Nigerians will go to the polls on Saturday, February 25, 2023, to elect a new president. Muhammadu Buhari, the current president, will not be on the ballot after having served two consecutive terms. The standard bearer of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), will instead be his party’s co-founder, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the “godfather” of Lagos politics who governed Lagos during the first eight years of the Fourth Republic. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which ruled Nigeria between 1999—when civil rule was restored—and 2015, will be led by Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president who fell out with former President Olusegun Obasanjo and was hounded out of the party before plotting his way back in 2017.
After six elections and 24 years of continuous competitive politics, pundits believe that Nigeria’s polity can be characterized as an established two-party system. In this system, voters are assumed to be locked in and new parties lack the resources, structures, and experience to topple the existing order. Is Nigeria’s two-party system really institutionalized? Or can a third party defy the odds and create an electoral shock or upset? To address these questions, I first provide an overview of Nigeria’s party system, questioning the notion of a consolidated two-party regime. I then discuss four sets of hot-button grievances that are likely to influence voter calculations: the country’s abysmal economic condition and high levels of insecurity; the controversy over the APC’s Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket; the agitation for power rotation to the geopolitical South; and the Southeast’s claim to the presidency on the grounds of equity. This is followed by an analysis of the Peter Obi phenomenon and his Labour Party, which many believe poses the biggest threat to the two main parties. I conclude by examining some of the recent polls and advancing a few scenarios on likely outcomes.
Interrogating Nigeria’s two-party system
On paper, Nigeria’s political system does look like a two-party regime. The APC and the PDP accounted for 99.7 percent of the votes in the 2019 presidential election and control 35 of the 36 state governments, 104 of the 109 senators, 348 of the 360 House of Assembly members, and most local government councils. However, this two-party system is a recent phenomenon. The country started its democratic path as a dominant party system in which the PDP enjoyed hegemonic power over a variety of regional parties. Prior to 2015, only the PDP could be characterized as a national party: it attracted support from five of the six geopolitical zones during the foundation election of 1999 and won four consecutive elections between 1999 and 2011. Its success owed much to the national consensus spearheaded by the Northern political class to cede the presidency to the Southwest, where agitation for the dismantling of the Nigeria project was rife after the cancellation of the 1993 presidential election that was won by Moshood Abiola, a native of that region.
The other parties that contested presidential elections before 2015 were largely regional outfits. The Alliance for Democracy (AD), the dominant party in the Southwest, worked in alliance with the Northern-based All People’s Party (APP) and rejected the Northern establishment’s imposition of the PDP’s Olusegun Obasanjo as a consensus candidate on the region by fielding Olu Falae, an alternative candidate from that region. Falae won all six southwest states by huge margins as well as Yobe, Zamfara, and Sokoto, but failed to win in the other 27 states.
Surprisingly, despite Obasanjo’s comprehensive rejection by voters in the southwest in 1999, that zone became his biggest vote bank in the 2003 election when he was challenged by Muhammadu Buhari under the banner of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), which drew most of its support from the north. Buhari’s ANPP came a distant second with only 32 percent of the votes against Obasanjo’s 62 percent. The 2003 election signaled, however, the end of Northern consensus around Obasanjo’s presidency and the PDP’s dominance in the north, as Buhari won 10 of the 13 states in the northwest and northeast geopolitical zones. However, he failed miserably in the three zones in the south and was beaten handsomely in the northcentral zone by Obasanjo. Buhari’s subsequent efforts to clinch the presidency in 2007 and 2011 under the ANPP and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) also ended in failure. The AD did not put up a candidate to challenge Obasanjo in 2003 and lost five of its six state governors in the southwest to the PDP—retaining only Lagos. When the party metamorphosed into the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in 2006, it revived its power in most of the southwest states (winning the governorship elections of five of the six states) and Edo, but failed to make an impact in presidential elections.
