MILLIONS of Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday, February 25, to elect a new President in what is shaping up to be the most keenly contested presidential election since the country returned to democratic rule in 1999.
Eighteen candidates from 18 political parties, are contesting the presidential election. But The ICIR projects that the contest is a three-horse race between three leading candidates – Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP). The rest are there to make up the numbers.
More than previous elections since Nigeria’s return to civil rule in 1999, the 2023 presidential election is too close to call.
In past elections, there were clear favourites who end up coasting to victory at the end of the contest.
In 1999, the odds were stacked in favour of the PDP when Olusegun Obasanjo defeated Olu Falae, who was running on the joint Alliance for Democracy/All Peoples Party ticket. In the election that heralded Nigeria’s return to democratic governance, Obasanjo got 18,738,154 votes, 62.78 per cent of total votes cast, to defeat Falae, who got 11,110,287 votes (37.22 per cent of total votes cast).
Obasanjo’s reelection for a second term in the 2003 presidential election was expected. As the incumbent and candidate of the PDP, he won in 25 states plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), scoring 24,456,140 votes (61.94 per cent of total votes cast) to defeat Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) who only won in five states, scoring 12,710,022 votes (32.19 per cent of total votes cast).
With PDP dominating Nigerian politics, it was not a surprise when the late Umaru Yar’Adua defeated Buhari to succeed Obasanjo in 2007 – the first civilian to civilian transition since Nigeria returned to democratic rule.
Yar’Adua, the PDP candidate, won by a landslide, scoring 24,638,063 votes (69.60 per cent) of total votes cast. Buhari, of the ANPP, got 6,605,299 votes (18.66 per cent) of total votes cast. Having succeeded Yar’Adua, who died in office, Goodluck Jonathan, as expected, duly continued PDP’s winning streak when he won in 22 states and the FCT, scoring 22,495,187 votes (58.87 per cent of total votes cast) to defeat Buhari, now flying the flag of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), in the 2011 presidential election.
Buhari won in 13 states, scoring 12,214,853 votes (31.97 per cent of total votes cast).
Jonathan’s loss to Buhari in 2015 could be deemed an upset – an incumbent President failing to get reelected and conceding to a challenger, an anomaly in Africa and the rest of the Third World. But the signs that power could change hands were there in the election build-up.
Jonathan had lost a lot of goodwill, and the momentum was with Buhari and the newly formed APC. So it was unsurprising that Buhari won in 21 states, scoring 15,424,921 votes (53.96 per cent) to defeat Jonathan, who won in 15 states plus the FCT, garnering 12,853,162 votes (44.96 per cent).
Buhari’s reelection in 2019 was not unexpected. As the incumbent, he won in 19 states, scoring 15,191,847 votes (55.60 per cent of total votes cast) to defeat his major rival, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, who won in 17 states plus the FCT, scoring 11,262,978 votes (41.22 per cent of total votes cast).
The situation is markedly different in 2023. No particular candidate is a clear favourite. It will not be a big surprise if any of Atiku, Tinubu or Obi wins the election.
Leading candidates – their strengths and weaknesses
Hours to the 2023 presidential election, The ICIR reports that the poll is too close to call.
The three leading candidates have their strengths and weaknesses, which would all come into play in determining the election outcome. The ICIR assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the leading candidates.
Atiku: Sixth time lucky?
Atiku, now on his sixth attempt to become Nigeria’s President, can bank on the large followership of the PDP, Nigeria’s main opposition party, which was in power for 16 consecutive years until it was upstaged by the APC in 2015.
The ‘Northern factor’ is another element that may work for Atiku. The North, with its large population, is a critical factor in Nigerian presidential contests and bloc votes from the region could decide the outcome of the election.
Atiku is the strongest northerner in the race. Is the North ready to cede power to the South after President Muhammadu Buhari’s eight years? Will Atiku inherit the bloc votes of the North? The answer to these questions will go a long way in determining the presidential election’s outcome.
While Tinubu’s emergence as APC presidential candidate was largely as a result of support from northern APC governors, it is not impossible that northerners who are wary of power moving back to the South would see in Atiku a vehicle to retain control of Nigeria’s affairs, even after eight years of Buhari, a fellow northerner.
Atiku also has supporters in the South-East, a long time stronghold of the PDP. Despite Obi’s emergence as a front runner, major political leaders in the South-East, who are mostly members of the PDP, are backing Atiku. Parts of the South-South, where his running mate, Delta State governor Ifeanyi Okowa, hails from, may also go with Atiku.
On the flip side, Atiku stands to lose most from the effect of Obi’s emergence as a major contender in the presidential race. Obi was Atiku’s running mate in 2019. Ordinarily, Atiku, as PDP candidate, should be counting on bloc votes from the South-East, which traditionally go with the PDP. But it is likely that the larger population of the South-East would queue behind Obi.
Also, Atiku is seen as a liberal Muslim, a factor which may affect his acceptability among core Muslims of the North.
