Incumbent president and leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Muhammadu Buhari, was declared the winner of Nigeria’s presidential election on 27 February 2019 winning an election marred by controversial delays and violence. Buhari’s nearest challenger Atiku Abubakar, leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has, thus far, refused to accept the result and threatened to challenge the election result. Abubakar received 11.3 million votes (41%) of the vote to Buhari’s 15.2 million (56%).
Abubakar claims widespread electoral fraud and intimidation swung the vote in Buhari’s favour, and concerns have been raised that the military was not sufficiently independent with rumours that security forces were backing Buhari. While observers noted electoral irregularities – and it is almost certain that some election fraud, intimidation, and corruption occurred – it is generally believed that this was insufficient to have a material impact on the vote and that the result generally reflects the legitimate will of Nigeria’s voters.
Concerns were elevated ahead of the 23 February election as the ballot was initially meant to be held on 16 February but was controversially postponed by Nigeria’s election commission the day before voting was set to commence. This followed months of preparation in which the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) pledged that it would be ready in time. The last-minute delay set a tone of distrust towards the election.
This cynicism towards the ballot was reflected in the low voter turnout on 23 February. Only about 37% of registered voters cast their ballots in the election in the lowest turnout for an election since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. By comparison, the 1999 election had an over 70% voter turnout. Voter turnout was higher in the country’s northern states, which likely fuelled Buhari’s victory as he is a northerner himself and his key support base is in the north, while Abubakar was viewed as the preferred candidate of the country’s southerners.
Yet, despite this deflated voter turnout, heightened political tensions ahead of and following the election resulted in violent demonstrations and clashes in which at least 39 people were killed. If Abubakar continues to dispute the result and rallies his supporters, further violent demonstrations are possible. However, levels of violence to date pale in comparison to the 2011 disputed election which saw over 800 people were killed in election-related violence that fomented ethnic and communal violence nationally.
The low voter turnout and the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the two leading presidential candidates should help offset potential violence with both candidates considered somewhat disappointing by voters. Buhari was widely criticised during his first term as an absentee president as he spent significant stretches of his tenure on sick leave abroad. However, Buhari benefited from the fact that while significant portions of the electorate had a dim view of his presidency, Abubakar and the PDP are generally viewed even less favourably, with the PDP strongly associated with corruption. Buhari, by comparison, is not generally considered corrupt. Ironically, both candidates’ running partners are considered better potential presidential candidates than Buhari and Abubakar themselves. Nigeria’s Vice President Oluyemi Osinbajo’s profile was boosted by being seen as a de facto president due to Buhari’s frequent extended trips abroad. Similarly, Abubakar’s running mate, former Anambra state governor Peter Obi is viewed more positively than the PDP leader. This dynamic potentially foreshadows a more competitive electoral showdown in 2023.
The election result suggests there will be no tangible change in Nigeria’s federal governance and the country will continue to suffer from poor economic performance and remain overly exposed to fluctuations in the oil price. Similarly, its security crises are likely to endure, with the northern Boko Haram insurgency the most serious concern. Buhari failed to demonstrate any plans for fundamental reforms or tactical change and his record of absenteeism means the Nigerian public is unlikely to have high expectations of major changes.