It is still 10 weeks before electioneering formally kicks off, but many are already projecting the February 2023 presidential election to be like no other that we have had in the Fourth Republic. Even the National Democratic Institute and National Republican Institute of the United States of America seem to think so too.
A delegation of the two institutes, which visited Nigeria between 13 and 22 July for pre-election assessment, said the election may be so tight that it may go into a runoff.
In a statement it issued to journalists in Abuja on Friday, the delegation observed: “For the first time since 2007, the presidential election will be an open contest with no incumbent. The ruling All Progressives Congress selected former Lagos governor, Bola Tinubu, as its flagbearer. Former Vice President and 2019 presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, will contest on the ticket of the Peoples Democratic Party.
“However, the emergence of Peter Obi — former Anambra State governor and presidential candidate for the Labour Party — and Rabiu Kwankwaso — former Kano governor and presidential candidate for the New Nigeria People’s Party — as viable “Third Forces” has excited many young Nigerians. If a third party draws sufficient support, a runoff presidential election could be a real possibility for the first time since the transition to democracy, adding complexity to the 2023 elections.”
Under the 1999 Constitution, a second round of presidential election will be called between the two leading candidates only if the candidate with the highest number of votes does not have at least a quarter of the votes cast in at least two-thirds of the 36 states of the federation.
But despite its complex primordial divisions, Nigeria has never had a runoff presidential election. The closest we got to it was in 1979 when Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria avoided a second-round face-off against Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria, through a controversial interpretation of the law by the electoral commission and the departing military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo.
And since 1999, no president has been elected with less than 53 per cent of the votes.
Yet, the 1999 election was the only one involving only two candidates. That year, Mr Obasanjo of the PDP took 62.78 per cent of the votes to defeat Olu Falae who ran on the joint ticket of the two other registered parties – the All Peoples Party (APP) and the Alliance for Democracy (AD).
From 2003, multiple candidates began to appear on the presidential ballot, beginning with 20 that year and climaxing at 73 in 2019. Next year, there will be 17 candidates. Yet, the contests have always been between two candidates.
No other candidates, not even those who placed third in each of the elections have managed to draw up to eight per cent of the votes. The best third-placed candidates were Atiku who ran on the ticket of the Action Congress (AC) in 2007 and got 7.47 per cent of the votes, and Nuhu Ribadu, who ran on the same platform in 2011, but by then renamed Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), and got 5.44 per cent of the votes.
In 2003 when multipart truly began, the third place finisher, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu of APGA, got only 3.29 per cent of the votes.
This shows that presidential elections in this dispensation have essentially been a two-horse race.
The emergence of the APC in 2013 only tended to formalise the picture, for until then, it was always the PDP candidate against the others. Although there were 20 parties in the 2015 election, the APC and PDP candidates shared 98. 9 per cent of the votes.
The closest candidate to them, Adebayo Ayeni of the African Peoples Alliance, polled only 0.19 per cent of the votes.
Can the emergence of Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso change the character of the election, and in such a manner that may force a runoff next year? Can either of them present a third force that may transform the presidential election from a duel to an affray, so to speak?
The candidates of LP and NNPP evidently believed that they have a better chance of doing that by both of their parties working together. But the alliance talks floundered over a disagreement on who would lead a joint ticket.
Now that they are running separately, does either of them have enough support to disrupt the old order, as the Americans speculated on Friday? Let’s begin by looking at the two.
Mr Obi has been a sensation since he left the PDP and picked the ticket of the LP last month. His entrance has excited young Nigerians, and even older voters especially in his home South East zone.
The enthusiasm around his candidature on social media, Twitter, in particular, has been attributed as a factor in the surge in voter registration in many parts of the country.
He has also benefitted from the controversy over the same-faith ticket of Mr Tinubu of the ruling party, as some Christian leaders are pushing to adopt him as their candidate. This is despite the Electoral Act forbidding religious, ethnic and sectional sentiments in the campaigns.
But, as has been widely observed, not much of him is being seen outside cyberspace. He is yet to really have his boots on the ground. Unlike Mr Kwankwaso whose party has created a sensation of its own in some states, especially in the north, through mass inflows of notable politicians and defectors from other parties, LP, for now, seems not to extend beyond the personality of its presidential candidate.
Atiku, in an interview with Arise Television last week, emphasised this when he stressed that social media presence and acceptability cannot win Mr Obi the election.
“Peter Obi is not a threat. I really don’t expect the Labour Party to take as many votes from the PDP as people are suggesting. We could have seen it in the last election in Osun State. What was the performance of the Labour Party?
“They again, they (Obi’s supporters) are talking about social media. Mind you, in the north, 90 per cent of our people (who will be voting) are not on social media,” Atiku said.
To become a viable third force, Mr Obi needs experienced people across the country to build a structure for his party ahead of the election. He also needs funds to do that. His supporters have branded his campaign as a movement of the people, but it is not clear how they intend to turn that movement into votes on Election Day.
