The Nigerian election is too close to call: So what happens next?

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The question of who will win the Nigerian presidential election is a fascinating one. President Muhammadu Buhari is standing down after serving his constitutional maximum of two terms in office, and seems relaxed about who will replace him. Although he recently accepted that he must support his party’s candidates, Bola Tinubu, given that he won the primary, he has not done so with any great enthusiasm. In turn, this has led to speculation that Buhari could allow for a good quality election – and that if he does, a transfer of power could be on the cards.

In reality, although there are 18 presidential candidates, only three can win. In addition to Tinubu and the All Progressives Congress, there is long-term election loser Atiku Abubakar, running on the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party, and Peter Obi, now with the Labour Party. However one looks at it, it is hard to pick a winner. Tinubu is the incumbent, but does not seem to be inheriting the support of his predecessor. Atiku is well known, but having been the runner-up so many times, and being tarred by accusations of corruption, it is hard to see what he offers. Meanwhile, Obi is presenting himself as the “change” candidate, but is an unknown quantity at this level.

So what do the next two weeks have in store?

The main candidates

Atiku Abubakar is a Fulani-Muslim and former vice president from 1999-2007. His major strength is the wide ‘structures’, social capital and business associates that cut-across the six geopolitical regions of the country. In addition, the institutions and networks of his political party, which ruled the country for 16 years from 1999-2015, is a force to reckoned with.

One of his major setbacks, however, is internal split among the party members especially the “G-5”, a group of 5 state governors within his party who are aggrieved by his emergence as their presidential flag bearer. The G5 also point to a lack internal democracy within the party as one of their reasons for challenging his legitimacy.

Atiku is also facing a problem over his identity and citizenship, as some of his detractors refer to him as Cameroonian, while others may not vote for him due of his Fulani ancestry. This is because of the protracted “farmer-herders”, which is often seen as being fought between predominantly Fulani herders and mostly non-Fulani farmers, however unhelpful that framing might be in reality.

Then there is the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari, who is concluding his 8-year reign, is also Fulani by ancestry, and the country has a norm of rotating power between groups.

For his part, Bola Ahmed Tinubu is a Yoruba-Muslim and former governor of the powerful and wealthy Lagos State from 1999-2007. His major strength is the power of incumbency and twenty one out of thirty six governors in the country are rallying in support of his candidacy. Tinubu’s vast economic resources, political structures and “god-sons” in government – he is one of the country’s most notorious political “godfathers” – are other factors that may favor him.

Tinubu will never inherit the 12 million block vote of the President Buhari in the northern Nigeria because of the inability of the government to address insecurity, and because he is not a northerner. But he stands a chance if he can mobilise a combination of northern and southern support. His problem, however, is that without Buhari he lacks weight in the north, while the catastrophic handling of the introduction of new banknotes – said to reduce the risk of fraud but mainly reducing the ability of ordinary Nigerians to buy anything at all due to shortages of new notes – could undermine his popularity.

Tinubu has also made strategic mistakes. Fielding another Muslim as his running mate, in a country with a large Christian population, was a strange decision for an individual known for his canny strategising, and his age and frail looks add to the suspicion that he is not the force he once was.

Last but not least, Peter Gregory Obi is an Igbo leader and the former governor of Anambra state from March to November 2006 and from June 2007 to March 2014. His strongest support lies in the South East and among Christian voters – he is the only Christian candidate with a hope of winning – but he is hoping to also secure some of the youth and urban vote nationwide.

The popular desire for a major political and economic change means that Obi is ahead by a large margin in many of the opinion polls that have been conducted. He also has the largest social media following, who refer to themselves as the “Obidients”. However, his greatest threat is that his social media support is a mirage and that these people either are not registered to vote, do not go to the polls if they are registered, or simply are not representative of most Nigerians – especially in rural areas.

Another impediment for his candidacy is the lack finance and the huge resources needed to mobilise people across the country, all of which means that he may struggle to live up to his current billing as the favourite.  

The risk of religious and ethnic tension

Growing insecurity and ethnic/regional/religious tensions are particularly significant where the 2023 polls are concerned, as this is the first election in which there are three viable presidential candidates that come from each of the three largest ethnic groups and different geo-political zones.

Bola Tinubu is a Yoruba Muslim from the South West, a region that believes it is their turn to rule, as evidenced by the popular slogan “Emi lokan” (It is my turn). Meanwhile, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party is a Fulani Muslim from the North East, which has never produced a president and sees his candidacy as their opportunity to take control of government. Finally, Peter Obi of the Labor Party is an Igbo Christian from the South East where there is intense tension over the agitation of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) for a separate Biafran nation, a demand that some fear could return the country to the civil war of the 1960s.

The competition between these leaders therefore risks exacerbating a number of different tensions. On the one hand, if Abubakar emerges victorious the presidency will not rotate from the north to the south of the country – as it is expected to do under the under the “zoning” principle, given that outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari hails from Katsina state in the North West. This would exacerbate the complaints of southerners that their interests are being marginalized. In turn, the perception of norther dominance could increase separatist agitation from both the South West and the South East regions.

On the other hand, if no candidate can win outright in the first round – because the wining candidate does not secure the constitutional threshold of 25% of the vote in 24 out of the country’s 36 states – then a re-run election between Obi and one of either Tinubu or Abubakar would risk focusing attention on the country’s potentially explosive religious cleavage.

So to return to the question that launches this essay, who will win 2023 presidential election in Nigeria? The answer is that right now no one can say for sure. The one thing we can know for certain, is that whoever wins will face major challenges reviving the economy, establishing basic security, raising the standard of living, and reuniting the country – challenges that a disputed and conflictual election will only exacerbate.