The futility of competing for the presidency as separate regional parties prompted Buhari’s CPC (which he formed in 2009 after decamping from the ANPP) and Tinubu’s ACN to merge their respective parties into the current All Progressives Congress (APC) and contest the 2015 elections. Nigeria’s two-party system has thus been in existence for only eight years. This is not a long period to foreclose the rise of viable new parties or even the demise of the two main parties. It is crucial to emphasize that the electoral rules for winning the presidency have contributed substantially to the transformation of Nigeria’s political parties. It is no longer enough to win only one part of the north-south regional divide, which can guarantee only 19 or 17 states. In addition to winning the majority of votes cast, parties now have to satisfy the constitutional rule of winning 25 percent of the votes in two-thirds of the states (or 24 states) in order to secure the presidency. Under these rules, parties with a high probability of winning become big multi-ethnic tents. Indeed, both the APC and the PDP easily obtained 25 percent of the votes or higher in more than 24 states in the 2019 election. The PDP lost the 2019 election because it got fewer votes than the APC—not because it lacked geographical spread.
Are voters locked in the two-party system? Political behavior the world over suggests that inflexible voter loyalty to parties occurs when they are driven by ideologies that voters perceive as addressing their socioeconomic interests, or when parties are ethno-regional, and voters perceive elections as voting for one’s identity or kith and kin. However, Nigeria’s two main parties are completely bereft of ideology. They are largely elite vehicles for accessing plum jobs and appropriating or sharing the state’s oil wealth. The two parties are also not driven by exclusionary ethno-regional interests. Ethno-regional rivalry now takes place within—not between—parties, as well as outside the party system. The absence of ideology and ethno-regional inter-party politics accounts for the high level of defection from parties.
The three main presidential candidates, Tinubu, Atiku, and Obi, have all changed parties at least twice. Atiku tops the list—he moved from the PDP to the ACN and APC before returning to the PDP. He is followed by Peter Obi who moved from the All Progressives Grand Coalition (APGA) to the PDP before decamping to the Labour Party. And Tinubu has moved from the AD/APP to the ACN and the APC, although in his own case, he was one of the architects of the parties he moved into. Defections by governors, federal and state House of Assembly members, local government councilors, and party officials at all levels of government are also rife.
It has been estimated that an average of five Nigerian senators changed parties every year between 1999 and 2011 . Similarly, during the 2015 elections, 84 members of both the Senate and the House of Assembly changed the parties on whose platforms they contested the previous election.1Agan, A, T. Adzagba, and T. Vihimga, Nigerian Journal of Administrative Studies vol. 5, no. 1 (2019): 129-142. And in less than two years after the 2019 elections, which the APC won, three governors, six senators, and 15 House of Assembly members of the PDP defected to the APC. Defection has, indeed, become a key part of Nigeria’s political culture.
In situations where political parties are not ideological or ethno-regional and those who govern have not markedly improved voters’ welfare, one should expect low voter turnout and high voter defection among parties—voting for one party in one election and another party in another election. Voter turnout has been low in Nigeria’s elections, especially in the geopolitical south. In the 2019 election, for instance, only 35 percent of registered voters bothered to vote. In Lagos state, which has the highest number of registered voters, only 18 percent voted.2Joachim MacEbong, “Why Tinubu could lose to Peter Obi in Lagos,” February 8, 2023, https://www.stears.co/premium/article/why-tinubu-could-lose-to-peter-obi-in-lagos/
However, voter defection among parties has not been a strong feature of Nigerian politics. Indeed, voters in the south-south and the southeast have been highly inflexible, voting consistently for the PDP in all presidential elections since 1999. Since the formation of the APC under Buhari, voters in all seven states of the northwest have also consistently voted for the APC—in 2015 and 2019. When combined with the APC’s strong presence in the northeast (winning five of the six states in 2015 and four in 2019), it could be concluded that voters in those two geopolitical zones are inflexible in their voting behavior in presidential elections. This inflexibility has often been referred to as “Buhari’s fifteen million voters” or vote bank in the far north.
In contrast, voters in the Southwest have been more flexible than voters in the other five zones—they rejected the PDP in 1999, then enthusiastically embraced it in 2003; and even though the ACN, the dominant party in the region, dissolved into the APC for the 2015 and 2019 elections, the margin of victory of the APC in the southwest states was very small in both elections. The PDP has remained an electoral force in that region. Its candidate, Atiku Abubakar, won three of the region’s six states in 2019 and was very competitive in the other three. Voters in the north-central zone have also demonstrated some level of flexibility after comprehensively supporting the PDP in all presidential elections between 1999 and 2011. The APC broke the PDP’s dominance in that zone in 2015, securing four of the six states; and in the 2019 election, the margin of victory was very small in four states.
