Nigeria Presidential Election holds February 25th
Nigeria’s presidential election is less than 40 days away, but you are more likely to read about oil theft and raging inflation in the headlines than stump speeches.
It is not that the elections are not important, in fact, the opposite is true, but the economy is on its knees, and concerns around it continue to swirl by the day, threatening to overshadow the all-important democratic moment.
Recently, a slew of illegal pipeline connections, from where a colossal amount of crude has been stolen for close to a decade through an onshore loading platform has been uncovered by a surveillance system operated by an ex-militant in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
The crude oil theft worsened over the past seven years, slicing oil receipts by more than half and triggering a foreign exchange crisis. Revenue plummeted as the oil receipts tanked, aggravating fiscal deficits.
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The government has turned to lenders and especially to the central bank, borrowing at least 21 trillion naira in seven years, 100 times more than the threshold allowed by the law for ways and means.
This has worsened an already historically rampant inflation, which spiked 21.47% in November, the highest in 18 years. Food inflation rose 24.13%, compounded by farmer-herder clashes and flooding in the food belt.
Unemployment and underemployment are at a combined rate of over 50%, affecting mostly young people. A recent National Bureau of Statistics report on Multidimensional Poverty show 63% of persons living within Nigeria, about 133 million people live in poverty. More than 100 million of this number were added within the last seven years. Pundits believe the numbers are worse. Many Nigerians have forgotten the taste of milk.
Meanwhile, the nation’s biggest headache yet is insecurity. So far, the cutthroat terror group, Boko Haram no longer controls several territories or carries out frequent terror attacks as it used to, but new criminal gangs have emerged. They raid villages and kill and steal people for ransom. Many communities, especially in the northeast and north central are deserted as residents, for fear for their lives and livelihood, flee to safety in internally displaced people’s camps. In July this year, an Emir in the northwest State of Zamfara, desperate for peace and safety in his community, entered a deal with a criminal gang in exchange for peace and a chieftaincy title for its notorious leader.
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These realities have caused widespread disaffections with the authorities and remain on the front burner ahead of the polls.
No fewer than nineteen candidates representing different political parties have presented themselves for the highest office; all pledging to solve all these challenges and bring prosperity.
So far, voters seem to have narrowed their choices to only three. These include Bola Tinubu, a former Lagos Governor, who is best known for leading a coalition that crystalized in the formation of the opposition All Progressives Congress, APC in 2015 and eventually defeated the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP after being in power for sixteen years.
The opposition PDP fielded Atiku Abubakar again, a serial contender, who is giving his sixth, and probably the last shot at the Presidency. At the return of democracy in 1999, Abubakar paired with Olusegun Obasanjo as deputy. The duo led aggressive political and economic reforms that led to one of Nigeria’s best growth rates in its 62-year history.
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Then there is the outlier, Mr. Peter Obi, a former Anambra Governor, who pitched a tent with Atiku Abubakar and unsuccessfully challenged President Muhammadu Buhari for the top job in 2019. Ahead of the primary election this year, he sought a ticket from the PDP, but when the opposition party decided instead to settle for Abubakar, he jumped ship to the little-known Labour Party and became its Presidential flag bearer. Many describe Mr. Obi as a business-savvy, upright, and incorruptible man. He promises to rid the country of corruption and build a new Nigeria that works for all.
Most of the candidates have presented manifestos that are making the same-old mouth-watering promises that Nigerian politicians have made since independence – to end insecurity, fix the electricity problems, build more roads, invest in education, end poverty, etc. These promises themselves underscore the lack of meaningful progress in Africa’s largest economy over the past six decades.
The problems are clear enough, but whatever solutions the politicians have prescribed had failed. Therefore, voters are taking whatever promises this bunch is making with a pinch of salt. Moreover, for the first time in Nigeria’s election cycle, very few are talking about promises in the manifesto. Instead, many are concerned about character, integrity, competence, and the political will to lead the country through a radical shift that it requires to meet its potential.
However, who fits the billing when the candidates’ manifestoes are measured against the strengths of character, integrity, and competence?
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Let us meet the candidates.
Mr. Peter Obi
Obi faced incredible opposition as Anambra Governor between 2003 and 2014 because of his style of leadership and constantly got into trouble with the state legislature for attempting to cut costs and save some money. On one occasion, it earned him an impeachment. However, the court reinstated him and his penny-pinching reputation took off.
