We are hounded constantly by this question, “Who could be Nigeria’s next president?” I want to start by saying that we give so much importance to Aso Rock. It maybe because the Nigerian President is almost as powerful as an arbitrary monarch. Ordinarily, a presidency should not cause the kind of drama that we witness in every election year. What I mean is: there are other levels and branches of government that are equally pertinent for democratic and social growth. Therefore, if we have the most honest and competent president in the world but our National Assembly is corrupt, things would still go south.
But let’s talk about who could be the next president in Nigeria. To begin with, this election is not the usual two-man race as we saw in 2019, 2015, 2011 and as far back as 1999. Rather, we have three-and-a-half-man race. Peter Gregory Obi appeared from what could be termed as from the blue and is shaking things up. He comfortably occupies the third leg of this contest.
It is a public knowledge that Nigerians have signed up to vote in record number ahead of the election day, February 25th, 2023. After almost eight tortuous years under President Muhammadu Buhari, majority of Nigerians feel it is a crucial vote for them. Nigerians are despondent. They yearn for a radical change in the mode of governance and dispensation of dividends of democracy. Many international watchers of politics agree that Africa’s most populous nation is facing a worsening economic and security situation.
SO WHO ARE THE MAIN CANDIDATES?
Nigeria’s population is the biggest in Africa with about 213 million people, half of them are under 19. And it is incredibly diverse. It got more 250 ethnicities and around 500 languages. It is more or less half Muslims, half Christians. There is also a geographical dimension to that religious split. Broadly speaking, the north is where most Muslims are from, and the south has more Christians. And this big , cross-cutting mix of ethnicity, regional identity and religion underpins a lot of Nigeria’s politics. In simpler terms, Nigerians always have a tendency to look more favourably to the person who speaks their language, and who understands their culture. Now usually, the presidential election comes down to a choice between the two candidates from the two main parties: The People’s Democratic Party, PDP, and the All Progressive Congress, APC for short. And usually those parties field candidates that fit with an unwritten rule where the presidency rotates between a Christian from the south and a Muslim from the north, which is what President Buhari is. So that patten would naturally suggest the next president should be a Christian from the south. For starters, we got Bola Ahmed Tinubu for the ruling APC. He is the former governor of Lagos State and he is from the south, although a Muslim. And there is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, who is the PDP candidate. He is also Muslim but from the north. Now, in some quarters, there is a school of thought that this break in the usual pattern risks making religion and ethnicity an even bigger issue in this election than usual. People are thinking in silos, that look, this is our own and we have to support one of our own. But the young people are saying something different. They want a generational turnaround, irrespective of where the leader comes from. And what young people are thinking is certainly not a factor that can just be ignored. So their minds are on Peter Obi because he seems to them to be a symbol of that generational turnaround that they are hoping to get. Obi has given the two main political parties a run for their money. He is a Catholic Christian from the south and he was governor of Anambra State: a job a lot of people think he performed extraordinarily well. He subsequently ran for vice president for the PDP in 2019. Now, he is running for the Labour Party. Even though he is in his early sixties and stinkingly rich, he is seemed by his supporters as more dynamic and more in tune with what younger people desire to have. For instance, unlike an average Nigerian politician who is ‘big man’s in every sense of the word, Peter Obi is regularly seen carrying his briefcase and bags, accessible, and waiting patiently on a queue at the airport. This is so appealing to young people.
WHY IS THIS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION SO DIFFERENT?
The turnout is expected to be high. The National Independent Electoral Commission says over 10 million new voters have been registered, 84% of them are under 34. The candidate that will probably benefit from that is Peter Obi, and he is the favorite in pretty much every poll. Mind you, the polls from Nigeria can be misleading. Some people are skeptical whether the social media hype would translate into real votes.
Another thing is, irregardless of one’s grassroot popularity, if all the forces of the incumbency, control and money flowing are stacked against you like they appear to be stacked against Peter Obi, then it is going to be very difficult for him to essentially compete on a level playing ground.
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO PREDICT A WINNER?
There is mathematics to the way vote works in Nigeria and in every other democracy for that matter. However, we must not forget the dynamics and peculiarity of Nigeria’s electoral process. To win a presidential election, a candidate has to get a majority of the overall national vote. But they also have to win 25% of the votes in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states , plus the Federal Capital Territory, home to the capital, Abuja. That is to make sure the president has a spread of support across the country. So with three candidates in the mix, it is much harder for any of them to win outright, especially when there is another popular contender from the north, Rabiu Kwankwaso. He was the former governor of Kano state. He probably does not have the national appeal needed to actually win, but he is very popular in the north. And that will further split the vote for the other three candidates, especially for Alhaji Atiku Abubakar. It invariably means the presidential election may well go to a second round.
Whoever that is taking over from President Muhammadu Buhari is going to be under pressure to deal with some real serious and urgent problems. The economy is tanking. There is widespread corruption. And 40% of Nigerians live below poverty line. This 40% of the population are the ones hit the hardest by the major security issues, which have spread to quite almost every part of the country. There is Boko Haram and ISIL affiliate group in the north. Violence between farmers and herders fighting over land across the Middle Belt. Kidnapping, criminal gangs, armed groups stealing oil, and separatists fighting in the southeast.