The NNPP made massive gains of new members after Mr Kwankwaso joined it from the PDP. This was most evident in his home Kano State where the former governor already boasted a cult-like following. In the state, many well-known politicians, including his erstwhile political foe who succeeded and handed over to him as governor, Ibrahim Shekarau, have joined the party. Many of them moved in with Mr Kwankwaso as a fallout of crises in the APC and PDP over party primaries. Now, the NNPP has a few lawmakers at the federal and state levels.
But Mr Kwankwaso seems to be locked up in the North. His potential gateway to the South was Mr Obi but they could not seal a deal. Mr Kwankwaso eventually picked Isaac Idahosa, a Christian cleric from Edo but based in Lagos, as his running mate. Like Mr Obi who picked Datti Baba-Ahmed as his own, the running mate does not appear capable of expanding the NNPP support base.
Atiku and Tinubu
These two old friends are the frontrunners by virtue of being the candidates of the two established parties. The PDP and APC have ruled Nigeria for 16 and seven years respectively. They control 35 of the 36 states and have most of the members of the National Assembly. The parties have traditional supporters and structures across the country. Even more importantly, they have the experience to run campaigns and the capacity to mobilise funds for elections. Their two candidates are reputed for their deep pockets, a reputation that is both a political asset and a liability, especially in this period of angst.
Despite the clamour loud on social media for a new socio-political order, the APC and PDP remain firmly entrenched across the country. The two parties have won three of the four most recent state governorship elections. In those elections, especially the most recent two in Ekiti and Osun, LP and NNPP did not show presence or send a warning of their intent.
However, the two established parties carry baggage that may affect them at the polls.
The APC and PDP face crises over their candidates’ choices of running mates. However, while Atiku’s choice of Delta governor Ifeanyi Okowa caused friction in his own party, the tremor from Mr Tinubu’s choice of a former Borno Governor, Kashim Shettima, extends beyond the APC.
The controversy over Mr Tinubu’s same-faith ticket may further erode support for his party, and especially his candidature, in Christian communities. Oh, yes. Mr Obi stands to be the principal beneficiary of this development.
While the PDP has a mixed-faith ticket, there is also a controversy over the party’s breach of its own constitution on the rotation of power between north and south of Nigeria. Mr Obi also stands to benefit most from this, given that the South East considers itself the victim of Atiku’s seizure of the PDP ticket.
The controversy over the composition of the APC ticket may hurt the party in the South and in some northern states where Christians have a significant population. Conversely, however, it may also draw sympathy for the party among northern Muslims, whose votes have so far been the mainstay of the party.
The APC also does not know how badly President Buhari’s retirement will affect it in the election. 2023 will be the first time in 20 years that his voters will not see his posters during the general elections. How many of them will transfer their votes to Mr Tinubu or seek new heroes? And for those among them who are disappointed by the president’s performance in office, will they take it out on his party’s candidate?
The APC, also for the first time, has no candidate from the North West, the party’s largest bastion. How many votes can Mr Kwankwaso, who is from the zone, and Mr Obi, who picked his running mate from it, draw away from the APC to hurt its candidate?
Improved electoral process
The American delegation also noted improvement in Nigeria’s electoral process, which it believed would make the elections next year more competitive.
It said the Ekiti and Osun governorship elections, which were the first elections held since the 2022 Electoral Act was passed, demonstrated the the positive impact of initiatives implemented by INEC since 2019 to improve results’ transparency.
“The recent surge in voter registration numbers and increased voter turnout in the 2022 Osun polls, especially among young people, point to a renewed interest in political participation among Nigerians,” the delegation observed.
Confidence in the electoral process will encourage more youths to vote and take more active parts in the political process. And a level playing field removes a significant hurdle that opposition parties have faced at elections in Nigeria. Incumbency no longer seems like a big factor in election outcomes and is a shot of adrenalin for voters and the opposition.
Yet, some pundits do not see enough from Messrs Obi and Kwankwaso that make them capable of inflicting significant injuries on Atiku and Mr Tinubu next February. It is still seven months before the election and two months before the campaigns begin. In the coming days, it will become clearer whether this will be a watershed or just another presidential election.
Tinubu, Atiku tango
In his first television interview in this campaign, Atiku tried to clear clouds over his own head and poked some of his rivals. He dismissed Mr Obi, his running mate in the last election, as a paperweight and criticised Mr Tinubu’s same-faith ticket, despite Atiku himself fighting to be the running mate of Moshood Abiola, a fellow Muslim, in the ill-fated June 12, 1993 election.
Mr Tinubu’s campaign quickly responded to the criticism with their own darts fired at Atiku, which the team of the PDP candidate also tried to defect with more scorn of their principal’s main rival.
The two candidates have been under the relentless assault of Mr Obi’s supporters on social media. Does their sparing indicate that each still considers the other his main threat?
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