Nigerians went to the polls in March and April 2019 to elect officers who will serve for the next four years in the executive and legislative arms of government at the federal and state levels. These were the sixth successive elections since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, and many expected some improvement in the quality of the electoral management process. It was also significant because it came after the 2015 elections, which marked the first case of democratic alternation of power in Nigeria’s political history; the main opposition party, All Progressives Congress (APC), defeated the incumbent Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This occurred in a context where incumbency had usually been the major determinant of electoral outcomes.
Neutrality of State Institutions
The expectation of free and fair elections was dampened by the perception among some observers of bias by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), whose neutrality had been a key factor in the success of the 2015 elections. These suspicions were fueled by three factors. The first was that against convention, President Muhammadu Buhari appointed a person from his own region as INEC chairperson, which was seen as having serious implications for the independence of the head of the electoral body. Second, the controversy generated by the rumors of the appointment of Amina Bala-Zakari, who was accused of being Buhari’s relative, as the chief collation officer. Bala-Zakari denied the allegations, which were never proven, and did not serve as national collation officer, a position statutorily held by the chairman of INEC. Yet, the heat generated by the controversy raised concerns about INEC’s neutrality. The third factor was the decision of the president to decline assent to the proposed amendment of the Electoral Act, which was expected to enhance the independence and capacity of INEC to deliver free and fair elections.
Expectations of improvements in the quality of elections were also dampened by accusations that some security agencies had been sullied by their controversial partisan roles in midterm elections. Critics also cited the controversy over the reported planned extension of the tenure of the Inspector General of Police (IGP)—believed to be sympathetic to the incumbent president—beyond the statutory retirement age. Although the president eventually appointed a new inspector general of police, his choice of another Muslim Northerner, especially in a multiethnic context where heads of security agencies are predominantly Muslim Northerners, raised fears about the exclusion of non-Northern and non-Muslim groups.
The postponement of elections in March introduced a new dynamic to perceptions of INEC’s neutrality. The ruling APC, main opposition PDP, and other political parties joined millions of Nigerians to condemn the postponement. However, the position of the PDP appeared to mellow a few days after the initial reaction as the opposition party preferred the postponement to the option of holding staggered elections, which it alleged was contrived by the ruling party to manipulate the elections. This was after the president accused INEC of incompetence and said he would institute a probe into the postponement. It is likely that the presidential rebuke and the ensuing counteraccusations of incompetence against INEC by competing parties increased the pressure on the electoral body to prove its independence and capacity to conduct credible elections. Some of the pressure also came from a vigilant civil society and international election observers. The overwhelming lesson from the election is the need for further reforms to enhance the capacity and independence of Nigeria’s electoral umpire. These should be addressed early on before the onset of the next electoral cycle.
The election results strongly suggest that ethnicity played a major role in influencing voter behavior and political alignments. The expectation that ethnicity would be less relevant because the two leading presidential candidates were ethnic Fulani and Muslims turned out to be misplaced. The incumbent won the most votes in the far North East and North West, and in the South West (his vice president’s region) where the APC is entrenched. The main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar (a former vice president), won the most votes in the South East, South South, and some North Central states.
The states won by the opposition have complained the most about exclusion and unfairness in appointments by the incumbent president. Moreover, they accuse him of failing to resolve major issues affecting them, notably, the insecurity arising from the perennial farmer-herder conflicts. There is clear evidence that political actors manipulated ethnicity to serve their purposes. In the case of the presidential elections, there is little evidence that Buhari took steps to assuage the fears of ethnic and religious groups that felt alienated from his government as the elections approached. On his part, Abubakar appeared to have directed most of his campaign toward discontented ethno-religious groups. Thus, perception of short-term gains of instrumentalizing ethnic sentiments appeared to have prevailed over the imperatives for nurturing the broad-based inclusive pan-Nigerian coalitions required to foster national unity and stability. Clearly, Nigeria should consider other political and constitutional reforms that would moderate the tendency of political actors to mobilize ethnicity in elections.
Dominant Two-Party System
The outcome of 2019 elections indicates that Nigeria continues to gravitate toward entrenching a dominant two-party political system. Although about ninety parties contested for the presidency (paradoxically, fewer parties contested state executive and legislative seats) the APC and PDP were clearly the dominant parties. The performance of other parties, including the Young People’s Party (YPP), which was expected to mobilize the youth vote, was woefully poor. Major political actors appeared to have settled for the two major platforms for political contestation, unabashedly moving between them to achieve their political ambitions.
Apart from ethnicity, election outcomes were influenced by the balance of power among political parties in the different states. The success of parties depended less on policy agendas and more on each party’s alignment with the popular mood in the constituency and the dynamics within parties. Incumbent parties lost elections in states such as Adamawa, Imo, Kwara, Bauchi, Oyo, and Gombe due to unresolved conflicts during the primaries in which voters perceived some candidates as being imposed on them by powerful individuals. This situation, which resembles the dynamic of the 2015 elections in which the PDP lost power after sixteen years, will hopefully encourage political parties to move toward ensuring internal democracy. However, the dominance of two parties suggests the need for constitutional reform ahead of the next elections given the inconveniences that paper-tiger parties posed to the whole election management process.
Poor Voter Turnout?
Finally, the silent determinant of electoral outcomes was poor voter turnout. Projections that up to seventy million Nigerians were going to vote did not materialize as less than half of the expected number voted. The voter turnout has raised more questions than answers. Was the voter register a reflection of reality or was there voter apathy? The use of biometric technology was supposed to prevent inflation of the voter register as multiple registrations were rendered technically impossible. Thus, very few observers have blamed over-registration for the disappointingly low turnout relative to projected turnout. This is because many people of voting age were disenfranchised due to their inability to get a permanent voter card (PCV) before the elections.
Voter apathy has generally been blamed for the poor turnout. The main reasons advanced for voter apathy include insecurity, fear of electoral violence, lack of real choice offered by existing platforms, and alienation of the electorate. However, the insecurity hypothesis is challenged by the fact that the states most affected by insurgency and violent conflicts—Borno, Zamfara, and Yobe—experienced relatively high voter turnout. Also, the notion that voter apathy was due to Nigeria’s “choiceless democracy” is weakened by the very poor performance of new parties that were supposed to offer alternatives to the two dominant parties which many consider similar—except for their names and symbols. This suggests that ahead of the 2023 elections, Nigeria should consider measures to enhance the integrity of electoral registers. The simplest way to achieve this is to completely do away with special registration for elections, which is vulnerable to manipulation, and rely more on a systematic and comprehensive birth/age national identity registration system.