Nigeria will hold its general election on 25 February in what will be a decisive election for the country’s future. Nigeria is currently wrestling with several overlapping challenges including a security crisis in the south, an economy overly dependent on oil revenues, limited economic opportunities for the burgeoning youth population, and ballooning public debt. With both presidential and legislative elections set to be run, whichever candidate wins the presidential race will need to urgently address these crises and will also position their party well to dominate the state assembly and gubernatorial elections on 11 March.
Adding to the presidential election stakes is that the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, has completed his two constitutionally limited terms and, as such, Nigeria will have a new president. Under Nigeria’s electoral system, a candidate must secure 50% of the popular vote and at least 25% of the votes in a minimum of 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states. If no candidate meets this threshold the two leading candidates will proceed to a run-off election which must be held within 21 days. This would likely be held on 11 March alongside the state legislative elections. At present no candidate appears to be on track to meet the required threshold, driving expectations that a run-off will take place.
There are 18 candidates contesting the presidential election, but only four are viewed as having a viable chance of making the run-off. These leading candidates are the Bola Ahmed Tinubu from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party.
In an unexpected development, in recent months Obi has emerged as the presidential frontrunner having come first in a series of polls. Obi is a former governor of Anambra State who has previously belonged to the APC and the PDP and only formally joined the Labour Party last year. Yet despite this, Obi has managed to portray himself as the candidate for change and attracted widespread support, especially from the country’s youth who are tired of the APC-PDP duopoly over Nigeria’s politics. Obi has campaigned largely on an economic platform, pledging to revitalise the economy and address the country’s debt challenge. If Obi makes it to the run-off election, he will be well-placed to stage a major electoral upset. However, the promise of political and governance change that he purports to represent is unlikely to be rapidly realised as it is unclear if his popularity will translate into the Labour Party securing majorities – or even pluralities – in the National Assembly and the Senate.
The APC’s Tinubu is also expected to make the run-off election. Tinubu is an institution within Nigerian politics and has been seen as an operator and kingmaker for much of his 30-year political career. Tinubu’s support played a major role in securing Buhari the presidency in 2015. This will be Tinubu’s fourth attempt to secure the presidency and he appears to believe that after a lifetime of playing the role of Nigeria’s political Svengali, it is his time to rule. The Yoruba phrase “E mi lokan” (it’s my turn) has come to define his campaign. However, his long career and (in)famous reputation has also made Tinubu a polarising figure and cast him as the ultimate political insider at a time when much of the country is frustrated with the status quo.
Abubakar of the PDP is a former vice president (1999-2007) who will be making his sixth attempt at the presidency after unsuccessful unsuccessfully contesting the 1993, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019 elections. The fact that he retains control of the PDP’s electoral infrastructure and established support base in the southern states positions him well.
The NNPP’s Kwankwaso is a former senator and a former governor of Kano state. He is the least likely of the leading four candidates to make it to the run-off election. In fact, Kwankwaso is most likely to play the role of spoiler in this election, pulling support from other candidates, especially in the country’s north. He presents the biggest threat to Tinubu and Abubakar as he has been a member of both the PDP and APC in the past and could pull voters from both candidates in Kano and the surrounding states.
The fact that there is no clear frontrunner in this election has contributed to elevated political tensions in the country. The likely close-fought nature of the first ballot is also expected to aggravate the situation and could lead to electoral disputes and political-motivated violence ahead of and immediately after the election. Nigerian elections are typically marred by instances of violence. Indicative of this, it is estimated that at least 626 people were killed in the build-up to and aftermath of the 2019 Nigeria election. The largest proportion of these were in the country’s northern states.
This is due not just to politically motivated violence but also to attacks perpetrated by militant groups. Groups such as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Boko Haram are active across several states in northern Nigeria. These groups carry out regular attacks and are likely planning to carry out attacks targeting electoral activities. Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has warned that these groups could disrupt and even force cancellations of elections in as many as 15 states. As such, the government is under pressure to heighten security around election-related events and voting stations.
The joint threat of politically motivated violence and militant attacks will drive the implementation of elevated security measures in Nigeria in the coming weeks. These measures should help mitigate some of the risk associated with the election, but the risk of political violence and unrest will be particularly elevated after the first round and before the anticipated run-off election.
Regardless of who wins, they will likely face an uncooperative legislature which will require significant lobbying to pass the major policies and legislation required to introduce reforms and address Nigeria’s multitude of challenges.