Again, his inability to get his former boss, Obasanjo, on his side has continued to raise big question marks over his suitability for the country’s number one job. Atiku was Obasanjo’s vice president from 1999 to 2003. Obasanjo has repeatedly voiced his reservations about the PDP candidate’s character and fitness for the office.
Obasanjo’s testimony on Atiku is largely responsible for the widely held impression that the PDP candidate is corrupt. This impression has continued to dog Atiku’s political aspirations ever since.
Tinubu: It is the APC candidate’s election to lose
Inasmuch as the 2023 presidential election has been adjudged to be a close contest, it is equally Tinubu’s election to lose.
The APC flagbearer has the incumbency factor on his side – being the ruling party’s candidate, an enormous advantage in Nigerian elections. Added to his vast political network and structure, Tinubu also has 21 APC governors behind him. To a large extent, these governors can be counted on to mobilise votes for their preferred candidate.
The APC Muslim-Muslim ticket is a deliberate gambit targeted at northern Muslim votes. It may pay off. Tinubu has a lot of influence in the South-West – many state governors in the zone are/were his proteges. He should count on bloc votes from the region. Again, the Northern APC governors who backed his emergence as the party’s flagbearer can also mobilise votes for him in the presidential election. Tinubu has the big guns on his side.
But the former Lagos governor is not without weaknesses. Many Nigerians are not happy with the change brought by the Buhari government, a situation which was exacerbated in the build up to the election by the hardship arising from the naira redesign policy, which has led to acute scarcity of banknotes.
Those who are not happy with the current administration remember Tinubu’s role in Buhari’s election. Nigerians, who were alarmed when Tinubu promised to build on the legacy of the Buhari administration, may see in the APC candidate a continuation of the suffering they are experiencing under Buhari.
Unresolved questions over Tinubu’s health, amplified by series of gaffes on the campaign trail, as well as drug trafficking allegations, could also discourage some voters. And then the Muslim-Muslim ticket has alienated many Christians, including some leaders of the APC. The gamble may not pay off.
Buhari’s seeming lukewarm disposition to Tinubu’s candidacy is another problem for the APC flagbearer. Although the President had in recent days taken pains to explain that he is backing Tinubu, not many in Tinubu’s camp are convinced.
Buhari had been saying he will leave a legacy of free, fair and credible elections, and the assertion by minister of information and culture Lai Mohammed that the President is not favouring any candidate would not go down well with Tinubu.
Tinubu had claimed that the naira redesign policy was a ploy to stop him from winning the election. Although he turned around to back the policy, even going further to suggest ways to make it work, he would certainly be alarmed at the level of hardship it had brought on Nigerians.
Fears that the naira crisis would undermine Tinubu’s chances informed spirited efforts being made by some APC governors to stop the policy at the Supreme Court. There are suggestions that Tinubu would not benefit from the ‘incumbency factor’, which played a crucial role in Yar’Adua’s election to succeed Obasanjo in 2007, when the outgoing President (Obasanjo) declared that the election would be a “do or die affair” for the PDP.
Having worked hard for Buhari’s election in 2015, the recent declaration by Buhari that he will be neutral concerning the 2023 presidential poll may not sound very pleasing for Tinubu.
Obi: Will the ‘Third Force’ dislodge the old order?
Since the return to democratic rule in 1999, average Nigerians, who had become fed up with the domination of national politics by the same group of individuals parading the colours of the PDP, and later, the APC, have been yearning for a ‘Third Force’, a political movement or alignment which would dislodge the old order and set the country on a new path.
It appears that those Nigerians who wish for a Third Force have rallied round Obi, adopting him as their flagbearer.
The LP was one of the parties that made up the numbers until Obi defected from the PDP.
Since then, the status of the party and the candidate has continued to soar to the extent that many are tipping Obi to win the presidential election. Obi’s major strength is the youths, who are more active on the social media.
The LP candidate is also widely popular among the masses – poor and downtrodden citizens who see in him the messiah they have been waiting for to ease their burdens. Many people in the South-East also see in him an opportunity to actualise the quest for an Igbo President. Endorsement by Obasanjo had also boosted Obi’s profile, ahead of the election.
But the LP candidate also has major weaknesses. There are doubts over the reliability of his ‘political structure’. In fact, Obi’s opponents have severally claimed that he has no structure, and his large followership – the Obidient Movement – is dismissed as ‘social media phenomenon’. Will the Obidients take their support for Obi beyond the social media by voting on election day? The answer to this question will go a long way in defining the outcome of the presidential election.
Another concern for Obi’s candidacy is the insecurity in the South-East. It is expected that Obi will get bloc votes from the region. But that is if voting takes place. A faction of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by Simon Ekpa has declared that elections will not take place in the South-East and to enforce the declaration, ordered a sit-at-home exercise in the zone during the election period.
Will the ‘unknown gunmen’ be able to enforce the sit-at-home? Already violence has escalated in the region days to the poll. Obi’s chances will be affected, one way or the other, by the manner the insecurity in the region is addressed.