Decades of studies in media coverage of election campaigns have revealed excessive focus of the media on horserace and personal quality of candidates at the expense of substantive issues. In Nigeria, media coverage of campaigns is not exactly different. Since 1999 for instance, results about studies on media coverage of presidential election campaigns have discovered overwhelming dominance of horserace frame and less substantive issues. By horserace, it is meant such campaign events including endorsement of candidates, opinion polls, who is winning and who is losing. Though media coverage of the horserace frame and personal quality of candidates sells especially for its entertainment values, it deprives the electorate of the opportunity to make informed electoral choice. Coverage of issues help the electorate understand and appreciate what programmes the candidates would be focusing on and how mentally prepared they are for leadership.
Ahead of the February 14 presidential election, the two main political parties in the country, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC) are largely being criticized for their lack of focus on issues (the media share in the blame too for helping to frame campaigns as such). While this criticism is realistic, the PDP seem to be guiltier than the opposition. A cursory look at the media coverage of the campaigns in the last few weeks show that the ruling party has been more preoccupied with the personality of the presidential candidate of the opposition party than the president’s handling of important national issues. The plethora of personality based advertorials in the papers is enough testimony to this fact as several of them attempt to demystify the integrity and anti-corruption posture of the presidential candidate of the opposition party for his association with the regime of Late head of state, General Sani Abacha, and depict him as ruthless, wicked and violent.
Two factors are responsible for this heavy dependence on the personal quality frame by the PDP. One is the factor of unproductive incumbency; the other is the nature of its media campaign team. Part of the burden of incumbent leadership seeking re-election is how to convince the people that it has effectively handled the issues of the moment – insecurity, poverty and corruption – which I think concern and appeal to the Nigerian public. There is much likelihood that when the PDP candidate, President Goodluck Jonathan stands in the podium to campaign about what transformation agenda he has for the people, the perceptive public would ask what he has done to address the key issues of insecurity, corruption and poverty in the last six years. It is very possible that this governmental weakness accounts partly for why the media team too has shunned substantive issues – based campaigns and opt for character –based campaigns. Curiously, the PDP found a media spokesperson well-trained in this art of personality hit. For former media aide to President Olusegun Obasanjo, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, who now heads the media and publicity team of the party, this is a familiar terrain. He has earned for himself the reputation of attacking even credible people in the opposition camps especially in his days as Obasanjo’s spokesperson.
In his maiden press conference shortly after being appointed to his new position, Fani-Kayode said: “It is our full intention to expose General Muhammadu Buhari for what he really is, what he stands for and the great danger that his candidacy portend for the unity of the Nigerian state and the peace and well-being of the Nigerian people.” And since then, he has consistently unleashed vituperative attacks on Buhari, asking INEC to disqualify him for his inability to submit his West African School Certificate, accusing him of being desperate for power and having a record of fuelling post-election violence. He even described APC as a party with “Janjaweed ideology.”
But then how is the APC different in terms of its focus issues as against horserace or personality? Probably not much, for the party has boasted about how Buhari would send Jonathan to retirement. Yet, you could say that it has comparatively addressed issues. In the discourse about issues, the odds are not necessarily against the APC. It is not the party facing the test of leadership performance; it is not the party that needs to render stewardship account to the people in the campaign field; that “honour” is reserved for the PDP. In a way, merely challenging the PDP on the three important issues of how it has managed the economy, fought corruption and addressed the problem of insecurity is a treatment of issues. We see how in the last couple of weeks, the Director of media and publicity of the APC Campaign Team, Malam Garba Shehu, a veteran journalist and Atiku spokesperson for many years has been challenging the PDP on the economy front, asking it to take certain actions such as lowering the pump price of fuel in the face of unrestrained fall in the international oil price.
We see how it has challenged the PDP led government to fight the pervasive corruption and secrecy in the NNPC, and promote issues which touch on the essence and general well-being of the nation. Posing these questions indicate there is a failure in the system, and implies that the candidate he speaks for intends to address these issues when he gets to power. What is however, largely missing from this approach, is an articulate programme of what and how these same issues would be addressed. Parties can help the media close these gaps by prioritizing the issues that have individual relevance to them (if they have anyway) and addressing how they would be solved.
For instance, the APC presidential candidate has said that one of the ways he would fight corruption was to send corrupt officials to jail. It is left for the electorate to evaluate this statement and allow it guide their choices. More of these issues could be addressed by parties, spokespersons and the media as the campaign gets hotter. No matter what you think about personality and character –based campaigns, they are less noble than articulation of issues. They appeal to sentiments instead of the people’s sense of rationalization, and they rob the people of the power to hold leaders accountable for any campaign promises.
Habib Yakoob wrote in from University of Abuja.