It is not the election week that Nigerians anticipated or that anyone foresaw. As the clock counts down to 25 February, normal pre-poll excitement about who may win has been overtaken by a not unreasonable fear, especially among Nigerians who were adults before the last of the military despots were ushered out in 1999, that the election may not even hold.
Over the past few weeks, violent protests in parts of the country over the scarcity of banknotes have overshadowed the campaign rallies. Citizens who turned in the old notes to their banks cannot get the new ones because the banks do not have them either. The scarcity of cash has brought misery upon many homes and businesses, with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund among those who have questioned the timing of the currency redesign exercise so close to crucial general elections.
An immediate political consequence of the crisis is a crack in the governing All Progressives Congress (APC). Three state governors in the party obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court to extend the time for the swapping of the banknotes, pending the determination by the court of their challenge of the legality of some aspects of the policy. Although six more APC governors applied to join the plaintiffs, forcing the court to shift the hearing in the suit by a week until 22 February, President Muhammadu Buhari brushed aside the intervention of the highest court in the land and insisted that the two highest banknotes (N500 and N1000) had ceased to be legal tenders.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai, whose Kaduna is one of the three states that initiated the suit before the Supreme Court, has since come out gun blazing against the presidency, echoing a claim by the APC standard bearer, Bola Tinubu, that the policy, as well as a protracted scarcity of fuel, were part of a plot to sabotage his run or altogether scuttle the election and force an unconstitutional government on the country at the expiration of Mr Buhari’s tenure on 29 May.
While Kano State Governor Abdullahi Ganduje has joined in the furious attack, the opposition has taken the side of the president, remarkably, the first time they would do so since he stepped into office in 2015.
A presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, has since rubbished the suggestion of a plot to foist an unconstitutional interim government on the nation. He also reiterated the president’s now hollow-sounding affirmation of support for his party’s presidential candidate.
The president said one of the goals of the currency redesign exercise is to disable politicians from buying votes at the elections. Many Nigerians applaud that goal, regardless of the fact that the president had not thought of pursuing it when he was a candidate in 2019. And how do you sustain that goal, barring permanent removal of cash from circulation or fresh redesign of the currency ahead of every general election?
Who does cash crunch harm?
However, of immediate concern are the potential harms that the scarcity of cash can do to the 25 February polls.
Speaking in Abuja on Friday at a stakeholders’ roundtable on the general elections, the resident electoral commissioner for the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Yahaya Bello, said INEC may be hampered by the crisis. Mr Bello said the commission across the country would find it difficult to deploy staff and materials for the election as most of the services required cash to obtain.
“Before election day, we are going to deploy the service providers. On the night of Friday (the day before the election) in the FCT, we have more than 12, 000 ad-hoc staff that we are going to give cash.
“None of them will receive a cheque or accept a transfer. I am talking about FCT (12,000), which will require about N5,000 (each) cash on Friday night. Also, those who are going to transport our men, materials and security to the polling units will need cash to do that.
“Also, you will not take a security person to a polling unit from morning till evening without giving him money to eat and I don’t think you expect him to go to the POS to withdraw the N1,000 you are going to give him,” Mr Bello said.
That applies to the political parties and other public and private institutions with a role to play in the elections. There are 176,846 polling units across the country. If a party deploys an agent to each of these units and pays each of the agents N10,000, that will be about N1.76 billion of legitimate election expenditure. Given the current cash crunch, the agents will prefer at least part of the allowance in cash.
Many voters will also need cash if they want to travel for the elections and to reach the polling units on election days. Unless the situation improves dramatically before Saturday, the stage may have been set for low voter turnout, which may affect the outcomes of many of the polls and the legitimacy of the winners.
In spite of the inclement situation under which the elections have been thrown, the major candidates last week continued their feverish campaigns. Surprisingly, rallies by Mr Tinubu in Owerri, Ibadan and Maiduguri; and by Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Adamawa, drew large and excited crowds, suggesting that many Nigerians are eager to defy the economic situation and cast their ballots on Election Day. If that hopefully proves to be the case and the poll is held peacefully, what are the chances of the candidates?
