Nigeria: 2023 - Researchers Foresee Battle Royale

26 September 2021

Communication researchers, who gathered in Port Harcourt recently for the eighth annual conference of the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria, reported their findings on the recent elections of the Fourth Republic, as a prelude to the forthcoming 2023 campaign. Charles Okigbo who was among the researchers writes

Although the 2023 presidential election is 17 months away, it did not appear so distant at the eighth annual conference of the Association of Communication Scholars and Professionals of Nigeria (ACSPN), which was held in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where many communication researchers reported their ongoing investigations on the recent elections of the Fourth Republic, as a prelude to the forthcoming 2023 campaign.

This is a continuation of similar election campaign research reports that were given at the 2021 International Conference of the African Council for Communication Education (ACCE) at Bayero University Kano which was held from May 25 to 28. Some of the remarkable presentations at the ACCE Conference in Kano include Mr. Ralph Anyacho of APCON reporting on the uses of radio and television commercials, Mrs. Susan Agbo, also of APCON reporting on the trends in election advertising, and Dr. Nnanna Nworisa presenting on the semiotic analysis of outdoor advertisements, among others.

ACSPN and ACCE are the two foremost associations of communication teachers, researchers, and practitioners in Nigeria, and they lead in applied action research aimed at addressing our multivalent social problems, especially in political communication and governance.

The two recent presidential elections of the Fourth Republic were the subjects of three separate but related presentations at the ACSPN Conference in Port Harcourt. These were on Themes and Frames, Radio/Television Journalism and Newspapers' Reporting of the 2019 election cycle. They are part of the larger and comprehensive study of the 2019 election being coordinated by three partners, namely C&F Porter Novelli (Nigeria), North Dakota State University (USA), and ORBICOM, at the University of Quebec (Canada). This pan-Nigerian study was designed to determine how various forms of communication, especially newspaper journalism, print ads, radio-television journalism, commercials, outdoor ads, and public relations, were used by the two major political parties.

Among the specific objectives of this ambitious research project are identifying the trends in election campaign communication, establishing the nature of and the differences in the strategies of the major political parties, and providing the foundations for an eventual explanation of "the Nigerian factor" in the framing of our election communication.

One of the most attractive presentations on this research group at the ACSPN Conference in Port Harcourt was from Dr. Jude Ogbodo of Ebonyi State University (ESU) and Mrs. Stella Jibrin of the National Press Council (NPC). Other members of their team were Drs. Greg Ugbo of Federal University, Oye Ekiti, and Henry Duru at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Using the intriguing concept of "media capture", they tried to explain how many journalists appeared to be at the service of politicians and party stalwarts, instead of being nonpartisan objective reporters, chroniclers, and analysts. This research is building on earlier studies that Dr. Ogbodo started in the United Kingdom, which is now being extended to the coverage of Nigerian elections by newspaper journalists and editors.

A complementary presentation was based on broadcast journalists' choices of themes and framing approaches in the 2019 election. It came from Professor Bala Musa at Azusa Pacific University (USA), Dr. Erere Joy Anho of Delta State Polytechnic, and Dr. Osita Aniemeka of the International Center for Development Affairs (ICDA, Abuja). They concluded from their analyses of FRCN, NTA, AIT, and Channels TV coverage that "radio and television are the most effective media of mass communication for elections because they transcend the barrier of literacy to reach prospective voters wherever they are." They underlined the necessity for "independent, free, and responsible" broadcast journalism to guide voters "to make the right choices of their elected leaders."

These various research endeavours on the 2019 presidential election campaign are an outgrowth of the abiding interest in election communication research by committed Nigerian scholars and practitioners, under the aegis of the ACSPN, ACCE, and some of the oldest departments of communication in our universities and polytechnics.

Of note is the pioneering research by Mr. Ayo Oluwatosin, who as the MD/CEO of the Rosabel Group, had conducted a critical assessment of the uses of advertising in the 2015 election. This was the eighth Edition of the ACSPN Empowerment Series, at which he reported that both PDP and APC "used all media types", especially social media "which was heavily used to connect with the young population and spread messages." He found marked differences between the two political parties, although they both engaged in "massive road shows to experience voters." Propaganda was a mainstay of both parties, as was negative advertising. As a pointer to the nature of the 2019 campaign, Mr. Oluwatosin concluded that it was ironic that the ruling PDP did not communicate its several achievements but rather "seemed fixated on bringing the APC presidential candidate down" with negativity.

Subsequently, Professor Rotimi Williams Olatunji of Lagos State University led in the Ford Foundation-supported comprehensive research on the 2015 election campaign. In this multi-method study of audience perceptions, print advertisements, radio/television commercials, social media content, foreign consultants, outdoor advertising, and political interest groups, the researchers found much to criticize about how the two parties managed their campaigns. They recommended using more social media, employing greater creativity, enforcing regulations, and curtailing propaganda and hate speech in future presidential campaigns.

The ongoing multi-team investigation of the 2019 presidential campaign is building on these existing studies, and all these efforts are directed to having a better handle in understanding and explaining the nature of and the trends to expect in the forthcoming 2023 presidential campaign.

The results so far show that there are some similarities and some marked differences between the two major parties All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in their thematic emphasis, use of communication strategies, recourse to multimedia approaches, employment of emotional appeals, and the involvement of partisan political action groups. As Mr. Ayo Oluwatosin found in the 2015 election, the campaigns are "money spinners for the Nigerian press." This is part of the reason that many journalists and their media houses appear to be victims of "media capture" as Dr. Jude Ogbodo and his team found in their analysis of newspapers' coverage of the 2019 campaign.

The similarities and differences between the two major political parties in their approaches to campaign communication can have significant impacts on the eventual outcome of our presidential elections. ACCE and ACSPN researchers, as well as many communication practitioners agree that advertising, journalism, public relations, and other forms of communication can be part of the decisive determinants of eventual electoral outcomes. The battle lines for the 2023 presidential contest are being drawn already, with the campaign architects and election researchers laying early plans for the expected battle royale for what is shaping up to be the most important electoral contest of the Fourth Republic.

Good governance and the sustainable nurturing of democracy in Nigeria requires adequate support for election research that uses mixed methods to determine the nature, methods, and effects of professional election communication. In this regard, organisations such as ACCE and ACSPN deserve reliable support from local and international funding agencies.

According to Professors Charles Okigbo, Bala Musa, and Muhammed Musa, three renowned Nigerian communication scholars who are active in both ACCE and ACSPN, and engaged in the ongoing research on the 2019 election while looking to design studies of the forthcoming 2023 campaign, "election communication research should not be a footnote or an afterthought; it is a strategic investment for the common good, and it deserves more funding support than we accord it now."

- Okigbo is a Professor Emeritus of Strategic Communication Analytics.

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