Nigerians talk a good game about third party candidacies, especially Nigerians on social media.
They often speak about this utopia where Nigerians have had more than two options for president of Nigeria, and we could have chosen any of these options instead of what they consider less-than-ideal alternatives in our last two national election cycles.
So let’s talk about third party options in Nigeria.
Or no, let’s talk first about the idea of third party options globally.
For a third party candidate or party to be taken seriously in an election by the generality of the voting mass, there has to be a basic standard of viability. Viability, in essence, lies in the question: is this candidate an effective vehicle with a reasonable chance of winning an election?
Let’s switch this as a question voters must ask themselves: am I wasting this vote or not?
This is because essentially, democracy is a game of choices, not a game of wishes. It comes down at the base of it to, for most voters: who is the candidate most likely out of all the options that I have, most of whom I did not willingly choose as the options from the parties, to best represent my interest?
I would wager that this is indeed the foundation upon which democracies that function are based – the fact of choice between available alternatives.
There is a certain petulance in any set of citizens claiming that ‘I did not go to vote because none of the candidates fired up my passions.' In a country like Nigeria, for instance, there were approximately 29 million who voted in the last presidential elections. Think about the chaos that would ensue if all of them decided to vote only if they found the candidates that fit their exact or proximate specifications.
For most ordinary citizens of the world, that luxury of desire doesn’t exist. For Americans, it can be a binary choice: which candidate will give me free healthcare and which one will not? For Nigerians, it can come down to the same: which one will be less corrupt and so will free up monies for poverty alleviation programs?
I would dare say, for responsible citizens, even if they are not the mass, that luxury does not exist as well: the choice will come to, in a field of undesirables, who is the candidate that will do the least damage, at the very least?
In making this choice, voting for third party candidate simply because you can, regardless of passing the test of viability, is both petulant and indulgent.
It is particularly indulgent because it sets the bar very low for third party candidates where the pitch then becomes: if we have undesirable options, then just because you are a third party candidate, whether you are qualified or not, whether you do the heavy lifting or not, we will vote for you as a protest option.
Think about the American elections in 2016, where both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had the worst favorability ratings of any modern candidate since Richard Nixon. A third party option became a mainstream conversation.
But who were the options? Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), one of only two third-party candidates polling above 5 percent, was not only was deeply unaware of the world as it exists typified by his ignorance of Syria’s war dynamics, but even his deputy turned out not only to be uninspired by him but actively rooting for the Democratic Party candidate.
To that extent, the question to those who would vote him in as a protest candidate: do you think this is a joke?
But Americans had actual third party options in 2015, in fact. By the test of viability above, that would be serious candidates with serious, practical ideas who were also ready to do the heavy lifting of organization, mobilization, and persuasion. These candidates existed; they just didn’t run on the platform of actual third parties.
There was Bernie Sanders, a life-long Independent Senator from Vermont. Even though he ran under the Democratic party, Sanders was to all intents and purposes an independent candidate, no less validated by the fact that independents rushed into the primaries to vote him.
Donald Trump - Republican-today, Democrat-today - was also in effect a third party candidate. He was not beholden to Republican party orthodoxy, did not run on any of the existing political structures that deliver Republican victories, and – most remarkably – ran against BOTH the Democratic and the Republican establishments.
But to be viable, both candidates decided to get serious and concluded that a hostile takeover of the present mainstream political options was more sensible than mounting quixotic bids from the fringes of political life.
Both candidates were also highly serious-minded candidates, with massive track records, either in business or government, who had – each in their different ways – been pushing a particular, stubborn agenda in the full glare of public attention; Bernie Sanders with his multi-decade message of socialism, and Trump with a 30-year war against ‘America losing’.
By the time they mounted bids, preparation, profile, and purpose had met opportunity. And yet, even they had to mount this takeover bid through existing mainstream political structures.
This thing is hard, serious work.
So when Nigerians say: We had third party candidates in 2015. We should ask ourselves: did we really?
Was KOWA, for instance, a serious third party option? Did it have a popular agenda, did it possess a truly inspiring candidate with a clear track record and a concrete alternative reality beyond ‘I exist, I am not one of them, I am different, so vote for me?’ Did it have, as a party, a serious presence in 12 states of the country at a minimum, able if not to win elections at least to mobilize people with the idea of another option?
The answer is clearly no.
Beyond the (without prejudice to her character) triteness of the candidate it presented for national election, it just couldn’t marshal a central argument that could galvanize a political base.
You see, candidates and parties are not voted simply because they exist. Candidates and parties are voted because they prove that they can and should be taken seriously by voters serious about affecting electoral outcomes.