I hypothesize that what appears as voter inflexibility does not necessarily translate as loyalty to parties or leaders. Voting behavior could be influenced by one or several hot-button issues that may affect voters differently across states, zones, and regions. To borrow a concept from German philosophy, such issues can create a zeitgeist or spirit of the times that individuals or groups are motivated to follow. A zeitgeist is no respecter of established structures, leaders, or gatekeepers if they hold contrary views to the prevailing mood.
The zeitgeist that informed the 1999 election was the national consensus to appease the Yoruba or the southwest after the denial of the presidency to Moshood Abiola in 1993. When that consensus was broken in the north in 2003 and Buhari challenged Obasanjo for the presidency, the mood in the geopolitical south, supported by the north-central zone, was that power should not return to the far north after only one term of a South presidency. Instructively, voters in the southwest who had been critical of Obasanjo decamped from their regional party, the AD, and voted overwhelmingly for Obasanjo. Similarly, the inflexibility displayed by voters in the south-south and southeast could be explained by the mood of the electorate rather than a blind attachment to the PDP. The two regions were part of the national consensus that ceded the presidency to the southwest in 1999. They remained loyal to the PDP when Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the south-south, assumed the presidency after Umaru Yar’Adua’s death, and northern politicians tried to prevent him from contesting the presidential elections in 2011 and 2015. A new spirit of the times, as seems to be happening in the 2023 election with the candidacy of Peter Obi, who hails from the southeast, may cause a rupture in relations between voters and the PDP in those two zones.
In the same vein, Buhari’s so-called fifteen million voters in the north should not be seen as his personal property. The mood of the northwest and large parts of the northeast, especially during Jonathan’s presidency, was the quest for leaders who could make the north safe and tackle its pervasive poverty and the plight of out-of-school children. Buhari’s antecedent as an army general and anti-corruption crusader when he governed the country in 1984-85 endeared him well to that electorate. Voter behavior in Borno, the epicenter of the Boko Haram terrorist activities, is quite telling on this issue. In 2003, voters in Borno and nine other states in the northwest and northeast ditched the northern consensus around Obasanjo’s PDP by voting emphatically for Buhari’s ANPP. However, Borno voters returned to the PDP when Jonathan contested the presidency in 2011, awarding him 77 percent of the votes—perhaps hoping that by investing most of their votes in Jonathan, he would work hard to end the widespread insecurity in their region. Jonathan’s failure to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency led to a massive switch to Buhari’s APC in the 2015 and 2019 elections, giving Buhari more than 90 percent of the votes in both elections. It is doubtful that Buhari can transfer his votes in those two zones to his party’s candidate, Tinubu, in the 2023 election. Excluding possibilities of voting buying and rigging, the mood of the voters in those zones is likely to determine where those votes go.
Hot-button issues and voter calculations
Nigerian voters seem to be seized with four hot-button issues in the 2023 presidential election. The first is the awful economic condition and security environment. GDP growth has ranged from -1.6 percent in 2016 to 3.1 percent in 2022—far worse than the growth rate of 6 percent or higher recorded between 1999 and 2014. The annual inflation rate soared to a 17-year peak of 21.84 percent in January 2023; and there was a more than two-and-half-fold deterioration of the official value of the naira between 2014 and 2022, with the dollar now selling at N755 in the parallel market—N295 more than the official rate. And, astonishingly, the country was declared the “poverty capital” of the world in 2016, with more than 90 million of its inhabitants living below the World Bank’s $1.9 a day poverty level—more than India and China, each with seven times more people. To cap it all, the country’s petroleum price subsidy has turned out to be a huge scam, filling the pockets of petroleum product importers who sell the product to neighboring countries at higher prices, depriving the government of USD 9.7 billion dollars in 2022 alone. Large amounts of the country’s crude oil, which accounts for 70 percent of government budgets and 95 percent of foreign exchange earnings, are now routinely stolen at source, making it difficult for the country to meet its Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota. It has been estimated that since 2021, USD 3.3 billion worth of crude oil has been lost to oil theft.
These woeful economic conditions have been compounded by a serious deterioration in the security environment. In addition to the long-running Boko Haram insurgency, new security threats have emerged or gained ground, such as kidnappings and banditry; conflicts between Fulani cattle herders and farmers, including alarmist allegations of “Fulanization”; and revival of militant separatist agitations for a Biafra republic in the Southeast. It has been estimated that 27,000 Nigerians have lost their lives in armed conflict, 2.2 million are displaced, and more than 8.4 million need urgent humanitarian assistance.3Reliefweb, “Nigeria’s decade long conflict leaves millions in need of humanitarian aid,” February 2, 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/nigerias-decade-long-conflict-leaves-millions-need-humanitarian-aid And the International Crisis Group (2022) estimates that more than 5,000 Nigerians were abducted between January and mid-December 2022.
