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ANALYSIS: Five propaganda strategies politicians deploy during elections

Politics is a game of persuasion; it is the psychological warfare of winning people’s hearts to do the bidding of an individual or a group. But propaganda is a major tool politicians employ to fight political and psychological battles. It is a smart way to tell people black is white and make them believe it.

At the moment, election merchants are at the peak of displaying their propagandistic prowess ahead of the forthcoming general elections. From rebranding and marketing their candidates to pushing narratives, political parties do their best to be on top of their games. 

It is no longer the survival of the fittest; it is, of course, the survival of the smartest. And being the best in the arts of propaganda could skyrocket the chances of winning the polls in the peoples’ minds, which may, in turn, translate to election victory.

What is propaganda?

Propaganda is simply a scientific tool used by an individual or a group to shape the public perception of a person or a product. Mariam Webster, an American online English dictionary, says propaganda is ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and spread to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.

“Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist,” said Garth Jowett, a communications professor at the University of Houston in the United States.

However, as the political landscape of Nigeria shifts towards another general election, here are some of the propaganda techniques deployed by most Nigerian politicians.

Name-calling and profiling 

When politicians are stereotypical of an individual or a political group, their agenda mostly promotes an awful perception of their opponents to arouse public rejection. In most cases, these politicians use simple terminologies to label or give a negative description of an individual or group.

On January 7, 2023, for instance, Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressive Congress (APC), described Atiku Abukar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as “Mr Sell Everything” and called Peter Obi of the Labour Party “Mr Stingy”.  

“My people, you cannot entrust your future or that of our nation to Mr Sell Everything Atiku or Mr Stingy Obi,” Mr Tinubu said during APC’s rally in Ondo State. And in the same pattern but positively, he described himself as “Mr Progressive Good Governance Tinubu”, asking Nigerians to trust him.

Propagandists often use this method to dodge fact-based opinions on public issues to tame and name their opponents so the public can see them in a bad light. 

Playing the common man

If you see a typical Nigerian politician stopping by the roadside to buy roasted corn, entering a local restaurant to eat local meals, or even taking a sachet of water, don’t fall for such humility, especially during an election period. Politicians use this propaganda technique to make the common man feel loved or remembered.

At the moment, Peter Obi of the Labour party seems to be the most-discussed politician using this propagandistic strategy. During the previous general elections and electioneering when he was running mate to Atiku Abubakar, then PDP’s presidential candidate, Mr Obi was hugely criticised for claiming he had only one wristwatch he had used for 17 years and two pairs of black shoes. But social media users dug out old photos of Mr Obi where he was spotted with different wristwatches.

Since then, he has been reputed for always playing to be a common man. Recently, he had been seen mostly in black clothes at airports carrying his luggage without anyone aiding him. This propaganda strategy worked like magic because many of his supporters would describe him as the presidential candidate with a simple personality.

But make no mistake: Mr Obi is not the only one found fond of this strategy. Neary all Nigerian politicians that have contested elections in the recent time have been seen using this method.  Tunde Ajaja of the Punch Newspaper examined several plots of politicians during election seasons; he also documented how the public manipulative displays have failed to solve the country’s economic and social problems here.

Playing politics with words

Good politicians are users of words. As James Humes, a renowned presidential speechwriter, once said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” The masterful use of words can sway audiences or electorates to keep less focused on important matters. It is a manipulative strategy to distract listeners using glad words, euphemisms and over-simplifying complex matters.

According to Sapoboxie, a propaganda and public relations website, this strategy uses important-sounding “glad words” with little or no real meaning. High-sounding words are also seen as “glittering generalities” that cannot be proved or disproved.

The first Nigerian politician of the moment that comes to mind regarding the ability to manipulate people with fantastic use of words is professor Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice-President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Mr Osinbajo had been widely glorified for speeches that made Nigerians less critical of complex issues battling their lives.

At the APC presidential primary election, for instance, Mr Osinbajo stole the show when he delivered a speech widely applauded by many Nigerians, including those against his presidential ambition. See an excerpt of his speech here:

It is possible to establish a technology economy here in Nigeria; it is possible to establish a bitumen processing industry in Ondo, gold processing in Zamfara and Osun, and exploit and process the finest precious metals and stones in the world in Benue, in Plateau and most of the North Central states. We can exploit oil and gas in the Niger Delta, South East, and even Bauchi and Gombe States.

