Author: Crisis Group
Site of publication: www.crisisgroup.org/
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: December 2022
Why are these elections significant, and how do they differ from Nigeria’s other post-1999 polls?
On 25 February 2023, Nigeria will hold presidential and federal parliamentary elections, followed by gubernatorial and state legislative elections on 11 March. After eight years in office, 80-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is due to step down, as are seventeen of the 36 powerful state governors.
The end of Buhari’s presidency marks 24 years of unbroken democracy in Nigeria – which made a transition from military to civilian rule in 1999 – and the longest such period in the country’s experience
It will also be the second time during this period that a Nigerian president has peacefully left office after two terms, as required by the constitution (the first was Olusegun Obasanjo’s exit in 2007). Goodluck Jonathan’s peaceful exit after a single term in 2015 was another landmark in Nigeria’s democratic progress. But the public is understandably unexcited by these milestones; many are increasingly disenchanted with the government, with politicians and, indeed, with the way democracy has worked – or not worked – in Nigeria. Many view the promise of Buhari’s presidency, once celebrated, as sadly unfulfilled. A recent poll, moreover, found that 77 per cent of Nigerians are dissatisfied with the quality of the country’s politics, particularly the failure to curb corruption and improve livelihoods.
Thus, while the 2023 polls will in one sense be an affirmation of Nigeria’s electoral democracy, many voters will also be looking at it as an opportunity for a reset, nurturing hopes that new leadership will commit to reforming the country’s governance, restoring its security, which has deteriorated badly on Buhari’s watch, and rebooting its development. The high-stakes elections promise to be notably different from previous polls in several respects. First, the number of credible presidential candidates is higher than in the past. Since Nigeria restored democratic rule in 1999, presidential polls have essentially been two-horse races between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which held the presidency from 1999 to 2015, and various opposition parties. The latter, which eventually merged to form the APC, won the presidency in 2015 and 2019. This time around, in addition to the major-party candidates, Atiku Abubakar (PDP) and Bola Ahmed Tinubu (APC), two other parties are also fielding popular contenders for the top job.
Who are the presidential front runners?
The ruling APC’s candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is a former governor of Lagos state, which includes the eponymous city, Nigeria’s commercial hub. He was instrumental, if not pivotal, in securing Buhari’s 2015 victory and has supported him unwaveringly since then. Tinubu argues that, as he has helped others achieve their political ambitions over the last 25 years, it is now his “turn to be president”. As national leader of the APC, which presently controls 21 state governments, he has built a vast party-based network throughout the country. His backing seems particularly strong in his South West home base and among governors of the North West, whose seven states have the largest electorate (about 24 per cent) of the country’s six geopolitical zones.
Many of the 36 states are at risk of violence around the presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections, depending on the actions of key political actors, local intercommunal relations and dynamics around the polls
Yet Tinubu’s campaign is plagued by recurrent allegations that he is misrepresenting his age, education and sources of wealth. He says he was born in 1952, but critics insist that he is actually older than 70 and visibly too frail for the job. Some fear that, should he be elected, Tinubu could be as lethargic as Buhari is widely perceived to have been. (Buhari faced medical problems throughout his two terms, which regularly led to his hospitalisation abroad, sometimes for months at a time.) As for his wealth, opponents accuse Tinubu of growing rich by keeping a grip on the Lagos state government’s finances since his days as governor, largely through the state government’s revenue consultant, Alpha Beta Consulting, which they say he runs through proxies – a charge he has repeatedly brushed aside.
Tinubu’s PDP rival is 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar, an astute businessman who served as Obasanjo’s vice president from 1999 to 2007. Though he has run for president five times before, without success, his supporters cast him as best placed to unify the ethnically and religiously fractured nation because he is “the most detribalised” of the hopefuls – a reference to his liberal disposition in employing workers and marrying wives across the country’s ethnic divides. Another successful entrepreneur, Labour Party candidate Obi, is well positioned in certain ways to challenge both Tinubu and Abubakar. His 2006-2014 tenure as governor of Anambra state earned him a reputation as unusually accountable and thrifty with public money. His young supporters (who call themselves “Obidients”), aided by parts of the #EndSARS movement, are rallying behind his call to “take back the country” from the ageing political elite.
What is at stake for the main candidates and their parties ?
