The Power and Pitfalls of Campaign Slogans in Nigeria
In 2019, President Buhari graced the platform for a crucial budget presentation at the National Assembly with rhetorical theatrics, which birthed a slogan ushering him to victory. In an assertive yet playful manner, Buhari raised both hands, revealing four fingers on each—a visual representation of "4+4". This gesture was not an ordinary arithmetic lesson; it was a profound political equation: "4+4" symbolising the coveted second term and a viral campaign slogan contributing to propelling Buhari to victory. In Nigeria, political campaign strategy blends seamlessly with rhetoric, and slogans take central stage in this performance.
Slogans constitute an indispensable element of electoral campaigns, not only in Nigeria but also across the world. From Nelson Mandela's "Amandla- Awethu" in the 1990s to Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can", slogans constitute an important feature of modern political campaigns. In his book American Mottoes and Slogans, George Shankle traced the Gaelic origins of the concept of a slogan (slaugh-ghairm) to mean "war cry." In communication studies, the capacity of slogans as "imperative statements" with dynamic functions capable of sanctifying political action is well documented. But Nigerian politicians did not need to study rhetoric before they understand that a catchy slogan can propel them to victory.
Contemporary Nigerian political actors have understood the rhetorical powers of slogans in electoral campaigns. They load their campaign discourses with slogans and other catchy phrases to connect with the electorate and capture their hopes, pains, frustrations, and imaginations. The recent general elections in Nigeria were not different. Slogans and slang were crafted to rally support to seek electoral votes.This piece examines the use and abuse of slogans in Nigerian politics and draws attention to their subversive implications for post-election accountability and the anchorage of a democratic culture.
"Emilokan" or It is my Turn in APC's 2023 Presidential Victory
When the then All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential aspirant, Bola Tinubu jetted out to Abeokuta in Ogun state, Nigeria, on June 3rd, 2022, he did not know he was about to birth the slogan that would propel his campaign to victory. Tinubu took to the podium to address Ogun state APC delegates in the state capital ahead of the party's presidential primary election, explaining how he had paid his dues, serving and ensuring the past presidents won their elections. "Emilokan (Now it's my turn in Yoruba)," he said. Even though the speech from that day generated mixed reactions, it eventually became a nationwide slogan, transcending the length and breadth of the country. Later, he chose a more formal slogan, "Renewed Hope," when he eventually won the primary election and became his party's flagbearer, but the unofficial "Emilokan" slogan remained the preferred slogan of his supporters. It was the most viral slogan on social media of all other slogans associated with Tinubu's campaign. Many supporters of Tinubu, who propagated this campaign slogan, believed it was appropriate and did not see any symbol of entitlement in it. They believed he was instrumental in the merger of various opposition parties to form the APC in 2014. Most significant of all was Tinubu's contribution to the emergence and re-election of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 and 2019. Therefore, they felt the right thing to do was to support him, having won the party's ticket.
Tinubu's use of the "It’s my turn" argument to assert his right to power is not unprecedented in contemporary political campaigns. This strategic rhetorical device finds resonance in the annals of political history. During the 2012 French presidential race, François Hollande, representing the Socialist Party, adroitly employed a similar tactic. Addressing a campaign rally in Carmaux, situated in the southern region of France, Hollande articulated the notion that it was the Socialist Party’s rightful turn to ascend to power: “c’est notre tour de gouverner et de diriger la France” (It’s our turn to govern and lead France). While distinct from Tinubu’s approach, wherein he accentuates his instrumental role in the success of his predecessors and subsequently claims his own moment of ascendancy, Hollande’s discourse revolved around tracing the legacy of socialist leadership in France. He emphasised the necessity of reestablishing a connection with this historical lineage as a rationale for his bid for the presidency.
“Otoge” or Enough Is Enough in Kwara State 2019 Governorship Election
Unlike “Emilokan,” which suggests a reparation of an injustice, another notable slogan in recent Nigerian political campaign discourse was “Otoge,” which means “Enough is Enough” in Yoruba was used successfully by the All Progressive Congress (APC) in the Nigerian 2019 gubernatorial election in Kwara State. Otoge was a call for change. A deep critic of the incumbent regime. The slogan “Otoge” not only signaled a rejection of the incumbent regime but also opened doors for the people to invest their aspirations in the new party, seeing it as a vehicle to usher in a new era of governance that aligned with their desires for better leadership and improved quality of life.
The events leading to the 2019 Gubernatorial election in Kwara offered two options: the people either pitched their tents with the incumbent or the main opposition. While the ruling hegemony allegedly banked on the state resources, the new set of “messiahs” banked on street credibility and were riding on the mass support received from far and near. The Abdulfatah Ahmed administration which was elected under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and governed Kwara state between 2011 to 2019, could not pay full salary to staff and mismanaged the Universal Basic Education Board (UBEC) Intervention fund, leading to the blacklisting of the state from other Interventions among other gross misconducts.
Those who embraced the slogan were firmly rejecting the status quo, fed up with years of unfulfilled promises and perceived mismanagement.
