In less than 25 days, Nigerian politicians will once again attempt to outdo themselves in their quest to inherit the seat currently occupied by President Muhammadu Buhari. Just as they have always done, they have once again unleashed theatrical moves to win the hearts of Nigerians and sway potential voters using large crowds. The age-long perceptual game of showing strength in the size of crowds they are able to pull off is presently in full throttle and many Nigerians do not even understand that they are merely pawns.
This game which has taken its roots deeply in the political fabric of Nigeria has been adopted by all major parties presenting candidates in the elections. This strategy has placed all the political parties in a fierce race to outdo themselves in winning the popularity contests typified by pulling a crowd with the most outrageous noises and boisterous displays in rallies on the streets, roads, stadia, and other venues that can contain crowds.
Granted that, just like as obtainable all over the world, politics is a game of numbers and only the man or woman with the numbers always gets the nod. However, as far as the upcoming elections are concerned, Nigerian politicians are taking it to new levels. Rather than relying on a panoply of factors to drive these numbers, they have desperately resorted to outrightly buying and renting human beings to stay on course in this perceptual game. For these kinds of politicians, rather than proffer solutions to Nigeria’s daunting challenges, rallies are nothing but an opportunity to show strength, generate media buzz, and play for the optics.
This ugly trend has unfortunately turned the ability to gather human beings to fill up stadia into a booming industry. It has made many billionaires out of Nigerian politicians. Despite clearly understanding that these rented crowds, do not win elections for anyone, these politicians are determined in their belief that their perceptive game must be won no matter how much it costs.
Ahead of the elections slated for the 25th of February, showing off rented crowds have once again become a phenomenon and are driving conversations. It has become so brazen that one when carefully analyses campaign pictures, he or she will see the same faces, the same individuals in most rallies hosted by different political parties, and sometimes wearing the face cap of party APC and the T-Shirt of PDP. It is easy to notice that all the major political parties – APC, PDP, LP, NNPP in all their rallies pull unprecedented crowd or flash mob that has nothing to do with genuine support for the candidates or even passion for their message. The emergence of social media means some of this crowd can be manipulated, photoshopped and fake videos produced to appear bigger. This is the stark reality of the problem.
The crowd that congregates whenever there is a rally has more to do with economic reasons than belief in any cause or loyalty to a party. Recently, exposure came from no less a person than popular clergyman Pastor Enoch Adeboye, who rightly linked the availability of young men and women for political rallies to a high level of unemployment, hunger, and abject poverty in the country. One cannot but agree absolutely with him.
It is true that the rented crowd is an old phenomenon associated with politics, but unemployment in Nigeria has complicated the matter. Unemployed youth is a fertile ground for political mobilisation, rightly or wrongly. The latest statistics showing a 33% unemployment rate, many underemployed persons, and idle youths are ready to be hired for worthless political shows. Youths are forced by being unemployment to channel their energy to political causes that do not serve them any purpose or represent their political views.
Another factor responsible for the large crowd at political rallies is the acute poverty pervading the land. Here is the utility value of crowd contractors. Many Nigerians, who should ordinarily be engaged in more productive activities, are hired for between N1,000 to N10,000 Naira to attend campaign rallies. And these amounts depend on which region of the country and whether the party is in power or not. Parties now have a humungous and humorous budget for mobilisation. With 133 million Nigerians being multidimensional poor, every Naira for the next meal or to help pay school fees and house rent is important and worth sacrificing time for. Most persons attending campaign rallies under the current dispensation are going for the day-paid job, and it has nothing to do with passion for any political ideal or candidate or even hope of a better tomorrow which ordinarily politicians trade on.
The next factor contributing to the growing crowd surge prevalent in political party rallies is the significant erosion of value systems in the country. Honesty, integrity, and self-respect are vanishing traits in the modern day Nigerian society. Most participants in these rallies know the candidates and the party is the opposite of what they believe and know, yet they openly identify with them in rallies when paid but vote otherwise. The motivation is often extrinsic based on the perceived immediate gratification they hope to get. Most people in the crowd easily forget that what is at stake is the struggle for power and leadership that will shape their lives in the next four years. As such, they must be introspective and altruistic in determining which candidate, party, or cause to follow and support even during the campaign.
To make matters worse, political parties in Nigeria have no known ideologies, and attraction to them is often based on either parochial or mundane sentiments. This anomaly is counterproductive during electioneering campaigns when people see all political activities as making money, consolidating political capital, and gaining political patronage. Some in the crowd want to have fun, love the atmosphere and fun activities during rallies and want to participate. Although in the rally, out of curiosity or just having fun, this group will collect money or other provisions if provided.
Hunger has been weaponised, and any rally that provides food for the crowd will need more crowd control. Social media are awash with real-life videos of the fights for food and provisions in various rallies across the nation. It is embarrassing that hunger is linked with political campaigns in Nigeria. People are struggling to survive and live in the moment. They want to avoid rallies where candidates will elucidate policies to alleviate hunger. They want rallies where they are fed for the day.
Some ill-informed voters even assume that a candidate or party that provides food or money during rallies indicates how generous and good the candidate or party will be when elected. They frown at any candidate or party not providing immediate food or cash and deem them tight-fisted, anti-poor, and, therefore, may not generously provide for them when elected. The term ‘stomach infrastructure’ has been used to describe the phenomenon of voters and the people expecting daily subsistence from the government and politicians instead of developmental policies and activities that may ultimately eliminate hunger and poverty. This epitomises where Nigeria is at the moment.
A rally crowd has its usefulness, but there are other measures of popular support. Money is the language the public understands. What politicians may need to understand is that time has changed, and the world has also changed. The level of civic enlightenment and the mindset of the electorate has changed. And the influence of social media has impacted people’s attitudes toward the electoral process. They must understand these things and move away from the norm they were used to.
Like their counterparts in other third-world countries, Nigerian politicians still prioritise campaign crowds over and above real voter turn-out and actual votes. It is part of the reasons for organising noisy rallies to show off party strength and inadvertently show the world that we are still in the stone age. Historical records have shown that large political crowds usually do not translate to a favourable electoral outcome, and it’s all noise and no substance.
In conclusion, Nigerian politicians and by extension, leaders must come to the full realisation that these young men and women that they have impoverished simply to be able to use poverty as a weapon will one day revolt against them. One they have, they will attend those rallies and pelt them with stones or even attempt to snuff their lives out if nothing is done to change their situation. Rather than renting human beings like toys, the Nigerian political elites must start investing in young people to become better human beings in the society.