The general consensus in large parts of the country is that Buhari’s APC rule has been a colossal failure. Amazingly, he has not lived up to his two selling points—his military background which should have helped to tackle the security conundrum, and his avowed zero tolerance for corruption, which should have led to better management of the economy.4Jibrin Ibrahim, “Corruption and the Buhari legacy,” Premium Times, May 20, 2022; Jibrin Ibrahim, “Alternative Facts and the Buhari Legacy”, Premium Times, June 24, 2022. To further compound the problem, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has poorly handled its naira redesign program in the run-up to the election, causing great hardship to ordinary consumers and small business operators. The combination of hopelessness in the economic and security fields has fuelled a vibrant youth movement against the conventional parties. Some of the catchy slogans of the youth, who make up about 40 percent of registered voters (this number rises to 75 percent of the cohort of those aged 35-49 is included) and turn up in their thousands at Obi’s rallies, are “We should take back our country,” “A new Nigeria is possible,” and “Carry me dey go for better Naija” (the Labour Party’s campaign song).
The second issue is the controversy surrounding the APC’s decision to field a Muslim-Muslim ticket for the presidential election. After the return to civil rule in 1999, some consensus was developing that the two top candidates of a party’s presidential ticket should not have the same faith. But Tinubu, the APC’s standard bearer, was in a bind in choosing his running mate. The coalition of the CPC (Buhari’s old party) and the ACN (Tinubu’s old party) that birthed the APC was based on the calculation that the combined votes of Buhari’s CPC in the northwest and northeast and Tinubu’s ACN in the southwest would be enough to win any presidential election. After all, the northwest and southwest zones have more voters than any of the other four zones. Tinubu’s calculation in choosing his running mate, it seems, is based on replicating Buhari’s winning formula, which he (Tinubu) played a big part in constructing. It is in this sense that one can understand Tinubu’s entitlement speech emi lo kan (Yoruba for “it’s my turn”) in Abeokuta during the race for the party’s ticket. Choosing a northern Christian as his running mate could have alienated the bulk of the Muslim voters who constitute Buhari’s strongest base. However, his choice of a Muslim-Muslim ticket has angered the Christian community in the south, north-central, and northeast, leading to defections from the party.
The third issue is the rotation of power between the north and the south. Even though the principle of power rotation is not a constitutional requirement, the logic of managing the diversity of Nigeria’s ethnoregional interests has forced politicians in both parties to embrace it. By this principle, the candidates of both the APC and PDP should be from the south in this election since the outgoing president is a northerner. A faction of northern politicians in the APC initially tried to scuttle the rotation principle when the Chairman of the party, Abdullahi Adamu, announced the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, as a consensus candidate. However, Tinubu’s network in the APC was too powerful to deny him the ticket, forcing the northern faction to back down. The PDP on the other hand decided to field Atiku, a northerner, even though he had contested the presidency in 2019 and failed. Northern members of the PDP argued that it was still the turn of the north because the last president, Jonathan, who was from their party, was a southerner. This has not gone down well with southern politicians and voters as well as Christians in the north-central region and the northeast. Five PDP governors in the South (in Rivers, Enugu, Abia, and Oyo states) and Benue have refused to campaign for Atiku. The Benue state Governor, Samuel Ortom, has even gone further by declaring his support for Obi.
The fourth issue is the southeast’s claim that it is their turn to provide the presidency since previous presidents were recruited from the north, southwest, and south-south. Igbos, who inhabit the southeast, feel a deep sense of marginalization that can be traced to their attempt to secede from the federation leading to the tragic Biafra war of 1967-1970. This sense of marginalization has generated militant calls for a new Biafra championed by Nnamdi Kanu’s movement, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). Interestingly, as owners of small businesses, the Igbos are the most itinerant people in Nigeria. They can be found, often in large numbers, in all states of the federation, especially in the states bordering the southeast (Delta, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Benue, Kogi, and Edo) and big commercial centers like Lagos, Kano, and Kaduna. The small land area of the southeast, which is only 29,525 square kilometers (the smallest among the six zones), may also be a push factor for Igbo outward migration. During the APC’s primary elections, there were eight Igbo candidates, but none could match Tinubu’s power and influence in the party. Similarly, four Igbos contested the PDP’s primary. But they were also not strong enough to defeat Atiku. The current candidate of the Labour Party even defected from the PDP before the party convention when it became clear to him that he would not win.
