Mudslinging Stifles Policy Debate in Nigerian Vote Campaign

(Bloomberg) -- Nigerian election campaigns are never for the faint-hearted, but the vitriol of this year’s presidential contest is giving a whole new meaning to the phrase gutter politics.

The cacophony of accusations and counter-charges is drowning out the real debate between President Muhammadu Buhari, 76, and main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, 72, over the economy, education and how it is that Africa’s top oil producer has more people living in extreme poverty than any other nation, according to a Brookings Institution report. Some analysts say the hyperbole may lead to violence and a delay in the Feb. 16 elections.

Mudslinging Stifles Policy Debate in Nigerian Vote Campaign

“You need to castigate your opposition to show that they have fallen in terms of the people’s expectation of them,” said Habu Mohammed, who heads the political science department at Bayero University in the northern city of Kano. “When elections are coming, fabrications take over.”

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who’s backing Abubakar, alleges Buhari’s re-election campaign is “working round the clock in cahoots with security and election officials” to rig the vote and spark “violence of unimaginable proportion.” The presidency responded by saying Obasanjo needed “a good doctor” and hoped he would “get well soon.”

Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party has said having Amina Zakari, who’s related to Buhari through marriage, as head of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s collation center indicates that the government is planning to rig the election.

Escalating Tension

On Monday, it was the government’s turn to dial up the rhetoric. Information Minister Lai Mohammed alleged that the opposition “is orchestrating widespread violence with a view to truncating the elections, thus triggering a constitutional crisis.” Islamist militants, mercenaries from neighboring Niger and armed bandits, he said, have all been enlisted in the plot.

Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, called Mohammed’s comments “scaremongering” and urged the government to stop it.

“Tension is being fanned and escalated, so that you get the sense the different sides of the political divide are digging in in an uncompromising manner,” said Nwankwo, who’s also the chairman of Situation Room, which includes more than 70 civic groups monitoring the electoral process. “That’s the kind of situation that leads to violence.”

Nigerian elections have a history of violence since the return to democratic rule in 1999. While the last vote in 2015 was relatively peaceful, when Buhari became the first opposition candidate to win power through the ballot box since independence from the U.K. in 1960, at least 600 people were killed in the vote four years before.

Personal attacks are in vogue too. A former vice president and wealthy businessman, Abubakar has accused Buhari of being inept at running the economy. The president’s camp has suggested Abubakar acquired his wealth corruptly.

Buhari last year felt the need to publicly dismiss his opponents’ claims that he’d died -- he spent more than five months in London being treated for an undisclosed illness in 2017 -- and had been cloned in Sudan.

While Abubakar was in Washington last week meeting U.S. lawmakers, Information Minister Mohammed said the authorities believed he has questions to answer over his alleged role in a failure of a bank and that documents showed he benefited from slush funds that led to its collapse. Abubakar’s spokesman called the charge “a needless distraction.”

Scoring Points

“It is ridiculous and makes nonsense of the war on corruption when it is very clear that all of these things are being thrown out there to score political points,” said Cheta Nwanze, an analyst at SBM Intelligence in Lagos, the commercial capital.

Despite the increasingly harsh rhetoric, both candidates skipped a presidential debate on Jan. 19 where they were due to lay out their policy plans for Nigeria.

“This kind of propaganda rather than issue-based politics is really giving the opportunity for hate speech and acrimonious relationships among the politicians, and political violence in the long run,” said Mohammed of Bayero University.

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