And, for that matter, if KOWA or other third party candidates were serious, Nigeria has indeed had third party candidates that are worth their weight in gold, they just haven’t stood for national political office.
Peter Obi launched his bid to be governor of Anambra, even before he was a registered member of any political party, driven – as legend would have it – simply by a desire to shake things up for the citizens of the state.
After he had declared his ambition and circulated posters across Anambra, having deployed extensive financial resources to make the seriousness of his intention known, only then did he begin the search for a political party.
His search began with the All Nigerian People’s Party, going round some political parties before he arrived at the perfect host body of the All Progressives Grand Alliance. He finally led that party into a rare gubernatorial victory that has maintained its hold over that state in the past 12 years.
Olusegun Mimiko did the same thing in Ondo, defying the threats of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, and daring the giants of all the All Progressives Congress (APC) to launch his own effective third party bid with the otherwise-powerless Labour Party.
Effectively, it wasn’t the party machinery – such as didn’t exist – that powered his electoral victory; it was the seriousness of his candidacy and the substance of his message that only at that point needed a legal vehicle to establish its efficacy.
There was even Lagos’s Jimi Agbaje, who parlayed a third party candidacy into national acclaim.
He did not win an election, but only because the Tinubu machinery in Lagos was (and is) finely honed and well oiled. It was the seriousness of the Democratic Party Alliance-candidacy of Agbaje (complete with the viral ‘JK is OK’ message) that finally made him such an irresistible candidate for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), enough to incur the wrath of the formidable Musiliu Obanikoro in 2014.
If KOWA and others want to be taken seriously, then they must pay attention to these models.
These are solid Nigerian models that have worked or that have captured the popular imagination. They are worth talking about and worthy of the victories that they have won. The only issue is that none of these models have been transformed into a national arena. And that is a tragedy as we move into the 2019 elections.
It is noteworthy, and tragic that two years before our next federal elections there is – yet again – no serious-minded presidential candidacy on the scene beyond the usual suspects.
The reason for this is simple: many Nigerian politicians are making the bet that the only two viable options in 2019 have to come either from the APC or from the PDP. And rather than mounting mainstream messaging that can capture the hearts and minds of the voting public, many of them are insisting on internal horse-trading; trying to win the affection of the power brokers in those parties first, and using that as the only foundation for deciding whether to run for office or not.
For many of them, if you won’t win the support of the owners of the political structures within these parties (many of them former political office holders or military power players), then there is no point mounting any political challenge because you just will not win.
This is a shame.
It is a shame because it speaks to the fundamental lack of grit on the part of the players on the national political space. And it is a shame because if there will be any opportunity for a third political force to emerge and to enhance the competitiveness of the center stage, the time is now.
Having dislodged the ruling party in 2015, the field has been thrown wide open now for other players to further weaken the political center, and widen the options for the composition of a new political establishment.
Without the appearance of a third party candidate, it appears that the two options for 2019 – at least, as today stands – will yet again be Muhammadu Buhari and (wait for it) Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.
In the absence of any alternatives with name recall, or establishment consensus, these are most likely to be the default candidates by the time competition kicks off at the end of this year.
Now, whether you are a die-hard supporter of any of these two or not, this is not an optimal state of affairs in a country where both parties, have been less than impressive in federal office (and that, being perhaps the understatement of the year).
At this point, after the foundational two-party disruption of 2015, Nigeria’s democracy is ripe for a new level of disruption; one that, at the minimum, scares the establishment out of a dangerous binary reality, into one that refocuses, not on internal political calculation, but on the citizen.
At the very least, it will shake off the complacency now that seems destined to re-present a repeat of 2015.
The need for this is even more acute because both of these parties do not possess an ideological difference that presents real options beyond personalities.
In a situation like this, a sign of health will certainly be the multiplicity of options that engenders healthy competition. That healthy competition will in turn force parties to compete no longer on the level of personality, but then on the level of ideology, a coherent architecture of consistent ideas.
I am aware that there are many solid candidates that are considering seriously a presidential run. Many of them are younger political stars who have an impressive track record in government.
Even better, in a country with unavoidable ethnic fault-lines, I am aware that many of these are candidates from the South East and South South – which means the coincidence of opportunity and minority agitation presents fertile ground to run real interference.
They need to find the courage to take the plunge.
Either the way of the Obis and Mimikos, or perhaps the way of Adams Oshiomhole, a viable third party candidate who only needed a serious-minded party and machinery to make the possible finally inevitable.
There is a place for third party candidates in Nigeria. But space only exists for serious minded third party candidates. They call for the serious-minded, with serious minded capacity, and an actual game plan for capturing an electoral victory.
That’s the least the Nigerian electorate deserves.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance communication firm, StateCraft Inc. Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.