Crowd for hire: 2023 campaign rallies as a metaphor

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*Photo credit: BBC

Dakuku Peterside

Theatrics for winning voters’ hearts and minds are all around us. The perceptual game of showing strength in the number of supporters is an age-old effective game plan for the parties, and it is one strategy that cuts across all parties.

All political parties are outdoing themselves in winning the popularity contests typified by pulling a crowd with the most outrageous noises and boisterous displays in rallies on the streets, roads, stadiums, and other venues that can contain crowds. If pulling crowds is the determinant of election outcomes, the 2023 general elections would have been won and lost. Granted, politics all over the world feed on numbers—crowds.

Nigeria is no exception, and with what we have seen so far in the 2023 electoral campaigns, Nigerian politicians are taking this to another level. Nigerian politics is fueled by a slew of factors, the most important of which is money. This issue is the difference between the crowds that gathered at Nigerian politicians’ rallies and those that followed Adolphus Hitler blindly or Donald Trump to desecrate the White House.

Whether in Kenya, South Africa, the USA, the UK, or Nigeria, crowds serve the same purpose in politics: – a show of strength, to influence the people’s minds, to create the perception of popular support and acceptance, and to generate media buzz and optics.

It has nothing to do with believing in the candidate, his cause, or even the campaign message, and it is only for the non-discerning to judge the possible outcome of an election with a crowd at campaign rallies. Sourcing for a crowd is fast turning into an industry in politics.

In the United States, there are companies in the enterprise of mobilising crowds. Crowds on Demand and Crowd for Rent are US companies, and Envisage Promotion is a UK company, all set up purposely to provide crowds to support political and socio-economic causes. Even a Kenyan author wrote a book, Crowd for Hire: How Kenyan Politicians Source Crowds for Events. In the buildup to the 2023 elections, the rented crowd is the ultimate phenomenon.

In most rallies hosted by different political parties, you will see the same faces, the same individuals, sometimes wearing the APC face cap and the PDP T-shirt. At their rallies, all of the major political parties —APC, PDP, LP, and NNPP —draw unprecedented crowds or flash mobs that have nothing to do with genuine support for the candidates or passion for their message.

The crowd that congregates whenever there is a rally has more to do with economic reasons than belief in any cause or loyalty to a party. Recently, exposure came from no less a person than the revered clergyman Pastor Enoch Adeboye, who rightly linked the availability of young men and women for political rallies to a high level of unemployment, hunger, and abject poverty in the country.

I am afraid I must agree absolutely. Although the “rented crowd” is an old phenomenon associated with politics, unemployment in Nigeria has complicated the matter. Unemployed youth are fertile ground for political mobilisation, rightly or wrongly. According to the most recent statistics, the unemployment rate is 33 per cent, there are many unemployed people, and there are many idle youths looking for work.

Another factor responsible for the large crowds at political rallies is the acute poverty pervading the land. The utility value of crowd contractors is shown below. Many Nigerians, who should ordinarily be engaged in more productive activities, are hired for between N1, 000 and N10, 000 to attend campaign rallies. And these amounts depend on which region of the country they are in and whether the party is in power or not.

Parties now have a huge and humorous budget for mobilisation. With 133 million Nigerians suffering from multidimensional poverty, every Naira saved for the next meal or used to pay school fees and house rent is valuable and worth sacrificing time for. Most persons attending campaign rallies under the current regime is a day job, and it has nothing to do with passion for any political ideal or candidate, or even the hope for a better tomorrow, which is what politicians normally trade on.

The next factor contributing to the growing crowd surge prevalent at political party rallies is the significant erosion of our value system. Honesty, integrity, and self-respect are vanishing traits in our society. Most participants in these rallies know the candidates and that the party is the opposite of what they believe and know, yet they openly identify with them in rallies when paid but vote otherwise.

The motivation is often extrinsic, based on the perceived immediate gratification they hope to get. Most people in the crowd easily forget that what is at stake is the struggle for power and leadership that will shape their lives in the next four years. As such, they must be introspective and altruistic in determining which candidate, party, or cause to follow and support even during the campaign.

Hunger has been weaponised, and any rally that provides food for the crowd will need more crowd control. Social media is awash with real-life videos of the fights for food and provisions at various rallies across the nation. It is embarrassing that hunger is linked with political campaigns in Nigeria. People are struggling to survive and live in the moment. They want to avoid rallies where candidates will explain policies to alleviate hunger. They want rallies where they are fed for the day. 

Some ill-informed voters even assume that a candidate or party that provides food or money during rallies indicates how generous and good the candidate or party will be when elected. They frown at any candidate or party not providing immediate food or cash and deem them tight-fisted, anti-poor and, therefore, may not generously provide for them when elected.

The term “stomach infrastructure” has been used to describe the phenomenon of voters and the general public expecting daily sustenance from the government and politicians rather than development policies and activities that could eventually eliminate hunger and poverty. This is dangerous for our politics. A rally crowd has its usefulness, but there are other measures of popular support.

Money is the language the public understands. What politicians may need to understand is that time has changed, and that the world has also changed. The level of civic enlightenment and the mindset of the electorate have changed. And the influence of social media has impacted people’s attitudes towards the electoral process. Crowd renting may not have a significant effect on the electoral outcome of the 2023 election.

Like their counterparts in other Third World countries, Nigerian politicians still prioritise campaign crowds over and above real voter turnout and actual votes. It is part of the reason for organising noisy rallies to show off party strength and inadvertently show the world that we are still in the Stone Age.

Historical records have shown that large political crowds usually do not translate to a favourable electoral outcome, and it’s all noise and no substance. When politicians hire a crowd, it is an investment in the visuals. Those visuals and perceptions they create are among the most strategic aspects of a campaign, especially in this day and age of social media.

This perception is crucial, especially for winning the election and managing the post-election conflicts that are often inevitable in Nigerian politics. I have established that crowds are essential to the party’s politics and campaigns. I have looked at the morality or otherwise of renting a crowd.

It is evident that such rented crowds, no matter the visual power they portray, do not translate to voter loyalty or electoral victory. I advise that major political parties focus more on convincing and mobilizing their supporters to attend the rallies and vote for the candidate and party. Things must be done differently if we want results that matter.

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