This is a long-form and in-depth article.
It all started with the Twitter hashtag #RedCardToAPCAndPDP. Spearheaded by Oby Ezekwesili, the Red Card Movement (RCM) has a single objective: to end "the persistent and cyclical problem of bad leadership in politics and governance in Nigeria". So far, the movement has focused on encouraging Nigerians to register for their Permanent Voter's Cards (PVCs), but the group ultimately plans to stimulate national discourse on good governance and demand accountability from public officials after elections. Although RCM has positioned itself as a pressure group rather than a political party, we need to examine the impetus for its existence and its eventual impact.
Is it a grassroots movement, a political ploy or merely irrelevant?
An Antidote to Apathy
The historic 2015 Presidential Elections, the first time an opposition party wrested the Presidency from the PDP since the return to civilian rule in 1999, also had the lowest voter turnout of the last five elections. Of 67 million Nigerians registered to vote, just 44% cast a ballot. And as not everyone eligible to vote registered, only 32% of the voting age population actually voted. It was no surprise though; voter participation has been declining since 2003.
Certainly, there are mitigating factors: the security situation in the Northeast, reductions in election fraud and the inaccuracy of population estimates, among others. But we must consider the possibility of voter apathy.
Although power ostensibly shifted from PDP to APC, party membership has belied any prospect of true change – APC appears to be PDP 2.0 with many of the same politicians in power under Jonathan, Yar'Adua and Obasanjo. Now PDP may be trying to woo back former decampers. In an exhausting series of defections and returns, poaching and coalitions, only one thing seems clear: no matter which party wins, the real victors will be the politicians who have always ruled.
Perhaps low voter turnout signals that the electorate is growing weary of this illusion of choice; if all parties are the same, what is the point of choosing one over the other?
The Red Card Movement proffers a solution to such voters: the hope that by uniting with others who share the same disillusionment, they can usher in candidates who will break the mould.
Splitting the Vote
Critics of the Red Card Movement argue that it may be counterproductive as candidates running for re-election enjoy an "incumbent advantage" over their challengers. Firstly, since they are in power, incumbents have the opportunity to make policies and use public resources to sway voters in their favour. This is amplified by voter myopia: the tendency for voters to place more weight on recent events. For example, if the government significantly improves electricity supply in the months leading up to the elections, we are likely to view current office holders favourably and ignore their shortcomings in all the years before that. Secondly, people exhibit a behavioural bias known as status quo bias: we are more likely to choose an option simply because it is the current one.
To counter this advantage, challengers should align together. But RCM does not do this, choosing instead to shun the primary opposition party as much as the incumbent party. Thus, the criticism is that RCM would split the vote and lower the odds of political change. If Buhari runs for re-election, votes in the 2019 elections will be roughly divided into two groups: those who vote for Buhari and those who do not. To minimise the chances of Buhari winning, the latter group should ideally vote for the same candidate, presumably from PDP. By swaying voters who would otherwise have chosen PDP, RCM could weaken the opposition and lower the chance of ousting Buhari.
However, this argument assumes that voters that align with the RCM would have supported the main opposition. But there are other possibilities: that they would have voted for Buhari, any other party, or not voted at all. In these cases, the movement has the opposite effect of consolidating support behind a third force, giving a third party a fighting chance.
A Matter of Motives
The emergence of the Obasanjo-led Coalition for Nigeria Movement (CNM) also raises questions about RCM's agenda. Both groups present themselves as a forum for all Nigerians and a means to combat poor leadership, and they have been spearheaded by people who once served in office: Obasanjo as a president and Ezekwesili as a minister in his cabinet. While details of CNM's plan for action have not yet emerged, speculation abounds about attempts to win over APC and PDP members and its eventual evolution into a political party; these are fueled by the view that CNM is a mere proxy for Obasanjo's desire to wield political influence. Viewed through the same lens, RCM is not revolutionary but part of a familiar pattern of Nigerian personality politics. How can a movement driven by past leaders possibly upend the same power structure that they once benefited from?
While this is a valid concern, we cannot ignore the reality that grassroots movements rarely garner sufficient attention without the backing of a prominent public figure. For now, what sets RCM apart is its aim to focus primarily on the content of candidates' campaigns and the quality of their ideas. A litmus test for the purity of its motives will be how strictly it adheres to this objective. And if RCM successfully shifts the political conversation from "who is who" to "what will be done and how", then the identity of its founder should also become secondary.
The Candidate Conundrum
The flaw in RCM's plans is that its success depends on something it cannot control: the existence of competent leaders willing to stand for election. The movement intends to design Leadership Assessment Tools to help Nigerians judge candidates' qualifications for office. But what if no one measures up?
One could argue that RCM's existence alone could influence people who would otherwise have opted out. Citizens who are unlikely to be selected for candidacy on APC or PDP platforms may now take a chance with a third party because they believe they can garner support from RCM based not on their personalities but their policy proposals. And even if this does not happen, the movement would be doing us a favour by pointing out a serious deficiency in our political landscape.
Furthermore, although (and perhaps, because) we tend to focus primarily on presidential and governorship elections, RCM stands to have the greatest impact on National and State Houses of Assembly. In absolute numbers, the margin of votes needed to elect a house representative or senator is much lower than you would need to swing a governorship election. Therefore, a critical mass of RCM voters in several constituencies could make a dent in the legislative arm. This could help to weed out poorly qualified legislators who would have scaled through on party affiliation alone. However, with such a large number of seats to consider, the movement will have to juggle coverage and impact. It will also need to extend its activities beyond online activism and gain more clout on the ground.
The danger remains that if the quest for credible candidates proves fruitless, the result will not be more political action. Nigerians may despair of change ever happening at all, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves us worse off than where we started.