Hi! Welcome to Semafor Africa where Yinka Adegoke and I dig into some of the biggest stories around the continent twice a week.
With less than a week to go until Nigerians are due to vote for their next president, there still isn’t a clear frontrunner. The three leading contenders — Bola Tinubu, Atikku Abubakar and Peter Obi — are locked in the tightest race since the country’s return to democratic rule 24 years ago. I chose my words carefully. The election is due to take place on Feb. 25, but it will be a break from the past if it goes ahead as planned. I covered the last two Nigerian elections, both of which were delayed. The 2015 vote was postponed by six weeks and the 2019 election was delayed by a week just hours before polls were due to open.
The frontrunners all have a route to victory. Tinubu has the advantage of representing the governing party, Atiku’s northern candidate status could help him to win big in the region that typically has the highest voter turnout, and Obi’s devoted youth following could prove to be decisive. But each of them have deep problems. Tinubu and Atiku represent parties riven by internecine fighting and Obi’s lacks a sizable nationwide operation.
The trio’s trials and tribulations mean the chance of there being no clear winner after the vote has risen. That would prompt a run-off for the first time. And, against that backdrop, anger is rising due to a scarcity of cash and fuel.
I’ll be in Nigeria to cover its presidential election for a third time. So much has changed in the eight years since I reported on Muhammadu Buhari being swept to power on a wave of goodwill after promising to improve security and crack down on corruption. Since then Nigeria has endured two recessions, kidnappings have become commonplace and unemployment has skyrocketed.
Nigeria is at an inflection point. In this election special our Lagos based reporter Alexander Onukwue, Yinka and I delve into the issues that will determine who will lead a country that’s home to around one in six Africans and has the continent’s largest economy.
The number of people who have registered to vote in Nigeria’s election, making it Africa’s biggest democratic exercise. But that figure is just one of several numbers that each tell part of the story behind the election.
18: Presidential candidates
1: Female presidential candidate
39.7%: Share of registered voters aged 18 - 34, the biggest group by age
7.1 million: Voters registered in Lagos, the state with the most sign-ups
1.3 million: Electoral officials on polling day
5: Elections since 1999
4: Presidents since 1999
0: Elections that have gone to run-off after no clear winner in the first round
Of the 18 candidates on the ballot, there’s broad agreement that only three have a realistic chance of winning the election. All three are men. Two of them are candidates of the only political parties to have ruled Nigeria since the end of military rule, 24 years ago. The third is a former state governor representing a much smaller party.
Bola Tinubu - All Progressives Congress
The ruling party’s candidate was governor of Lagos state between 1999 and 2007. Since then he has established a stronghold in the southwest, with power concentrated in Lagos where he has hand picked each of his successors as governor. He led a coalition of opposition parties that formed the APC in 2013 and propelled Mahammadu Buhari to the presidency two years later. Now 70, Tinubu wants the crown for himself after two decades of playing kingmaker. “Emi lo kan,” a phrase in Yoruba that has been his campaign slogan, translates to “It is my turn.”
Address national security threats with an intelligence-driven approach
Drive growth by basing annual budgets on expected spending, not projected oil revenue
Establish a “Nigeria first” policy that directs gas resources to domestic power generation
Atiku Abubakar - People’s Democratic Party
The 76-year-old, usually referred to simply as Atiku, is on his sixth presidential campaign. He is best known for serving as vice president for two terms, from 1999 to 2007, in the first administration after the end of military rule. Atiku established a reputation in office as being a business-friendly dealmaker and has sought to portray himself as the candidate best placed to attract investors. His campaign has faced dissent from five southern PDP governors who question their party’s choice of a northerner to succeed Buhari, who is also from that part of the country.
Create three million new jobs annually
Promote a federal system with a strong central government but with more power devolved to states
All government refineries will be privatized while new licenses will be granted for new investment
Peter Obi - Labour Party
Reuters/ Nyancho Nwanri
Several polls have tipped Peter Obi, candidate of the relatively small Labour Party, to win. But analysts say the southern Christian will likely struggle to gain widespread support in voter-rich northern states, which are mainly Mulsim, without the backing of a major party. The 61-year-old was governor of southeastern Anambra state between 2006 and 2014 and the PDP’s vice presidential candidate, as Atiku’s running mate, in 2019. Obi has cultivated an image as a frugal, hands-on political leader. His supporters, many of whom refer call themselves “Obidient”, are largely young Nigerians eager to break the main parties’ grip on power.