The media long dubbed it a four-horse race. This assessment put the candidates of the two major parties, APC and PDP; as well as Peter Obi of Labour Party and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) as the only contestants who can win the election. The 14 other candidates have not been visible in the campaigns and only on Friday, five of their parties announced their endorsement of Atiku of the PDP. Ironically, one of these five, the Allied People’s Movement, has the distinction of fielding the only female candidate, Chici Ojei, and she has described her party’s decision as “unscrupulous and despicable.”
However, recent polls by different organisations have also removed Mr Kwankwaso of the NNPP from contention and are now projecting a three-horse race. Many of the polls put Mr Obi in the lead but all of them who did so also predicted a run-off. Such a scenario will occur only if the candidate with the highest number of votes does not have a quarter of the votes cast in at least 24 of the nation’s 36 states plus the FCT. Should that happen, the two candidates with the highest numbers of votes will face off in a new poll on 4 March and whoever gets more votes will be declared the next president.
On the other hand, the polls that predicted victory for Mr Tinubu expect him to win on the first ballot, although one of them, Fitch, hedged its bet by not ruling out the possibility of a run-off.
In its third and final poll commissioned by ANAP Foundation released on Wednesday, NOI Polls said Mr Obi was leading with 21 per cent of registered voters proposing to vote for him if the presidential election were conducted that day; 13 per cent said they would vote for Mr Tinubu while 10 per cent of the potential voters went with Atiku.
As you would have noticed, the polls did not put Mr Obi across the line yet.
“Given the large pool of undecided voters and/or those who refused to disclose their preferred choice, Mr Peter Obi’s 8%-point lead at this stage is significant, but not sufficient to separate him from a leading pack of candidates scoring 13%, 10% and 3%.
“Undecided voters and those who prefer not to reveal their preferred candidate add up to a whopping 23% and 30% respectively. The gender split of undecided voters shows that 27% of women are undecided versus 18% of male registered voters,” it said.
Another poll conducted by SBM Intelligence for Enough is Enough (EiE) Nigeria, projected Mr Obi would win 15 states and cross the 25 per cent threshold in 25 states overall. According to the poll, Atiku would take 11 states and get a 25 per cent share of the votes in 27 states, while Mr Tinubu will win in nine states and get 25 per in 20 states overall. The poll did not project a winner for Imo State.
Curiously too, this poll also suggests that the election may go into a runoff – but not between the two candidates it found to be leading in most states. According to the accompanying note to the result of the poll by EiE:
“The data suggest that the Labour Party (LP)’s Peter Obi and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)’s Atiku Abubakar could garner enough votes over a sufficient number of states across four of the country’s six geopolitical zones to meet the constitutional requirement of scoring 25% in at least 24 states. This outcome, however, is complicated by the fact that the All Progressives Congress (APC)’s Bola Ahmed Tinubu is likely to do well in two of the country’s biggest voting states—Kano and Lagos—and the heavily populated south-west and north-west states, thereby winning the popular vote, although reaching the 50%+1 bar may be a stretch too far.”
Another observation from this poll is that it strongly suggests that Nigerians will ignore party leanings or loyalty and instead vote largely along ethnic and religious lines. It found that Atiku will win all but one of his 11 states in the Northwest and NorthEast where the Hausa-Fulani and Muslims like him are predominant, Mr Obi will win virtually all the states in the Southeast, Southsouth and Northcentral where the Igbo and Christians like him are predominant, while Mr Tinubu will win all the six states in the Southwest and three in the Northwest where either the Yoruba or Muslims like him are predominant.
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However, Fitch Solutions Country Risk and Industry Research found something entirely different. In a report on the election, the international firm predicted Mr Tinubu to win but, however, also did not also rule out the “rising” possibility of a run-off.
Fitch said while the election has traditionally been between the APC and the PDP, the vote would be a three-horse race for the first time since Nigeria’s 1999 return to democracy due to the popularity of Mr Obi, “especially among Nigeria’s urban and affluent voters.
“We believe that the Labour Party’s rise in popularity is likely to split the opposition vote, favouring the ruling APC. Indeed, we expect that Obi — a Christian from the South East — will do well in states in Nigeria’s South East and South-South regions, which traditionally have been PDP strongholds.”
Dataphyte Research also conducted a “state by state ground-truthing stats,” which involved “analysing past voting patterns, voter turnouts, voter choice homogeneity, the religious homogeneity index, and so on” and “found the current scenario to be similar to that in the 2015 elections.”