These four hot-button issues affect voters differently. Each, or a combination of the four, seems to have created a zeitgeist or mood among voters in different states, zones, or regions and may be decisive in determining how they are likely to vote. Unfortunately, apart from the issues on the economy/security and religion or the Muslim-Muslim ticket, the other two issues—power rotation to the south and the southeast’s claims to the presidency on grounds of fairness—do not feature in the questionnaires of polling firms for us to know how strongly voters feel about these issues. Even in the case of religion, which features in polling questionnaires, voters tend to give untruthful answers. In the Stears poll, for instance, even though only four percent of respondents selected religion as one of the factors determining their choice, only 17 percent of Christians supported either Tinubu or Atiku, while 43 percent chose Obi; and Obi received less than three percent of the Muslim choices.5Michael Famoroti, “Stears poll predicts who will be Nigeria’s next president,” February 2023, https://www.stears.co/premium/article/stears-poll-predicts-nigerias-next-president/ Religion is clearly an issue in this election.
All four issues strongly resonate with voters in the southeast, which may explain why polls suggest that Obi is likely to get his highest votes from that region. Three issues (the economy and insecurity, the Muslim-Muslim ticket, and power rotation to the South) may shape the mood of voters in the south-south. The state of the economy/insecurity and the Muslim-Muslim ticket may be driving many young voters to Obi’s Labour Party in the southwest if the polls serve any useful guide (even though the Muslim and Christian faiths coexist in many Yoruba households, rendering religion less potent). Respected opinion leaders in that region, such as Obasanjo and Ayo Adebanjo, head of the pan-Yoruba cultural organization, Afenifere, have also been vocal in pushing the equity argument for granting the presidency to the southeast. Voters in the northwest may not be vexed by the Muslim-Muslim ticket, power rotation to the south, or the southeast’s claim to the presidency, but they worry a lot about the economy and insecurity. And voters in the north-central zone may be impacted not only by the state of the economy and insecurity but also by the discourse on the Muslim-Muslim ticket.
The ‘Obi-dient’ movement
Apart from the APC and the PDP, 16 other candidates are contesting the presidential election. Of these 16 parties, only two, the Labour Party (LP) and Rabiu Kwankwaso’s New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP), are believed to stand any chance of upsetting the two main parties. From the polls and observation of the NNPP’s campaign rallies, Kwankwaso seems to enjoy enthusiastic support in Kano and other states in the northwest and northeast but lacks traction in the geopolitical south. Even though his running mate is from Edo state in the south, the NNPP’s rally in that state, which was organized to introduce the party’s six gubernatorial candidates to the south-south for the first time, was poorly attended. If there is going to be an upset, it is likely to come from Peter Obi and his Labour Party. The Obi phenomenon is one of the big surprises of this election. This is the first time in the Fourth Republic’s 24 years of electoral politics that a social movement has succeeded in having on the ballot an “insurgent” politician that wants to change the old order of politics.
Obi and the Labour Party are very much an odd combination. He is a wealthy businessman who had been a governor of Anambra state as well as a vice presidential candidate to the PDP’s Atiku in 2019. He decamped to the Labour Party when it became likely that he would fail to get the PDP’s presidential ticket. Across the world, parties that have strong ties with labor movements or the underprivileged usually recruit their top-tier candidates from those with a long-standing involvement in the struggles of such movements. A prime example is Luis Lula da Silva, Brazil’s current president, who was a trade unionist and organizer of memorable strikes that improved the conditions of workers before joining the Workers’ Party. Nigeria’s Labour Party, on the other hand, has been unable to field politicians in elections that have a connection with labor struggles. Starting with Olusegun Mimiko as Labour’s gubernatorial candidate in Ondo state in 2007, the Labour Party seems to be attracting candidates who have defected from the dominant parties instead of nurturing them among its ranks. In the electoral union between Obi and the Labour Party, members of the party with trade union links seem to have taken a back seat, allowing Obi’s personality and forceful agitation for change among Nigeria’s youth to take center stage.