Solve insecurity, particularly banditry and insurgency
Build power, transportation and gas infrastructure with private sector partnerships
Invest in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and biotechnology, to make the economy less oil-dependent
The increasingly important role polling is playing in Nigeria’s elections this year has been striking. In the recent past polls have been dismissed as an attempt by pollsters and their advocates to replicate the electoral experience of more advanced democracies like the United States. The argument against surveys was that ordinary Nigerians were more concerned with day-to-day survival than answering pollsters’ questions.
But that prevailing view has obviously changed in this election cycle. Their headlines — effectively, “Peter Obi wins by a landslide!” — might end up being wrong. But if you read closely there is an ample helping of nuance, a side order of caveats, and a strict diet of transparency to go with their main course of forecasts. The pollsters we’ve referenced were careful to explain their methodology and limitations. All acknowledge this is a particularly difficult election to predict.
Perhaps the most important note is that almost all the polls are handicapped by an unusually significant number of respondents either declining to reveal their voting intentions or simply claiming to be undecided. It means that while it is true Peter Obi is well in front on paper, polling day will likely be much tighter or offer different results depending on voter turnout for instance.
One thing is clear, polls are here to stay. And they’re likely to evolve with future Nigerian elections. “Feedback from well-designed and well-executed polls can aid in switching Nigeria’s politics into issue-based politics,” said Basil Abia, a research analyst with Kwakol, a self-funded research company based in Abuja.
All Nigerian elections are conducted by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The Commission is led by a chairperson appointed by the Nigerian president and funded from the federal government’s budget. However, INEC is mandated to operate as an independent body. Mahmood Yakubu, like the last three INEC chairs before him, is an academic. He has been in the role since October 2015.
What technology will be used?
INEC, under Yakubu’s stewardship, has expanded the use of digital technology in an attempt to make voting more transparent and secure. While the use of permanent voter cards (PVCs) has become established following two previous election cycles, 2023 will be the first general election in which the electoral body will use a scanner for verifying voter authenticity and uploading results from polling stations known as a Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS).
INEC will also have a website for finding electronic copies of hand-signed paper results from each polling station. Each of Nigeria’s 176,846 polling stations will have a BVAS scanner.
Who can vote?
Only adults aged 18 and above who reside in Nigeria and have a PVC will be eligible to vote. That criteria has not changed, despite growing calls for INEC to make voting possible for Nigeria’s increasingly influential diaspora.
How is the winner determined?
To win the presidency, a candidate must secure the highest number of votes and win 25% of the vote in at least 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states.
A run-off contested by the two candidates with the most votes will be held within 21 days of the first round if none of the 18 candidates meet the threshold required to win in the first round. Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, no Nigerian presidential election has gone to a run-off.
The race is on for votes in northern Nigeria’s economic hub Kano
Kano, the country’s second most populous state, is the site of one of the most fiercely contested election battles.
The rising cost of living and unpopular policies that led to cash and fuel shortages have eroded the APC government’s popularity in a stronghold of outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari that traditionally has a high voter turnout.
Bello Muhammad Sharada, a Kano-based public affairs analyst, said a low voter turnout was likely because people had “lost confidence” in the candidates of the main parties. Former Kano governor Rabiu Kwankwaso, presidential candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP), was likely to be the main beneficiary of that trend.
Saidu Ahmad Dukawa, another political commentator, made a similar prediction. “I see Kano votes divided along three blocks: NNPP, PDP and APC,” he said. Dukawa added that Obi’s lack of major party support in the state along with the widely held view that he is the Christian candidate would dampen support for him in the predominantly Muslim state. “Labour Party will have a bad day for lacking structure in the state and [because of] religious sentiment,” he said.
On the streets of Kano city, which has been flooded with political posters bearing the faces of grinning politicians, the economy was on the minds of most potential voters.
“Addressing insecurity and economic hardship are what I care for in this election,” said businessman Babangida Musa Baba, 35, who plans to vote for Kwankwaso. “I’d love to see our region come back to its former status where people freely move around…without fear of kidnapping,” he said, reflecting fears around the kidnap-for-ransom scourge, which has risen sharply in northwest Nigeria in recent years.
Social worker Mustapha Sa’eed Kano, 27, said his main concern was “getting the economy and the current hardship fixed”.