According to the research firm, Mr “Tinubu would win the popular votes and would be the only candidate to satisfy the spread criteria of a minimum of 25% votes in two-thirds of the 36 states.
“The prediction cancels out the oft-speculated possibility of having ties at the first instance of the election on February 25, which would then occasion a rerun to determine the winner,” it said.
So who wins?
Our own projections are not the result of any poll. Instead, they will be based on analyses of past voting patterns, the likely impact of new developments in the electoral management system on the poll, and current political and economic situations. They all lead us to agree with Dataphyte that a winner will emerge from the 25 February poll.
In line with reports in the introduction to this piece, unless the cash squeeze on everyday Nigerians eases before Election Day, voter turnout will be low across the country. If the situation does not improve, protests will continue until Election Day, discouraging many from venturing out or spending hours at their polling units. Let’s remember that in 2019, the turnout was just over 34 per cent, even though the economic situation was not as restrictive as we now have.
Aside from the cash supply crisis, public security remains tenuous in some parts of the country. In the North-west and parts of the North-central regions, the activities of bandits have expelled many residents from some rural communities. In the South-east, secessionist agitators remain active and have vowed to disrupt elections in the region. The security agencies are making the usual elaborate plans to provide cover for voters and electoral officers on Election Day, and from their past records, they had always done so. Yet, in all those troubled areas, the threats may keep wary registered voters away from their polling units.
However, for those who will cast their votes regardless, many may take out their anger on whichever candidate they can blame for the situation. In his broadcast on Friday, Mr El-Rufai listed why he and his party’s leaders are angry with the Buhari leadership of their APC Administration.
“Once Asiwaju Bola Tinubu emerged as the candidate in June 2022, and subsequently did not pick one of them as his running mate, this currency redesign policy was conceived to ensure that the APC presidential candidate is deprived of what they alleged is a humongous war chest. They also sought to achieve any one or more of following objectives:
a. Create a nationwide shortage of cash so that citizens are incited to vote against APC candidates across the board resulting in massive losses for the Party in all the elections;
b. Ensure that the cash crunch is so serious, along with the contrived and enduring fuel shortage existing since September 2022, that the 2023 Elections do not hold at all, leading to an Interim National Government to be led by a retired Army General;
c. Sustain the climate of shortage of fuel, food and other necessities, leading to mass protests, violence and breakdown of law and order that would provide a fertile foundation for a military take-over,” the governor said.
If his worst fears come to pass, the APC candidate will bear the brunt of the anger of voters against Mr Buhari’s policies and general performance over the last seven and a half years. Mr Tinubu and the party have been trying to distance themselves from those phenomena but it remains to be seen how far they have succeeded.
Nigeria’s electoral system has also recorded significant improvement since 2011. The continuous deployment of technological innovations, such as the bio-modal voter’s accreditation system (BVAS) and electronic transmission of results from polling units, means the system is getting more reliable in reflecting the will of voters. That perhaps is the reason politicians resorted to buying elections in cash directly from the voters. If this cash squeeze makes cash unavailable to them, while it may discourage voters who are used to selling their votes from going to the polling units, those who do will vote for who they prefer without inducement.
The recent rallies however suggest that the two leading parties retain their capacity for mobilization despite the cash crunch. The APC and PDP, in and outside the states they currently govern, have members and loyal supporters, some of whom have associated with the parties for decades. For example, that is seen in the rallies Atiku has held in states where the PDP is in opposition or where the governors are not supporting him. The structures of the two parties across the country, made up of their local officials, members and supporters, give them the edge in canvassing support outside the elite circles of voters.
In some states such as Rivers, the governors have put thousands of party hacks on the public payroll just to tie down their loyalty and use them for the elections. Governors have also been making cash donations to procure support from groups and communities, with the superior political and electoral authorities unwilling or incapable to examine the legality of such actions as concerns the electoral laws. Only the outcome of the elections will tell how effective such ploys are.
In conclusion, this analyst still sees either of the candidates of the two establishment parties emerging as the winner on the first ballot. Both of them will meet the spread requirement in more than sufficient numbers of states. Who between them has the most votes will be returned as president after Saturday’s votes have been tallied.
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