Nigeria 2019: The issues and electoral maths that will decide the race

By Idayat Hassan

NIGERIA’S election season has begun. With the main opposition formally picking its flag-bearer, we now know the presidential race will effectively be a straight contest between incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and challenger Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Dozens of other candidates will be competing. These include: Oby Ezekwesili, the former minister and founder of the Bring Back Our Girls movement; Professor Kingsley Moghalu, the former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria; and Omoyele Sowore, the owner of the media outlet Sahara Reporters. But when it comes down to it, the presidential race will be a two-horse race. 

This will not be the first time Buhari, 75, and Atiku, 71, have faced one another. Both men contested the 2007 presidential elections, coming a distant second and third behind the PDP’s Umaru Yar’Adua. In 2014, the two met again in the APC primaries, with Buhari emerging victorious. 

These races offer little guidance, however, for how the 2019 presidential election between these two gladiators of Nigerian politics might play out. 



In 2015, Buhari drew heavily on his reputation as incorruptible as he vowed to root out corruption. In 2019, he will undoubtedly reiterate this promise and has some things to boast about. His government claims to have recovered N1 trillion in stolen assets. It has made giant strides in implementing the Treasury Single Account (TSA) to reduce leakages. And it has overseen the conviction of two former governors. 

Many, however, see President Buhari’s war on corruption as disappointing. In particular, critics accuse the government of only targeting political opponents, while allowing its cronies to go scot free. 

In this campaign, though, the ruling APC has a clear advantage on this issue. The PDP is remembered for plundering the state during its previous sixteen years in power. Meanwhile, its candidate, the former vice-president from 1999 to 2007, is one of the country’s richest politicians and has faced several allegations of fraud. In some circles, Atiku’s very name is synonymous with high-level graft. 

Many of the fiercest accusations against the former VP have come from former president Olusegun Obasanjo. After the two fell out dramatically in 2006, Obasanjo repeatedly insisted that his former deputy was corrupt and unfit for office. That was at least until last week when Obasanjo changed track. It remains to be seen if this reconciliation will alleviate the cloud of corruption hanging over Atiku’s head.


Buhari’s main challenge in office has been the struggling economy, which plunged into recession in 2016. It has since recovered, but growth remains slow. Before Buhari took office in 2015, one US dollar bought between N199 and N220. It recently stabilised at around N360, having soared to an all-time high of N450. 

Given this context, Atiku’s campaign will promise to revitalise the economy. While criticising his opponent’s record, he will emphasise his own sound knowledge of the sector. Atiku has business interests across Nigeria and claims to have provided 50,000 direct jobs and 250,000 indirect jobs. He will also likely talk up the fact that he oversaw the privatisation efforts under Obasanjo, though the APC may respond by claiming Atiku fraudulently enriched himself through this same process. Abubakar Atiku is seen to be high powered with networks across the six geopolitical zone of Nigeria.  Atiku campaign has always focused on the revitalisation of the economy and recently he has added restructuring as one of his focal points. He has said if he was elected as president, he would ensure that a minimum of 21 per cent of the budget is devoted to education, end the Boko Haram crisis, revamp security architecture and as well as fixing the economy. Atiku’  selection of former Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi  an astute businessman as his running mate further boosts his economic credentials

For Buhari, the economy may be a weakness. But he will also have the advantage of incumbency. His administration is currently implementing social intervention programmes said to be touching the lives of thousands. Meanwhile, in recent months, it has also launched a collateral-free loan scheme for micro-businesses, which could win sympathies among many across the country.


In office, President Buhari has made significant progress combatting Boko Haram. The insurgents previously controlled a sizeable portion of the North East, but are now a weakened force. Buhari is lauded for his actions in this area, but Atiku may also seek credit for mobilising hunters to wade off the militants in his native Adamawa state. 

While the threat from Boko Haram has diminished, however, insecurity pervades much of the rest of the country. Nigeria faces the escalating herders- farmers conflict, Biafra separationist agitations, armed banditry and kidnapping to name a few. Buhari has been seen to be slow to respond to many of these threats and has been accused of only caring about issues that affect his own ethnic group. 