After following the Labour Party’s campaign activities in the last six months, it is really amazing to see how Obi and his running mate, the Zaria-born educationist Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, have been transformed into insurgent politicians as they try to connect with the vision and demands of their young followers. As a soft-spoken person with a weak voice, Obi is not the kind of politician that one expects to arouse a crowd but he is brilliant when he speaks without a script and answers questions in town hall settings. The use of the labor movement’s traditional address, “comrade”, is markedly absent in the campaign; and the two candidates initially struggled to sing the Nigerian Labour Congress’ solidarity song. However, what Obi lacks in historical ties to labor he compensates for by doing his homework and dazzling his audiences with copious data on the Nigerian economy, poverty, and the human development index, as well as comparisons with other countries on land size and land use, food production, export earnings, electrification, and industrialization. One of his key selling points that has impressed his followers is his alleged frugality in the use of public funds when he was Governor of Anambra state. In a country where governors bequeath their states with huge debts when they leave office, he is believed to have left USD 156 million as savings based on the principle that the state should save N100 million naira monthly. His key slogan, which his followers have fully embraced, is to move Nigeria “from consumption to production”, and to curb the oil theft, wasteful oil subsidy, and what he calls the transactional politics that produces bad governance and stifles growth. The welfare of working people surely depends on the productive capacity of an economy—and Nigeria needs a hefty boost of productive capacity to lift its citizens out of poverty. However, what is missing as a party of labor is the redistributive aspect of development, which, in Nigeria’s highly unequal society, may involve addressing issues of taxation to tilt the allocation of the national wealth in favor of laboring people.
Rallies are a poor predictor of electoral outcomes. However, as a new party with no connections to the governmental structures of the 36 states, the Labour Party’s rallies give an indication of the level of enthusiasm of its supporters, who are mainly young people. Obi is received in most events like a rock star, especially his open street rallies in marketplaces. His supporters refer to themselves as ‘Obi-dients’, which may sound submissive or encourage the cultivation of a personality cult. In observing these rallies, however, one gets the impression that his supporters are investing in him and making a compact. He tells them to take note of the promises he makes and hold him accountable if he fails to deliver. It will be a mistake to assume that Obi owns the movement. Given the unusual nature of the union, both sides can defect if Obi does not win or pursues an anti-movement path if he gets into office.
Changing the Nigerian economic, social, and political order punctuates the speeches at his rallies. In addressing the clamor for young, healthy, and dynamic leaders, Obi does not miss the opportunity to always remind his followers that the average age of the Labour Party’s top two candidates is much lower than that of the APC and PDP, both of which are led by septuagenarians. Tinubu, who is listed as 70, is prone to numerous gaffes and even looks older and less fit than Atiku, who is 76. The Labour Party’s young and dynamic chairman, Julius Abure, is also a stark contrast to the aging chairmen of the two main parties. Most of Obi’s campaign organizers and speakers are young people. One of his able speakers, the electrifying social activist, Aisha Yesufu, always stays on message and connects the campaign to the struggles of the youth, especially the End-SARS protests and the killing of young people at the Lagos Lekki toll gate in 2020.
Obi’s running mate, Baba Ahmed, has also learned how to connect with the youth. In the Lagos rally, he had his moment of fame when he got the crowd to sing a song on struggles and change, using a call-and-response format reminiscent of the style of Fela, the late anti-establishment Afrobeat superstar. The movement has been effective in mining Afrobeats songs that have wide youth appeal, such as Fireboy’s song, Bandana, which has the catchy refrain “they never see me coming,” and Timaya’s rhythmic hit song, Sweet Us, which evokes feelings of schadenfreude against opponents (“As ee dey pain dem ee dey sweet us, as ee de sweet us omo ee dey pain dem” /when it pains them, it makes us happy, when we are happy, it pains them).
