to kick out underperforming leaders. This is a dramatic shift from the narrative that “our leaders will do whatever they want anyway, and will continue to run Nigeria like it’s their playground”. Citizens also now truly understand the importance of appealing to the international broadcast media and print press as the shaping of international opinion can greatly sway domestic choices.
Now our politicians, from their first days in office, will have to think about how to deliver results and more importantly how to demonstrate (in the media) that they are delivering throughout their tenures. The increase in the power of public opinion also creates significant hurdles for elected officials as the chatterbox of criticism and opinion can sometimes adversely impact policy decisions. Whoever enters public office must come prepared with a visionary media strategy backed with conviction enough to filter out the noise could distract from the task of developing Nigeria.
Conviction in this case means leading with the right stories about development agendas in anticipation of negative stories that could kill infant (but promising) policies. A vision has to be sold with concrete messages about plans, leaving little room for misinterpretation. As the recent backlash against the Oba of Lagos for suggesting that all Igbos will be thrown into the Lagoon if they don’t vote for APC shows, prominent figures, politicians and policy makers must now test their narratives to maintain a focused and appropriate message.
On the other hand the opposition’s media strategy will be simple. They will likely focus on using public opinion to pressure the incumbent. To be effective they must push the right mix of media content that accentuates negatives (like underperformance) in order to craft a compelling story of the disengaged and disconnected incumbent so that come the next elections they can steal the show. That may seem harsh, but in the new politics of Nigeria, competition is the new normal and the playing fields are the front pages, home pages, Facebook pages and twitter accounts of media properties and personalities.
Osione Itegboje is a Research Associate at the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives (CPPA).