Nigeria’s upcoming national elections scheduled for 25 February have been shaped by several political and economic developments in the country, which have both directly and indirectly impacted the electoral process and, potentially, the elections themselves.
Dung Pam Sha is Professor of Political Economy and Development Studies at the University of Jos, Nigeria.
The movement against the so-called “Special Anti-Robbery Unit”, which began in September–October 2020 as a protest against the police and other security forces for unleashing oppression and suppression of citizens’ rights, became a full-scale nationwide protest against the state, economic hardship, and maladministration. Government buildings were destroyed by citizens ransacking them for food and other valuables. Many people (at least 50 civilians, along with 11 policemen and 7 soldiers) were killed by state security agents, prominently in Lekki, Lagos State.
These protests demonstrated the power of young people and other citizens to make change in Nigeria. The energies from these protests across the country were channelled into active participation in political party activities, with youth flocking to Labour Party candidate Peter Obi, and into voter registration campaigns across the country, and how they vote will certainly have an influence on the outcome.
Poverty, Corruption, and Nepotism
Nigerian citizens from various classes have been dissatisfied with the performance of the government of President Buhari, with poverty, unemployment, inflation, exchange rates, and debt rising to ever-higher numbers. As the country prepares to go to the polls in less than two weeks, the country’s economy appears to be hanging by a thread, with an unemployment rate of 33.3 percent projected to rise to 37 percent this year. Inflation is currently at 21.34 percent. Public debt stood at 101.91 billion US dollars in the third quarter of 2022 and is expected to grow this year. Nigeria’s GDP is expected to decline by 2.7 percent this year.
In 2022, the country’s Human Development Index (HDI) was 0.534, placing Nigeria in the one-hundred-and-sixty-third position in the world. This implies that it has a weak capacity to guarantee a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living for its citizens. More fundamentally, it means that the current administration has been unable to improve the performance of the economy.
For instance, the Nigerian National Bureau for Statistics announced that Nigeria is multidimensionally poor in its 2022 report, implying that 133 million people persons living within Nigeria (63 percent of the population) are poor in various dimensions including all possible deprivations. It showed that 65 percent of the poor (86 million people) live in the North, while 35 percent (nearly 47 million) live in the South. Although poverty is not an overt campaign issue, its presence will influence the voting turnout, patterns, and outcomes across the country. The inability of governments at different levels to address poverty has already led to many protests against government officials and politicians, even during campaign rallies held in communities.
Voter turnout may be low in areas affected by violence for the obvious reason that voters will not risk their lives.
Widespread corruption is common in Nigeria, as no day passes without newspaper reports of stolen funds from the state treasury or the diversion of funds meant for public welfare. This is done in connivance with state officials, banks, and the private sector within and outside the country. Of the total number of cases in various courts across the country, there are 1,854 cases of cybercrime, 1,118 cases of fraud, 256 of illegal dealing in oil products, and 199 cases of money laundering with 199 cases.
One of President Buhari’s central platform planks is the fight against corruption. Clearly, his government has failed to tackle the issue. Indeed, as one commentator put it, the problems lingered because “the oversight power of the legislature was not judiciously exercised ... and there are cover-ups and lack of political will to bring a lot of the cases to closure”. The inability of the regime and political party in power to deal with this national problem will affect its results in the forthcoming election to a large extent.
The management of diversity has been another area in which the regime has performed poorly. The distribution of top and sensitive political positions has been skewed to the president’s ethnic and religious group to the exclusion of other groups in the country. These positions are given on the basis of patronage, nepotism, and outright bribery. People are recruited into the Nigerian public sector through the use of nepotism, bribery, or both. In addition, the regime did not attempt to build an inclusive administration by integrating actors from other political parties. This point has been made several times by opponents of the regime, bolstering public sentiment that Buhari and his circle are not fit to hold political office any longer. This may likely affect the credibility of the ruling party and therefore its ability to return to power.