Conclusion: polls and scenarios
Let me conclude by returning to the key question of this discussion: can Obi and the Labour Party cause an upset? All eight polls that have been conducted since September 2022 predict Obi as the likely winner or front-runner. Many of these polls do not reveal their interview formats—by telephone, face-to-face, or online. Those that have given Obi remarkably high percentage points, such as Premise Data for Bloomberg (72 percent and 66 percent in its two polls) and Redfield and Wilton Strategies (62 percent) may have relied on online polling, which may heavily distort the sample of respondents. Two polls by Stears6Michael Famoroti, “Stears poll predicts who will be Nigeria’s next president,” February 2023, https://www.stears.co/premium/article/stears-poll-predicts-nigerias-next-president/ and NIO Polls for Anap Foundation, conducted in January and February 2023, reached out to respondents by telephone, which has limitations, but with an estimated 198 million active lines in Nigeria in 2020 out of a population of 215 million, this is a far better way of reaching voters than using an online format.7Femi Oyelola, “Mobile Penetration in Nigeria”, GeoPoll April 27, 2021, https://www.geopoll.com/blog/mobile-penetration-nigeria/ And one poll by Nextier conducted a face-face poll, which may reach a higher number of Nigerians than a telephone poll.
The NIO Polls for ANAP Foundation’s February 2023 poll gives Obi 21 percent, Tinubu 13 percent, and Atiku 10 percent of respondents’ choices. However, a very high percentage of respondents (53 percent) are either undecided or refused to answer the questions. Even though the polling firm states that the front runner in all its previous polls (2011, 2015, and 2019) ended up as winners, a poll with 53% of non-respondents cannot be accurate. The Nextier face-to-face poll of January 2023 gives Obi 37 percent, Atiku 27 percent, and Tinubu 24 percent of respondents’ choices. It interviewed 3,000 respondents with only five percent non-responses. However, even though the sample size seems more than enough to capture voter preferences at the national aggregate level, it may be too small to be statistically significant in capturing respondents’ choices in each of the 36 states. The poll gives Obi a lead in 18 states, including, surprisingly, four states in the Southwest. It predicts that Obi will get 25 percent of the votes in 23 states, requiring a run-off election.
Perhaps, the most comprehensive and ambitious poll is the one conducted by Stears—a company run by a group of young LSE-trained Nigerians who provide data-driven insights on Nigeria’s economy and politics. It has a sample size of 6,200 and booster samples for a few critical states to facilitate more precise state-level predictions. Based on declared votes, the Stears poll predicts that Obi will be first with 27 percent, Tinubu second with 15 percent, and Atiku third with 12 percent. However, 37 percent of respondents refused to reveal their choice, making the poll inconclusive. To get around this problem, Stears developed probit models to predict which of the top three candidates each silent voter is likely to vote for. In a scenario of high voter turnout, Obi still emerges as the winner with 41 percent, Tinubu with 31 percent, and Atiku with 20 percent. However, Tinubu leads in a low turnout scenario, polling 39 percent, Obi 32 percent, and Atiku 22 percent. The extent to which the assumptions informing the allocation of silent voter choices in the model accurately reflect how silent voters will eventually vote remains an open question, and the absence of trend data on the accuracy of probit models in predicting Nigeria’s previous elections calls for caution.
Interestingly, in the Stears poll, Obi leads in three of the six geopolitical zones and is competitive in the other three. And in the Nextier poll, Obi leads in 18 states. The Stears and Nextier polls agree that Obi is the front-runner in the southeast and south-south by wide margins. Even though Obi also leads in the north-central region in the Stears poll, that zone has a very high number of non-responses. However, in the Nextier poll, Obi, Tinubu, and Atiku each lead in two of the six north-central states. The Southwest produces divergent findings in the two polls. In the Stears poll, Obi is second behind Tinubu; however, in the Nextier poll, Obi wins four of the six states. Obi’s figures in the Nextier poll are poor in the northwest but fairly decent in the Stears poll. However, there is a very high number of undecided or silent voters in that zone.
The high number of non-responses, absence of large data sets on a number of issues that will help the construction of representative samples, and contradictory poll findings on some states or zones by different polling firms make it difficult to fully accept the accuracy of polls in Nigeria. This is virgin territory that requires time to deliver polls that are of comparable quality to those in more established democracies. The entry of smart, data-driven young Nigerians in the field is likely to improve the quality of polls in future elections.
Having said this, I think the polls do suggest, at a minimum, that Obi is not the so-called social media candidate that lacks the necessary ground game to win the election as is widely believed by the traditional political class and pundits. We have seen that both the APC and PDP are capable of winning 25 percent of the votes in 24 states. The ANAP poll also predicts that Obi can win 25 percent of the votes in 23 states, one short of the magic 24. And Obi’s lead in three geopolitical zones and competitiveness in the three others in the Stears poll also suggests a spread that is likely to give him 25 percent of the votes in 24 states. Obi’s strength in the southeast, south-south, north-central region, and Lagos and competitiveness in the northeast and parts of the northwest should not be underestimated.
