Skip to main content

A frica’s 2023 electoral calendar kicked off in January with Beninois citizens heading to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. However, Nigeria’s election has dominated headlines as the continent’s most populous nation heads to the polls on 25 February to elect a new president and National Assembly. Voters will cast their ballots again on 11 March for governors and members of the State Houses of Assembly. Voter education and outreach has led to a spike in registered voters; over nine million new voters registered since the last general elections in 2019, bringing the total number of eligible voters to 93,469,008.

Atiku Abubakar (commonly referred to as Atiku), Bola Ahmed Tinubu (Tinubu), Peter Gregory Obi (Obi) and Rabiu Kwankwaso (Kwankwaso) have captured the country’s attention and are the four to watch in the presidential race. Voters will be assessing a complex mix of factors including perceptions of a candidate’s ability to resuscitate and grow the economy; decisively tackle insecurity; quell rising inflation; halt currency depreciation; and create employment opportunities.

Other factors that will impact the final result include the candidates’ religion; ethnic group; choice of running mate; gubernatorial support; support from religious leaders; voter turnout, particularly new young voters; efficacy of political party campaigning; and immediate and historic security threats in and around voters’ communities.

“Emi lokan”

The results of the presidential race are expected within five days of the poll. Although Tinubu is known for the phrase emi lokan (the Yoruba phrase for “it is my turn”), each of the four front-runners believe that the presidency is theirs to lose. Section 66 of the Electoral Act 2022, and Sections 134 and 179 of the constitution provide the winning formular. The winner or the race needs to have the highest number of votes nationwide in addition to more than a quarter of the vote in two-thirds of the 36 states and the capital. The INEC will announce a run-off between the two leading candidates within 21 days if no one meets the criteria to win decisively.

Voter turnout will be the most important factor in this election. At its peak, 69 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2003 presidential election. This dipped to 35 percent in the 2019 polls. As in any country that sees a spike in voter registrations, the question remains whether these new voters will turn out on election day, particularly as the majority of new registered voters in Nigeria are under 35.

Obi has successfully captured and channelled a considerable amount of the #EndSARS momentum towards his election campaign. His supporters are known as OBIdients – disillusioned young people who are frustrated by poor governance, maladministration and increasingly limited scope for social mobility. OBIdients are vocal on social media and have campaigned for Obi with evangelic zeal. However our recent podcast episode with Jonathan Moakes discusses the challenges associated with activating young voters and converting Facebook Likes to votes on election day. Although Obi has a strong connection with young voters, “the youth” are not a monolithic group. There is no evidence that the majority of new young voters will vote Obi into office. It may not be his turn just yet.

Atiku and Tinubu’s advanced age suggest that this is likely their last or second to last attempt at the presidency. The other frontrunners in this election are in their 60s and voters having experienced that option, may be less likely to elect a president in 2027 who will be an octogenarian by the time he completes his first term in office. Much of Nigeria’s politics and economic fortunes have been shaped by a few men; Tinubu and Atiku are among them. The two political contemporaries have facilitated the rise of others but the ultimate prize has eluded them.

Tinubu has shaped the development of the South-West, one of the country’s six geopolitical zones, particularly Lagos state, where he served as governor. Although he has been touted being ready to consolidate outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari’s achievements, voters will wonder whether they want four more years of the same thing. Tinubu was convalescing in London in the early stages of his campaign. Buhari, 80, has been plagued with health issues throughout his two terms in office and has routinely sought treatment overseas. Nigerians are likely to be reticent to elect another ailing leader at a time when the country’s problems are growing from strength to strength.

“Atikulated”

This is Atiku’s sixth attempt at the presidency. His supporters use #Atikulated as part of their awareness raising and voter mobilisation efforts on social media. The phrase is meant to highlight Atiku’s qualifications and suitability relative to his opponents. The former vice president is viewed as a safe and steady pair of hands. He has tried to side-step criticism of his disregard of the long-standing agreement to rotate the presidency between the predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south.

Unlike Tinubu, he has a Christian running-mate who is also Igbo, which according to the presidential aspirant, provides a “stepping stone” for an Igbo presidency. If he wins, his running mate Delta State Governor Ifeanyi Okowa is well-positioned to aim for the top job once Atiku steps down. However voters longing for an Igbo president do not need to wait for Atiku to facilitate it when Obi’s name is on the ballot.

Integrity of the poll

The effective management of this election is a gargantuan task but the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is prepared. A memorandum of understanding signed with transport unions ensures that the INEC will be able to deploy over one million officials to 774 local government areas, 8,809 electoral wards and over 150,000 polling stations. The electoral commission has also taken measures to mitigate logistical challenges associated with fuel scarcity and ongoing insecurity that may disrupt voting in various parts of the country.

The legal framework governing the election has changed since the 2019 poll. Buhari enacted the signed the Electoral Act Amendment Bill on 25 February 2022. Lawmakers strongly debated the bill, which received support from civil society organisations. The bill’s most significant changes relate to enshrining the INEC’s financial independence and introducing a central electronic voter database, in addition to a manual or hardcopy format. These amendments have been widely heralded as important steps towards ensuring the integrity of future elections.

The INEC will deploy the Bimodal Accreditation System (BVAS) for the first time across the whole country. BVAS allows a handheld device to verify and authenticate voters against the voter registry using voters’ fingerprints or facial capture. The 2022 Electoral Act provides the legal framework for any voter accreditation technology used by the INEC. In the event that one of the devices malfunctions on election day and a replacement is not provided, that voting station will cancel the election and schedule another within 24 hours.

