When the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, kicked off his campaign in the Northwest zone at the Shehu Kangiwa Stadium, Sokoto last December, a mammoth crowd graced the occasion. This gave the impression that the party and its candidate are popular in the region.
Yet, when President Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), stormed the Northwest, the crowd was equally overwhelming. The president was full of gratitude to the people of Sokoto, for their massive turnout at the stadium.
Similarly, the crowd that greeted President Buhari last month when he arrived at the Rwang Pam Township Stadium, Jos, Plateau State, to campaign was so overwhelming that he could not enter the venue. The stadium was jam-packed. So much was the surge that waiting for about an hour, the President waved at the gathering and left for Abuja. Governor Simon Lalong said the mammoth crowd suggested that the people had endorsed his candidature for second term.
A similar scenario has been replicated in the campaign rallies of the two major parties in virtually all the states they have visited so far. Indeed, the photos and videos of such rallies, which are all over the internet, have been sparking bitter rivalries and recriminations between supporters of the two parties, as well as their members.
For instance, Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State sought to downplay the essence of the crowd that stormed Atiku’s Northwest campaign in Sokoto, by alleging that the PDP rented the crowd that attended the rally from Niger Republic. El-Rufai spoke while delivering a keynote address at the launch of the campaign council of his party at Murtala Mohammed Square, Kaduna, the following day.
He said: “Thieves have ganged-up against President Muhammadu Buhari. Yesterday they were in Sokoto, and they rented crowd from Niger Republic just to show people that they have supporters, because Sokoto people refused to come out.”
In like manner, the PDP Presidential Campaign Organisation (PPCO) also berated the APC National Chairman, Adams Oshiomhole, for making derogatory comments about the party’s presidential rally held in Owerri, Imo State, on January 22. The campaign organisation said Oshiomhole was discomfited that the people of Imo and Nigerians in general are rallying behind its presidential candidate, as well as its governorship candidate, Mr. Emeka Ihedioha, by storming the venue of the rally.
The two parties are battling to outdo each other in the psychological battle for popularity. The strategy has been used with a measure of success over the years. People are hired and ferried across towns and villages in order to add colour to campaign gatherings.
But, in the campaign for the 2019 general elections, crowd renting has become one of the political strategies that the political parties are using to outwit their opponents, because of the possibility that intending voters may resort to follow the crowd, when they perceive a particular party as the dominant one.
What does the mobilization of mammoth crowd to campaign grounds portend for the parties? Observers say the presence of a huge crowd at rallies amounts to nothing more than a psychological battle for the two major parties. Lawyer and activist, Monday Ubani, said: “The presence of crowd is purely for psychological triumph. Whether this will translate to physical victory is a different kettle of fish. Crowd pulling can be intimidating, it makes your opponent to work harder to counter the effect.”
But, at the end of the day, it is the number of votes that are cast for the party on election day that really matters. Ubani said: “The critical question is how many of these people have their permanent voter’s card (PVC) and how many of them believe in the party they came to cheer? Crowd is good and has some good effect on the party that pulled them, but they must work hard for the crowd to translate to real voters for them.”
To the National Chairman of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, the campaigns of the two leading parties are nothing more than jamborees or cultural extravaganza, because the rallies place more emphasis on singing and dancing and display of specially-designed party uniforms. No serious issues are discussed at the campaigns; as the gathering are usually distracted and barely pays attention to what the politicians are saying.
The UPP Chairman said the electorate is becoming increasingly conscious and political parties may not be able to get away with the “cultural extravaganza” in the name of campaign rallies. He said: “Now, that votes are beginning to count, the issue of crowd mobilisation will play a lesser role in determining who wins the contest. In recent times, we have been hearing so much about vote buying. This is a clear indication that votes are counting.
“Prior to this time, votes never counted, so the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) simply connived with the party in power and declared results and in the process voters were sidelined. The upsurge in vote buying suggests that political parties are now aware that voters matter.
“If we take this further by introducing electronic voting, where people can cast their votes from the comfort of their homes and their places of business, then the issue of crowd renting will disappear, because the parties will now be required to engage the electorate and convince them, rather than the cultural extravaganza called rallies today.
“Fortunately, voter participation is increasing, with the introduction of the Card Reader. Besides, we now have 84 million registered voters. This is a huge number, even for the United States of America. The consciousness is beginning to build up in the minds of our people.”
Nevertheless, it will take some time before the Nigerian electorate becomes fully conscious. Okorie said ruling parties have a way of exploiting their incumbency to gain advantage. He said: “The way I see it, the two major parties have states under their control and this can be very instrumental when it comes to the final day mobilisation of voters. The APC has 20 states under its control and that is quite instructive.
“Beyond the rallies, when you look at the figures, INEC has given us an idea of what to expect. For instance, the Southwest has 16 million registered voters and the six states in the region are controlled by the APC. Then, in the Northwest, you have 20 million registered voters and six out of the seven states in the region are in the APC as well. So, the regions with the highest number of registered voters ate controlled by the APC. That is a huge advantage and don’t forget that what will determine the winner of this election is a simple majority.
“From all indications, the two major parties will meet up with the requirement of 25 per cent of votes in 24 states. After that, the winner will be determined by a simple majority and that amounts to where you have more numbers. So, it is easy for anybody to see that the APC will win this election.”
Okorie said many of the parties are indulging in crowd renting because “to some extent, it gives the parties hope when they people turnout en masse during their rallies”. He added: “A good number of people you see at rallies come from distant places, so somebody must have paid for their transportation to and from the venue and their attendance fees¡ that is what normally happens.”
He agrees with Ubani that the presence of a huge crowd may not be a true reflection of the strength of a party. His words: “Tomorrow, another vehicle comes and the same people jump into the vehicle to attend the rally of a rival party. So, it may not be a true measure of the strength of a political party.”
Elder statesman, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, 93, said crowd renting is a new phenomenon. He said during the First and the Second Republic people attend rallies on their own. The former National Assembly Liaison Officer to President Shehu Shagari said: “Nobody makes arrangement for the transportation of those who attend rallies, but people still go on their own to witness such events.
“Nowadays, nothing is left to chance; the richer you are, the bigger your crowd. In those days, we either trek or go on bicycle or motorcycle. Today, they hire different kinds of vehicles to ferry people to and fro and everybody that attends the rally are paid an allowance for doing so.
“So, the crowd you see in rallies today does not necessarily represent the strength of the party. If you study past elections, there has never been a situation where half of the electorate voted. The turnout is usually 30 to 38 per cent or 40 per cent maximum. So, don’t be deceived by the crowd you see at rallies, because they are usually paid for it hired. They are not party supporters or volunteers.
“Do you know that in 1978/1979, the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) provided flight tickets for its presidential candidate, the late Alhaji Shehu Shagari, and his security details, to go to Sokoto from Lagos, to campaign; he never bought a ticket for himself.
“Today, it is the candidate that provides money for all sorts of expenses for the campaign. From this, you can see the reason why our democracy is now for sale to the highest bidder.
Possibly, it is the same crowd that attends both APC and PDP rallies, because they have no permanent party affiliation, but are just out to make money. This is because there are no employment opportunities and people are looking for something to eat.”