With dates for the 2023 Nigeria general elections now set by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)—the presidential and National Assembly poll is set for 25 February and governorship and other subnational elections scheduled for 11 March—the countdown is well underway for what will be the seventh consecutive elections since the return to democracy in 1999. This represents 23 years of unbroken democracy; the longest period in the country’s history.
The 2023 election will be conducted under a new electoral framework. The Electoral Act 2022 allows INEC to review results made under duress or financial inducements, extends the time for campaigns from 90 to 150 days, and provides for the use of technology to determine the mode of voting and transmission of results. Pundits believe these measures can help manage situations where inaccurate results are returned, expand the opportunity for politicians to visit the nooks and crannies of the country if they so desire, and can cure the chaotic, vulnerable manipulation and unnecessarily opaque process of the aggregating result.
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However, instead of reducing the role of money in politics, the Act has increased the campaign finance limit from N1 billion to N5 billion for presidential candidates. The ceilings for all other elected positions have also been increased fivefold, but without any efforts to improve scrutiny the compliance limits are still likely to be exceeded.
The Electoral Act requires that parties submit the names of their candidates 180 days before the elections, thereby allowing for the legal resolution of fractious primaries ahead of voting day. In signing the Electoral Act, President Buhari also requested that the section that precludes political office holders from participating in the party primaries and voting during congresses be deleted as it breaches participation rights. However, the National Assembly refused to make this amendment. This meant that several of Buhari’s ministers were unable to contest for elective office unless they first resigned their position.
In late May the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) delegates chose long-time presidential aspirant, Atiku Abubakar as their candidate – as they did in 2019. He will face off against Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC). On 8 June, Tinubu emerged from an initial field of 28 candidates who each paid N100 million to purchase the party nomination forms. Just like at the PDP convention where the decisive movement was delivered by the governor of Sokoto’s decision to stand down, handing his delegate votes to Atiku, the APC presidential primaries saw frontline southwest candidates such as the Governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, and former Ogun governor Ibikunle Amosun stepping down, handing Tinubu their bloc votes.
Rotational politics referred to locally as zoning was a serious consideration in internal party deliberations. There exists an unwritten rule that the presidency must rotate between the North and the South, but this provision is only written into the PDP constitution. But in the selection of Atiku the PDP has already pushed back against its commitment. Though it will likely select a southern, Christian as Atiku’s running mate? The selection of Tinubu by the APC was an attempt to return some power to southern Nigeria, after two terms of northern dominance. However, having Tinubu APC as the presidential aspirant likely means a Muslim-Muslim ticket as he will have to pick a northern Muslim as his running mate to offer some competition for Atiku. However, this may lose the APC votes in a bifurcated southern Nigeria, where narratives around an ‘Islamisation agenda’ have gained ground during the Buhari administration.
The old and the new?
Tinubu, 70, and Atiku, 75, are now the frontline candidates in the forthcoming elections and both have significant war chests at their disposal. They previously worked together in 2007 when Tinubu’s party, the Action Congress, fielded Atiku, then outgoing vice-president, as its presidential candidate and in 2015, when both were frontline promoters of the APC. However, with 60% of Nigeria’s population youth and with many among that generation disgruntled with the ruling class following events such as the #EndSars protest against police brutality, the prospect of an intergeneration divide widening is clear.
Potential third forces that could increase the likelihood of Nigeria’s first-ever presidential run-off are Peter Obi, 60, who withdrew from the PDP primary contest and will now run as the Labour Party flagbearer, and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, 65. While Obi has cultivated a significant online following among younger voters, Kwankwaso is equally popular among the youth in his native Kano State. The attempt to create a formidable third force seems to have been midwifed as the Peoples Redemption Party, New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP), National Rescue Movement (NRM), and Nigeria Labour Congress have all agreed, for now, to an alliance to run under the banner of the Labour Party. A joint Obi-Kwankwaso ticket could shake up the presidential race.
The 2023 elections will be one of the most challenging elections to conduct in Nigeria as the country battles nodes of complex insecurity. The Boko Haram conflict that defined the 2015 election is yet to be quelled, but with bandits operating across the Northwest, violent secessionist agitation spiraling in the Southeast, and farmer-herder clashes ongoing across the country the 2023 election is set to take place amidst nationwide insecurity. The 5 June attack on a church in relatively stable Ondo State, in Southwest Nigeria, which saw more than 50 people killed was a stark reminder of the insecurity challenges that will the safety of election materials and personnel a major challenge for INEC.
INEC chairman, Professor Mahmud Yakubu, is the first election head to get a second term in the country’s history. But whilst Yakubu has done well to build on the successes of his predecessor Professor Attahiru Jega by adopting innovation and consulting regularly with key stakeholders, Nigeria’s zero-sum political game with desperate and disparate actors out to win at all costs still poses a sizeable threat to electoral integrity despite technological advances. The forthcoming off-cycle governorship elections in Ekiti (18 June) and Osun (16 July) states will offer an early indication of what to expect in the 2023 general elections. But the economic implications of an extended election season are already putting strain on an economy that has hobbled in and out of recession in the last seven years. The Naira is now trading at over N600 to one US Dollar on the black market as thousands of dollars are dispersed by political aspirants at all levels to shore up support.
Voter turnout is another area of concern. Just 34.75% of eligible Nigerians votes in 2019 and a similarly low, or lower, turnout in 2023 would further undermine the credibility of the poll. But given the prevailing insecurity across the country, the choice available when it comes to the presidential race, difficulties in registering for permanent voter cards in insecure areas in northern and southeastern Nigeria, and the likely rampant misinformation and disinformation that will emerge in the lead up to voting day designed to draw distinct divisions and undermine the credibility of key election stakeholders, means that fewer Nigerians may vote next year than in 2019.
Nigeria may be experiencing its longest run of uninterrupted democracy but its quality of it remains very much in need of improvement.
By Idayat Hassan, who is the Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja