On February 25, Nigerians will head to the polls to elect a new president to replace term-limited incumbent Muhammadu Buhari. Highly anticipated both domestically and internationally, this election could have serious ramifications for the world’s 6th-most populated country.
With over 80% of the population aged under 40 and vast oil reserves, Nigeria’s economic potential is enormous. If the new president can get the country moving in the right direction after decades of turmoil, Nigeria could become a major player not just in Africa, but globally too.
Nigeria gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1960 and promptly embarked on 40 years of turbulence involving civil war, separatist movements, and numerous coups d’etat. In 1999, military dictator Sani Abacha died and his successor, Abdulsalami Abubakar, led a transition to a democratic republic.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) subsequently dominated, winning every election until 2015 when Goodluck Jonathan lost to former military coup leader Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
The last election in 2019 was marred with corruption and violence. The opposition PDP alleged vote rigging and made failed attempts to challenge the results in court. Subsequent studies found plenty of credible evidence of vote-buying across the board. Concerns surrounding the ability of the Independent National Election Commission to administer a free and fair election were raised and continue to cause consternation amongst many in Nigeria as the 2023 election approaches.
Human Rights Watch raised concerns following the election, pointing to a clear uptick in violence and voter intimidation during the campaign period from a variety of groups including security forces, Islamist militant group Boko Haram, and armed men hired by political parties. The Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room estimated that 39 people were killed in the final 48 hours of campaigning alone.
Religion is key factor understand in Nigerian politics. The country is split almost 50/50 between Christianity and Islam. Christians make up the majority in the southern states whilst Muslims dominate the northern states. There has been long-standing tension between hardcore elements of both religions, with Islamic extremists becoming particularly prominent in recent years due to the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast as well as the conflicting activities of Islamic State.
Traditionally, the PDP has courted voters predominantly in the south, whilst the APC has its base in the northern Muslim majority states which have often felt alienated during the long periods of PDP power.
Electoral system and candidates
In order to win outright, a candidate must secure both a majority of votes and 25% of the votes in 24/36 states. If no candidate achieves this, then the top two will head to a runoff election. While there will be 18 candidates on the ballot paper, there are only four could conceivably attract notable numbers of votes.
Bola Tinubu is the candidate for the centre-left APC. He is endorsed by Buhari and is very much part of the Nigerian political establishment. At 70 years old, he has been a major player in the southwest for decades whilst dodging persistent corruption allegations throughout his career (none of which have resulted in indictment). He was the governor of Lagos state between 1999 and 2007 and was a key figure involved with forming the APC in 2013.
Atiku Abubakar is carrying the banner of the right-of-centre PDP once again in 2023, having been its candidate in 2019. Formerly the vice-president between 1999 and 2007, he is another Nigerian political heavyweight who has also had allegations of corruption levelled against him relating to an international bribery scandal (again, he has never faced any charges).
The 76-year-old has been involved in Nigerian politics since the 1980s but has suffered no less than five failed presidential bids as well as two unsuccessful attempts to win the governorship of Adamawa State. He has made six party switches since 1989, often fruitlessly chasing presidential candidate nominations.
Peter Obi, 61, is the man shaking up this election. The former PDP vice-presidential candidate is running on the hitherto obscure Labour Party platform, aiming to upset the establishment politicians and begin a rebirth of Nigerian politics. Previously the widely popular governor of Anambra State, he is well known for his sharp focus on transparency and good governance.
Obi plucked the centre-left Labour Party from total obscurity (they received 0.02% of the vote in the 2019 election) and now leads in most polls, riding a wave of popularity amongst enormous younger generations. He has been attracting vast crowds of supporters (who call themselves “obidients”) as he seeks to light a fire under the establishment and cause a political earthquake of gigantic proportions.
Whilst exceedingly unlikely to win, Rabi’u Kwankwaso is also worth mentioning as a candidate. The 66-year-old set up his own platform in 2022 and announced he would be running on the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) ticket in 2023. Much like Obi, the former Kano State governor is aiming to knock the establishment parties off their perches.
Kwankwaso has struggled to gain traction in the face of Obi’s popularity, but recent polling suggests he may become a pain the side of the other candidates in the north western states with all of them struggling to hit the all-important 25% threshold.
Given the importance of regional voting in Nigerian elections, it will be key for the candidates to perform as well as possible in their strongholds. Abubakar will be particularly uncomfortable with the threat of Peter Obi, given Obi’s strength lies in the south east, which was previously part of his southern coalition.
Similarly (although on a smaller scale) Kwankwaso’s comparative strength in the northwest could prove problematic for Bola Tinubu and his northern base.
The number one issue (amongst a series of pressing crises) is internal security. The previous administration failed in its eight years to subdue the Boko Haram insurgency and related terrorist attacks and kidnappings. This has been responsible responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and millions of internally displaced people. Additionally, instability stemming from various farmer land disputes, banditry, piracy in the Niger Delta and secessionist movements around the country makes it extremely difficult for ordinary people to build secure livelihoods.
Moreover, the Nigerian economy is in crisis, experiencing inflation up to 21% towards the end of last year. This, coupled with over-reliance on oil exports and sky-high youth unemployment above 40%, means this country with huge economic potential is instead hobbled.
Over 40% of people are in poverty in Nigeria. This is in large part due to the oil industry, which accounts for 80% of exports but just 1% of jobs. There is also a major need for the Nigerian economy to diversify – current university graduates are struggling to find jobs, let alone those with limited education.
Unsurprisingly, the perennial issue of corruption in Nigeria is once again on the agenda. Both Obi and Kwankwaso are making it a central tenet of their platforms as they seek to overthrow the establishment powers. Tackling rampant corruption at all levels of the Nigerian state will possibly the most difficult task for the next president given the enormous sprawling bureaucracy and glacial pace of the Nigerian courts.
Since the back end of last year, Peter Obi been pulling significant numbers in the polls and now finds himself as the frontrunner. At this late stage Obi appears to have built himself a solid lead over his competitors but seems unlikely achieve an outright majority. Polling also suggests issues for all the candidates in hitting the 25% threshold in 24 states.
The polls also suggest a higher turnout than previous years, driven by a wave of enthusiasm from younger voters. It is important to note that whilst Obi may be leading the polls, both the APC and PDP have formidable and well-established turnout machines that will be difficult for the Labour Party infrastructure to compete with.
Whilst Peter Obi remains the man with the momentum with less than a month to go, he still faces major establishment headwinds in defeating both Tinubu, Abubakar and their attached electoral machines. Whatever the outcome, the incoming president will be saddled with a gargantuan task in mobilising Nigeria’s potential.