“Otoge” served as a potent call for change, uniting those seeking an alternative. By adopting the slogan, the masses aligned with the opposition, perceiving it as a beacon of hope for the change they desired. At the peak of campaigns, the Otoge became so popular that motorcyclists and trailer drivers adopted it in their honking patterns. It became a household refrain that the young and old associated with. The slogan became one of the most visible factors that propelled the opposition party, the APC to victory in 2019 and another victory in 2023.
After the election and the incumbent was dislodged, the governor walked the people down memory lane on how they came about the slogan at a book launch titled "Otoge. " He said that Hook Creative Agency owns the copyright and presented the slogan alongside their presentation of the Kwara struggle. Another account credits the slogan to Ibrahim Labaeka, an Islamic gospel artiste based in Ilorin, Kwara state.
Slogans don’t always translate to victory
While candidates have run on "Otoge" and "Emilokan" to victory, the Nigerian political space has also featured viral slogans that did not translate to victory. Notable examples include Obidient and Atikulated. The Obidient slang became popular among supporters of Peter Obi—the 2023 Labour Party candidate—and outlived the election cycle. It is undoubtedly one of the highly revered movements that the 2023 election cycle birthed.
Likewise, the Atikulated movement, in reference to supporters of Atiku Abubakar during the 2023 presidential election, presented the best chance for Atiku Abubakar to become the president— having been contesting since 1999. He however lost the election (pending a court decision where he is contesting the results).
The use of these types of subversive campaign slogans is not unique to Nigeria. In the 2010 Presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo famously danced to the tune of his own slogan “devant c’est maïs” meaning “In front of us, there is nothing but a corn field.” This slogan implied that if the elections were to take place, there would be no forest of trees and no opposition to prevent the PDCI nominee and incumbent from getting reelected. The opposition is equated with a corn field through which it is easy to plow a way to victory. This slogan became a popular song demonstrating Gbagbo’s ability to connect with his electorate using the popular Nouchi, a french-based creole language used in Côte d’Ivoire. Unfortunately, the election spiraled into a contested second round, turned violent and claimed the lives of over 3000 people.
Place of the campaign slogans in the democratic process
Lending strong credence to Achille M’Bembe’s portrayal of African politics as zombification, the deployment of certain slogans reveals a profound subversion of political discourse. Vulgarity and grotesqueness become central in the language of both politicians and their supporters. Their social projects are completely buried. The relation of conviviality developed between candidate and electorate characterised by dances, songs, and internet memes embedded in theatrical rituals erases any chance for a rational campaign that address central issues.
Employing rhetorical tactics like “Emilokan” constitutes a deliberate strategy to tap into profound emotional connections tied to ethnic and religious affiliations. Such strategies tend to bypass rational discourse and do not foster unity among diverse groups. The inherent irrationality of this campaign technique was well grasped by former First Lady Michelle Obama during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. In endorsing candidate Hillary Clinton, who opposed Donald Trump, Obama astutely recognised the subversive dimension of elevating political discourse to the realm of extreme irrationality. Her memorable statement, “When they go low, we go high,” encapsulated the notion of responding to adversarial tactics with a commitment to keeping animosity and irrational claims out of campaign discourses.
As discursive signposts for gauging the health of the democratic contest, campaign slogans—more often than not—fall short of contributing to cultivating a robust democratic culture. Instead of fostering informed civic engagement and meaningful policy discussions, many slogans rely on catchy yet shallow phrases lacking substantive content. These slogans often prioritise emotional appeal over critical analysis, leading to a political landscape where genuine dialogue and informed decision-making take a back seat. This trend not only perpetuates a culture of surface-level political discourse but also hinders the development of an electorate that actively shapes the democratic process. As a result, the potential for campaign slogans to serve as catalysts for democratic growth remains largely unrealised, underscoring the need for more substantive and policy-focused discourse in our political arena. Slogans that captured the profound aspirations among many Nigerian youth like the Obidient and Atikulated movements, which revolve around individual figures, have a limited lifespan, and cannot induce lasting socio-political change. The life of Obedient movement is intrinsically tied to Peter Obi’s political aspirations, and similarly, the Atikulated slogan is bound to fade once Atiku Abubakar’s influence wanes.
Elected officials should be accountable to the people they represent and lead. Beyond the campaign slogans which make promises, accountability often falls short. For winners, the best way to truly justify the sense of entitlement to the position—in the case of “Emilokan canvassers” is to work round the clock and create a prosperous nation for people and businesses to thrive. But how can we hold a politician accountable when he won the elections because it was his turn to win? The same question is raised for campaigns built around an individual figure such as Obidient and Atikulated. In a book entitled “It’s Our Turn to Eat,” Michela Wrong captures the greed, corruption, exploitation, and absence of vision embodied in former President Mwai Kibaki’s administration in Kenya. The political economy of corruption takes its roots in the campaign and campaign slogans catering to politicians' constituents and ethnic groups. More often than not, politicians ultimately subordinate national interests to personal gain and group ideology, as their slogans suggest. Nevertheless, slogans are important and create a strong subconscious effect that can galvanise people and institutions for development. It is therefore important that campaign slogans are devoid of greed, entitlement and personalisation of power for sectional interest but rather speak to important national issues like poverty, security, gender equality, and infrastructural development, amongst others.
Aluko Ahmad is a fact-checker at the Centre for Democracy and Development