Postscript by Waziri Adio
The landmark 2023 presidential poll will hold in about three months. Though we are almost two months into the official segment of the long campaign season introduced by the Electoral Act 2022, the campaign machines are yet to fully crank to life. The political parties and the candidates seem to be conserving their energies and resources for the last two months of the campaign window. This makes sense, as presidential campaigns cost a fortune.
However, the political space is already suffocated with permutations and projections about who is likely to win and their possible paths to victory, about how competitive the elections will be, and about the probability of a major upset at the polls on 25th February 2023. While some of these permutations and projections are anchored on reality, most are merely fuelled by hope, expectations and exuberance.
This remains a truism: a day is a long time in politics. But as a life-long student of Nigerian politics and elections, a political commentator for more than two decades and as an observer with no horse in this particular race, I think I have seen enough to make a few calls. My comments will be qualified as preliminary and will be updated as we get closer to the polls, precisely because things can change rapidly in politics. Below are my three initial thoughts about the likely outcome of the 2023 presidential election.
Divided Opposition Puts APC in Strong Play: All over the world, elections are usually a referendum on the ruling party. The All Progressives Congress (APC), ordinarily, should be on the ropes, and should land on the canvas with just a few deft jabs. For one, President Muhammadu Buhari, APC’s dominant vote machine, will not be on the ballot. In two election cycles before APC’s victory in 2015, Buhari polled excess of 12 million votes mostly from the core North where he enjoyed a fanatical following. The consensus, even within APC, is that Buhari’s near cultic appeal is personal, and therefore not transferrable.
Two and related is that Buhari’s main base of North West has no stake in APC’s current presidential ticket. This is the zone with the highest number of registered voters (currently 22.1 million out of 91.9 million), and with more than average voters’ turnout (roughly 50%). With seemingly no skin in the game and bearing the debilitating brunt of banditry, the North West that gave APC 46% and 39% of its total votes in the country in 2015 and 2019 respectively is not likely to be hot on APC this time around.
Three and most significantly, APC’s stewardship at the centre has not been stellar. While APC can point to solid achievements in physical infrastructure and key legislations, the unflattering fact is that most indicators, especially those that directly impact the quality of life of citizens, have worsened. Public finance is in a muddle, characterised by low revenue, rising debts, suffocating debt service and soaring petrol subsidies. Insecurity has become more widespread. The rates for unemployment, poverty and inflation, especially food inflation, continue to shoot up.
On paper, all these factors should make it easy to trounce APC at the polls next year. But it takes more than declining socio-economic situation or growing public disenchantment or a term-barred incumbent to defeat a party in power in the developing world. A solid electoral machine, backed by a united front of political parties and tendencies, is needed. The only time a ruling party has been defeated in Nigeria was in 2015, but that wasn’t the only time an incumbent party was vulnerable. In fact, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had been vulnerable since 2003. Forget the bluster about the party planning to rule Nigeria for an unbroken period of 60 years. PDP managed to hang on until there was a formidable coalition to take it on and out in 2015.
Though in existence barely two years before 2015 elections, APC was formed from a merger of three legacy parties (the Congress for Progressive Change, CPC; the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN; and the All Nigeria Peoples Party, ANPP) and splinter groups from PDP and the All Progressives Grand Alliance, (APGA). Apart from having Buhari, Atiku Abubakar, Bola Tinubu, Musa Kwankwaso and others within its fold, APC also had 15 sitting governors, significant members of the members of the National Assembly and states’ legislature by the time it took on the PDP behemoth. Most significantly, APC went into the 2015 election not just as formidable force but also as a united front.
APC would have been counting its days at the centre by now if it were faced in this election with the kind of formidable and united front it had posed to PDP in 2015. Yes, there is growing opposition to APC, but it is a divided opposition. And yes, there is a PDP with 13 governors and decent spread across the country. But this is a seriously weakened PDP, fractured into four camps within and outside the party: the Main PDP with Atiku as the presidential flagbearer; the seemingly unaligned G5 or G6 (group of five or six governors PDP governors) with the entertaining and rebellious Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State as its arrowhead; Peter Obi who was Atiku’s running mate in 2019 but is now the presidential flagbearer of the Labour Party (LP) and Kwankwaso, the presidential flagbearer of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) who until recently was also a ranking PDP member.
Atiku, Obi and Kwankwaso are each expected to score some reasonable number of votes. Wike and his group are playing either spoilers from within or positioning themselves as beautiful brides and are winking at all interested suitors. The sum of all these is that opposition votes will be shared among the three presidential candidates rather than be added up as a bloc. And since we operate a first-past-the-post system, this gives a massive lifeline to the ruling party. A candidate doesn’t need to score above 50% of votes cast to be declared winner. All that is needed to score the highest number of votes and meet the spread requirement. In 1979, Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was declared winner with just 33.77% of the valid votes cast.
