Big Brother as a Window Into Nigerian Politics Why Do We Respond to Reality TV and our Elections so Differently?

The voting pattern and culture seen on Multichoice’s Big Brother offers insight into the Nigerian psyche and our approach to popularity contests. It allows us to examine the traits prevalent on the Nigerian political landscape and our response to them.   

When elections are discussed in Nigeria, especially free and fair contests, oft-cited is the annulled 12 June 1993 general elections. Past elections marred by violence, allegations of rigging and more recently, voter trading has resulted in the distrust of the electoral process by the voting population; with voter apathy translating to low voter turnout in the 2019, 2015 and 2011 elections. 

This is where the Big Brother show differs from the Nigerian voting experience. Successive seasons have seen Nigerians not only vote, but pay to do so.  

While there are arguments about potential voter fatigue during campaign season, millions of Nigerians consistently vote for their favourite housemates. These contestants are often up for eviction weekly, with fans voting to keep them in the running for a cash prize. From past seasons, social and conventional media have shown a consistent level of engagement—like 24 hour coverage, that many have argued would be better directed to monitoring other aspects of society. For the three months that Big Brother is on our television screens, not many topics trend more or even gain similar traction to the show.  

What sets the Big Brother show apart from the elections? Seeing as they are both popularity contests, what do the housemates do to elicit such visceral support and attention? What does it mean for our general political culture? 

THE FAN WARS

Supporters of the presidential hopefuls are known by their identifiers. ‘Obidient’ for Peter Obi, ‘Batified’ for Bola Tinubu or ‘Atikulated’ for Atiku Abubakar. This trend is not novel, at least not to Big Brother fans. The fan base of Olamilekan ‘Laycon’ Agbeleshe, the winner of Big Brother Naija Lockdown, were ‘Icons’,  and those of Hazel ‘Whitemoney’ Onou, who won Big Brother Naija Shine Ya Eye, identified as the ‘Whitemoney Gang’.  

Clashes are often marked by fan base identifiers, icons and hashtags, similar to how political campaigns now run on social media.  However, the nature of the arguments  between these groups and the route to resolution is where there should be concern. 

In both cases Ad hominem attacks and online bullying have become the norm, in place of respectfully engaging the merits or demerits of the issue being contended.  This becomes more worrisome when ethnic, religious and generational fault lines that have divided the country’s current political landscape are put in play. It is why it has become commonplace for opposition supporters to paint candidates as ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’, or the ‘Igbo’, ‘Yoruba’ or ‘Hausa’ candidate.  

Candidates play a role in amplifying these ‘tags’ because it is the easiest way to amass followers and supporters in a political space bereft of necessary ideological dialogue. With Big Brother fan bases, this is largely irrelevant due to the nature of the show. Even then, there have been instances where housemates have been painted across the ethno-religious lines that political candidates have been. The difference is that our prospective leaders, who should do better, tend to lean into these divisive politics. 

AN INCENTIVE TO VOTE

According to recently released INEC data, there will be 93.4 million eligible voters to determine the 1,488 elective positions in the February/March 2023 general elections. Individuals and corporate entities have used their platforms to encourage people to pick up their Permanent Voters Card and head to the polls. To drive this, many have used the tragic state of affairs as an incentive to vote for good governance and a better future for Nigeria. 

If a housemate employed ‘civic mindedness’ as a strategy to stay in the house, they might have as well packed an overnight bag. This is because value for entertainment is the most important trait Big Brother housemates promise in exchange for the prize. This unspoken agreement has seen many fans support housemates if they are half of a well-known relationship, to keep their relationship on television screens.  

To compete, housemates employ different strategies – being the cook of the house, the source of drama and contention, or even playing on sympathies and skills – to ensure that they are kept around. Their rewards include increased social media followership, influencer status and a springboard to pivot into other career paths.  

Russell Crowe explains it best in a famous quote from his role as Maximus Decimus Meridius in Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic drama Gladiator – ‘Are you not entertained?’ 

