INCUMBENT President Goodluck Jonathan was in the black book of the United States (US) government when then-President Barack Obama addressed Nigerians through a video message days before the 2015 general elections.
In an unprecedented move, US leader Obama urged Nigerians to turn out and participate in the elections. The 2015 general elections was first scheduled to commence on February 14, 2015, but the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) postponed it by six weeks to March 28, mainly due to the poor distribution of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), and also to curb ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East.
The US and United Kingdom (UK) had frowned at the postponement of the election. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Nigerian government against using security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process. British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond also cautioned Nigerian authorities, stressing that Nigerians should not be denied the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.
The general elections eventually commenced on March 28 but days before the polls, on March 23, 2015, Obama addressed Nigerians in a two-minute 31 seconds video.
“Hello, today I wanna speak directly to you, the people of Nigeria,” the US President started his address.
After commending Nigerians for winning independence from colonial rule and freedom from military dictatorship, turning the country’s diversity into strength and working hard to build the largest economy in Africa, Obama stressed: “Now you have a historic opportunity to write the next chapter of Nigeria’s progress by voting in the upcoming elections.”
Although Obama did not directly tell Nigerians to vote Buhari, the APC candidate, his message implied that Nigeria is better off with the retired army General.
At the time, there were reports that the US was not happy with the Jonathan administration over Nigeria’s refusal to embrace gay rights. But, added to that, the US was also not impressed with the Nigerian government’s efforts in the campaign against Boko Haram.
Buhari was seen as a more capable hand, and the US wanted him to take up the onslaught on the terror group.
Obama, in the message, said successful elections and democratic progress will help Nigeria to stop Boko Haram, which he identified as the urgent challenge facing the country.
“Boko Haram wants to destroy Nigeria and all you have built. By casting your ballot you can help secure your nation’s progress. I am told there is a saying in your country: To keep Nigeria as one is a task that must be done. Today I urge all Nigerians, from all religions, all ethnic groups and all regions, to come together and keep Nigeria one. And in this task of advancing the security, prosperity and human rights of all Nigerians, you will continue to have a friend and partner in the United States of America,” Obama concluded.
The message was clear.
Buhari eventually won the election. The extent of the impact of the intervention of the US government on the outcome of the election cannot be determined but it is certain that the White House made moves to influence the poll. Jonathan acknowledged the US influence in his book, ‘The Transition Hours’.
About eight years after, Nigeria is set to elect Buhari’s successor. The leading candidates are Bola Tinubu of the ruling party, the APC, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP).
America, Britain will not want another Buhari in 2023… Diplomat
At the moment, there is no clear indication that the US, and the UK, Nigeria’s colonial master – two countries that exert considerable influence on Nigeria – are backing any of the candidates.
But, in an interview with The ICIR, a Professor, and former Director General of Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Bola Akinterinwa, noted that the US and the UK would be seeking to protect and promote their interests in Nigeria by trying to influence the outcome of the 2023 presidential election.
And while it is not certain that the super powers are backing any candidate, one thing is clear, according to Akinterinwa. The US and the UK will not want another Buhari in 2023.
“The US was very critical in the election of Buhari in 2015. They ensured that they frustrated Jonathan at that time but now that Buhari is there he has shown himself to be very incapable. He has not been able to secure the country. People voted for him in the belief that being a retired Army General he will bring his experience to bear in neutralizing terror. But he has not. Under Buhari there were several diplomatic confrontations in terms of purchase of Tucano military aircraft, there were too many disagreements at the level of US and Nigeria. Now the US will not be interested in having another Muhammadu Buhari in the form of whoever, whether it is Tinubu, Atiku or Obi. So they must be interested (in the outcome of the presidential election)”, Akinterinwa said.
“Due to their interests, yes, they (US and UK) will want to influence (the outcome) because they don’t want a government that will be hostile. They don’t want a government that will endanger their investments in Nigeria. They want a government that will protect their economic interests,” the seasoned diplomat added.
While the Americans and the British seek to influence the outcome of Nigeria’s presidential elections, influencing actual voting is a tricky affair. A lot of factors are responsible for this. The factors include the economic situation in the country and diplomatic restraints.
So, the influence exerted by the foreign powers is usually subtle and indirect.
Shedding further light on this, Akinterinwa said: “In Nigeria, because of the poverty level, when you give people money, they will vote. So if the enemy of the UK or US gets to the polling booth and he is settled with the vote-buying virus, they will vote. So it is very difficult for foreign countries to influence voting at that particular level.
“What the US usually does is to organize a training program, especially for media professionals, or provide assistance in terms of electioneering, in terms of election materials, in terms of how to protect human rights, how to avoid violence, and so on and so forth. They do this before elections and generally media men are encouraged to be part of the observation teams so they will be able to report. So you see, indirectly, they (US/UK) are influencing.”