This doesn’t mean that APC is home and dry. No. But a united opposition to APC would have been a different proposition. There are suggestions this may still happen. For logistics and practical reasons, it is quite unlikely that all the strong opposition parties and factions will band together, except if the election goes to the second ballot.
The Race is Still between APC and PDP: I know this will earn me loads of abuses and insults from certain quarters (the defining character of this election cycle), I will say it all the same: my considered view is that the 2023 election is still between the two leading political parties—APC and PDP. Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece on this page about the possibility of electoral upset next year and concluded that PDP was best positioned to be the beneficiary of such as upset, not any of the third-force parties. There were a few direct and indirect rejoinders to that piece, and torrents of abuse.
Many interesting things have happened since that January 16th piece, especially following the emergence, about six months ago, of Obi and Kwankwaso as the presidential candidates of LP and NNPP respectively. Their candidature, especially that of Obi, has introduced some zing into the political space. There is a whole movement, now called the Obidients, both online and offline. There have been colourful and well-attended marches and rallies. And there have been cheerful stories in international media and some interesting polls. On the basis of all these, some observers and most of Obi’s supporters have concluded that the LP presidential candidate will win the election outright or at the second ballot. Those in Kwankwaso’s camp are equally optimistic though less bullish.
I think both of them will do well in the polls, possibly better than the candidates that came third and fourth in the five presidential elections held between 2003 and 2019 (the highest percentage polled by a third-party candidate was 7.45% by Atiku of ACN in 2007). We will likely see our most competitive election in the Fourth Republic in 2023 and possibly witness a result close to the very competitive 1979 presidential election. Obi and Kwankwaso are strong threats to APC and PDP. However, I don’t see either Obi or Kwankwaso scoring the highest number of votes in 2023, and I will address the issue of runoff shortly.
Kwankwaso, propelled by the red-cap Kwankwasiyya Movement, is likely to score the highest number of votes in Kano, and may pick up some decent votes in a few North West and North East states. Obi, the beneficiary of the angst of urban youths against the establishment, will score the highest number of votes in the five South East states, based on home advantage, and he is likely to put in a decent showing in Lagos, FCT, some parts of the South-South and maybe one or two states in the North Central. Based on the balance of votes across the country, neither of them, however, is likely to be the first to cross the finishing line.
Obi and Kwankwaso will take votes off both APC and PDP in key states. But both the field of play and the state of play advantage the two leading parties. Despite their respective baggage, APC and PDP are the only ones with the spread, the experience, and the resources that it takes to be competitive in the huge undertaking that is the presidential election in a complex and complicated country like Nigeria. This is a structuralist reading of elections in Nigeria. To be sure, there are different ways of organising to win elections. And there are indications that a different way of politicking is taking root. But I don’t think this new way is sturdy enough to dislodge the establishment in the next three months. I may be wrong. We will know the answer in February.
A Runoff Seems Unlikely: Based on the way the competition is squaring off, a lot of ink has been spilled on how a runoff seems inevitable in the 2023 presidential poll. The electoral management body has just announced that it has a contingency plan for that. This is forward-thinking by INEC. It is better for the electoral umpire to be over-prepared than to be caught napping. INEC thus deserves commendation for this, as not conducting the elections within the prescribed time has implications for the transition and for constitutional order.
However, my considered view is that the election will be won at the first ballot. I am aware of permutations that are hinged on possible alliances if the election goes to a runoff between the parties with the two highest votes. These are permutations built on the hope of something that may not happen. In 1979, Obafemi Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) also hoped for a runoff and was counting on support at least from Aminu Kano’s People’s Redemption Party (PRP) and Waziri Ibrahim’s Great Nigeria People’s Party (GNPP). It is difficult to know if party members would have obeyed their leaders down the line but in any case, the Supreme Court ruled that the spread requirement was met by Shagari’s NPN.
The difference between 2023 and 1979 is how long the parties have been in existence and in power. In 1979, the five political parties were contesting for the first time, even when they were mostly offshoots of the First Republic and pre-independence parties that had been dissolved 13 years earlier. But both APC and PDP have been in existence and have been in power in one form or the other since 1999.
APC and PDP are so deeply rooted across the country that it is inconceivable for either of them not to secure 25% in at least 24 states and FCT. For example, both parties will likely meet the spread requirement in the 19 states in the North and FCT, and will easily get 25% in five states in the South to make the balance. Also, one of them is likely to score the highest number of valid votes. And with both constitutional conditions met, a winner emerges on the first ballot.
A runoff will thus be necessary if neither APC or PDP scores the highest number of votes cast, which in my view, as of today, is quite unlikely
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