Juliet Nwobodo, a 23-year-old university student who said Obi is “who we need” said that, above all, she hopes the vote will be free and fair. “It will be unfair to allow rigging at this critical moment when people queue up to swap their old currency notes with new ones to buy petrol,” she said. “Things are tough.”
Zainab Usman is director of the Africa Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. In her latest book she looks at the challenges Nigeria faces in diversifying Africa’s biggest economy away from its reliance on oil sales.
The outcome of Nigeria’s election will be eagerly watched around the world. We asked a range of experts why Nigerians going to the polls carries a significance far beyond the country’s borders.
🇺🇲 Matthew Page, U.S. based associate fellow at Chatham House’s Africa program. “Nigerian elections are a seminal political event in a country of superlatives: Africa’s largest economy; 220+ million people, on track to be the third most populous country in the world by 2045. These elections will largely determine how well (or badly) Nigeria’s federal and state governments respond to the stark socioeconomic, governance, and security challenges that threaten the country’s vast human and economic potential.”
🇬🇭 Bright Simons, vice-president, research, at Imani Centre for Policy and Education. “Nigeria is the world’s largest Black nation. But it is also the source of one of world’s largest diaspora. Only Egypt rivals it in terms of inward remittances into Africa. Its movie industry, expanding banking talent, and growing industrial footprint reminds one of the emerging United States in the 19th Century and its eventual role in the Western hemisphere. Above all else, Nigeria’s vast and deep talent pool makes the country the continent’s sleeping giant.”
🇰🇪 Ken Opalo, assistant professor, Georgetown University. “This year’s transition election is a reminder of the ongoing institutionalization of politics in Nigeria. Furthermore, the fact that all three leading candidates are committed to scrapping subsidies shows that there is growing space for electorally-motivated policy debate. That’s a small but important improvement. As the regional powerhouse in West Africa, Nigeria’s ability to turn the corner in terms of domestic economic and security policy will have profound effects in the sub-region and beyond.”
🇬🇧 Charlie Robertson is global chief economist, Renaissance Capital. “For most of the last eight years, Nigeria has been uninvestable to many foreign investors, due to currency restrictions imposed by the authorities. GDP growth has not kept pace with rapid population growth and debt default risks have risen. How the election winner manages these challenges will impact how Africa as a whole is seen by the international financial community.”
Small businesses, like printers and souvenir vendors, are taking advantage of the extra work generated by political campaigners who need to be visible on everything from billboards and T-shirts to caps and handheld fans.
But, instead of celebrating a boom in patronage, some long-term vendors of these items are complaining.
Tunde Etefia, who runs a printing shop in the crowded Lagos Island district, said the shortage of fuel had driven up production costs. Etefia, who has been in the printing business for 15 years, said he was also wary of being seen to take sides. “What they are doing now is that if you are not in their party, they will not give you job,” he said. “You can’t tell me I must join the party,” he said, explaining that middlemen between politicians and printers are now eager to give printing gigs to close friends and family.
Biodun Aiyeyunmi, 69, a gift items vendor stationed at Tafawa Balewa Square, a campaign rally venue in Lagos, also cited the problem of partisan connections as the reason for not having sold merchandise for any candidates in this election cycle, unlike in 2019.
But for Anike Lawal, who sells biscuits and soda, Labour Party candidate Peter Obi’s Lagos rally on Feb. 11 was good. “That day really changed my business. I loved it,” Lawal said.
Nigeria is playing host to the world’s most important election this year, according to veteran journalist Howard French. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, he argues that Africa is “rapidly becoming the stage of the largest demographic changes in the world” and Nigeria is “the center of the action”. That means the poll, potentially a pivotal moment in the way the country is governed, takes on global significance.
If you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into Nigerian politics, check out other stories from Semafor Africa’s election coverage. We’ve reported on Nigerian politicians strategic love affair with London, the electoral dangers posed by cuts to social media moderation teams, the heightened chance of a run-off for the first time, as well as schisms within the main parties, among other stories. Plus, months before fights broke out at ATMs and the civil war within the APC went public, we explained how the redesign of naira bank notes would become a weapon in the election campaign and why that matters.
Tracy Osaretin, 25, hopes to vote for the first time, despite a tense atmosphere in Benin City in Nigeria’s south. It has been caused by violent protests over the ongoing cash scarcity in the run-up to polling day. But whatever happens with the elections, the pharmacist sees her future elsewhere: “As much as I want to believe Nigeria will get better, I don’t want a front-row seat for the change. I want to hear that it is better and be motivated to come back.”