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Nigerian Presidential Election: Gaffes

Photo: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Recent Nigerian politics is no stranger to embarrassing gaffes. Whether it be now-President Muhammadu Buhari introducing his now-Vice President Yemi Osinbajo—by the wrong name in 2015 or Governor Yahaya Bello forgetting the name of one of his wives at his presidential campaign kickoff last year, campaign rallies often includes these unintended moments but the last months of campaigning have a significant uptick in gaffes and further attention on them.

Bad Memories and Failed Recitations

Conversation on campaign gaffes has tended to center around Bola Tinubu, the nominee of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Long hit by rumours that questioned whether he was truly his purported age, the supporters of Tinubu’s opponents monitor his every word on campaign event live streams, just awaiting a blunder. Unfortunately for Tinubu, these gaffes have become all too common during the campaign thus reinforcing the claims of his opponents. 

While these gaffes were present prior to the APC primary—most notably when he erroneously told a group of voters that their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) had expired and Independent National Electoral Commission was forced to debunk the claim, the long general election campaign has led to a growing list of Tinubu verbal errors: saying an allied governor had ‘turned a rotten situation to a bad one’ in October, calling PVCs “APVs” and struggling to say hullabaloo in November, and rambling about how he brought “electricity company all the way from America” in January. While plenty of nations have had gaffe-prone leaders from Japan’s Yoshirō Mori to the United States’ Joe Biden, Tinubu’s struggles have reminded Nigerians of the gaffe-laden 2015 campaign of then-candidate Buhari. In hindsight, the 2015 campaign gaffes have been viewed as an overlooked harbinger of Buhari’s personal health status as he now has spent months abroad on medical leave during his tenure. Amid its regular denials, the Tinubu campaign has been evasive of specifics in a way similarly evocative of the Buhari administration’s dismissals of detailed health questions. But even more dire for the APC nominee are the comparisons between the Tinubu campaign and the successful 2007 campaign of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (PDP) as both men had open, unanswered questions about their health status and avoided media interviews during the campaign — Yar’Adua had constant health issues throughout his presidency, dying three years into his term. These recent experiences have led to fears and accusations that, like during the Yar’Adua presidency, there is an unelected backroom cabal hoping to rule the nation with an ill man as a figurehead president.

Although the Tinubu campaign has tried to explain the verbal blunders as simple mistakes that anyone could make, it has been unable to deflect what could be his most politically harmful verbal errors: his three failed attempts to recite the Fatiha. Stumbling over the sura, the first chapter of the Quran that observant Muslims recite multiple times a day during each prayer, has led to questioning of Tinubu’s faith during an election where religion has taken centre stage. Tinubu is helming an immensely controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket, losing the APC support among Christians who fear discrimination and lament exclusion, but the Fatiha scandal has reportedly hurt his candidacy among Muslim voters as well. The scandal has opened Tinubu up to attacks from his opponents with former Senator Dino Melaye—a (Christian) former senator who is an Abubakar campaign hatchetman—publicly issuing a recitation challenge to Tinubu before posting a video comparing his own fatiha recitation to one of Tinubu’s failed attempts with a caption deriding Tinubu as an “emergency Muslim” just using the religion for “political purposes.” Opposition aside, analysts and commentators also view the scandal as damaging, with columnist Farooq Kperogi stating that the controversy has led to a prevailing belief among many Northern Muslims that Tinubu is “either a munafiq or a [secret] Christian;” Kperogi went as far to label the scandal as one of three recent “potentially seismic shifts” in the presidential race. Overall, this series of gaffes may turn out to be the most consequential since Tinubu was already losing Northern Muslim support compared to Buhari prior to the scandal and gaining Christian support will prove difficult as the election is already extremely religiously polarized.