He is still best remembered as the only Nigerian Governor that carried his own suitcase, flew economy class, vacated the Governor’s mansion, and slept in a hotel room when former President Olusegun Obasanjo visited his State instead of building a presidential lodge that would have cost taxpayers billions of Naira.
At the end of his tenure, Obi left millions of dollars in State coffers –a historical feat – when his peers left debt and answered questions before national anti-graft agencies. He has refused a pension or any benefits since then. “If anyone can prove that I, my wife, children, or anyone related to me collected one plot of land while I was Governor, I will stop campaigning,” he repeatedly brags in public fora as he woos voters.
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But it was not just about his integrity. He seems to understand the problems and knows what must be done. As Governor, he returned primary and secondary schools to their original missionary owners and created a system that funneled subventions directly to them from the state coffers. The effect was quick – standards improved and school enrolment skyrocketed. The State moved from number 28 in the West African regional examination, WAEC to number one in under five years. Obi also replicated a similar strategy in primary health, improving broad-based access and ultimately getting recognition from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
He is now promising to replicate the same feat nationwide. He has also pledged to curtail wastage, starting with crippling subsidies, especially on petrol and foreign exchange; treat criminals equally; reduce the number of out-of-school children by increasing spending on education and health; negotiate with agitators to restore peace in many troubled parts of the country; and essentially create an environment that inspires investors to invest in the country to create much-needed jobs and move the country “from consumption to production”.
The ultimate goal of his Presidency, he says, will be to create a working system that allows all to prosper. He constantly goes on a tirade, reeling out comparative economic statistics to show that Nigeria’s peers have left it behind, while the country continues to be an underperformer because it runs a system that encourages consumption and rent-seeking and only benefits a small few.
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But Mr. Obi is no saint. In October 2021, his name appeared in the infamous Pandora Papers for hiding some of his wealth in tax havens and failing to declare them to Nigeria’s code of conduct bureau before he assumed office as Governor of Anambra in 2003. Obi denied this as a deliberate ploy to hide his wealth, arguing that as an individual he holds the right to create trust for his children in any jurisdiction of choice.
Mr. Bola Tinubu
The ruling party’s candidate, Bola Tinubu manifesto is promising to increase spending on agriculture to boost employment. He also plans to tackle insecurity by recruiting more young people into the army, while investing more to modernise and expand public infrastructure. In a recent interview with BBC Africa, he admitted that his government might not enjoy better cooperation from the West and the US in the fight against insecurity, hence his plans to bolster the size of a volunteer force. These are no radical plans, and it worries many that they only offer a path to the continuity of the present government’s policies and programmes, which many believe have yielded only a marginal impact.
However, beyond the manifesto, Tinubu’s candidacy carries more baggage than a promise. The former Lagos Governor is trailed by several controversies, starting with his age, which became a subject of debate when he spoke at Chatham House, a UK think tank recently. It is not clear which year he was born. Tinubu insists that he was born in 1952, but critics cite a Wikipedia page, which showed that he was born in 1942. Yet, a court document filed by the FBI showed that he was born in 1935. He looks closer to 90. His deteriorated health suggests so. He slips up quite often, slurs, and punctuates his speeches with long, uncomfortable pauses. He even has to be helped to a podium when he speaks to his audience. On one occasion, he forgot the name of his party.
His educational qualification has also been another subject of controversy. In an official resume submitted to Nigeria’s election authorities, Tinubu did not provide his primary and secondary school certificates. He only filed for university education. Tinubu claims the certificates were looted by the military who targeted him and other democracy advocates during the repressive regime of Sani Abacha in the 90s. The schools, he says, also no longer exist.
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Yet the controversy runs even deeper, including the source of his wealth. The former Lagos Governor’s stupendous wealth is an open secret. Unofficial sources say he is worth at least $4 billion. Yet no one is sure how he came by his fortune. At one time, he said he made his money as an accountant working for Deloitte. At another time, he claimed to have made his fortune as a stock trader. However, in a recent chat with the BBC, he said his wealth came from the great real estate he inherited. But critics insist his wealth came from Lagos coffers, where he built a patronage machine that now funnels a large chunk of the state’s resources to his personal estate and a few cronies.