Given their advanced age, Tinubu and Abubakar are probably taking their last shots at the presidency. The stakes are also high for their parties. Having wrested power from the PDP in 2015, the APC coalition, made up of strange bedfellows, could splinter if it loses control of the federal centre. Meanwhile, the PDP, out in the cold for the past eight years, sees the faltering Buhari’s exit as its best opportunity to recapture the federal executive; losing a third presidential election in a row could threaten its future. As for the Labour Party, Obi denies any yearning for the presidency for himself, but says he is desperate to see a better-governed and more productive country. Many of his youthful supporters view electing him as their chance to oust the older generation of politicians, whom they blame for the country’s woes, and to improve the quality of Nigerian governance. Many of these youths cannot even contemplate the possibility that Obi might be defeated – and their cause lost. With the two mainstream parties challenged by Labour and other new forces, a clear winner may not emerge from among these three on the first ballot, which would prompt Nigeria’s first-ever presidential run-off. The desperation on all sides raises concern about how the parties, candidates and supporters of losing sides will react to defeat.
What could disrupt the elections?
Insecurity is already disrupting election preparations in many areas of the country and could mar the polls in several ways. Armed group attacks on communities in the North East and North West, as well as on the electoral commission’s offices – and the fear of more, especially in the South East – are putting a damper on campaigning in parts of these zones. About three million citizens have been displaced by conflict in recent years, which may lead to many being disenfranchised if they cannot reach their designated polling places. The national electoral commission has said it is making provisions for internally displaced persons to vote at their camps, but most of these people are scattered in various towns, living with kin or other hosts, not in specially designated areas. Finally, armed groups may depress turnout or even block the vote entirely in some places.
Many of his youthful supporters view electing him as their chance to oust the older generation of politicians, whom they blame for the country’s woes, and to improve the quality of Nigerian governance
Jihadist militants continue to destabilise parts of the country. Though weakened by military operations, and by their own violent rivalry, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and its parent jihadist group Boko Haram remain a threat in parts of the North East, especially in the north east and south east of Borno state. The North West and North Central zones have seen a proliferation of deadly criminal gangs, and the growing presence of ISWAP and Ansaru, another jihadist group, is compounding the insecurity. According to security officials and Crisis Group’s other on-the-ground sources, militants have established cells in Niger, Kogi and Nasarawa states, all of which abut Abuja.
About three million citizens have been displaced by conflict in recent years, which may lead to many being disenfranchised if they cannot reach their designated polling places
ISWAP has claimed responsibility for two attacks in Abuja in July, as well as four in Kogi state over April, May and June. As for other serious threats, deadly herder-farmer conflict, aggravated by longstanding ethnic and religious tensions, persists in parts of the North Central zone. In the South East, government forces are battling many groups, apparently a combination of pro-Biafra separatists (the Indigenous People of Biafra, and its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network), impostors claiming to be them and other criminal bands. Since early 2021, these armed groups have killed scores of security personnel and burned down several police stations and administrative offices, including those of the electoral commission.
Which areas are particularly at risk?
Many of the 36 states are at risk of violence around the presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections, depending on the actions of key political actors, local intercommunal relations and dynamics around the polls. States where voters are polarised along ethnic and religious lines seem at special peril of turmoil, along with states where support for candidates of differing communal identities is high or where outgoing governors seem bent on installing hand-picked successors. Other states where incidents could occur are those where separatist agitators and other opportunistic groups have been increasingly violent. Violence could also erupt after the polls, particularly where the elections suffered significant lapses or where tallies are close, with losing candidates either stirring up protests or refusing to calm their supporters.
The most troubling indicators seem to be in Lagos, Rivers, Kaduna and Kano states, but also in South East states such as Ebonyi and Imo. In Lagos … pro-APC thugs attacked polling stations in opposition strongholds during the elections in 2019. In Lagos, Tinubu’s home base, pro-APC thugs attacked polling stations in opposition strongholds during the elections in 2019. There are fears of similar incidents in 2023: the thugs may orchestrate more violence or other disruptions in areas where many Igbo (pro-Obi) voters live in order to depress turnout there. If Tinubu loses the election, these thugs could also attack predominantly Igbo residential areas or businesses in retaliation. In Rivers state, the governor, Wike, has vowed to vanquish the opposition, and to “crush enemies” within his own PDP party, in a bid to instal his preferred candidate, Siminialayi Fubara.
There have already been armed attacks on opposition candidates, on one hand, and supporters of his own party’s presidential candidate, Abubakar, with whom he feuds bitterly, on the other. In Kano state, the incumbent APC governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, is strongly backing Tinubu, while his two predecessors – Kwankwaso and Ibrahim Shekarau – are the NNPP’s presidential candidate and an Atiku ally in the PDP, respectively. With these heavyweights pulling in three different directions, elections in the state will be bitterly fought. The APC’s Kano state chairman has said the party will “capture” the state “by hook or crook”. The majority leader in the federal House of Representatives, Alhassan Ado Doguwa, who hails from Kano state, added: “On election day, it’s either you vote for the APC or you are dealt with”. Although Doguwa subsequently downplayed this comment as “political sloganeering”, the risk of violence remains high.