Idris Mohammed (@Edrees4P) is a social advocate, researcher and lecturer with Journalism Department of Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto, Nigeria.

One thought on “The Nigerian election is too close to call: So what happens next?

  1. USAID, instead of wasting precious resources on ‘Electoral Tourism’ Nigeria for crass traction—now being a common USAID practice deploying at great public expense electoral observer missions staffed by peoples lacking descriptive seasoned election forensics should instead target resources in the strengthening of National Civil Society Organizations in affording National CSO’s the ‘wherewithal’ in being able to upgrade their respective professionalism along with resources sufficient allowing CSO’s to provide critical public oversight in civic civil social electoral processes.
    In my judgement, the most significant essentiality in regions of civic civil social electoral stress/strife is resource allocation empowering local education concomitant with local Civil Society professionalization inclusive of logistical strengthening.
    In the most recent election foray in Nigeria monitoring the Presidential election, the various International Electoral Monitoring/Observer Groups were in my opinion waste of scarce resources and most critical for me, the conclusions provided by these various International Observer Groups were at best banal in being anodyne, trite, saccharine, and in worse case endorsing the status quo institutional oligarchy in the continuing in theft pillage.
    To wit:
    The February 25/23 National Presidential Election in Nigeria has all the structural props representing the democratic electoral process procedure ‘prima facie’:
    – long list of hopeful candidates seeking public office
    – clearly demarcated constituencies
    – campaign rallies
    – following close of the polling stations rolling result announcements.
    Unfortunately, this represents ‘potemkin’ type electoral democracy.
    Real democracy empowers the citizen in full unbridled civics generating citizen articulation in civic civil social empowerment. Even in electoral loss, citizens must feel safe and hopeful for their future. In the eventuality, if the opposition’s legal pleadings to overturn the results proves without merit, the violence in the streets, the army opening fire at will, and the intimidation of journalists is a most worrying sign of what could be on the horizon for the state.
    Alan Renwick in The Politics of Electoral Reform suggests most strong “elections lie at the heart of modern democracy” and “belief in democracy amounts to belief in the value of certain [democratic pluralistic] processes”.
    This ‘democracy equals elections’ algorithm I regard as being facile and descriptively pernicious in the advancement of sound congruent civic civil social electoral credibility.
    My interest and concern is where democratic rules originate and why these rules either submit to change or remain static. I believe if we want to know where elections rules originate, we need to recognize that democracy—the democratic struggle—is the heart and soul of elections and the civic electoral process specifically when electoral rules are taxonomically assessed.
    Democracy—democratic process needs to be grounded in the prism presuming that democracy is not this or that type/kind of civil institution and not amenable to facile matrix definition/categorization; but rather a very very very messy conflictive dialectic process constantly evolving and mutating according to historic exigency. I believe modern representative elections are governed by a complex body of rules known as an ‘electoral system’ which may be considered as the social positive ethos reflecting governance institution standards of prescriptive probative conduct. These civil social changes are of crucial importance in understanding as well as appreciating civic electoral modifications which ought to reflect and strengthen normative sound good institution representative governance.
    Therefore, National Civil Society Organizations need to be funded ensuring CSO capacity to fully exercise prescriptive along with descriptive responsibility in Election Monitoring without reliance from International Election Monitoring—‘Election Tourist’.
    The civic civil social electoral process inclusive of procedure must be grounded within a strict ethos of trust.
    – Trust in the EMB-Election Management Body.
    – Trust in the various political actors encouraging them to reflect in advancing the ‘better angels’ in their society.
    – Trust in the governance process facilitating indirectly/directly the election.
    – Trust in the legal judicial institutions which provide regulatory oversight in the conduct of an election.
    Developing trust means intense profound strengthening of National Civil Society Organizations which will require dedicating significant resources to these multifaceted CSO’s as National CSO’s are best able to modulate the entire civic civil social electoral process enhancing an outcome electoral which is deemed by the majority of citizens as both credible and inclusive in being ethically virtuous in process and procedure.
    National CSO’s dedicated in areas of Human Rights, Law, Academe, Health Care, Students, Political Party, Teachers, Public Administrators, Church, Engineers, Technical Agents would be embedded within the Electoral Management Body [EMB] along with being legally privileged in attending each polling precinct to bear witness in strictly observing the civic civil social electoral process in full entirety ensuring mitigation in electoral ‘sharp practice’ as deployment of National CSO’s will only inspire among the national citizens an enriched trust in the election process.
    My extensive exposure in regions fragile where I participated in election design and planning including the administration of elections has lead me to this conclusion in prescriptive electoral judgement as I now subscribe to National CSO embedding fully within the civic civil social electoral process which must be allowed to continue from one election cycle into the following election cycle as ‘ad hoc’ International Election Observation cannot ever hope to trench fully into the nexus of an election in determining malfeasance.
    Instead of allocating resources to International Electoral Missions, preference ought be given to ensuring that these National CSO’s are allowed the professional intellectual tools inclusive of administrative logistics in being able to project within the electoral cycle a full complete forensic analytical series of ongoing assessments without fear or favour.
    If this form of CSO strengthening fulsome were to be considered and implemented I opine a debacle such as the Kenyan election imbroglio several years ago might very well have been averted as the signals suggesting electoral impropriety facilitated by the Kenyan EMB would have been detected and made public with proper appropriate evidence leading to necessary electoral recalibration.
    Successful Elections are trust embedded and the civic civil social electoral process fails utterly whenever the trust baseline is compromised, however marginal the trust fault line.

    I remain sincerely,
    Monte McMurchy

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