GOVERNANCE - 05 JAN 2023

Why does Obasanjo’s endorsement of Peter Obi matter?

Why does Obasanjo’s endorsement of Peter Obi matter?
Endorsement, Stears

The Peter Obi campaign has gotten a significant boost in the last few days, with high-profile endorsements from former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as prominent Niger Delta leader Chief Edwin Clark. 

With just over seven weeks until the 2023 elections, various camps view these endorsements differently. In the Peter Obi camp, they are sold as evidence of momentum as the polls approach, while others are keen to spin it as an event with limited impact on the contest's outcome.
 


Definition: What is a political endorsement?
A political endorsement is voicing support for one candidate or the other in a political contest.

Endorsements can come from a prominent politician, group of politicians, political groups or other groups with political preferences and objectives, like labour unions, religious institutions or figures, or members of the business elite.
 

 

A free and fair election is anchored on one major premise—one person, one vote. Regardless of your status as a two-term president, a state governor…or your local neighbourhood night watchman, a functioning democracy means that in the eyes of the law and in the count of the ballot, everyone is the same. 

But the political process itself is filled with different factors that show how ‘influence’ varies between people and groups. Access to prominent media platforms can help elevate a candidate’s prominence in a time when screen time can help cut through a lot of noise, while access to major economy players puts a candidate in the room with people able to hit the maximum contribution threshold easily. 

More endorsements are expected in the coming weeks, especially that of the renegade five People’s Democratic Party (PDP) governors (G5). Their moves will be closely monitored to see if the endorsement is more than verbal encouragement. But what does an endorsement come with, is it legal, and what are its political considerations?
 

Are there legal restrictions around an endorsement?

No. Any citizen is constitutionally allowed to endorse or support a candidate under the provision that allows for freedom of political participation or association.

There are also no expected binding requests to follow through—because voting is expected to be anonymous, candidates may not even receive the single vote that should be guaranteed by the person who made the endorsement. They are neither bound to make campaign contributions nor attend a set number of political engagements to prove their support. In theory, endorsements are as worth the interest that anyone has in knowing who is backing who. 

Party structures have limitations around some of these actions. Most parties expect that a party member will support the nominee that has emerged through their internal party structures. Anything contrary is considered ‘anti-party’ behaviour and often leads to sanctions within set disciplinary procedures. This accusation is expected to follow any declaration by the G5 to support any candidate that isn’t theirs. 

Furthermore, endorsements are mostly tied to a candidate and not necessarily a party. Obasanjo’s letter did not mention any party but simply mentioned Peter Obi and referenced his running mate. But, especially in Nigeria’s federal structure, supporting a presidential candidate often implies supporting their party’s other candidates for down-ballot elections since they’ll need the support to ensure their agenda is passed.
 

Why are endorsements sought? 

Endorsements usually come with the expected attention of a news cycle and the expected impact of an endorsement. This is why party members have to spin narratives to minimise the ‘loss’ if this' gain' goes elsewhere.

In 2015, Olusegun Obasanjo was very vociferous in his support for then-candidate Muhammadu Buhari, going as far as ripping up his PDP membership card.

During that cycle, current APC presidential nominee Bola Tinubu referred to Obasanjo as their proposed ‘navigator’, in a bid to get his support ahead of the elections. In 2019, the former president withdrew his support for Buhari and the APC and endorsed Atiku Abubakar, the PDP’s presidential nominee.

Ahead of the forthcoming elections, both Tinubu and Atiku had visited Obasanjo to consult with the oldest former elected president. Different reasons might have led to both camps expecting an outright endorsement or a calculated refrain from issuing one. Atiku, for example, has campaigned extensively on the performance of the Obasanjo administration, which he served under as vice president. It is why Obasanjo’s decision to endorse Obi led to statements in response from the spokespersons of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and even the presidency. Despite all their protests, they would likely have welcomed his support.

Likewise, in a bid to pander to the country’s different ethnic groups, campaigns have sought to gain the influential support of some of these groups.  In October 2022, some major candidates attended consultative dialogues with the Arewa Joint Committee, made up of several north-based groups, to gain their support. While the group did not explicitly announce their choice, others, such as Ohaneze Ndigbo and Afenifere, have issued statements supporting Peter Obi.

In the latter's case, it led to a division within the group when a former leader faulted the endorsement and announced his support for Tinubu instead.

Ultimately, these groups do not have large registered memberships and cannot regulate or monitor their impact.
 

What impact do they have in the Nigerian context?

There is no data to support which, if any, endorsement has an impact on the Nigerian electoral landscape. 

We can look at the broad-level implication—did it result in a win for the candidate selected?

Obasanjo’s endorsement of Buhari in 2015 was successful, but his switch to Atiku in 2019 did not change anything—in fact, Atiku lost in Obasanjo’s polling unit.

Likewise, Afenifere announced their support for Obi ahead of the 2023 elections, but they also backed the PDP in the 2015 and 2019 elections, and the party lost both times. 

There is also the challenge behind unpacking metrics before and after an endorsement is announced. We will never know how much of an impact Obasanjo’s support for Buhari in 2015 had in ensuring the outcome of that election, the same way we might be able to anecdotally estimate, but not quantify, how much of a role popular musician David ‘Davido’ Adeleke played in the outcome of the Osun 2022 Governorship Election. 

Polling in Nigeria is still nascent, where resources are insufficient to properly analyse such decisions' impact on voter choices.

Ahead of future elections, such tools can help understand what informs how voters choose to vote.

For example, ahead of the 2020 U.S Presidential Elections, then-candidate Joe Biden was able to win the South Carolina primary of the Democratic Party, off the support of long-term lawmaker Jim Clyburn. According to exit polls conducted by Edison Research, 61% of voters said that endorsement played an important role, with 27% stating it was the most important factor in their choice. Biden had underperformed in earlier primaries. His victory in South Carolina is widely acknowledged as keeping his campaign alive and eventually led to him clinching the nomination and getting elected as president in the general election. 

A similar comparison can be made in Nigeria.

During the party presidential nominating conventions, governors running for the presidency were expected to receive the votes of their home states. Likewise, major statements of support from other governors or politicians in favour of another candidate gave the impression of a ‘tacit’ endorsement. However, because votes are usually anonymous and delegates are ‘bound’ to particular camps, it is hard to gauge the impact of getting certain politicians to support an ambition. 

Another question around the impact of endorsements is if they follow an already growing wave or if the wave can be attributed to the endorsement. An example takes us back to the United States in 2008, where members of the Democratic Party prepared to choose between former First Lady and Senator Hillary Clinton and then-Senator Barack Obama.

Economists from the University of Maryland conducted research that estimated that talkshow legend Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama translated to roughly one million more votes. Since the final difference in the vote count between Obama and Clinton was 41,622 votes, that endorsement could have played a part in determining the outcome of the primary and, indeed, the election.

Yet, as with all research, questions around when the endorsement arrived in the cycle and other campaign milestones could lead to alternate interpretations. 

Ultimately, endorsements are only as worth the consideration that they have in shaping perceptions around a decision. Yet, they usually only serve to affirm a direction already being propped up. Regardless of if the endorsement comes with logistics support, campaign finance or even more media airtime, voters are likely to use it to affirm if they support or reject the endorsers message. This should help qualify the impact of the expectedly many more endorsements that will come in the run-up to the elections. 

Stears Explains

Stears Explains

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