The insecurity inherited from the previous administration indeed worsened during the eight years of the administration, despite the fact that the government came in on a campaign promise to address insecurity. Back in 2015, the country faced an insurgency in the northeast, but today insurgents operate from all locations across the country. Currently, Nigeria confronts bandits, kidnappers, multiple factions of insurgents, and the resurgence of numerous forms of criminality, while the government appears to have run out of innovative ideas for handling the general insecurity in the country.
Insecurity has two potential implications for the elections. Some voters will vote on the basis of security provision, like they voted for the All Progressive Congress (APC) in 2015. Secondly, insecurity may mar the elections in some locations in the country. To show the magnitude of the challenge, CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian non-governmental organization, concluded in its “2023 Election Security Threat Assessment” that only two states, Jigawa and Kano, alongside the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), will be safe for the elections, while 13 states are presently violence-prone and the remaining 21 had witnessed pockets of violence in various quarters.
The reoccurring cases of industrial actions by trade and labour unions in the country also show the regime’s poor capacity to handle pressing national challenges. The most prominent is the strike action of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in Nigeria, an affiliate of the Nigerian Labour Congress, which lasted for eight months because of the state’s refusal to grant the academics their collectively bargained entitlements. The implication of this is that the frustration of students increases the potential of massive support for opposition parties.
The Presidential Contenders
There are 69 registered political parties in Nigeria, but only 18 of them are fielding candidates to contest the number-one seat in the country. Who are they, and where do they stand ideologically?
The presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is Atiku Abubakar, a 77-year-old former officer of the Nigeria Customs Service. The businessman and politician served as the Vice President of Nigeria in 1999 to 2007 under the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo. The political party and its standard-bearer are committed to the notion that the market should be the driver of development. He is committed to privatization of public sector work, enterprises, and assets. The PDP’s support base is national, and since Abubakar is from Northern Nigeria, he may likely get votes from North, the middle belt, and a substantial number of votes from the East where his deputy, Ifeanyi Yakowa, the current Governor of Delta State, is from.
Being a business tycoon, he has a network of domestic and foreign investments and has made numerous foreign trips during the campaign to consult international partners and governments to support his presidential ambition. His foreign policy stance is likely to be pro-Western with periodic recourse to China in particular.
The presidential candidate of the All Progressive Congress (APC) in the 2023 elections is Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu. The 71-year-old is a trained accountant and politician. He served as the executive governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007 and as a Senator representing Lagos West from in the Third Republic. After the annulment of the 12 June 1993 elections, he became a leading member of the National Democratic Coalition, which fought for the return of the mandate to the winner of the election and eventually for the return of democratic rule in Nigeria in 1999.
He is an advocate of market-based reforms and has called for “discipline” on the part of labour unions and the removal of fuel subsidies particularly on petroleum products. The party will likely get votes in some states in the West and Lagos, his home base, and some parts of the North. Many observers believe that the contest is between him and the PDP presidential candidate, but his age and health have put him at a disadvantage. His foreign policy preference will be pro-Western if he ultimately wins the elections.
The candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Gregory Obi, is a 62-year-old Nigerian businessman and politician. He was the governor of Anambra State from March to November 2006, February 2007 to May 2007, and June 2007 to March 2014. He defected from the PDP, where he vied for the presidential spot, to the Labour Party because he felt that the PDP was not democratic enough to allow a fair contest.
The Labour Party is a progressive, pro-labour party committed to improving the welfare of the Nigerian people and liberating them from oppression and deprivations. That said, Obi believes in the market as a driver of development, which puts him at odds with the party as a whole. He is populist in the sense that he promised to be committed to a more disciplined and efficient state with low administration costs. It is not clear how he will marry the demands of the labour movement, which founded the party, with his own market-oriented ideology. He will also be pro-Western in foreign relations should me come to power. His support base is among the urban youth and, most importantly, students and unemployed youth.
