Nigeria’s 1999 constitution limits presidents to two elected terms, each of four years. In the 2023 election, for the first time since 2007, the more than 96 million Nigerians who have registered to vote will not have the option of choosing an incumbent president when they cast their ballot as Muhammadu Buhari steps down after eight years at the helm. Eighteen candidates are vying to head Africa’s most populous nation and have been seeking to convince voters that they have the answers to address prevailing economic and insecurity challenges since the long electioneering period began on 28 September.
The presidential race is set to be shaped and contested by more than just two main protagonists, with Peter Obi and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso – both former state governors – looking set to offer a sustained challenge to the ruling party candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu and perennial contestant, and former vice-President, Atiku Abubakar. A presidential run-off, triggered when no candidate is able to secure majority of the vote in the first round, with at least 25% of the vote in two-thirds of the states, is a distinct possibility and would be a first in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic.
Is the election commission ready?
The success of any electoral process is dependent on the credibility, transparency and efficiency of stakeholders that manage, regulate and secure the process. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has demonstrated substantial improvement in the conduct of elections since the electoral nadir of 2007, first under the tenure of Attahiru Jega (2011-2015) and then under current chairman Mahmood Yakubu. The 2023 vote will be the first general election to be conducted under the 2022 Electoral Act. Among its provisions are a Bimodal Voter Accreditation system and an election result viewing platform, technology that many believe will make the process harder to rig and which can improve the credibility of the process.
But technology has its limitations and INEC must undertake a significant logistical operation to ensure that voting materials and staff are deployed to the more than 176,000 polling units across the country. These efforts continue to be complicated by attacks on INEC facilities, with six incidents recorded in November and December alone, and 50 since the conclusion of the 2019 general election, in which offices were burned down, valuable equipment lost and, in the recent cases, permanent voter cards destroyed.
What impact will insecurity have?
Nigeria is beset by insecurity across its six geopolitical zones. The Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast remains ongoing, banditry in the northwest has grown significantly since 2019, separatist agitators in the southeast continue to pose a threat and herder-farmers’ conflicts and kidnapping are increasingly prevalent across the country. The level of insecurity has required the deployment of the military in operations in all but one of Nigeria’s 36 states.
The ability of INEC to access, let alone hold, elections in significant numbers of polling stations in the northwest and southeast remains in question and could have implications for the validity of the electoral outcome. So too could the challenge of voting for internally displaced persons (IDPs) within the country, a reality experienced by over 2 million Nigerians. Although INEC has a legal framework for IDP voting, developed ahead of the 2019 polls, this can only be deployed when an IDP situation has been declared. No governor in the northwest has done so to date.
Who will vote? And how?
Turnout will be a key determining factor in the 2023 race, but it remains difficult to estimate. Just under 35% of Nigerians who were eligible to vote chose to do so in 2019, and a similar outcome in 2023 would likely favour the establishment candidates Atiku and Tinubu. Obi, whose political movement has generated significant online interest and support, particularly from younger Nigerians, will be looking to convince a significant number of the 71% of the 12 million new registrants who are aged 18-35 to vote for him. Increased turnout will likely aid his overall chances of upsetting the establishment.
However, for most voters who cast their ballots in February, the decision will not be one made based on issues. Factors such as religion, ethnicity and vote-buying remain critical in Nigerian electoral politics. 2023 is the first time since 1979 where three frontline candidates will represent Nigeria’s three dominant ethnicities: Hausa/Fulani (Atiku), Igbo (Obi), and Yoruba (Tinubu). The faith of candidates, and their running mates, is also under scrutiny, particularly after the decision by the ruling party to stand a Muslim-Muslim ticket in contravention of prevailing conventions that see them ‘balanced’ between Christian and Muslim candidates. These factors increase the likelihood of votes being cast along religious and ethnic lines, potentially even complicating the ability of a winner to emerge in the first round. In addition to winning more than 50% of the total vote, the Nigerian electoral system requires a presidential candidate to secure at least a quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the states to be declared the winner.
More than presidential polls
Beyond the presidency, Nigerians will also be voting for 28 state governors, 109 Senators, 360 House of Representatives and over 990 other State Assembly representatives in polls spread across February and March. The increased mobilisation along ethnic and religious lines drives up the chances of a spilt ballot in 2023. In such a scenario the winner of the presidential race may not see his party win an absolute majority in either house of the National Assembly, nor secure the largest share of powerful state governors. Unchartered territory for Nigeria’s still nascent democracy.