How did a 72-year-old retired dictator with a record of three failed presidential bids make history as the first opposition candidate to un- seat a ruling party in the federal government in Nigeria?
The story starts in 2013 with the launching of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as an alliance of Nigeria’s main opposition parties: the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), led by former governor of Lagos State Bola Tinubu; the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), founded by General Muhammadu Buhari and his allies as a vehicle for the presidential election in 2011; and the All Nigeria People’s Party, Buhari’s former party.
Few gave the alliance a chance until several senior members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – including a former vice-president of Nigeria and five state governors – defected to the APC in 2014.
The big hurdle the new party faced was its choice of a presidential can- didate. It held a primary election in December 2014, pitting Buhari against four others, including Kano State governor Rabiu Kwankwaso and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar.
For the first time, Buhari took part in a competitive primary, and he won easily in a well-organised and credible vote.
An exemplary primary
Buhari’s opponents also wasted little time conceding defeat and pledging their loyalty, defying predictions of a fraying within the party’s ranks.
The plaudits that followed the primary – widely seen as the most transparent and best organised in Nigeria’s history – generated a momentum that helped propel the party through the difficult campaign season.
The APC brought organisational acumen and financial heft to Buhari’s presidential ambition. On previous campaigns, he usually travelled by road; his new allies now provided private jets.
Buhari’s campaign was shaped by its vigorous director general, Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi. A campaign staffer described Amaechi’s style as “hands-on and brazen […] bulldozing his way through.”
Another close colleague said: “He got into a lot of trouble, but he did what needed to be done.”
And then there was the Bola Tinubu, former two-term governor of Lagos and de facto leader of the APC, the man to whom most of the credit for the emergence of the party should go.
An astute political operator often described as ‘Machiavellian’, Tinubu ensured that Lagos State remained in the ACN’s hands even when all the surrounding south-western states fell to the PDP’s determined assault in the 2003 general elections.
From his perch in Lagos, Tinubu led the ACN into the alliance that produced the APC.
When he led his party into the APC, Buhari had the reputation for being a ‘northern’ politician guaranteed to win only in the 12 northernmost states.
Only once, in 2011, did Buhari win a state outside his traditional stronghold.
So Buhari, with his style of a stern-faced general, had to learn to smile.
Last October, campaign photos started to emerge of a grinning candidate said to have a good sense of humour.
More surprising still, he started to swap his northern babban riga and cap for a tuxedo, Western business suits and tunics indigenous to the south-east and the Niger Delta, regions where he had won few votes.
They were meant to humanise him
There were photos of a thoroughly modern Buhari hugging his daughter, high-fiving a grandchild and using an iPad.
“Every one of the stories had a story […]they were meant to humanise him,” says Adebola Williams, co-founder of StateCraft, the Lagos company that managed communications for Buhari’s campaign.
“We wanted to work on the people, so that they would begin to see him as presidential. The goal was to move the man from being a sectional leader to a national icon.”
Technology also helped Buhari’s victory. The electoral commission used biometric voter cards and card reader machines for the first time.
All voters had to be accredited by matching their biometric registration cards with their fingerprints, and this limited the scope for inflating the voter register, a traditional method of rigging elections.
The PDP opposed the biometric machines, arguing it was unreasonable to test new technology at presidential elections and claiming voters would be disenfranchised when the machines failed.
The APC organised a highly effective monitoring network to check the official results.
In Lagos, the APC ran a call centre where 200 uniformed agents with computers and phones kept in touch with 12,000 party agents across the state’s polling units.
Analysts processed information from the field – violent incidents, rigging, late arrival of election officials – and passed it to supervisors for campaign officials to use.
In Abuja, the APC set up a covert ‘control room’ that collated results from tens of thousands of polling stations across the country and used third parties to disseminate the information gathered through traditional and social media.
“We called the results 24 hours ahead of the Independent National Electoral Commission,” says a campaign insider, adding that it was those APC-generated results that the PDP would later brandish as evidence that the party had infiltrated the electoral commission.
Technology also helped in fundraising and building a database of supporters.
The Buhari Support Organisations, a campaign group with a strong following in northern Nigeria, amassed a database of more than 600,000 mobile phone numbers that volunteers bombarded with calls and text messages.
The APC ran a stronger campaign than the ruling party. Its realisation that it could not match the PDP’s spending helped it focus on what mattered most.
The “APC [has been] better organised, up to the polling unit,” says David Iornem, a political consultant and author of several books on political campaigning in Nigeria.
“This was not observable in the PDP’s operations.”
After the government decided in February to delay the elections for six weeks, the PDP ramped up its newspaper, television and internet advertising campaigns, focusing on attacking Buhari’s education, health and human rights record.
Then, it organised a series of slick events where voters could meet President Jonathan in Lagos and Abuja.
The cash-strapped APC was caught unawares by the postponement, so it concentrated on relatively inexpensive town-hall meetings and the efforts of volunteer groups on social media.
It kept its messages focused on key issues: Boko Haram, the economy and corruption.
It also built new alliances: for example, it won over bands of disgruntled PDP members frustrated by the ruling party’s chaotic governorship and parliamentary primaries.
Nigerians are arguing over whether Buhari won the election or Jonathan lost it. So many years in power made the PDP complacent.
President Jonathan’s missteps on Boko Haram, electricity and oil industry scandals boosted the appeal of his rival.
“When you’re in power, there are more things that can be said against you than against the opposition,” says Iornem.
“The PDP felt so confident it was in power and would always be in power. That was its undoing.”
Tolu Ogunlesi in Lagos
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.