The candidate of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), Alhaji Rabiu Musa Kwankoso, served as the Governor of Kano State from 1999 to 2003 and 2011 to 2015 and as Minister of Defence from 2003 to 2007 in the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo. He was elected to the Senate in 2015, where he straddled the line between the PDP and APC. He is currently the national leader of the NNPP. The party’s support base is in Kano and the northwestern part of the country, where the party’s pro-poor and pro-peasant ideology garnered the support of the urban and rural poor.
It was hoped that the Labour Party would serve as a rallying point for the wider Left to compete for power, but these hopes have not materialized.
The Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) is being represented by the 60-year-old Abiola Latifu Kolawole, the son of the late Chief MKO Abiola, the winner of the 12 June 1993 presidential elections. After attending school in Nigeria and the US, he worked as a manager at Concord Airlines and Summit Oil, a Nigerian oil company. Politically, the PRP calls for the liberation of the poor and the downtrodden.
The 52-year-old candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC) is Sowore Omoyele Stephen. He began his activism in the students’ union during his university studies. A human rights activist, he is also the founder of the New York-based online news agency Sahara Reporters, which is committed to fighting corruption and oppressive government policies in Nigeria. He formed the AAC to enable him run for the president in the 2023 general elections.
Sowore has been arrested several times by the state security agencies for his activism, either calling for “revolution now” or taking part in student demonstrations against the government’s move to take out an IMF loan to build an oil pipeline. Politically, he is populist in nature and believes in state intervention. His support base is amongst students and youth and more in the southwest of the country.
The rest of Nigeria’s political parties are weak in terms of organization, finance, and operations. Some have openly aligned with bigger parties and are supporting their candidates in the upcoming election, while others maintain some level of independence and continue to work as opposition parties.
Nigeria’s Faltering Left
The Left in Nigeria has failed to demonstrate sufficient unity and strength to serve an alternative to the ruling elites currently running the Nigerian state. Because of this, some cadres of the Left were invited to form the All Progressive Congress in 2014, a coalition of several political parties that contested the 2015 elections. After the elections, some members of the Left were given strategic positions at different levels in President Buhari’s regime. Few made significant contributions, while other were marginalized in the political processes at the federal and state levels.
It was hoped that the formation of the Labour Party by the Nigeria Labour Congress, the national confederation of trade unions, would serve as a rallying point for the wider Left to compete for power, but these hopes have not materialized. Instead, bourgeois politicians who were outmanoeuvred in other parties have often appropriated the platform and used it to contest elections at various levels. Indeed, some politicians have secured positions on the platform only to later abandon it.
That said, some members of the Left have formed parties as individuals or groups and drawn significant attention to national issues. At the moment, the Left is tangentially present in the 2023 political contest, as its presence is scarcely seen in many parts of the country. There were hopes that some mergers between a faction of the PRP and Sowore’s AAC would be a factor in the elections, but so far they have had little impact. The Left will only be able to make a difference in Nigerian politics if the issue of unity is finally resolved.
Forecasting the Vote
As the country prepares for the first phase of the elections on 25 February, certain predictions can be made. The overall performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will certainly improve. There will be some hitches, either due to human errors or deliberate sabotage on the part of some of its staff with political motives. These may include tampering with electoral materials and equipment.
In the next two weeks, there will be further political realignments, which will manifest in defections of political party stalwarts and their supporters. Meanwhile, undecided voters will make up their minds on who to vote for. This will happen across parties.
Voter turnout may be low in areas affected by violence for the obvious reason that voters will not risk their lives. The aforementioned level of violence will be a deterrent especially in the Northeast, Southeast, and North Central areas of the country.
Voting patterns will take the form of voting according to party line and voting for specific candidates, while the presidential election results may further reinforce the country’s deep regional divisions, with the Northern part of the country voting for the PDP, the West for APC, and the East for LP/APGA. Ethnicity and religion will play prominent roles here. Election results from the states during the gubernatorial and House of Assembly elections may reflect a different trend as voters may likely vote for personalities rather than parties.
Ultimately, the acceptance of election results by the respective political parties is key to the health of democracy. If the electoral process is transparent, we may witness few complaints and therefore few litigations instituted by aggrieved persons who may feel cheated during the elections.