We talk of "incumbency factor" in an election in which one of the competitors is the occupant of the position being contested. Otherwise, an election in which an incumbent is not involved is referred to as an "open seat" election. The first election in the Nigerian current republic, the 1999 election that pitched General Olusegun Obasanjo against Chief Olu Falae, and that of 2007 which pitched Umaru Musa Yar-Adua against Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, among others, pass for an open seat election, while the presidential elections of 2003, 2011 and 2015 have been elections in which the incumbency factor played out. Olusegun Obasanjo sought reelection in 2003,while Goodluck Jonathan did same in 2015. Jonathan succeeded Yar-Adua who died in office in 2010 and was therefore an incumbent President when he contested and won an election of his own in 2011. The fast approaching February 2019 presidential election featuring President Muhammadu Buhari and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, among a host of other contestants, is one in which the incumbency factor would come into play.
The incumbency factor, in political terms, is the advantages an incumbent has over his challengers. Such advantages include the power of the purse, the fact of visible achievements in office, the fact that he or she needs no introduction, and, significantly, the fact that he or she can still do something great before Election Day to convince undecided voters about his or her capability and competence to continue to lead society to a prosperous future.
The incumbency factor, in its negative form, has been about perpetuating anti-democratic tendencies. The use of security agents to intimidate voters and opponents, bribing electoral officials to rig elections, bribing voters as well as men and women of proven influence in society for support in an election. In fact, anti-democratic incumbents use public money to bribe potential opponents from small political parties to withdraw their candidacies and team up with the party in power regardless of their assumed ideological differences. The leadership of quite a number of small political parties were revealed to have been bribed by the ruling party in the build up to the 2015 presidential election.
It is principally because of these factors, positively or negatively deployed, that it is rather difficult for a newcomer to defeat an incumbent in an election. An incumbent must have performed extremely badly for he or she to be defeated, and that is where the anti-incumbency factor comes into play. In the American 1980 election, the defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter was inevitable because of the state of the economy and the Iranian hostage crisis he had been unable to resolve. In Nigeria, any protest vote against Buhari in the states that hold grudge over his handling of the clashes between herdsmen and farmers would be an example of anti-incumbency factor. However, as stated earlier, it takes extremely bad performance for an incumbent to be easily dislodged in an election. Since 1900, only 5 of 14 American Presidents who sought reelection have been defeated. In the Nigerian comparatively young democracy, Goodluck Jonathan lost the 2015 presidential election principally because of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East of the nation. Of course, the defeat of Jonathan cannot be competently explained without an excursion into the intra-party disagreements over the zoning of the presidency in his party.
As we approach another election, we hope and admonish Nigeria's incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, in seeking reelection, not to buy into the negative aspects of the incumbency factor which have for so long defamed our nation in the comity of civilised societies .It will be a great damage to his perception of being a man of integrity if he were to have inherited that crude culture from his predecessors. His recent proclamation of June 12 as Democracy Day, is what one can describe as positive deployment of the incumbency factor in politics. He would appear to have righted, what to many, was the injustice inflicted on society and an individual in the person of Moshood Abiola in 1993 when the results of a presidential election adjudged to have been free and fair were annulled by the then military government of General Ibrahim Babangida. President Buhari might have undoubtedly earned himself new friends by that act. There is hardly any doubt that his campaigners would be reminding potential voters about this in the most affected or concerned region of the federation.
Be that as it may, it is pertinent to remind readers that in the advanced democratic societies, most do not rush into declaring their support for electoral candidates many months ahead of elections as we tend to do in Nigeria Neither do they have supra-cultural groups claiming to have endorsed one candidate or the other on behalf of members of their larger grouping. It is all about individual choice and wait and see. A lot of things do happen in politics and that is why opinion polls tend to change just as frequently as Imelda Marcos would once change her shoes. The independent or floating voter waits until the very last minute to convince himself or herself where the destination of their vote would be. For instance, in the 1980 American presidential election, there were not a few who believed Carter could still have retained his presidency were the Americans held hostage in Iran to have been rescued in the last minute. It would have been considered a great feat in a nation renowned for historical appreciation of strong leadership. In some of these advanced democratic nations, America and Britain, for instance, the independent or floating voter decides the outcome of elections. We may be getting closer to that in Nigeria.