The secret to every good magic trick is the combination of two techniques: the ‘misdirection’ and the ‘sleight of hand’. How good a magician is and how awed the audience is by his tricks comes down to how well he performs these two, simple, but extremely powerful, techniques.
Take the classic rabbit-out-of-a-hat magic trick (that trick where the magician pulls a rabbit of his top hat). A variation of this trick has a magician and his assistant appear in front of the audience dressed in a western-style suit, a top hat, a silk handkerchief, a wand, and unbeknownst to the audience, a rabbit, tucked safely in one of the suit pockets. The magician begins with misdirection – he takes off his top hat and shows it to the audience – it’s empty. He pulls out his silk handkerchief and performs a dummy trick with a foldable toy rabbit. He pretends to reveal the toy rabbit as the secret to the trick and throws the rabbit away. And just as the audience looks away at the flying toy, his assistant (here comes the sleight of hand) quickly and deftly pulls the real rabbit out of his pocket and into the top hat. The magician waves his wand over the hat and pulls out a real-life rabbit, to the amazement of the audience.
A few days ago, Senator Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, the presidential aspirant of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) and his fellow party member and ally, Buba Galadima (the Magician and his assistant) in separate TV interviews, spoke at length about the 2023 presidential elections. The central topic of discussion was the efforts for the NNPP to form an alliance with the Labour Party ahead of 2023, to present a united front and challenge the two major parties in Nigeria today, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as a formidable “third-force”. The Labour Party’s present presidential candidate is Peter Obi, the former Governor of Anambra state who enjoys massive popularity online, particularly among young Nigerians predominantly from the South East and South-South zones of the country.
According to Kwankwaso, Galadima, and other sources from both the NNPP and the Labour Party, the ongoing alliance talks were going fairly well, considering how difficult these sorts of arrangements can be. However, there was a massive knot proving impossible to untangle, and that is the configuration of the presidential ticket under such an alliance, specifically who among the two presidential aspirants will “settle” for the vice-presidential slot of a joint ticket.
For Obi’s camp, the solution is simple – Obi should be the presidential candidate and Kwankwaso, his vice. Why? Because (1) the groundswell of support for Obi is turning out young, first-time voters in droves, who have bought into his promise to resuscitate Nigeria’s economy and cut the obscene waste that has always characterized governance in Nigeria. Obi, they claim, is needed at the top of the ticket to drive this agenda, and any attempt to make him a VP candidate will discourage his supporters (now self-styled as “OBIdients” – an obvious play on words) from turning up to vote. (2) Some go further to make the claim that it is only fair, equitable, and just, for a Southern (South Eastern) candidate to emerge as president after 8 years of Buhari, who hails from the North (North West), and after 60+ years with a South Easterner having never occupied the office of the executive president.
For Kwankwaso’s camp, the answer is equally simple. Kwankwaso should be the presidential candidate, and Obi, his vice. Why? Because (1) Kwankwaso is older than Obi (He’s 65 to Obi’s 61) and more established politically having been a two-time Governor, a Senator, and a Minister of Defence. And so, in keeping with traditional Nigerian and African culture, the expectation is that the older should come first. For those who may feel that such considerations should not hold sway in the political game, his camp offers a second reason. (2) Kwankwaso, they claim, brings more electoral value to the table. His defection to the NNPP in March has raised the profile of the party in Kano and a few other states in the North-West, with top lawmakers and politicians decamping to the party from the PDP and APC, their loyalists in tow. In addition to that, Kwankwaso also boasts the support of millions of “Kwankasiyya” in Kano and close environs, an eponymous group of supporters cultivated by Kwankwaso over decades as a prominent Kano politician.
How to detangle this unwieldy knot? Kwankwaso and his associate attempt to answer this question in their favour via a rather bold and audacious trick.
During one of his interviews, Kwankwaso offers several facts about the Nigerian political arena, setting up the misdirection. In doing this, he lays out a few truths. It is true, as he says, that no South Easterner has emerged as a substantive Executive Head of State since Nigeria became a Republic in 1963. It is also true that the South East enjoys the least advantage in National politics, given that Nigeria practices representational democracy and the South East is the only region with 5 states (other regions have 6 states, except the North West, which has 7), with the lowest number of local governments, and thus the lowest number of representatives across Federal, State, and Local Government levels. But then Kwankwaso goes on further, as he sets the stage for the sleight of hand, just as the magician shifts our gaze long enough to perform his trick. Kwankwaso makes the claim that the South East, having never produced a president should queue behind him, a Northerner, just as Tinubu did with Buhari, when the former Lagos Governor and current presidential flagbearer of the APC spearheaded the merger of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), and factions of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) to form the APC. The APC went on to win the 2015 presidential elections and continues to be the ruling party.
