25 January 2019
As next month’s presidential (s)election approaches, the battle between the main opposing camps – incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – has intensified all over social media. From corruption allegations on both sides to Atiku’s visit to the United States being treated like the messiah’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, no subject is out of bounds and there’s no limit to how ridiculous the arguments can get.
They have now resorted to measuring crowds at each other’s rallies. This is as silly as US president Donald Trump’s insistence that more people attended his inauguration than Barack Obama’s. And just like Trump, many Nigerians are now comparing pictures.
Several Nigerians have now become crowd control experts on social media trying to estimate numbers from a sea of heads. Supporters of the president wax ecstatic about the numbers that turn up to see him, while almost each of their posts is countered by the “Atikulated” crowds. Then you have others posting pictures of less populated sections of the venue, and arguments whether the pictures are doctored or not.
One of Buhari’s spin-doctors on social media got in on the act, killing two birds with one stone – posting pictures with a dig at those that claimed that Buhari was not going to campaign due to ill health.
Why does this “crowd-sourced” nonsense matter to these people? It matters to them because they either don’t understand Nigerian politics or they are part of the propaganda machinery using the crowds to paint a picture of a huge outpouring of love for their candidate. The fact is that neither Buhari nor Atiku inspires anyone with the sort of devotion that means standing for hours on a hot and sweltering day. Nigerians usually reserve such cult followership for their “men of God” and top English Premier League clubs. Both Buhari and Atiku suffer from an acute charisma bypass. It’s even worse with the president, who has the charisma of a stale pile of cow dung.
People that think crowds at rallies mean huge support for their candidate, which translate into votes, have no idea about the criminal nature of Nigerian politics. The crowds are rented. As one Nigeria on social media said: “The only people there that are not paid are the pure water sellers”. A very easy way to make money in Nigeria is to get the “contract” for renting crowds at these rallies. If the budget is about 5,000 naira ($13.80) per head, the “contractor” would usually keep about 2,000 naira for himself. The more people you can bus in, the more money you make.
Nigerians also easily forget the past. Former president Goodluck Jonathan was drawing crowds in cities like Kano and Sokoto when he was running for reelection in 2014/15. He ended up losing woefully across the north. Back in the day in 1979, Nnamdi Azikiwe, running for president under the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), used to post huge turnout figures at his rallies in the north. The numbers when the votes were counted were a different story.
Crowds also don’t mean votes in Nigeria because there is no telling how much fraud will be perpetrated when the votes are counted. Former Senator Arthur Nzeribe is rumoured to have once told his opponent: “You may beat me in the voting, but you will not beat me in the counting”.
So the most likely reason why someone in power, who has already set up the mechanisms and set aside the money to rig a (s)election, bothers with renting crowds for rallies, is to provide a cover for the falsified results. The inflated figures could then be justified by the teeming crowds at the rallies.
The message to those posting pictures of crowds is clear. Your crowd may be bigger than the opponent’s, but it is no genuine gauge for support and your votes may end up a lot smaller than the crowds suggest. The only thing that is abundantly clear from posting pictures of crowds is that you are not really that smarter than the other side, who are doing the same thing, for the same reasons.