‘Obamagic’ vs. ‘Myth Romney’: Nigerians enjoy soap opera, not issues

Editor’s Note: Tolu Ogunlesi is a freelance journalist in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2009 he was awarded the Arts and Culture prize in the annual CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards.

Story highlights

In 2008, Nigerians were inspired by Barack Obama's run for the U.S. presidency

Ogunlesi: "Obamagic" has largely worn off, but he remains more popular than Romney

Ogunlesi: Nigerians are more interested in the campaign drama than the political issues

Lagos, Nigeria CNN  — 

I recently stumbled on a Nigerians For Obama Twitter handle, launched on October 10 this year. “We nigerians in American (sic) want to tell obama that we have got his back,” the inaugural tweet read.

There’s nothing surprising about that – after all, Barack Obama, born of an African man, is “our son.”

The story of “Obamagic” goes back four years, when it emerged that a black man actually stood a chance of becoming the president of the most powerful country in the world. Here, the boss of the stock exchange launched an “Africans for Obama” group (never mind that she probably meant to say “Billionaire Nigerians for Obama”) and organised a fund-raising dinner that amassed $600,000 for the Democratic candidate.

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There was only one snag; no one had taken the time to find out what American campaign financing laws had to say about such a move. The Obama campaign wasn’t allowed to receive the money, and Nigeria ‘s anti-graft agency stepped in to probe the fundraising.

Tolu Ogunlesi

For those who couldn’t say “Yes we can” with their checkbooks, there was Facebook which, back then, was a relatively new phenomenon in Nigeria. We could join the Americans and the rest of the world to share our opinions about the son of Africa on his way to the White House.

Just a year after Nigeria’s 2007 general elections – which brought Umar Yar’Adua to power in a election derided by some as a “charade” – Obama’s race to the White House was a chance for Nigerians to vicariously participate in a political process that appeared transparent and was no doubt inspiring; not to mention the amusement of indulging in debates about whether things would’ve been different had Barack Obama, Sr. been Nigerian and not Kenyan.

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Four years later, a lot has changed. The novelty of 2008 has worn off, and many Nigerians appear to have moved on.

Much of the energy that in 2008 went into the U.S. elections has since found an outlet in our own electoral processes. As I wrote this piece one of the prominent things on my Twitter timeline was a running commentary on the live broadcast of the governorship debate in Nigeria’s Ondo State, where elections are due this weekend. A scenario like this was highly unlikely four years ago.

We also now have our own “Facebook President” – Goodluck Jonathan announced his decision to run for president on Facebook, and is today one of the world’s most “liked” heads of state on the social networking site (he has actually been called “Nigeria’s Obama.”) It is this homegrown excitement that the Obama-Romney contest now has to compete against.

I’ve been randomly asking friends if they stayed up to watch the first presidential debate. While most respondents didn’t, as the debate took place at 3:00 a.m. here, a U.S. debate is just the sort of thing – like the Academy Awards or English Premier League matches – that would have set Twitter afire in Lagos.

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I awoke the next morning to find a BlackBerry message from a friend to a group of 16 of us. He’d sent it during the debate, asking if anyone was up. When I saw it the next morning, I panicked slightly, wondering what emergency had arisen overnight. It turned out there’d been no emergency; he simply wanted to know if anyone else was watching. Only one other member of the group was awake at that time.

Lawyer and Big Brother Nigeria alumnus Ebuka Obi-Uchendu, another of my friends who watched that first debate, told me he did so as a “cynic”, merely for an opportunity to see Barack Obama “challenged” after a lackluster first term.

Linda Ikeji, Nigeria’s best-known entertainment blogger, has been weighing in on the U.S. presidential debates. In response to her post asking readers if they watched the first debate, and if it “harm[ed]” Obama, a comment described the U.S. president as “simply clueless” – an interesting choice when one considers that “clueless” is one of the most widely used epithets used to describe President Jonathan.

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Perhaps we’re seeing in Obama a reflection of our own president: swift dissipation of a hope founded largely on a campaign charged with personal stories; a case of soaring soapbox poetry swiftly replaced by the clunky prose of presidential politics.

Yet none of the Nigerian love Obama may have lost appears to have found its way to Mr. Romney. Blogger Ikeji’s post about the second debate clearly demonstrates that the fondness for Mr. Obama in these parts is instinctive.

In the last couple of days I’ve seen friends on social media tickled by the idea of a “Myth Romney.” Mitt’s faith isn’t a big help to him here either, in a country where fervent Pentecostals remain wary of Mormons (of whom there are roughly 100,000 in Nigeria today).

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Still, we’re nowhere near the 2008 levels of U.S. election enthusiasm. If the Africans for Obama dinner was the high point of 2008, the high point of the 2012 U.S. presidential season in Nigeria was the controversy around the presence of opposition party leader Bola Tinubu at the Democratic National Convention.

Initial reports quoted his team as saying he was specially invited by Obama — but it quickly emerged that Tinubu did not receive any special invitation, and his party reportedly said he’d paid a fee to attend.

For days national media feasted on the story and the ruling People’s Democratic Party seized its chance to pillory the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria, describing it as “founded on fraud and deceit.”

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That sort of name-calling, as opposed to debates around manifesto highlights, lies at the heart of Nigerian politics. 2015 might actually end up being the first Nigerian general election in recent history in which “issues” – power, state subsidies, taxation, roads, etc. – will carry the day. Just maybe.

Since we’re not conditioned to judging candidates on the strength or otherwise of their beliefs in health insurance or taxation or foreign policy, it’s easy to tune off when the American elections slide into that territory.

“A lot of Nigerians don’t understand the politics or economy of America ,” says journalist Olumide Iyanda, Saturday Editor at the Lagos-based Independent Newspapers. “It’s the soap opera that Nigerians are interested in, not the issues.”