Running the Last Mile Against the Run of Play

Even with all the events prior to the 2015 presidential election, a more studious management of the election’s ‘last mile’ would still have re-elected Jonathan.












Nigeria’s democracy is really evolving. My egbon, Olusegun Adeniyi’s book, Against the Run of Play, is a prudent inventory on the events and (mis)actions leading up to the 2015 presidential elections. To authenticate its validity, he interviewed some principal actors of that era except, President Muhammadu Buhari, the ultimate beneficiary of the election. For democracy to endure, it requires institutions such as a transparent electoral process, independent judiciary, free press and strong political parties. It also requires a scrupulous documentation of its significant moments and epochs. In this regard, the book and its author occupies an enviable space in this emerging Hall of Fame.

The 2015 presidential election marked a turning point in the history of Nigeria and its graceful conclusion offered some lessons to other African countries. Elections are usually influenced by a number of factors and most of them happen so fast that it is easy to take the wrong decisions and hope that they do not influence the results. As indicated in the book, President Jonathan took many decisions that hurt his chances of re-election. However, in the final analysis and more than anything else, it is the vigilant management of the “last mile” that determines the eventual outcome of elections. In an article that I wrote immediately after the 2003 presidential election, Deconstructing the Obasanjo Presidency, I recalled the paradoxes of that presidency in the years before the 2003 presidential election which I am sure we have now forgotten but they were recipes for electoral doom. Yet then President Olusegun Obasanjo ‘roundly defeated’ Buhari in 2003 because, unlike Jonathan, he had a ‘Fixer’ with a sole mandate to manage ‘the last mile’ and to which the ‘Fixer’ deployed his experience and mobilized resources to achieve that singular objective. First, he cobbled a patchwork partnership between Obasanjo and his more political deputy with whom trust had broken down during the preceding years. Second, Obasanjo rushed to Lagos to negotiate a fuzzy deal with the Governors of the South-West states, incidentally his home geopolitical zone that was a stronghold of another political party, Alliance for Democracy. With that settled and other considerations in check, Obasanjo’s apparatchik that was in the firm control of the ‘Fixer’ delivered election management tactics and an understanding of the political arithmetic of Nigeria’s electoral map by maximizing his political estate in ‘safe states’ to full effect.

So I believe that even with all the preceding events prior to the 2015 election, a more studious election management of the ‘last mile’ (with the use of real-time electoral data) may still have re-elected Jonathan by a slim margin, against all odds. I have maintained a database of Nigeria’s election results and the application of its dashboard at successive elections have produced fascinating results. For instance, as soon as the merger was consummated and the All Progressives Congress was registered, I looked at the numbers and by June 2014, I was convinced that President Jonathan had electoral headwinds ahead but I waited for the candidates to emerge and then wrote an article in December 2014 titled, Jonathan and the margin of 3 million votes. It was a mix of prose and data analysis before I concluded that if the 2011 elections were repeated today with the same voter numbers but different realities on the ground, 10,193,674 votes will be up in the air with 6,656,109 of them flying from the PDP column and 3,537,565 from APC. If the votes cancel out, 3,118,544 will remain. We now have 68,833,476 registered voters, a 6.4% downwards adjustment, and if that is applied to the 3,118,544 votes, we will have 2,918,957 votes which might be the margin of defeat for the president in such an election”.  In that case, President Jonathan should have approached the 2015 presidential election as an underdog and he eventually lost it by 2,571,759 votes.

In the book, “the former president said he had projections before both the 2011 and 2015 presidential elections and he was sure of what would happen in each of the zones yet could still not fathom what happened in some states in 2015.” According to the former President: “How could we have lost Ondo, Benue and Plateau States if our people were committed to the cause? If you examine the results, you will see a pattern: in places where ordinarily we were strong, our supporters did not show enough commitment to mobilize the voters.” The case of Ondo State was quite understandable, Governor Olusegun Mimiko had only just defected to the President’s Peoples Democratic Party from Labour Party (the platform upon which he was twice elected) and he did not effectively integrate his structure with the one he met, so there was mutual mistrust within.  Worse still, APC footprints were massively all over the state.