Electoral maths

Atiku can mount a serious challenge in the 2019 elections. He is up against a candidate who spent seven months in treating an undisclosed ailment and whose national approval rating is at just 40%. The PDP candidate can also rely on the full party machinery now he has won the primaries and draw on the influence of party stalwarts. Meanwhile, the formation of the opposition Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) means there will be fewer candidates to split the anti-APC vote/

That being said, this election is Buhari’s to lose.

Below is a breakdown of the race in Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones. For context, there are currently 84,271,832 registered voters nationwide. In 2011, Buhari got 12.2 million votes (32%) to Goodluck Jonathan’s 22.5 million (59%). In 2015, Buhari got 15.4 million votes (54%) to Jonathan’s 12.9 million (45%).

North East

Registered voters: 11,170,847 (as at August 2018)

2011 results: Buhari, 3,660,919 (63.42%); Jonathan, 1,832,651 (31.75%).

2015 results: Buhari, 2,848,678 (75.28%); Jonathan, 796,588 (21.05%).

The president is credited with suppressing Boko Haram and bringing normalcy to Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. At the same time, the area has benefited significantly from patronage politics under Buhari, who has recruited many of his top lieutenants from the North East. His approval rating here is 57%.

Atiku will struggle here even though he hails from the North East. He does, however, have some important allies in the zone. In Gombe, Governor Ibrahim Hassan Dankwambo of the PDP will help win votes for him. And in Taraba, Aisha Alhassan will also exert her influence. Known popularly as Mama Taraba, the former minister left the APC in October 2018. She is running for governor under the banner of the UDP, but back Atiku at the presidential level. Helped by popular frustrations at Taraba’s ongoing insecurity, Alhassan’s extensive influence means she is likely to help maintain the PDP’s record of winning this state. 

North West

Registered voters: 20,122,934 (as at August 2018)

2011 results: Buhari, 6,453,437 (60.43%); Jonathan, 3,466,924 (32.46%).

2015 results: Buhari, 7,115,199 (81.344%); Jonathan, 1,352,071 (15.46%).

President Buhari is adored by peasants in Northern Nigeria. He is popularly referred to in these part of the country as Mai Gaskiya, which translates roughly to “trustworthy” in Hausa.  The incumbent will do well in this zone again in 2019. According to a source, the more Buhari is criticised, the more people in northern Nigeria love him.

The North West, by far Nigeria’s most populous zone, is similarly strong Buhari territory. In both 2011 and 2015, he won all seven states. His approval rating here is 58% according to the Buharimeter third-year survey. However, there is a widespread discontent from the APC primaries in the North East and North West.

Kano state alone has 5,462,898 registered voters (as at August 2018), making it the country’s second biggest voting bloc after Lagos. Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje wields extensive influence in Kano and has promised Buhari a gargantuan 5 million votes in the presidential poll. The governor already delivered 2.9 million votes for Buhari in the APC’s questionable primaries. However, importantly Musa Kwankwanso who helped Buhari achieve his win is no longer in his camp. Kwankwaso has now declared for total support for the Atiku/Obi ticket. The followings commanded by Rabiu Musa Kwankwanso and his Kwankwansiyah movement will eat into the votes.

North Central

Registered voters: 13,333,435 (as at August 2018)

2011 results: Buhari, 1,744,575 (31.87%); Jonathan, 3,376,570 (61.69%).

2015 results: Buhari, 2,411,013 (56.24%); Jonathan, 1,715,818 (40.03%).

The North Central zone is traditionally Nigeria’s swing region. In 2011, Buhari only won in Niger state. In 2015, he did much better, winning four states (Kwara, Kogi, Benue and the Niger States) and losing in relatively closer races in Plateau and Nasarawa State, and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja. 