BVAS will also allow election results from polling stations to be scanned and electronically transmitted to the INEC Results Viewing (IReV) portal. This change was facilitated by the Electoral Act 2022. IReV will allow INEC officials and the general public to view copies of election result sheets from polling stations, thereby improving transparency and public confidence in the electoral commission and the final election results.

“We no dey give shishi”

Obi’s supporters have adopted the mantra, “we no dey give shishi” – we give nothing, we don’t give money. This underscores the prevalence of vote buying in local politics. Survey results published in November 2022 by Abuja-based polling experts NIOPolls revealed that 26 percent of respondents would be influenced by a gift or favour to vote in a particular way. The prevailing socio-economic environment is dire – an estimated 133 million Nigerians, nearly half the population, live in multidimensional poverty.

Two recessions in five years, rising inflation, massive currency depreciation and sputtering attempts to diversify the economy and create jobs is placing immense pressure on households and local businesses. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, unemployment levels sit at 33 percent and climb to 42.3 percent for young people. Voters’ limited employment opportunities and immediate financial pressures coupled with cash-flush politicians makes a toxic combination.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), presumably invertedly, altered the election landscape and cash-for-votes dynamic. On 23 November 2022, it launched newly designed currency notes in a bid to transition to a cashless economy, encourage electronic transactions and boost financial inclusion in a country where tens of millions remain unbanked. In a bid to reduce liquidity, the CBN announced that it would limit weekly cash withdrawals to 100,000 Naira for all bank account holders by 31 January.

This decision had far-reaching consequences for the economy. Citizens were forced to wait in long queues to access paltry sums, often not being able to withdraw cash. This caused widespread public uproar and stoked anti-government sentiment, at a time when the country’s economy was pushing many to the brink. Limited availability of bank notes meant less cash for everything, including vote-buying.

BVAS will protect the anonymity of each vote cast. Voters will not be allowed to enter the voting booth with their phones, which prevents voters being pressured by political parties to show photographic evidence of their ballot. The INEC also cleaned its voters roll after reports that under-aged voters had received voting cards and that there had been some duplication. In total 53,264 ineligible voters were removed from the final list.

Demonstrating a highly pragmatic streak and strong resonance with voters’ key issues, Obi has publicly recognised the reality of vote buying. In an address to supporters on 6 February, he stated, “This year’s election, they will come to you with religion, tribe and money, but tell them you are hungry. Collect the money they will give to you because it is your money and vote for us.”

Down to the wire

Battleground states will include Plateau State, a traditional PDP stronghold that the ACP flipped; Borno and Yobe State, despite Tinibu’s running mate Kashim Shettima, helping to mobilise votes; Kaduna and Sokoto State in the North-West; and Delta and Cross River State in South-South. Presidential candidates’ ability to get governors to mobilise voters on their behalf will be instrumental.

The “G5” – a group of five southern governors historically affiliated with the PDP – has announced that it will back non-PDP candidates due to an internal dispute that has left Atiku in the lurch in the south. This leaves the field open for Obi and Tinubu to make inroads. Atiku has a slight nationwide edge over Tinubu but will have to work hard in the North and Middle Belt to shore up his chances. A run-off is expected because Obi, and Kwankwaso to a lesser extent, will split the vote.

Peaceful conduct of the elections and any potential run-off will send a strong signal to the rest of the region. Nigeria’s election is taking place in the aftermath of coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, and before elections in Sierra Leone and Liberia in June and October respectively.

Localised clashes between different party members are expected once the results are announced. This is based on the aftermath of the 2019 elections and select targeting of INEC offices in the run-up to the 2023 poll. National security services are on high alert and are ready to defuse tensions and disperse protesters that pose a direct threat to people and physical assets such as business premises and government buildings.

Former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is leading the African Union election observer mission, while former South African president Thabo Mbeki will lead the Commonwealth election observers. This underlines the importance of this election for Nigeria, west Africa, and the rest of the continent. This will serve as a back-stop to any prolonged clashes and deterioration in the security environment due to the seniority of the heads of the observer missions and their ability to effectively mediate.

“Kwankwasiyya”

Kwankwaso’s supporters are known as being part of the “Kwankwasiyya Movement”, which aims to uplift people. The presidential candidates’ rhetoric and their election manifestos highlight similar issues and redress methods. The idea of uplifting or building up Nigerians permeates every campaign rally. The front-runners’ policy similarities suggest minimal policy and regulatory changes in the short term irrespective of who wins.

The new president, however, will be under pressure to tame inflation, boost revenue collection and outline a clear plan to re-establish federal control of areas controlled by armed groups. Insecurity in pre-existing hot spots is forecasted to remain in the medium term. This includes the Islamic State West Africa Province’s (ISWAP) destabilisation of the North-East and the IPOB armed wing Eastern Security Network’s persistent attacks on varied targets in the South-East.

Nigerians will continue to feel the economic bite in the short term. Muted economic growth, high interest rates, rising cost of living accelerated by an expected reduction in the fuel subsidy – the first phase that will lead to its eventual removal – mean the operational environment will remain challenging in 2023. Voters need to be clear that whoever they lift to the heights of Aso Rock will remember to lift the wider public to their own desired station.