For elected offices however, entertainment capabilities are not listed as a requirement.   Citizens are expected to evaluate the policy agenda of the parties, their choice of personnel and their ability to move society forward. The opportunity cost of a voting-based reality TV show, like Big Brother, could be a mentality shift towards rewarding more entertaining candidates, which already is a staple in our politics. 

The 2023 election cycle began with campaign spokespersons Femi Fani-Kayode (of the All Progressives Congress) and Dino Melaye (of the People’s Democratic Party) engaging in a back-and-forth on social media through skits designed to insult the opposition candidate. Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike is famed for his accompanying live band , especially when delivering broadsides against his political opponents. These leaders and campaigns have remained at the forefront of the general cycle at a time when many datasets point to a difficult term for whoever becomes president. 

The situation is not unique to Nigeria, or even third world politics. Donald Trump’s successful campaign for president was widely fuelled by the unexpected antics and shocking rhetoric that he employed during his rallies.  Other politicians around the world – from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson – have been associated with Trump’s unique brand of populism. These leaders have largely leveraged ‘shock and awe’ tactics to seize the political narrative and viewer attention like Big Brother Housemates. Both leaders have succeeded. 

Societies are recognizing that ‘boring politics’ is more helpful in ensuring that competence is prioritized when looking for leaders. Joe Biden’s victory over incumbent Donald Trump in the 2020 elections was attributed to his persona being ‘boring’ in comparison to his rival. Similarly, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been described by the same term, when compared to the more animated Boris Johnson.  

THE ULTIMATE GET RICH QUICK SCHEME

The one similarity between both popularity contests is the idea that it is an easy route to amassing wealth in the poverty capital of the world.  

In Nigeria, politics is considered a career in place of public service. Many politicians jump from post to post, accumulating retirement packages and immunity protections in tow. As such, the term ‘Do-or-die affair’ is said in reference to Nigerian politics, because of how many candidates seek to get elected despite the financial implications. In 2022, prohibitive fees were placed on the purchase of nomination forms to run for the forthcoming elections. For instance, the APC charged N100 million for presidential aspirants; N30 million for the expression of interest form and N70 million for the nomination form. 

While most Big Brother related costs are  altruistic, elected officials expect to recoup their expenditure when in office, evident in corruption allegations, money laundering trials and convictions. This cycle begets entrenched politicians who turn winning elections and  political relevance into actual careers.  

There are, admittedly, different anecdotal reports around how Big Brother housemates get chosen. Some already exist on the periphery of celebrity, with the expectation that their celebrity friends will play a role in increasing their popularity and the show’s reach. Others then play the role of District 12 tributes in the Hunger Games, with -to-grace tales expected to garner sympathy and keep them in the contest. At the end of the show, everyone is a winner in some form.  

Prizes come through the different contests in the house, or politicians gifting housemates for ‘representing their constituencies well’, even fans  amounts to appreciate their favourite contestant. Seldom do we see the Big Brother housemate who is unable to use the show to elevate their platform.   

If the cycle is to be considered, the latest season of Big Brother, featuring South African housemates, could see the irony of young Nigerians not voting in an election that they were expected to be the deciding factor, paying attention instead to the TV show.  

South Africa just saw its president survive an impeachment attempt and barely regain control of the ruling party, while young Nigerians are not sure if their next set of leaders will be any different from the crop that responded so cruelly and lethally to their peaceful demonstrations against police brutality. 

The Labour Party has already raised the alarm about the ‘distraction’ the show is likely to cause. In the opening ceremony, Multichoice showed a message from INEC urging Nigerians to get their voter cards.  Perhaps this season will see politics-themed competitions to assuage any potential blowback about their participation and viewers might see more salient commentary from the housemates.   

At the end of the day, the show provides some succour from the unideal reality that it is to be a young African in this day and age. It is both a temporary respite and a mirror into the factors that increasingly warp our civic engagement.

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