In 2019, Buhari may struggle here, not least because of the insecurity caused by herder-farmer clashes and political realignments in Benue, Plateau, Nassarawa, Kwara and Kogi. The herders-farmers conflict ravaging Plateau and Benue states and the administration support for ranching as a policy may contribute to the incumbent losing the state. The political realignments, in particular, the Saraki factor in Kwara State and the defection of the governor and other party stalwart in Benue state may negatively impact outcomes for Buhari in these states.  Of course 

South East

Registered voters: 10,154,748 (as at August 2018)

2011 results: Buhari, 20,335 (0.40%); Jonathan, 4,985,246 (98.69%).

2015 results: Buhari, 198,248 (7.04%); Jonathan, 2,464,906 (87.55%).

The South East will likely vote en masse for the PDP. The APC and Buhari brand do not play well in this region.  the South East are alleging marginalisation, the geopolitical zone is the only one in Nigeria with five states. The Zone have never produced a President and the last time, she produced a vice president was in 1983. Since the return to democracy, power has alternated amongst the South South, South West and North west within this 18 years. There is an ongoing agitation for the next president in the 2023 elections emerge from the South East. Importantly is all the handling of the Biafra Secessionist agitations. The manhandling of citizens during the operation Python Dance established in reaction to the IPOB crises, the arrest and detention of 112 women protesting for the release of Nnamdi Kanu and calling for a referendum also widen the divide between the people and the APC. Unfortunately for the PDP, though this zone has the lowest number of registered voters, which constitutes 12.04% of total registered voters as at August 2018 and also republican in nature with turnout as low as 39 percent in the 2015 presidential elections, but the PDP choice of former governor of Anambra state, Peter Obi may galvanise turnout for the party.

South South

Registered voters: 13,148,556 (as at August 2018)

2011 results: Buhari, 49,978 (0.79%); Jonathan, 6,128,963 (96.92%).

2015 results: Buhari, 4,18,890 (7.96%); Jonathan, 4,714,725 (89.66%).

The South-South will also largely back the PDP. The combination of PDP governor Nyesom Wike, a powerful PDP mobiliser has been named as the zonal coordinators the South-South geopolitical zone. Importantly, Rivers state which WIke superintend over as PDP incumbent governor and governorship Candidate in the 2019 election is one of the country vote banks. The votes from Rivers State is expected to balance the votes from Kano 2015 Presidential elections, the PDP defeated the APC by 1,487,075 votes to 69,238. The PDP also won majority votes in the other five states of the geopolitical zone. However, the defection two former governors to the APC – Akwa Ibom’s Godswill Akpabio and Delta’s Emmanuel Uduaghan – should ensure Buhari’s vote at least increases from the meagre 7.96% gathered in 2015.

South West

Registered voters: 16,341,312 (as at August 2018)

2011 results: Buhari, 321,609 (7.05%); Jonathan, 2,836,417 (62.22%).

    2015 results: Buhari, 2,433,122 (53.6%); Jonathan, 1,821,416 (40.12%).

    The South West will be closely fought. In 2015, the PDP only won one of the six states here, but still managed to get 40.12% of the vote.  There are believe in certain quarters that the chances of the APC in the south-west remains bright particularly with the posthumous award on the acclaimed winner of the 1993 presidential elections, Moshood Kashimawo Abiola popularly referred to as MKO and the declaration of the June 12 as democracy day as against the former May 29th.  Importantly, all the six governors of the South West all belong to the APC coupled with the political machinery of APC National leader, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. However, the forthcoming elections may be different following the fallout from the APC primaries in the region, the perceived lacklustre performance of the administration and importantly the role the church may decide to the play in the forthcoming elections. 

    The church pulpit, in particular, has become a big rallying point to garner votes, will the leading Pentecostal church, the Redeem Christian church back incumbent vice president, a pastor in its rank, or will Tunde Bakare of the Latter Rain church who first publicly announced the candidature of the former World Bank Vice President, Oby Ezekwisili support her candidature.  The Catholic Church exert huge influence in the South East, and do have a say in the forthcoming elections.

    Idayat Hassan is director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), an Abuja-based policy advocacy and research organization.

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