Nigeria elects a governor every year. This is because several states have seen their leaders removed via judicial processes that are increasingly becoming important arbiters in the democratic process. Two of these states, Ekiti (18 June) and Osun (16 July), both in the South-West, held such elections recently.
These states are among the smaller states in the country in both size and population – Osun is ranked 25 in population and 26 in size, while Ekiti is 31 in both metrics out of 36 states. But, what these two states lack in representation to the House of Representatives – where population determines the delegation size – they make up for in influence. Because, like a certain Iowa in the United States, these elections play an important role in shaping the narrative and setting the discourse ahead of the general elections.
A major difference between the two elections was the fact that in Ekiti, the incumbent was term-limited and so could not contest, while the incumbent was able to seek re-election in Osun. Both states were governed by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and were expected to stay in the fold because of the party’s influence in the region. At the peak of its strength, the APC held the governorships in all South-Western states.
For its part, the main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was dealing with in-fighting and internal challenges following the conclusion of its presidential primaries. PDP candidates sought to remind voters of a past when the party controlled both states – Ekiti as recently in 2018 and Osun as far back as 2010 – and much of the debate focussed on the performance of the government and opposition at the national level.
Ultimately, both parties needed wins leading into the 2023 elections – the PDP for much-needed momentum and the APC to maintain control of its base. The APC held on to Ekiti – the first time a party has retained the seat in successive elections, while the PDP defeated the incumbent governor in Osun to demonstrate that there is life in the old dog yet. In the end, however, the results perhaps told us less about who will win the 2023 general elections, and more about the issues that will take centre stage.
First, these were the first polls conducted under the new electoral act and the effectiveness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was decisive in ensuring popular faith in the process. Results were uploaded on the INEC Results Viewing (IReV) portal once counting was done in the various polling units, which meant that declarations were only formalities. This made it easier for voters to track the results and verify the counts that they had witnessed in their polling units. The 2023 elections could very well see similar projections being used at the national level.
Another new feature of the elections was the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, which significantly minimised duplicate voting and ensured only registered voters took part in the elections. INEC’s performance in the elections has rightly been lauded, but it is also worth noting that these elections took place in small states and this does not necessarily mean that the electoral commission will be able to repeat the trick at the national level.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the elections served as an important reminder of the role of individuals and candidate selection processes in shaping outcomes. In Ekiti, the popular former governor Segun Oni who was denied the PDP ticket, defected to a third party to contest the election and ended up splitting the vote and beating the official PDP candidate into third placer. Nigerians on social media wondered whether Oni might have won if he had been given a more prominent party platform.
The Osun elections were contested by the same candidates from the 2018 polls, which were controversial because of the small margin of victory. While the strength of the parties no doubt played a role, it was the politicians themselves that voters supported, again showing the impact that popular fringe candidates can have on the election results.
It is also important not to simply assume that candidates can transport their “vote banks” from one party to another, however. Ahead of the APC’s presidential primary, a lot was said about choosing a “Northern” candidate to ensure that the ‘12 million votes’ attributed to the president was maintained. In the end, the APC went another way, selecting Bola Tinubu. The question now is whether Buhari is willing and able to mobilise as effectively on behalf of a “Southern” candidate.
As the analysis above demonstrates, this cannot be taken for granted. Ayo Fayose, the former governor of Ekiti, was unable to use his popularity to ensure his party’s success. Similarly, Iyiola Omisore, who ran in the 2018 elections on a third party ticket and played a kingmaker role before defecting to the APC and becoming its national secretary, proved unable to transfer his influence to his new party.
The difficulty candidates have had in transferring support from one candidate to another could be a source of concern for Tinubu, especially given the fact that the APC’s defeat in Osun has called into question his “grip” on the South-West region, which is generally seen to be his biggest strength. In turn, this could diminish Tinubu’s standing heading into the presidential election.
Lastly, and most worrying, the contests in Ekiti and Osun were an important reminder of the significance of vote buying. Both states saw their polls marred by repeated instances of party agents giving money for votes. Social media awash with documented examples, with many claiming to take the money while still voting for their preferred candidates – and important reminder that you buy people’s mouths but rarely their hearts.
This leads to the sad conclusion that despite some progress made by INEC and the security agencies in terms of reducing instances of violence and ballot snatching, elections in Nigeria remain prohibitively expensive and out of reach of ordinary citizens.
These issues are particularly notable because the 2023 elections will be only the second time that an incumbent president will not be on the ballot – which increases the chances of a transfer of power – and will also see a large turnover of state governors due to term-limits. It will also be a pivotal test of the new Electoral Act, which has already made waves due to the role it played in shaping the choice of candidates at the party’s conventions.
If there is anything the recent Ekiti and Osun elections have shown us, it is that Nigeria’s democracy still has some ways to go to truly reflect the will of the people. The next presidential election will reveal whether the country is making progress towards this goal … one vote at a time.
Afolabi Adekaiyaoja (@adekaiyaoja) is a public policy analyst and holds degrees in International Relations and African Politics from Queen Mary and SOAS respectively – both University of London.