Last month, the BBC released an investigative report on how political parties in Nigeria covertly pay social media influencers up to N20 million to spread disinformation about their opponents ahead of the general elections. Yes, a whooping N20 million naira.
But how does this work? You may have seen stories about the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, being linked to the separatist group – the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob). Or the All Progressives Congress (APC) vice-presidential candidate, Kashim Shettima, associated with members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. It is simply the work of influencers to create and paddle such indicting stories about these frontrunners.
According to the BBC report, the whistle-blowers revealed parties give out cash, lavish gifts, government contracts and even political appointments for their work. Multiple influencers confirmed that payment in exchange for false political posts is pervasive. This is not so surprising because social media has become, in recent times, the most potent way of information dissemination to Nigerians, especially the younger generation who makes up 7.2 million or 76.5% of newly registered voters.
What I find disturbing is the amount paid and then the intent for payment – disinformation, which could instigate disorder in society and halt the whole election process. I reclined to imagine how much Nigeria expends legally or illegally on its elections that come up once every four years.
Officially, the 2015 presidential election is the most expensive election in Nigeria’s history to date, with an estimated N1 trillion spent by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, political parties and candidates. The “core cost” of the election as represented by expenditure by the commission and related institutions was $547 million, while the total cost, including expenses by political parties and their candidates, was between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.
We are well on our way to experiencing yet another expensive election. The 2023 election is estimated to cost N305 billion, 61% higher than the general election in 2019. Elections cost more per capita in most transitional or post-conflict democratic systems with an average per voter cost of $9 as opposed to $4 – $8 in relatively stable but transitional nations and a $3 per voter cost in stable and established societies in the West, Asia, and Oceania, for example. But INEC has chosen to work with a $5.39 cost per voter, aimed at a projection of 100 million voters.
The cost of logistics, highly-secured ballot papers, and allowances for personnel, among other reasons, are responsible for the huge funds used in conducting these elections. But also, Nigeria is unnecessarily paying for a lack of trust in the system. Mahmood Yakubu, the INEC chairman, explained that, unlike Nigeria, France prints its ballot paper like an A4 sheet of paper because it is unthinkable that anybody in France will snatch the ballot paper. But in Nigeria, ballot papers are printed in currency quality and are entrusted to the Central Bank of Nigeria. The ballot papers are then moved with all the protocols and security according to the movement of the national currency to protect the process. That could be expensive.
Beyond the INEC’s cost of organising elections, another interesting thing is the cost expended by political parties. Aspirants often need money to make their intentions known, run for primaries and campaigns, and pay stakeholders, influencers and even extraterrestrial forces to get the mantle of power. After filing their official financial reports for the general elections in 2015, APC and PDP claimed they spent N2.9 billion and N4.8 billion, respectively for the polls. The parties’ disclosure came years behind the stipulated six months period for such disclosure after an election. One can safely assume the cost far exceeds this because politics in Nigeria is allergic to transparency. So it is unsurprising that sources for the BBC said the monies (Naira and other currencies) paid to influencers are not budgeted or paid through banks to avoid scrutiny.
Interestingly, most of the monies used by politicians for campaigns at every level of power is for vote buying. Last year, during the All Progressive People Congress’ primary elections, media houses reported that some presidential aspirants paid party delegates, ranging from $5000 to as much as $25,000 to get the party’s ticket.
Eventually, ex-Lagos governor Bola Tinubu scored 1,271 of about 2,322 votes to win the presidential primary ticket for the party, trailed by former transportation minister, Mr Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi with 316 votes; and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo with 235 votes. While some of these delegates voted out of loyalty, it is realistic to say others were bought. Even if only 50% of these delegates got paid, our calculations should be billion several times over.
In Nigeria, INEC rules officially restrict the amount of money a presidential candidate may spend on their campaign to N1bn; a gubernatorial candidate to N200m; a senatorial candidate to N40m; a House of Representatives candidate to N10m, and a state HoR candidate to N10m. But this is obviously far from what is on the ground.
The ruling party’s case is not standalone in this expensive race for power. A People’s Democratic Party delegate, Tanko Sabo, reportedly shared the bribe he received during the party’s primary elections. He paid a total of N7 million as “WAEC and NECO examination fees for 150 orphans and the underprivileged, N3.2 million for 42 customised jerseys, engaged in other generous acts and then kept N1.3 million of the largesse for himself. Delegates at the party’s convention may have parted with not less than a $50,000 bribe to sway their votes in favour of aspirants in the party.
Still, on the high-end trail, aspirants of both parties paid a fortune to pick up party forms, at N100 million for the presidency. This is a leap from the N27 million charged in 2014 and the N45 million in 2018. The current fee is the highest any political party in the country has ever asked an aspirant to pay for a chance to contest. Similarly, PDP’s sold its form for N40 million, and the party generated not less than N646m from its sales.
Except in a bid to be economical with the truth, it is a given that any aspirants that pay these outrageous fees to get into power have the plan to recuperate financially, either illegally or illegally. While other political parties are not excluded as characters in this theatre of profligacy, APC and PDP, which have been at the apex of national power, are undoubtedly vanguards in this regard.
Ironically amidst the prohibitive figures flying around, Nigeria is laden with so much socio-economic burden. In the midst of the country’s abundant potential is a fattening scarcity of basic necessities for an average Nigerian. At the time, the country was the poverty capital of the world. Not so much has changed with the status, and 63% of persons living in Nigeria (133 million people) are multidimensionally poor. This is the highest poverty rate in Africa. And it is absurd that the northern region, where the primaries are held, is the poverty footstool of Nigeria, with 65% of the poor (86 million people) living there.
Poverty, according to many, has been the tool with which the political elite in the country has been ruling. So as any election draws near, politicians move in droves to feed the hungry masses in cash and kind (vote buying) with a pinch of their loot. This goes on until election day when a new leader emerges, and the masses start another phase of economic struggle. Then economic ironic economic realities continue to fester. So, despite being a citizen of an oil-producing nation, Nigerians have to queue for fuel, go several days or years without electricity, and bear the brunt of their government’s inability to pay off its chains of debt.
In 2021, the country spent about 96% of its revenue servicing debts. So bad was it that the government borrowed to finance its 2022 budget. The story took a similar turn last year, and the government spent 41% of the revenue generated in 2022 to service its N44.06 trillion debt. So it is amazing when a country so deep in debts burden spends so much on its election, unjudiciously and without transparency. Sadly, profligate spending has always been the fuel with which elections are organised and won in Nigeria, but it is an ugly trend that needs to end, as it is unsustainable for the country’s future.