The Sleight of Hand
In his framing of the Obi/Kwankwaso question as the Tinubu/Buhari question of 2015, Kwankwaso performs a deft sleight of hand in 2 brilliant steps. The first is by conflating Peter Obi’s candidacy with that of the South East, reducing Obi’s appeal to his geo-political zone of origin. But this is demonstrably false. Obi’s emergence has galvanized youths, particularly in the South East and South-South, and is continuing to galvanize young voters in parts of the South West and even the North Central. As some political analysts have pointed out, it’s not so much that Obi as an individual is popular but rather that a youth movement – borne out of anger and frustration in the face of high unemployment, prolonged university closure, double-digit inflation, rampant insecurity and a grudge against the political establishment after the #EndSARS protests of 2020 – has appointed Obi as its arrowhead to halt the country’s daily slide towards anarchy.
The second step is his subtle, but an unmistakable comparison of his candidacy to that of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. The central idea in this comparison is that just as Tinubu, then leader of the largely South-Western ACN, engineered Buhari, a political heavyweight, to pick the party’s presidential ticket with a gentleman’s agreement to ensure his own emergence after 8 years, so too should Peter Obi (and the South East) galvanize behind Kwankwaso to do the same. The problem with this equivalence though is that Buhari and Kwankwaso are totally incomparable when it comes to electoral value. However one may feel about Buhari (either as a military General, a presidential candidate, or a serving president), no serious political observer has ever denied his immense electoral popularity. Going into the 2015 elections, Buhari enjoyed the pedigree and name recognition of being a former military Head of State and had run for the presidency 3 times (2003, 2007, and 2011) with his most recent outing at the time garnering him 12 million votes (3 million shy of his eventual 15 million in 2015) under the CPC, a party largely unknown outside the core North. No doubt Buhari also enjoyed an extra level of popularity in 2015 given the feeling by the Northern elite at the time that power ought to return to the North.
Kwankwaso’s electoral value at this moment is not as convincing. While his Kwankwasiyya movement boasts officially of over 2 million registered members, Kwankwaso himself was unable to convert this followership into votes for Atiku Abubakar in 2019, when Kwankwaso endorsed him for the presidency. The presidential candidate of the PDP lost Kano state, garnering less than 400 thousand votes to Buhari’s 1.49 million. Neither do current feelers indicate popularity outside of Kano, Jigawa, and a few other North West states, even with the increased profile of the NNPP in the region. Finally, unlike in 2015, the current feeling by the political elite is that power should return to the South after 8 years of a Northerner as president. Couple this with the Northern political establishment’s strong representation and investments in the APC, and there is no expectation that a Kwankwaso in the NNPP would enjoy the added advantage of a Northern elite consensus as Buhari did in 2015. Simply put, Kwankwaso is, at this time, nowhere close to the political force that Buhari was 8 years ago, and to suggest this is a plain attempt to hoodwink the Nigerian people.
Another thing for Kwankwaso to consider is that of the “big 4” contestants – Atiku, Tinubu, Kwankwaso, Obi – Obi is the youngest, the only Christian, and 1 of 2 Southerners. This no doubt matters in an election cycle where a septuagenarian Northern Muslim will be completing 8 tumultuous years as the Nation’s Commander in Chief.
All things considered, it’s fair to say that this attempt at political sleight of hand has not worked out for Senator Kwankwaso. On Tuesday, the Director-General of the Obi campaign, Doyin Okupe, appeared on Channels TV to announce that the alliance talks between the Labour Party and the NNPP had broken down over a month ago, as a result of their inability to answer the very question of who would deputize who. The Labour Party has long moved on. On Friday last week, the party officially unveiled Senator Yusuf Datti-Ahmed, a Kaduna politician, founder of Baze University and brother to Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed of the Northern Elders Forum as Obi’s running mate. Kwankwaso’s substantive vice-presidential pick remains to be confirmed. The NNPP and the Labour Party go their separate ways, preferring to cut the cord, with the knot no longer needing to be undone. Good luck to the both of them and come 2023, may the Nigerian people come out victorious.
M.S. Griot is a perpetually curious 20′ something Nigerian living in Lagos. He works in Tech and is a budding political enthusiast.