But it was in Benue and Plateau States that the first damage was done. The then Governor Gabriel Suswan’s decision to annihilate known political leaders of the state, which started with the defection of former Governor George Akume from PDP and still win re-election to the Senate in 2011 on the platform of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria should have sent early warning signals to the former President’s political impedimenta. To make matters worse, Suswan enforced an ‘earring-wearing candidate’ to fly the party’s governorship flag and this greatly incensed the people of Benue State. Former President Jonathan’s inability to hearken to their lamentations pushed a very safe state to the APC column. A total of 683,264 valid votes were cast on that day, Buhari had about 55% of them in a state he had never received the mandatory 25% of the votes cast in 3 previous elections. In 2011, he got 21% of the votes cast while Jonathan had 66%.

The case of Plateau State was similar to Benue State. Former Governor Jonah Jang from the Berom ethnic group ‘chose’ another Berom man to be his successor thereby upsetting the rotational understanding in the State to the chagrin of the people. Several political heavyweights from the State appealed to former President Jonathan to no avail so they visited their wrath on the PDP. Out of the 982,388 votes cast, Buhari got almost 44% of the votes, up from 25% in 2011 when Jonathan had 76%. If you extrapolate 2011 and 2015 figures in these states where the votes in past presidential elections have been strongly driven by ethnoreligious sentiments, the former President lost about 307,368 votes in Benue State and about 471,546 votes in Plateau State, a total of nearly 780,000 votes. Even with a slightly stronger political showing by Buhari’s foot-soldiers now in APC, this margin was beyond measure and a direct result of mismanaging the ‘last mile’.

But, against the run of play, the former President did not mention the elephant in the room “in places where ordinarily we were strong, our supporters did not show enough commitment to mobilize the voters”: South-East. This was considered President Jonathan’s unshakable stronghold, even much more than his South-South geopolitical zone. However, there was a lack of coordination, cohesion and leadership in managing the election. More so, whispers within the zone were asking questions about the tangible benefits of the Jonathan presidency to the zone despite the massive support to him and this was laced with murmurings of ‘monkey dey work, baboon dey chop’. These realities and sentiments afflicted Election Day 2015 to devastating effect for Jonathan. The South-East geopolitical zone had 7,513,031 registered voters on March 28, 2015. Of this number, 6,621,541 had collected their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) but only a dismal 2,719,654 turned out on Election Day. At 41% voter turnout, the zone recorded the worst in the entire country. In Abia State, the home state of the South-East Coordinator of Jonathan’s campaign, then Governor T.A. Orji, the turnout was 33%, the worst in the country. The next was Lagos State with 38% turnout. The next 3 states in that order were Imo, Anambra and Ebonyi (all states of the South-East). So, among the five states with the worst voters’ turnout, four of them were from the five South-East states. One or two states in other parts of the country achieved nearly 75% voter turnout. If the South-East had the same 75% turnout as was expected (and this would have been achieved under more favourable conditions) it translates to about 5 million voters, an additional 2,280,346 voters. Out of this, Jonathan would have got much more than 2 million given the boots he had on the ground. This did not happen. In addition to that, the election managers did not take advantage of the free space they had to operate in the zone. The first rule in election management is to maximize the possibilities in your stronghold states (as APC did in 2015) because you will play defence in the battleground states.

Win or lose, post-election analysis offer insights into ‘what might have been’ and like I tweeted on the day of its launch, Against the Run of Play, coherently tells yesterday’s story today for our tomorrow. It is definitely a very good read. In the end, politics is a game of numbers, election is about votes and like a long-distance race, it depends greatly on managing the ‘last mile’: careful planning, constant attention, perfect timing and appropriate action at the critical moment.