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Professionals in polling, strategy, messaging and fundraising to win elections and legitimise democratic governments, in short, political consultants have a lot to learn from the recent changes in the rules governing the electoral environment in Nigeria in terms of the innovations and the consequences of enforcement.
Besides the new Electoral Act 2022, signed by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) on February 25, 2022, there are other regulations of campaigns by the Independent National Electoral Commission such as the Guidelines for Political Rallies, Guidelines for the Registration of New Political Rallies, Political Parties Finance Manual and the highly significant Communication Policy.
INEC is not the only body constitutionally intervening in the electoral process. There is the Advertising Registration Council of Nigeria, whose recent call for compliance with the code on political advertising and threats of enforcement against quacks promises sanity in the political communications field. The Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists adopted by the Nigerian Press Organisation, comprising the Newspapers Publishers Association of Nigeria, Broadcasting Organisations of Nigeria, the Nigeria Guild of Editors and the Nigeria Union of Journalists, is expected to guide journalistic reportage in the age of the social media.
The Electoral Act 2022 must be commended for extending the duration of the execution of electoral exercises such as election notices, nomination, primaries and general elections. For instance, the law mandates INEC to issue election notices 360 days before the event (section 28) parties to conclude nomination through direct, indirect or consensus primaries 180 days before the poll and that flag off campaigns 150 days to the polls.
Hitherto, the time frame for campaigns was 90 days to poll and primaries 60 days to poll. The positive consequence is that parties and candidates now have more time to plan.
For the political consultant, a campaign starts with a survey of the constituents to ascertain the issues, which would determine the elections, and the disposition of the parties and candidates. From the analysis of the results of the poll, the consultant develops a winning strategy and it is the strategy that determines the messaging to target the demographic components most likely to deliver the votes.
Messaging begins with the creative process of speaking to the heart or the mind of the target using verbal, visual and textual language most effective in hooking him or her to the appropriate symbol. Context and meaning are maximised to predispose the receiver to believe the promise and sign up.
The impact of the message is determined by the effectiveness of its distribution across media and channels. The more the voters commit themselves, the more evidence that the strategy is working.
The second feature of the Electoral Act that benefits the business of political communications is the digitalisation of the voting infrastructure and criminalisation of negative interventions in the electoral process which had denied the process credibility and integrity.
Since elections involve the political behaviour of voters, they can be researched and scientifically predicted by consultants, candidates and parties, all things being equal. But those who make sure that all things are never equal are the riggers who sabotage the process. Sections 121 and 127 of the Act, which increased the severity of sanctions for contravention, will, hopefully, take care of the human factor.
The stronger weight in this matter goes to the electronic transmission of results from accreditation, counting and collation to the central server, technologically excluding unofficial intervention and ensuring that the votes counted count. The provision that penalises over-voting by cancelling the results of polling units, which exceed the number of accredited voters is an appropriate rap on the knuckles for electoral fraudsters.
Thus, the clearer definition of electoral offences and heavier penalties in sections 114 to 134, if enforced, will improve the rationality of the campaign process and effectively, enable social science to develop the country’s democratic process.
One of the challenges political consultants face in the survey stage of their work is access to the voters’ register. Often, the INEC obliges the political parties with copies but discourages individuals from accessing this critical document. Yet, it is difficult to strategise the survey without this important database. It is therefore gladdening that the Act follows up its mandate to create a National Voters Register in section 9 with the guarantee of access to individuals in section 15. Rather than insist on selling the Voters Register procured with public funds to individuals, INEC should allow us to download from the website in line with its external public communications policy to provide the public with information about all aspects and stages of the electoral process.
However, I dare say that the Act’s provisions on campaigns (sections 84 to 97) seem invasive and idealistic giving the impression that the drafters took the tree for the forests. For example, binding public media institutions to provide equal air time and space to candidates and parties may be morally sound but to the extent that distribution of messages and media engagement are the products of the strategy and initiative of individual candidates and parties, it would be unjustifiable to penalise a public medium for the inability of certain parties or candidates to make use of its facilities, more so, when the Acts admits that the services are to be paid for.
This provision in fact invades the managerial purview of public media enterprises and may undermine their ability to generate revenue during a once in four years political season.
A political consultant who pushes his candidate’s messages aggressively in the public media will be frustrated if he has to wait on less skilled competitors and a public medium trying to meet airtime quota after paying for such services. Future reviews should take out the penalties and amend the prescription.
While the Act seeks to sanitise content of campaign conversations, unless the INEC liaises with the Nigerian Press Council to monitor the press and the National Broadcasting Commission to monitor broadcast stations, one is at a loss how it intends to monitor the infringements in the law to bring perpetrators to book. Is INEC going to create bots to crawl over websites to detect the rude and foul expressions which tend to dominate comment sections on the web and social media?
INEC had set the tone for these laws when it issued the Guidelines for Political Rallies and Campaigns in 2014 which, among others, defined campaign materials, political rallies and political campaigns. This document is still very crucial to anyone seeking to manage candidates or parties in the run-up to the 2023 polls because it not only speaks the language of political communications but limits campaign activity to electoral phases.
According to the Guidelines, illegal campaigns shall include campaigns by associations not registered as political parties (section 10 (b)). Political parties are required to submit the particulars of their websites and social media handles for monitoring (section 14). Its section 35 runs in conflict with the law setting up the Advertising Registration Council of Nigeria, when it provides for the pre-certification of public and political advertisements of political parties, candidates, aspirants and their supporters.
The dilemma for a political consultant is that he or she has to submit the same advertising materials to ARCON and INEC for pre-certification and may be fined by both for non-compliance. For many enthusiastic supporters of candidates running campaigns without professionals, the dire consequences of being caught by the law are obvious.
In view of the complexity of current campaign laws, it is still surprising that candidates and political parties still feel it is a function that relatives and friends without academic training and professional exposure should handle. Time and money are deployed to strategic manipulation of the electoral process than the social science of persuasion and engagement that political communications offer.
Despite complaints against the imperial powers given INEC by the Electoral Act, we still have to depend on the impartial umpire to enforce its provisions to make political communications more relevant to the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria.
- Bamigbetan, the President of the Association of Political Consultants-Africa, writes from Lagos
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