Three years early, there is already speculation about Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections, apparently fueled by gossip and hearsay. President Muhammadu Buhari has denied rumors that he would seek a third term, which would violate the constitution. There are rumors of a falling-out between the president and the vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, up to now Buhari’s heir apparent for the governing All Progressives Congress.
To understand some of the political machinations behind talk of 2023, some background might help. Nigeria transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999. The transition was the result of a bargain struck by an elite cabal over 1998 and 1999, following the death of the brutal dictator Sani Abacha. Among the principal points was that the presidency would alternate every eight years between the south and the north. A corollary was that if the presidential nominee was Christian, then the vice presidential nominee would be Muslim, and vice versa. This provision was never a matter of law, but it was incorporated into the rules of the soon-to-be-governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The other major political party, now the All Progressives Congress (its name has changed over time), never formally adopted the principle.
The general theme of power alternation—rather than power sharing—as an approach to governance dates back to the colonial period. That principle is called “zoning,” or “power shift.” In 2005 and 2006, incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo sought to amend the constitution so that he could run for a third term. Had he done so, the principle of alternation every eight years between the south and the north would have been violated. The elites blocked Obasanjo’s effort. His successor was Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, elected in 2007. However, when Yar’Adua died in office, his term was finished by his southern and Christian vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. The expectation in the north was that because it was still the north’s turn, Jonathan would not run in 2011, and the principal presidential candidates would be northern Muslims. However, Jonathan did run and was rigged into the presidency. This, in effect, broke the 1998–9 bargain. When the election results were announced, there was widespread violence in the north.
When Jonathan ran again in 2015, he was defeated by Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim. For the first time, an opposition candidate won the presidency through the ballot box. Commentators, especially outside Nigeria, saw the elections of 2015 as an important milestone for the country’s democratic development, perhaps even breaking the pattern of rigged elections. In line with “power shift,” both leading candidates in the 2019 elections were Fulani Muslims, because it was still the north’s “turn.” Buhari won those elections, but they were characterized by blatant rigging, as were the elections of 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011. The expectation is that in 2023, after eight years of a northern, Muslim presidency, it will be the turn of southern Christians.
But, with 2019 in mind, could it be that it was the elections of 2011 that really broke the pattern, and the elections of 2015 merely restored it? Were in fact the elections of 2015 much better than those before and after? Did the political classes determine that Jonathan had to go, in part because of the deteriorating economy and security situation, but also understanding that the 1998–9 bargain struck between the south and the north had to be restored? Will the bargain survive in 2023?