By Augusta Nneka
I was at a political gathering recently. It was made of young people from different political parties and some like me who are strictly non-partisan. The topic of discussion, as expected, was the 2023 elections and the chances of the three top candidates. Everyone had an opinion, made an analysis, and had a source from the “inner caucus” of the three top candidates. Something struck me as I observed the proceedings. All the opinions were valid and yet all could very well be entirely different from the reality affecting these candidates. That is the reality of public opinion especially as it affects politics.
In my journey to understanding politics, I have maintained an avid interest in the media and political communication. What most people do not realize is the critical role political communicators play in shaping everyday opinions. We believe that the media drives public opinion but that is not necessarily the case. Political communicators spend time, mental energy, and resources trying to come up with strategies to influence an idea within ordinary citizens. Once the spark becomes a flame, the media picks up on it and it becomes what we know as public opinion.
We assume that what we know is based on irrefutable data, facts and figures. But really, we draw our conclusions from what is available to us without questioning the source of such information or the motive behind it. The information management starts from the very political class we are trying to analyze with said information. It is a properly structured manipulation occurring without the knowledge of the citizens. What happens at the end is that said citizens draw conclusions based on this limited knowledge and confidently argue it without realizing they are following a script drafted and signed by invisible hands.
This might sound like a huge conspiracy but it is really not. It is just the current state of public opinion in Nigeria, but for argument’s sake, let us look at the events leading up to the just concluded primary elections of the various political parties.
The major opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party had set up a zoning committee to determine the selection of candidates. You would think that owing to public sentiments, the party would have decided to zone the candidacy to the South and Southeast in particular. This sentiment on zoning you would agree was influenced by the political interest of a few personalities. Unlike what you think, Nigerians did not suddenly start believing in equal representation or fairness. No. This thought was very much crafted and whispered by people who would directly benefit from such agitations. However, the current candidate understanding this and not seeing a direct way to counter this sentiment, quickly went ahead to buy the form of the PDP, made a fanfare out of the declaration and invested in making sure everyone knew he was in the race, completely ignoring the zoning committee or their deliberations. This, of course, strong-armed the committee into making a decision on throwing open the ticket. At the end of the day, the person most desperate and prepared to protect personal interest won the battle and as expected, public sentiment conveniently shifted again.
On the other hand, the ruling All Progressives Congress primary election shook the faith of the Nigerian youths and all political analysts when the current candidate emerged as the flagbearer of the party. Before that election, analysts will tell you that:
“Political parties operate on the theory of necessity”; that is, they would do everything in their power to hold onto power regardless of the cost.
“As PDP gave Atiku their ticket, APC will give it to a northern candidate to split the northern votes”
“Tinubu cannot deliver Nigeria’s presidency for the APC, thus they will settle him and give it someone with public favour”
All these and more flooded the public space just a few days before the elections. All these and more were directly aimed at presenting an aspirant as a more favourable choice than the current candidate. As we can see, the better politician was more invested in playing politics than influencing public opinion because, at the end of the day, public sentiments do not really matter before the primary elections.
Why is this relevant?
These public opinions in a sane clime should have influenced the outcome of both elections. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s political space does not necessarily fit into that description. Yet, we are unaware of what to do to implement the change we desire. So, we stick to what we know and continue lending our voices to what we think is political reality based on the information we have. What we do not understand is that; indeed public opinion matters, but not in the way you think it does. You might be the most popular candidate for an election and still lose such an election. This has happened before and unfortunately, this might happen again.
To mitigate this problem, the media play a crucial role. To date, investigative journalism is not as applauded as it should be. The media is not given their proper accolades and we are left with a gap between the reality and what the political communicator attached to a politician has coined for us to believe. This gap is something only the media and true journalism can bridge.
Imagine if the craze about delegates started four years ago after the 2019 general elections. Imagine if this level of public interest in politics started after the inflation of 2016. Imagine if we were prompted by the hiccups that come with being a Nigerian and all our analyses were channelled into action. Imagine if the average Nigerian understood how important voters’ card was to choosing our leaders.
What would have happened is that rather than the #EndSARS which tragically claimed the lives of dozens of Nigerian youths, the organizers would have encouraged people to get their PVC and their party membership cards. These youths with their energy would have served the party and probably become the delegates that elected parties candidates. Then, that would have made an actual change. Instead of the needless curses against the media for “not reporting true events”, the available information would have been sufficient for us to see the necessity for change. Instead of throwing unending tantrums on social media, we would have prevented the perceived set-up we are once again crying about.
Public opinion is important. Agreed. But until our opinions lead to actual results offline; we will remain where we are. We will once again rant about the difficulties of being a Nigerian, politicians will keep playing politics, political communicators will keep crafting strategies for favourable results behind the scenes, and the unending loop will continue.