The influence can also take the form of ‘clandestine’ operations. Akinterinwa observed that the super powers can help their preferred candidates with financial assistance.
“On the matter of voting, they can still control, to a very minimal level. For instance, due to the high poverty level, it is always about money, it is very possible for a country to empower the candidate they want to support financially for such candidate to be able to distribute money.”
However, while the Americans and the British may have preferred candidates in the presidential election, they will not put all their eggs in one basket. As Akinterinwa explained, the super powers usually extend support to different candidates, who have been identified as potential winners of the election. So, ahead of the 2023 election, the Americans and the British could simultaneously extend indirect support to LP’s Peter Obi, APC’s Bola Tinubu, PDP’s Atiku Abubakar and NNPP’s Kwankwaso.
The objective is to ensure that, at the end of the day, whoever emerges winner is on their side.
Akinterinwa described this approach as ‘double strategy’.
“Due to the situation in Nigeria, I can tell you that the US and the UK are most likely to say a candidate like Peter Obi than having support for Atiku or Tinubu and a host of others. And the reason is not far-fetched. You know when we have diplomatic representations in Nigeria, their main job is to observe what is going on and report back home. They know quite well that you have a candidate whose national impact is yet to be established but it feels like this candidate has better potential.
“But what is normally done in diplomacy is that governments do not always engage in putting all their eggs in the same basket. It is never done. This is what the UK and America normally do. And in this case they can support Atiku, and they can also support Tinubu, quietly, with different approaches. So that whoever wins, America and the British will never be the loser.”
He added, “The West, particularly the US and the UK, are always seeking to influence elections in such a way that whoever is elected will be a friendly person. They wouldn’t want any pro-Chinese person to be elected, neither will they want somebody who has sympathy for Russia. If they identify a candidate who will protect their interests, they will do everything they could, secretly, to support such candidate.”
Atiku, Tinubu hold meetings with American, British officials
Already, some of the leading presidential candidates have been holding meetings with American and British government officials ahead of the election.
In August, PDP candidate Atiku held a meeting with the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, in Abuja. According to details disclosed by Atiku, the meeting centred on deepening ties between Nigeria and the UK.
Atiku said,“We discussed a wide range of issues from the economy to education, security, electoral reforms and improved collaboration between the UK and the Nigerian governments on finding lasting diplomatic common ground on issues that mutually benefit both countries.”
In October, the PDP candidate also embarked on what his campaign team described as a “working visit” to the US. There were reports that Atiku, during the visit, lobbied top US State Department officials, as well as influential members of the US Congress, to solicit support for his presidential bid.
On September 22, APC candidate Tinubu held a meeting with the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, and Deputy Chief of Mission, Rolf Olson. The meeting was held at the APC Presidential Campaign Council office in Abuja. Earlier, on September 5, Tinubu also met with UK High Commissioner, Laing.
Chatham House provides window for candidates to woo international community
Although Nigerians in the Diaspora do not participate in Nigeria’s elections, Chatham House, in London, UK, has become the centre stage of campaigns for Nigeria’s presidential poll. Also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House is an independent policy institute headquartered in London. Its stated mission is to provide commentary on world events and offer solutions to global challenges.
In recent times, leading presidential candidates regard Chatham House as a platform to woo the international community, showcase themselves on the international stage and also prove to Nigerian voters that they have an international pedigree.
In February 2015, before the 2015 presidential poll, Buhari, the APC candidate, unveiled his plans for Nigeria in an address at Chatham House.
Ahead of the 2023 presidential election, APC candidate Tinubu has followed Buhari’s example by unveiling his plans for Nigeria at Chatham House on December 5.
The LP candidate Obi is to address Chatham House on January 16, 2023, following further invitations extended by the organisation to other leading candidates for the 2023 presidential election. Atiku of the PDP and Kwankwaso, NNPP, will also appear at Chatham House on yet-to-be-specified dates. Atiku was not a presidential candidate when he spoke at Chatham House in 2018.
Speaking on the significance of Chatham House in contemporary Nigerian presidential elections, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, noted that an appearance at Chatham House is now regarded as a prestigious occasion since Buhari’s address at the venue in 2015.
Hassan, in an interview with The ICIR, also observed that Chatham House provides a wide platform that encompasses Nigerians back home and members of the international community.
“When speaking at Chatham House, you are not going to have only Nigerians but the international community will also participate. There will be businesses, think-tanks and researchers and some Nigerians will get to understand who the candidates are and what there agenda is all about,” Hassan said, adding that the candidates see the outing as an opportunity to impress not just Nigerians back home and those in the Diaspora, but also the international community.