It is possible to manufacture our vehicles in Nnewi. Already, Innoson Motors they are doing great things there. We can open up steel plants in Kogi, and establish Africa’s largest industrial city between Ogun and Lagos. We can establish the biggest gas and petrochemical plants in the world in the Niger Delta; we can sell fertilizer to Africa as we already have one of the largest plants in the world, the Dangote refinery. We can sell shoes to the world— already, the Aba Shoe Cluster in Abia State sells over a million pairs of footwear every week to the rest of Africa.

We can manufacture our weapons and ammunition locally, DICON in Kaduna is already manufacturing munitions, and Proforce, a Nigerian company, is making armoured mobile platforms here in Nigeria.

We can build drones, helicopters and planes. Our Air Force is already manufacturing air platforms. And God helps us; in two decades, we can become the first nation on earth to send an all-black team of astronauts to the moon. We have the talent, the resources and the resourcefulness to be one of the world’s leading economies. We have the guts and the confidence to beat the world. We can run an open, honest and transparent government, ensure the rule of law, can secure our nation from terrorism. We can provide good-paying jobs for millions of young people.

If the masterful use of words solely won elections,  Mr Osinbajo could have been declared the winner of the presidential primary of the APC. He delivered a speech that raised the hope of the delegates and listeners across Nigeria. 

However, the hypnotising words of Mr Osinbajo above could make the people less concerned about asking questions about how he intended to achieve all his campaign promises.

The testimonial method

This is a common propaganda technique among Nigerian politicians. It is a device used to gain public acceptance. Politicians seek power by visiting famous individuals or highly influential persons for endorsement. It is during election seasons, for instance, that palaces and places of traditional rulers and religious leaders become very busy as politicians pay homage to seek their blessings.

During elections, you also see popular musicians and dramatists throwing weights behind the politicians of their choice. Propagandists believe getting these influential individuals’ endorsements can determine a politician’s popularity and victory. 

Seeking the endorsement or acceptance of a widely loved person or an influential individual is called “testimonial” among propagandists and psychologists, according to Propaganda Critic.

Misleading testimonials are usually obvious, said propagandistic.com, a website guiding readers on decoding manipulative propaganda. It added that “most of us have probably seen through this rhetorical trick at some time or another. But here’s the thing: We are far more likely to see through the deception if the celebrity is someone we do not respect. When an admired celebrity provides the testimonial, we are much less likely to be critical”.

“Testimonial” is so important in political propaganda that no serious politician dares to toy with it. When Olusegun Obasanjo, former Nigeria’s president, endorsed Peter Obi of the Labour Party as his preferred presidential candidate, many southwest leaders criticised him for leaving his tribe man, Bola Tinubu, for supporting a southeastern man. Supporters of Mr Tinubu were angry about such an endorsement because Mr Obasanjo is regarded as one of the few respected elder statesmen in the country.

The lesser of two evils

In 2019, many Nigerians were convinced President Muhammadu Buhari didn’t perform well enough to deserve a second term. But the narrative of APC supporters and adherents was that Mr Buhari was a lesser evil when compared with his major opponent Atiku Abubakar of the PDP. 

Balarabe Musa, a Nigerian politician, for instance, said during the last general electioneering: “Buhari has failed, but Atiku will fail even more because of Atiku’s connection with some forces, among them are former presidents, who are the root of the rot we are now facing in this.

“Nigerians want to know the qualitative and demonstrative character and differences between Atiku and Buhari, APC and PDP.  There’s nothing. So it’s a question of choice between two devils.”

Here, Mr Musa was indirectly campaigning for Mr Buhari using what propagandists call “the least evil propaganda”. It is a manipulative way to downplay one evil against another. Or asking people to choose between two disappointing things because one is more disappointing than the other.

Fast-forward to 2023, the same strategy would be used to sell Peter Obi’s presidential ambition to Nigerians. The narrative pushed to the public is that Mr Obi is a lesser evil when compared with other presidential candidates, who have been described as “corrupt old folks” or “moneybag politicians.”

“Peter Obi doesn’t enjoy this massive love and support among Nigerians because he is a saint or without blemish,” said Okon Ime Bishop, Nollywood film-maker famously known as Okon Lagos. “He has admitted openly that he is not a saint. He is loved because he is in the race. He is a lesser evil and not a saint.”

The researcher produced this fact-check per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame Karikari Fellowship partnership with Premium Times to facilitate the ethos of truth in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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