from Africa in Transition, Africa Program and Nigeria on the Brink

Making Sense of Nigeria's Upcoming Presidential Election

Supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari rally in support of his administration as police officers look on, at the Unity fountain in Abuja, Nigeria, on August 11, 2017. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

October 12, 2018

Supporters of President Muhammadu Buhari rally in support of his administration as police officers look on, at the Unity fountain in Abuja, Nigeria, on August 11, 2017. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Nigerian society and political behavior at all levels usually is shaped by patronage and clientage networks. Politically, there are few genuinely independent voters, in the sense that voters in, say, Vermont or Switzerland are completely free to vote for whomever they like. Clients usually vote as their patrons wish, and nearly everybody is both a patron and a client, from the business and political elites to rag pickers at the Lagos dump. 

Nigerian governance is determined by bargains between the country’s competing but cooperating elites. Presidential politics in Nigeria occur in the context of two political parties, one “slightly to the left,” the other “slightly to the right.” (The party names change from time to time, but in their present form the two parties date from the 1985–93 military government of Ibrahim Babangida.) At present the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is “slightly to the left” and the All Progressives Congress (APC) is “slightly to the right,” and is the party of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. By law and custom the parties may not be based on ethnicity or religion, which are perhaps the two issues of greatest importance to ordinary Nigerians, severely limiting the parties’ relevance to the general public. Instead, the two parties are essentially elite machines for winning elections rather than advancing a policy agenda, and politicians move easily from one to the other depending on personal expediency. 

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Elections and Voting

Muhammadu Buhari

Sub-Saharan Africa

Formally, a presidential victor must gain at least 25 percent of votes in at least twenty-four of the thirty-six states as well as a majority of the national vote. Informally, the presidency rotates every eight years between the Muslim north and the Christian south, a practice referred to as zoning.

In advance of national presidential elections, the PDP and the APC hold primaries in which their elites settle on a presidential candidate. For the February 2019 elections, the APC unanimously chose incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari, while the PDP chose former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. As it is the north’s “turn” to hold the presidency, both candidates are Muslims. Further, Buhari’s vice president and running mate, Yemi Osinbajo, is a southern Christian, and Atiku’s running mate will be as well.

The eventual winner of a presidential contest is usually the beneficiary of greater elite support than his rival. Where there is a broad elite consensus, the run-up to elections and their aftermath are less the occasion for violence than when the elites are fractured. In the 2015 elections, the elite consensus was that incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan had to go; Buhari was the only real alternative and accordingly, he won. No such consensus has emerged for the February 2019 election, and both candidates are strong and well-funded. That would seem to put a premium on which party and which candidate can raise the most money (Nigerian elections are notoriously expensive) and which party is the better organized. Typically, the incumbent, President Buhari, has the advantage, but Buhari defeated incumbent Jonathan in 2015, and therefore Atiku likely thinks his chances are good.

This political model based on an elite dominated, patrimonial society is challenged each electoral cycle by minor candidates who seek to remake Nigerian politics around issues rather than personality, and argue that the elite understandings that govern Nigerian politics must go. There are three such presidential candidates for 2019: Oby Ezikwesili, Donald Duke, and Kingsley Moghalu. All three are southern Christians, and all have had close ties to the United States. Ezikwesili is a Harvard graduate, a former vice president of the World Bank, and a founder of the popular movement #BringBackOurGirls. Donald Duke is the former governor of Cross Rivers state and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. Kingsley Moghalu was a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

Critics often say that the Nigerian political leadership is a gerontocracy: Buhari was born in 1942 while Atiku was born in 1946, both before Nigeria became independent. By contrast, Ezikwesili was born in 1963, Duke in 1961, and Moghalu in 1963. Among other things, they represent a generational challenge.

More on:

Nigeria

Elections and Voting

Muhammadu Buhari

Sub-Saharan Africa

Conventional wisdom holds that none of these three stands a chance against the PDP and APC political duopoly, and this is probably correct. They do not have access to the huge amounts of money necessary to win Nigerian elections, nor are any part of a nation-wide and well-organized political party. Nevertheless, Nigeria is in flux. The economy remains in the doldrums, despite some recovery in oil prices. Boko Haram is far from defeated. Ostensibly ethnic and religious conflict in the middle of the country is far from resolution. The oil patch is restive. Calls for fundamental restructuring of the federation are widespread. Yet, if any of these three were to seriously challenge the PDP and the ADP, two would need to withdraw and throw their support to the third. There is no sign at present of this happening, but Nigerian politics are especially fluid, and the country appears more unstable than usual. Hence the possibility of a serious challenge to the traditional mode of Nigerian presidential governance should be monitored, rather than dismissed.

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