False Numbers and Corruption Reminders

Compared to his two major opponents, the 61 year old Peter Obi has been spry on the campaign trail with relatively few verbal blunders. However, that has not excused him from speech scandals mainly revolving around his liberal use of statistics but at times questionable accuracy. Most notably, Obi made several inaccurate claims in an otherwise well-regarded speech at Chatham House in London. Different supporters can argue whether those are simple mistakes or if the comments are meant to mislead, but they do fall under the various controversial speeches of these candidates.

For Abubakar, most of his unfortunate remarks have not focused on questionable stats or religious errors, instead regarding ethnic baiting and corruption. As the norm breaker of the zoning principle of regional power rotation, one could expect Abubakar to be careful to avoid ethno-regional attacks on his opponents but just days after the campaign period began, he told a Northern group that the region should reject ethnic Igbo (Obi) and Yoruba (Tinubu) candidates in favour of a northern candidate (like himself). While large segments of the Nigerian public negatively received the statement, it is very possible that it was 100% intentional: throughout Abubakar’s long political career, he has failed to hold significant support in his native North and he may have concluded that othering his southern opponents could win that voter base. However, it is difficult to argue that Abubakar intended his next major blunder when he said only politicians who won their polling units for the PDP would receive appointments or contracts if he won. While his tone was scolding of political leaders who asked for government roles despite poor electoral performance, he inadvertently admitted that government jobs and lucrative contracts would be allocated based on the “qualification” of party loyalty. Like Tinubu’s health, this admittance of cronyism is similar to criticisms of the Buhari administration. This speech compounded his campaign’s issues with corruption as it came just a few days after an estranged former aide to Abubakar had released audio where a voice (attributed to Abubakar) explained how he and then-President Olusegun Obasanjo used shell corporations to steal public funds during their administration. While others could have used the excuse that it was simply a vengeful employee, Abubakar has a long history of reported corruption as a 2010 US Senate committee report claimed Abubakar and his family had stolen millions so the audio was quickly the target of opponents’ attacks.

Which Party?

Aside from years-long corruption scandals and recitation troubles, the most obvious (and comedic) gaffes have been Abubakar and Tinubu regularly mixing up the two major parties. In recent months, social media has been awash with new clips of the septuagenarians telling a crowd to vote for their opponents: Tinubu ended a November speech with “God bless PD…APC” at a rally in Jos; while Abubakar similarly concluded a December speech by telling supporters to “vote for A…I mean PDP” at the exact same stadium in Jos before doing the same thing a month later in Lokoja. The Obi camp has had a field day with the errors, as a significant part of their campaign strategy has been equating the two traditional parties as one and the same: the “PDAPC.” Although the gaffes became the target of extensive jokes—often based on the age of Abubakar and Tinubu, the mistakes could be interpreted as a symbol of the oft-criticized similarities between the APC and PDP as politicians (including Abubakar) regularly move between the parties based on personal interest. To reinforce this interpretation, plenty of other speakers have made the same error just during this campaign season: one of Abubakar’s wives told supporters to “vote APC” just days after her husband made the same mistake and PDP National Chairman Iyorchia Ayu said “PDP has brought us shame” to a Kano crowd in early February. Most damning may be Melaye—the Abubakar campaign hatchetman whose role in many rallies has been to comedically mock Tinubu’s poor health and gaffes—himself confusing parties and telling a Maiduguri crowd that “we are voting APC.”

Overall, the campaign season has been marked by a series of humiliating gaffes from candidates, which have had varying effects on their campaigns. While some blunders have been minor, with little change on the overall race, others—like Tinubu’s Fatiha misses and the party mix-ups—reinforced already existing narratives on Tinubu’s religiosity and APC-PDP similarities. The proliferation of social media usage has allowed short clips of these embarrassing moments to spread rapidly, making it easier for voters to see these missteps. Due to this spread, the consequences of these gaffes are likely to play a substantial role in shaping the outcome of the election. Ultimately, the ability of each candidate to address narratives about the gaffes and project governance ability despite mistakes will be key to their success in the coming weeks.

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