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Nigerian Presidential Election: The Politics of a 200 Million Strong Democracy

This is a guest post from our sister project Africa Elects, starting the coverage of presidential elections, ultimately taking place in early 2023 in NigeriaAs such, the labels and colouring of parties in this article may differ from Europe Elects’ usage.

In early 2023, Nigerians will head to the polls to elect a new president. With incumbent Muhammadu Buhari (APC) term-limited, the nation stands at a crossroads. Us at Africa Elects aim to introduce you, readers, to the background behind these elections and Nigerian politics overall during the upcoming year. This piece kicks off the process by introducing you to the dynamic factors dictating the next presidential election even before party primaries. Here is a closer look at the political situation and overview of the Nigerian political context as of March 2022.

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, home to a diverse and rapidly growing population of already 200 million people. Since the end of military rule in 1999, the nation’s political system has been a house of cards—a delicate balance of power facing new threats every four years. In 2015, Nigeria’s fragile democracy survived one of its most difficult challenges to-date: a highly-competitive election between two bitter rivals under the backdrop of a north-eastern Islamist insurgency. The election was won by the opposition candidate—and former military dictator—Muhammadu Buhari of the vaguely centrist All Progressives Congress (APC), defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the vaguely centre-right People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in a rematch of the 2011 election. Buhari’s election and subsequent inauguration became Nigeria’s first peaceful transfer of power between an outgoing president and a member of the opposition, setting the scene for a new era of Nigerian politics.

Four years later, Buhari faced the polls again in his fifth run for president since 2003 for the first time as the incumbent. His first term was a mixed bag: the north-eastern insurgency was diminished but not defeated, his promised ‘war on corruption’ did not fully come to fruition, and he took frequent medical trips abroad to the chagrin of Nigerians facing an underdeveloped health system at home. Nonetheless, Buhari was reëlected in 2019 over PDP nominee Atiku Abubakar, albeit with the PDP unsuccessfully contesting the results to the Supreme Court. Although new intercity train lines have opened and the insurgency in the northeast has been further repelled, even Buhari supporters admit that his second term has been somewhat disappointing. The president’s massive borrowing has economists sounding alarms, and violent crackdowns on protesters along with a seven-month ban on Twitter have damaged Nigeria’s international reputation. Now, gangs of ‘bandits’ terrorise the north-west, conflict between herders and farmers erode the middle belt, pirates threaten vital shipping lines off the Niger Delta, and a renewed separatist movement immobilised the south-east. Combined with a nationwide kidnapping epidemic, it is clear that Buhari’s 2015 campaign promise to bring ‘peace’ to the nation aged terribly. Nonetheless, the election of 2023 between Buhari’s All Progressives Congress and the main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party, is shaping up to be very competitive.

A word that comes up often during Nigerian elections is zoning: the informal agreement that executive offices should rotate between different regions. In terms of local elections, it is perhaps a rotation between different towns or neighbourhoods, while in gubernatorial elections it is usually between each state’s three senatorial districts. For presidential elections, zoning is sometimes viewed as two-tiered. First and primarily, the presidency should rotate between the North and the South every eight years; most Nigerians—citizens and politicians alike—support this tier as it is seen as vital for national unity.

The second tier of zoning states that the presidency should also rotate between the three zones that make up each the North and the South; for example: if a South-Easterner is elected president, South-Easterners need not apply the next time it is the South’s turn. This tier is much more contested and controversial as it is rarely adhered to and its existence is under serious question. Regardless of one’s belief in the second tier, the first tier and its goal of national unity is openly acknowledged to be an attempt to remedy potential issues arising from Nigeria’s internal regional, ethnic, and cultural differences. However, even this tier has come under threat in recent years as ambitious Northern politicians happen to forget their calls for zoning in previous years and instead rally around the pillar of ‘competence regardless of origin’ as justification for their campaigns. Overall, the position of the political parties could make or break the zoning principle for the future of Nigerian national politics.

Zoning is vital during presidential primaries, as political parties can ‘zone’ their nominations before the primary, only permitting people from that region to contest. While it looks like the main opposition party PDP will not zone their nomination, the incumbent APC’s move to zone internal party offices appears to be a pretext to zone their nomination to the South. Regardless of formal moves, candidates from the South1whose turn it is based on the first tier of zoning as Buhari, a Northerner, has served for two terms and more specifically, the South-East2who’s turn it is based on the second tier of zoning as the South-West and South-South have both had presidents while no South-Easterner has ever served as executive president can present a ‘moral high ground’ in their candidacy, claiming that their election would be better for national unity. 

Although it is primarily regional, zoning also has a religious element since the north is majority Muslim and the south is majority Christian. It is often expended to mean power should rotate between a northern Muslim and southern Christian, and whichever one holds power picks the another one as their running mate. This effectively cuts the tens of millions of northern Christians, southern Muslims, and members of other faiths out of both the presidency and the vice presidency lest they appear to break the agreement. However, this is also being challenged as there are several notable southern Muslim and northern Christian potential candidates. As again, zoning is primarily regional, these candidates may not face massive roadblocks on their own candidacy due to their religion but if nominated, they will likely face a dilemma when picking a running mate as they question whether two people who are religious minorities in their own regions can win the general election.

These ethnic, regional, and religious dynamics along with personal feuds and perhaps some genuine policy will determine the major nominees for Nigeria’s next presidential election. As the field progressively becomes clearer towards the end of 2022, specific frontrunner-candidates can be introduced and gauged. For now, however, it is too soon for such a detailed endeavour. The situation remains volatile in the hectic political landscape of Nigeria.