Nigeria: the emperor’s new polls

Developing Just Leadership

Adamu Adamu

Jumada' al-Akhirah 12, 1436 2015-04-01

News & Analysis

by Adamu Adamu (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1436)

Even before the votes were cast, Goodluck Jonathan’s cronies were predicting his victory in Nigeria’s election. Widespread rigging has been reported.

Life is a series of rewards and punishments — and sometimes the punishment can be collective; and here Plato might have been talking of us — us, the dumb. “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” In addition to his new clothes, and oh yes, new shoes, which all ye sinners cannot see, the emperor has new polls; but even if you can read them, believing in them may be the dumbest thing you have ever done.

The insinuation that the March 28 presidential election (after Crescent press time) will be a close race between President Goodluck Jonathan and General Muhammadu Buhari started like one huge joke, with pollsters, clowns and all; and, for all intents and purpose, that’s the way it will end: as a sick joke.

In “The Ugly Side of Buhari and Jonathan,” a paid advertorial carried in several papers and titled to give the impression of double disinterestedness and unimpeachable objectivity, one Atedo Peterside, a supporter of President Goodluck Jonathan, was one of the first to say, without a shred of evidence and in the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence to the contrary, that the election between President Jonathan and General Buhari will be a close one. But on closer look, it became clear that he was indeed not without his evidence.

At least he had evidence that might be a shred, or one that stood in need of being shredded. It was an opinion poll taken by NOI Polls and commissioned by ANAP Foundation that had given President Goodluck Jonathan a 57% approval rating. An earlier one commissioned by the same ANAP and conducted by the same NOI Polls looked into Jonathan’s chances in the last presidential election. NOI Polls, which always boast of using Gallup methodology, predicted Jonathan’s landslide victory. And it so came to pass; but considering the extent of rigging and other irregularities that marred that election, this would make NOI Polls have the distinction of being the only pollster in the world to be able to predict the result of rigging with such uncanny accuracy.

But that is exactly what could have been happening when ANAP and NOI Polls respectively — a foundation owned by a friend of the president — commissioned a pollster established by a serving minister of his government. Their name says it all; the foundation ANAP actually is abbreviation for Atedo N.A. Peterside-ANAP Foundation, and NOI Polls is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala-NOI Polls. What more remains to be said?

First, associating itself with the name of Gallup is unlikely to confer on it greater respectability than the reliability coefficient of its own polling will give it. Even though Gallup has been the biggest — or at least the one with the biggest sample — it has been criticized as an increasingly unreliable pollster, and has a recent history of performing poorly, especially in presidential elections. It has still not fully recovered from its sleight of poll during the Obama-Romney saga.

But even if Gallup doesn’t carry all this excess baggage, it is still not clear how, and it looks highly improbable that, in its mere eight years of existence, NOI Polls has built the kind of expertise that will enable it to conduct a nationwide poll in a complex society like Nigeria and achieve this kind of accuracy in prediction. Or was it created to churn out these figures we see it giving out in order to help prepare the Nigerian society for the coming Big Lie?

And if as NOI Polls says, Jonathan is leading among the electorate, why then is there all this desperation? Why are they so desperate that the search for any alternative to Buhari would go to all extremes — disqualify Buhari by any means, postpone and then cancel the elections, give across-the-board elongation of tenure to all the executive and legislative arms of governance, engineer Attahiru Jega’s sacking, plan for an interim government and put the nation on edge?

With such impressive poll figures, why not put your faith in NOI Polls and go to sleep and then wake up to defeat Buhari in a fair contest? Or is NOI Polls just a hack of a pollster skewing numbers to score some political points? At least, there is nothing in the book to explain the great gulf that exists between the crowded reality we encounter daily on the ground and what this poll tells us.

While the headcount at rallies is not a scientific way of assessing political leanings or effective support, it is still a better indicator than putting together a hack pollster to skew numbers.

From even a cursory reading of the mood of the people, neither the bandwagon effect nor underdog sympathy, nor even the sloppiest degree of sampling error or expected coverage bias could have accounted for the transformation that could reverse the numbers seen on the campaign trail and the situation in the country. It appears NOI is overdoing the mimicry: perhaps because Gallup has proved such a consistent Republican-leaning outlier, NOI Polls, in its effort to achieve equivalence with its mentor-pollster, might have wished to start as an outlier for the ruling party here.

However, even as the government and its supporters frantically search for a solution that will stop the election, certainly not because they are so sure they are going to win it, some other analysts still say the odds favour the president. This was a position echoed even by The Economist magazine of London. “Polling and observers suggest the race between him and the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, is too close to call, with each commanding about 42% of the vote.” Perhaps quite out of character, its visiting correspondent decided to rely more on what he thought was accurate local analysis than the more accurate diplomatic sources the magazine traditionally consults.

By its nature, and from the examples of the work of leading international pollsters, polling is an inaccurate business; and, compared to Pew and Rasmussen, Gallup has been of late hopelessly inaccurate. Even though it has been caught as a Republican-leaning outlier, its inaccuracy is not on account of partisan or pecuniary considerations. It is good to reassure oneself.

For good reason, this government lies in mortal fear of two types of polls — the democratic, free and fair and credible electoral poll, and the professional public opinion poll. That is why it seeks to subvert the former and manufacture the latter.

The way to win an election or re-election — and the way to subvert one — are as many and varied as the candidates who vie for, and make it to, elective office. Some do get to it by the sheer force of popularity; others attain it on account of a track record of achievement or perceived competence and leadership qualities. Yet others get there on account of fulfilled campaign promises. Or, if all else fails, then on account of expertise in transparent rigging, which is what is playing itself out before the nation today.

In contrast, there is only one way to manufacture an opinion poll that can be believed, and that is by employing “The Big Lie Technique.” And what is the big lie technique? Well, the big lie technique is just that: a technique of persuasion that uses and depends on a very big lie.

It is said to have been invented and made famous by Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for Adolf Hitler, the German leader in the 1930s and 1940s. In his autobiography, Hitler had said, “That in the big lie; there is always a certain force of credibility and… the primitive simplicity of their minds [people] more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large scale falsehoods. It would never come into their minds to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not be here that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

This has been echoed by the US Office of Strategic Studies that says, “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it to be true.”

That is the way it is: a lie, or in some of these cases, an inaccuracy innocently repeated multiple times begins to look plausible, then it becomes possible, then probable, then it becomes the truth, then it becomes inevitable; and it finally becomes unchallengeable gospel. The bigger and more preposterous the lie, the easier and more natural the suspension of disbelief on account of its repetition; the higher the number of repetitions, the firmer the veracity of the truth established by it; the longer the duration of the repetitiveness, the greater the indisputability of its truth worthiness.

But, unfortunately, all this has not started early enough: it has not been repeated strenuously enough. And they have not kept at it for long enough to convince others to doubt their own stand, abandon their own positions, and entombed in the spiral of silence — that perennial scourge of the pollster — to embrace the poll and make it a nice self-fulfilling prophesy.

Here is a supposedly democratic government afraid of elections, the building block of democracy; and this fear, like the hope keeping it in check, is inordinate; but both are probably misplaced. If life is a series of rewards and punishments, the trust that is supposed to keep it going cannot be built in a day, nor can an election be won on the last one. Like his new clothes, which nobody sees, the emperor’s new polls will not be of any use to him now or later, because they are not there — never have been. And they are not in Morocco — and never will be.

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