Goodluck Jonathan hopes it will be 2011 all over again

This may well be Nigeria’s closest presidential election ever.

Campaign posters for opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari plastered on the centre of a roundabout in northern Nigeria [AP]
Campaign posters for opposition candidate Buhari at a roundabout in northern Nigeria [AP]

On Sunday, Goodluck Jonathan would be looking to deliver a speech close to one he delivered on April 18, 2011. Back then, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had just declared him winner of the presidential election.

“With a heart full of gratitude to Almighty God, I want to thank Nigerians for the great sacrifice and overwhelming national mandate you have just given to me, to preside over the affairs of this nation for the next four years…” Jonathan said.

If he is to make similar utterances on Sunday, “overwhelming” would be the missing word. Indeed, whoever emerges as the winner – Jonathan or Muhammadu Buhari – would have won by the skin of his teeth. This may well be Nigeria’s closest presidential election ever.

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History will be made, too. Should Jonathan win, this will be the first time in Nigeria’s democratic era that a president would hold office for more than eight years.

Nigeria’s democratic era

Jonathan served more than a year of late Umaru Yar’Adua’s presidential tenure, and his eligibility for a further term after his 2011-2015 spell had to be settled by the court. Meanwhile, a Buhari victory implies the first time ever that an incumbent would lose his re-election bid.

Back in 2011, Jonathan rode on the back of luck (or Yar’Adua’s ill-luck) to become acting president, on the power of incumbency to emerge PDP presidential candidate, on the sentiment of lacking shoes to win public sympathy, on his quiet profile, unassuming public persona and imperfect election to win the election proper. Five years on, Jonathan will need more than luck because the dynamics have changed.

With the power of incumbency, Jonathan is still the man to beat. It is, therefore, unsurprising that he is in bullish mood. In what is certainly one of his last interviews before his fate is decided, he told TheCable on Thursday that he would win because APC was “grossly overrated”. Truly, Jonathan may well win – for a few reasons.

Still the man to beat

In the last six weeks by which elections were postponed, Jonathan – helped by a coalitionof Nigerian, Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian forces – is immeasurably close to exterminating Boko Haram from northern Nigeria. Within the same period, he has reached out to the depths of the country in a way he couldn’t have, had the election held on February 14.

Bags of rice and cartons of noodles from the president are working magic in the president's 'house-to-house campaign'. While that was going on, government-owned Nigerian Television Authority and Africa Independent Television were airing damning documentaries about Buhari and his chief campaign financier Bola Tinubu.


He has met Nollywood actors and actresses, comedians and comediennes, artisans, monarchs (including second-class traditional rulers) and, yes, market women! Some interpret these meetings as proof of desperation, and a denigration of the office of the president. People who never dreamt of a handshake with the president have now had his company; and for some of them, that is enough reason to vote for Jonathan, a president so humble to “come to their level”.

Bags of rice and cartons of noodles from the president are working magic in the president’s “house-to-house campaign”. While that was going on, government-owned Nigerian Television Authority (which, by the way, is the largest TV network in Africa) and Africa Independent Television were airing damning documentaries about Buhari and his chief campaign financier Bola Tinubu.

While Jonathan’s campaign prospered, Buhari’s suffered. While Jonathan and his wife, Patience, were travelling all over the country organising rallies, Buhari’s APC resorted to cost-cutting town hall meetings and only resuscitated its rallies few days ago. That’s the financial formidability that incumbency offers. Some say Jonathan has gained unfair advantage over Buhari during the postponement, but of what value is incumbency without unfair advantages?

The Buhari momentum

To defeat Buhari, Jonathan is banking on a re-enactment of the 2011 scenario.

“In 2011 … I scored 22.4 million votes. Buhari had 12.2 million votes. That is a difference in excess of 10 million. I do not suppose that you believe I have lost 6 million votes to Gen. Buhari already, or that Gen. Buhari has gained 11 million more supporters. Suggesting I will lose a whole 6 or 7 million votes to Gen. Buhari would be an exaggeration,” he said.

If Jonathan is banking on 2011, a shock may be waiting for him. In January, INEC announced that 4 million doubly-registered voters had been identified and weeded. As the one who secured “overwhelming” mandate, it is apposite to assume that the bulk of those phantom votes went to Jonathan. That leaves him with something in the region of a 6 million-man advantage over Buhari.

In 2011, a total of 40,728,990 votes were cast (although 1,259,506 were invalid). On March 22, INEC announced that 56,431,255 voters had collected their PVCs. This means there an extra 15,702,265 votes up for grabs, and that’s more than double the 6 million margin Jonathan was talking about. Electioneering awareness is stronger now than four years ago, so voter turnout will be massive. Jonathan would be careful not to be too reliant on 2011.

Significantly, Jonathan no longer has the stranglehold he had on a number of key states. Rivers state, where he polled his highest number of votes (1,817,762), now belongs to his archenemy, Rotimi Amaechi of APC.

Genuine contender

In 2011, there were reports of a Tinubu sellout to Jonathan, paving the way for Jonathan to win Lagos. This time, Tinubu’s APC is a genuine contender, so a sellout – if it indeed happened in 2011 – is impossible. Now, we are talking about 3,799,274 votes, majority of which will go to Buhari.

Back then, Buhari polled a measly 321,609 votes in the six states of the south-west combined. His current acceptability in the region is very clear; millions of votes await him. In Ekiti, one of two south-western states where PDP is in power, only 522,107 people are voting. In Ondo, the other state, the governor is far less popular than portrayed by the media.

Also, Bayelsa, where Jonathan will surely win his highest vote percentage, is the state with the second-lowest voting population. Anyone who has watched the campaign rallies of both PDP and APC will fear for Jonathan, just by analysing the crowds. In Borno, for example, there was such crowd that Buhari had extreme difficulties making his way to the podium. The rally started and ended with the ex-general unable to utter a single word, due to the surging crowd.

Jonathan says the grassroots belong to PDP, while APC is only strong on social media, where only a fraction of voters operates. How wrong! In the last two months, I have sampled opinions in some of the oddest places – motor parks, staffroom of public schools, newspaper stands, open-air markets – and I can tell that there is an overwhelming Buhari sentiment among the grassroots.

Whether that translates to election-day victory will have to be seen, but Jonathan will need more than mere luck to realise his re-election ambition. As a matter of fact, today’s election is the ultimate test of his good luck. If he wins, my unborn son already has a name.

Fisayo Soyombo edits Nigerian online newspaper TheCable.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.