Nigeria Votes and the Race Is Wide Open

February 15, 2023

The world should be paying more attention to Nigeria. One in six Africans live in the country— with over 225 million people—making it the sixth most populous nation in the world after China, India, the USA, Indonesia and Pakistan; it has already passed Brazil and is comfortably ahead of Bangladesh and Russia. It also has the largest economy on the continent, ahead of both Egypt and South Africa. West Africa is a geopolitically fluid place—where old territorial interests and older cultures intersect with booming population growth and cutting-edge technological developments—and Nigeria is the leading state in West Africa.

Everything (well, almost everything) is up for grabs in the February 2024 elections in Nigeria. The president and vice president, the 109 members of the Senate and 360 members of the House of Representatives, the 38 state assemblies and 31 of the 38 state governors will all be chosen, in a simple majority vote. This will be the largest democratic process ever carried out in Africa.

Nigeria faces huge challenges. After the pandemic, economic growth has slumped, unemployment and emigration have soared, fuel and cash are in short supply and perceived inequality has increased. There has been a marked increase in political violence since the last elections. Islamists, including Boko Haram, are active in the north of the country. Purported supporters of Biafra—the region which lost a war for independence fifty years ago—are active in the south.

The mainstream political parties are also responsible for acts of intimidation against voters and election workers and for spreading fake news and misinformation on social media. It seems possible that one or more of the parties will refuse to accept the results (a problem not restricted to Nigeria). As well as the presidential election, the gubernatorial elections are proving to be flashpoints of violence. At the same time, the mechanics of the election have been tightened up using new technology, and it will be much more difficult to steal the vote.

The president and vice president of Nigeria are elected on a single slate, like the United States. There is a constitutional provision that to be elected in the first round, a candidate must receive both more votes than any of his or her rivals, and over 25% of the vote in at least two thirds of the states; otherwise, there must be a second round between the two leading candidates. The aim here is that power in a very diverse country should not be monopolized by the accidents of the electoral system rewarding a candidate whose support is too geographically concentrated.

In fact, this provision has not been activated since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, after a period of military rule. Although each of the six elections since then has been contested between the People’s Democratic Party and what is now the All-Progressives Congress, the process has often been flawed and controversial, but the result has been clear each time. The PDP won in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011, and in Nigeria’s first transfer of power between elected governments of different political parties since independence in 1957, the APC successfully took office in 2015, and won again in 2019.

There is not much to choose between the two ideologically; the rhetoric of the PDP may be a little more to the right of centre and the APC a bit more to the left. Nigerian political debate tends to be about the virtues and vices of incumbency. More importantly, perhaps, the PDP has more support in the southern, more Christian part of the country and the APC is stronger in the northern, more Muslim provinces.

Nonetheless, both parties make serious efforts to demonstrate nationwide support, and generally a presidential candidate from the north is expected to have a vice presidential candidate from the south, and vice versa; indeed, a northern president, like the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, would traditionally be succeeded by a southerner.

This year, however, the old paradigm has been disrupted. Both traditional parties have nominated northerners. The APC has chosen Bole Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous state, who masterminded Buhari’s victories in 2015 and 2019. Murky allegations have swirled around Tinubu’s personal finances, age, health and educational qualifications. Both Tinubu and his running mate, Kashim Shettima, are seen as northerners.

The PDP has chosen Atiku Abubakar, who served as vice president of the country from 1999 to 2007 and has been a losing candidate in six previous presidential elections, starting in 1993. He too is a northerner, but his running-mate Ifeanyi Okowa is the governor of Delta State in the south. The PDP—in unaccustomed opposition for the last eight years—has suffered much internal turmoil and it is not clear if Abubakar can mobilize all its resources.

Opinion polls in Nigeria often are unreliable, but there are strong indications that both Tinubu and Abubakar may be pushed aside by Charles Obi of the Labour Party, who left the PDP last year. He too is a former governor of Anambra State in the south and is running on a platform of change and renewal—whereas both Tinubu and Abubakar are stressing experience and continuity. Obi’s running mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, is from the northern city of Daria.

If Obi does win, he will likely face an immediate problem of governance. His coat tails are very short as his party does not have candidates for many of the seats in the National Assembly, so he is likely to face strong parliamentary opposition. Given the skewed distribution of the votes, it is also possible that either of the other two front runners, if they win, will face a parliament led by the other’s supporters.

If Nigeria can conduct a fair election with a clear outcome, despite the challenges facing the country, it will be an important signal for the wider region, where democracy is fragile. A messy process, on the other hand, will likely feed regional instability; and West Africa is central enough to global trade and other currents that a failure of process in Nigeria could have much wider ramifications.

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