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.

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