The theatricals for winning the hearts and minds of the voters are all around us. The perceptual game of showing strength in the number of supporters is an age long effective game plan for the parties, and it is one strategy that cuts across all parties. All political parties are outdoing themselves in winning the popularity contests typified by pulling a crowd with the most outrageous noises and boisterous displays in rallies on the streets, roads, stadiums, and other venues that can contain crowds. If pulling crowds is the determinant of election outcomes, the 2023 general elections would have been won and lost.
Granted, politics all over the world feed on numbers – crowds. Nigeria is no exception, and with what we have seen so far in the 2023 electoral campaigns, Nigerian politicians are taking this to another level. Nigerian politics feeds on a crowd fueled by a panoply of factors, most importantly money. This issue is the difference between the crowds that gathered at Nigerian politicians’ rallies and those that followed Adolphus Hitler blindly or Donald Trump to desecrate the White House.
Whether in Kenya, South Africa, the USA, the UK or Nigeria, crowds serve the same purpose in politics – a show of strength, influence the people’s minds, create the perception of popular support and acceptance, and generate media buzz and optics. It has nothing to do with believing in the candidate, his cause, or even campaign massage, and it is only for the non-discerning to judge the possible outcome of an election with a crowd at campaign rallies.
Sourcing for a crowd is fast turning into an industry in politics. In the United States, there are companies in the enterprise of mobilising crowds. Crowds on Demand and Crowd for Rent are US companies, and Envisage Promotion is a UK company, all set up purposely to provide crowds to support political and socio-economic causes. Even a Kenyan author wrote a book, “Crowd for Hire – How Kenyan politicians source Crowds for events”. Crowd hiring is ubiquitous, and no matter what clime you go to, professional crowd contractors are plying their businesses.
In the build-up to the 2023 elections, the rented crowd is the ultimate phenomenon. You will see the same faces, the same individuals in most rallies hosted by different political parties, and sometimes wearing the face cap of party APC and the T-Shirt of PDP. All the major political parties – APC, PDP, LP, and NNPP in all their rallies pull unprecedented crowd or flash mob that has nothing to do with genuine support for the candidates or even passion for their message. The emergence of social media means some of this crowd can be manipulated, photoshopped and fake videos produced to appear bigger.
The crowd that congregates whenever there is a rally has more to do with economic reasons than belief in any cause or loyalty to a party. Recently, exposure came from no less a person than the revered clergyman Pastor Enoch Adeboye, who rightly linked the availability of young men and women for political rallies to a high level of unemployment, hunger, and abject poverty in the country. I am afraid I must agree absolutely. Although the rented crowd is an old phenomenon associated with politics, unemployment in Nigeria has complicated the matter. Unemployed youth is a fertile ground for political mobilisation, rightly or wrongly. The latest statistics showing a 33% unemployment rate, many underemployed persons, and idle youths are ready to be hired. Youths are forced by being unemployed to channel their energy to political causes that do not serve them any purpose or represent their political views.
Another factor responsible for the large crowd at political rallies is the acute poverty pervading the land. Here is the utility value of crowd contractors. Many Nigerians, who should ordinarily be engaged in more productive activities, are hired for between N1,000 to N10,000 to attend campaign rallies. And these amounts depend on which region of the country and whether the party is in power or not. Parties now have a humungous and humorous budget for mobilisation. With 133 million Nigerians being multidimensional poor, every Naira for the next meal or to help pay school fees and house rent is important and worth sacrificing time for. Most persons attending campaign rallies under the current dispensation are going for the day-paid job, and it has nothing to do with passion for any political ideal or candidate or even hope of a better tomorrow which ordinarily politicians trade on.
The next factor contributing to the growing crowd surge prevalent in political party rallies is the significant erosion of our value system. Honesty, integrity, and self-respect are vanishing traits in our society. Most participants in these rallies know the candidates and the party is the opposite of what they believe and know, yet they openly identify with them in rallies when paid but vote otherwise. The motivation is often extrinsic based on the perceived immediate gratification they hope to get. Most people in the crowd easily forget that what is at stake is the struggle for power and leadership that will shape their lives in the next four years. As such, they must be introspective and altruistic in determining which candidate, party, or cause to follow and support even during the campaign.
Our parties have no known ideologies, and attraction to them is often based on either parochial or mundane sentiments. This anomaly is counterproductive during electioneering campaigns when people see all political activities as making money, consolidating political capital, and gaining political patronage. Some in the crowd want to have fun, love the atmosphere and fun activities during rallies and want to participate. Although in the rally, out of curiosity or just having fun, this group will collect money or other provisions if provided.
Hunger has been weaponised, and any rally that provides food for the crowd will need more crowd control. Social media are awash with real-life videos of the fights for food and provisions in various rallies across the nation. It is embarrassing that hunger is linked with political campaigns in Nigeria. People are struggling to survive and live in the moment. They want to avoid rallies where candidates will elucidate policies to alleviate hunger. They want rallies where they are fed for the day.
Some ill-informed voters even assume that a candidate or party that provides food or money during rallies indicates how generous and good the candidate or party will be when elected. They frown at any candidate or party not providing immediate food or cash and deem them tight-fisted, anti-poor and, therefore, may not generously provide for them when elected. The term “stomach infrastructure” has been used to describe the phenomenon of voters and the people expecting daily subsistence from the government and politicians instead of developmental policies and activities that may ultimately eliminate hunger and poverty. This is dangerous for our politics.
A rally crowd has its usefulness, but there are other measures of popular support. Money is the language the public understands. What politicians may need to understand is that time has changed, and the world has also changed. The level of civic enlightenment and the mindset of the electorate has changed. And the influence of social media has impacted people’s attitudes towards the electoral process. Crowd renting may not have a significant effect on the electoral outcome of the 2023 election.
Like their counterparts in other third-world countries, Nigerian politicians still prioritise campaign crowds over and above real voter turn-out and actual votes. It is part of the reasons for organising noisy rallies to show off party strength and inadvertently show the world that we are still in the Stone Age. Historical records have shown that large political crowds usually do not translate to a favourable electoral outcome, and it is all noise and no substance.
When politicians hire a crowd, it is an investment in the visuals. Those visuals and perceptions they create are some of the most strategic elements of a campaign, particularly in this era of social media. A crowd on social media platforms instantly transmits a message to a virtual global followership of people. Rallies make for good social media interactions, and parties are keying into this to create content that can influence the perception of popular support for the party and candidate. This perception is crucial, especially for winning the election and managing the post-election conflicts often inevitable in Nigerian politics. Little wonder, all serious parties are adopting a crowd-renting strategy to have the number and size of crowds that make people not doubt the outcome of the elections if they win.
I have established that crowds are essential to the party’s politics and campaigns. I have looked at the morality or otherwise of renting a crowd. It is evident that such rented crowds, no matter the visual power they portray, do not translate to voter loyalty or electoral victory. This is even more when the majority of the rented crowd does not vote for the candidates they attended rallies for or may vote for candidates and parties with whom they did not participate in rallies. I advise that major political parties focus more on convincing and mobilising their supporters to attend the rallies and vote for the candidate and party. Things must be done differently if we want result that matters.