Can any of the three candidates win in the first round? A first-round win is very possible for all three candidates because the electoral rule for declaring a president places a lot more premium on geographical spread than on the total votes won. In a three- or four-way race a candidate can get less than 30 percent of the total votes cast and still win if he is able to win 25 percent of the votes in 24 states. Each of the three top candidates can win on the first ballot. Atiku can do this if he is able to inherit the majority of Buhari’s votes in the northwest and northeast and hope that the PDP’s traditional hold on the Southeast and South-South will hold back Obi’s apparent tidal wave in those zones. Similarly, Tinubu can win in the first round if he is able to replicate Buhari’s winning formula by inheriting his votes in the northwest and northeast and pushing back Obi’s threat in the southwest. Obi’s first-round victory depends on a strong performance in the southeast, south-south, and north-central regions and a decent showing in the other three regions (replicating Jonathan’s winning coalition in 2011). He will benefit greatly if the struggle for the votes in the northwest and northeast becomes a four-or three-way race.
If there is a runoff election, Obi’s best path to the presidency is to face Atiku, who will be disadvantaged in the south and other parts of the north because of the three hot-button issues of power rotation to the south, the southeast’s claim to the presidency on equity grounds, and the religious factor. Sections of northern voters may also not be very enthusiastic to turn out and vote for another northerner after eight years of Buhari. However, a run-off between Obi and Tinubu will be difficult to predict, with Tinubu having an edge if he inherits Buhari’s voters.
All these scenarios assume that the vote will be free and fair, which, in the history of elections in Nigeria and the current political environment, cannot be taken for granted. The 2007 election is widely believed to be the most tainted. A breakdown of the presidential election results by the state is still not available to the public. Even though INEC is assuring the public that the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) will eliminate overvoting and vote buying, past practices have made Nigerians skeptical of the ability of the electoral body to conduct free and fair elections. A recent survey by Afrobarometer suggests that only 23 percent of Nigerians trust INEC “somewhat” or “a lot.” The dangers of voter suppression are real, such as the sit-at-home threat in the southeast by a faction of IPOB; intimidation of voters, such as the recent audio clip of threats to non-indigenous traders in Lagos to vote for the APC or face eviction; vote buying, which the naira redesign policy is allegedly aiming to prevent in the face stiff resistance from ruling party politicians; and the possibility of defection of Labour Party polling agents who may be incentivized to join the traditional parties in the northeast and southwest, for instance, where there have already been reported cases of defections by Labour Party candidates. However, if these threats are contained, this may well turn out to be a landmark election that will open up possibilities for the country’s renewal. Nigeria is too important in West Africa and the rest of the continent to be trapped in bad governance.
- 1Agan, A, T. Adzagba, and T. Vihimga, Nigerian Journal of Administrative Studies vol. 5, no. 1 (2019): 129-142.
- 2Joachim MacEbong, “Why Tinubu could lose to Peter Obi in Lagos,” February 8, 2023, https://www.stears.co/premium/article/why-tinubu-could-lose-to-peter-obi-in-lagos/
- 3Reliefweb, “Nigeria’s decade long conflict leaves millions in need of humanitarian aid,” February 2, 2023, https://reliefweb.int/report/nigeria/nigerias-decade-long-conflict-leaves-millions-need-humanitarian-aid
- 4Jibrin Ibrahim, “Corruption and the Buhari legacy,” Premium Times, May 20, 2022; Jibrin Ibrahim, “Alternative Facts and the Buhari Legacy”, Premium Times, June 24, 2022.
- 5Michael Famoroti, “Stears poll predicts who will be Nigeria’s next president,” February 2023, https://www.stears.co/premium/article/stears-poll-predicts-nigerias-next-president/
- 6Michael Famoroti, “Stears poll predicts who will be Nigeria’s next president,” February 2023, https://www.stears.co/premium/article/stears-poll-predicts-nigerias-next-president/
- 7Femi Oyelola, “Mobile Penetration in Nigeria”, GeoPoll April 27, 2021, https://www.geopoll.com/blog/mobile-penetration-nigeria/