After he governed the state for 8 years, he made sure to choose his successors, who must toe a path laid out for them.
Worse, he stands fingered in a drug trafficking crime in the 1990s in the US where court records showed that he forfeited about $460,000 to the US government. Tinubu insists he was never convicted and is cleared of all allegations.
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But these controversies are more about his character and integrity than it is about his competencies. No one takes his political savviness for granted. His role as the leader of the coalition that formed the ruling APC to snatch power from the then-ruling PDP is still fresh in people’s minds. The former Lagos mayor also has a near-cult following in Nigeria’s South West, and constantly makes the exaggerated claim that he turned Lagos into Africa’s largest economy. To be fair, he did implement some reforms that accelerated economic growth in Nigeria’s former capital as Governor between 1999 and 2007. In 2000, he spearheaded Nigeria’s first Integrated Power Project, IPP to generate 270MW of electricity for Lagos residents. The 270MW has now been added to the national grid in accordance with the law.
However, critics wonder what kind of country you want by electing a man burdened with so much baggage.
Mr. Atiku Abubakar
Atiku Abubakar has been trying to become the President since 1993, and now believes himself to be the only candidate with sufficient experience to rescue the country from its current predicament. The bragging right comes not just from the close to three decades of seeking the office, but also from his eight years as Vice President when he led the economic team that spearheaded the several reforms that substantially spurred the West African nation to sustain growth. Such reforms included the privatization of several public utilities including the telecom sector. He is now promising to replicate a similar feat if elected as President, but the kernel of his manifesto is restructuring – a buzzword that now confuses many and makes others suspicious.
To understand restructuring, think of the US federal system of government where the centre is somehow small but still powerful, but the component units, the States, are almost independent and very powerful. Nigeria’s federal structure is the exact opposite, more like an inverted pyramid. The centre is so big and all-powerful, while the states are weak and helpless, and a greater majority cannot survive without the centre. Recent reports show that only six out of the country’s 36 federating units are solvent and can survive without the monthly subvention from the federal government. This is the restructuring that Mr. Abubakar is promising and, if successful, could see the federating units keep a greater percentage of the money they earn, form their own police, and generate their own electricity.
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However, these radical changes require rewriting the constitution. The process could take years and may never even see the light of day. Former President Goodluck Jonathan started the journey before he was defeated in 2015. He initiated a national conference and produced a document filled with recommendations to restructure the federal system, but then he lost the election before he could implement them. The document now gathers dust on some shelves in Aso Rock because the government that took over does not believe in restructuring. It does not also help Mr. Abubakar that in his main constituency – the North, there is a strong suspicion that restructuring means exclusion from the oil wealth of the South.
Mr. Abubakar is also promising to auction off the entire public infrastructure and “break government monopoly in all infrastructure sectors, including refineries, rail transportation, and power transmission”. This scares many more than it inspires. The last time Mr. Abubakar led a privatization exercise as Nigeria’s Vice President, he was accused of selling off government assets to his cronies at a bargain. One clear case was the Delta Steel Company, a rolling mill completed in 1980 for $1.5b. However, Mr. Abubakar-led National Council on Privatisation allegedly sold it for a paltry $30m.
In fact, his former boss, former President Olusegun Obasanjo believed that Mr. Abubakar benefitted unduly from his role and that the benefits that accrued to his personal estate could last 10 generations.
It does not help that Mr. Abubakar publicly acknowledges that, if elected, his friends would be favoured.
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However, this lack of trust is not the only encumbrance of his presidential bid. In fact, there are quite a few, top on the list including the implosion of his party after he clinched the presidential ticket at the PDP primaries in May. The process leading up to the primaries was so contentious that many influential members of the party defected to pursue their interests in other political parties. In fact, two contenders in the race – Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Mr. Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party, NNPP – all jumped ship from the PDP prior to the primaries citing perceived injustice and a potentially unfair outcome of the exercise.
The bone of contention is the so-called zoning principle in the party’s constitution, which allowed the party to rotate the Presidential spot by the major geopolitical zones. By that rule, the PDP was meant to field a Southerner to fly its presidential flag but the party’s executives set it aside to settle for Mr. Abubakar, who by the book, ought not to contest in the first place.
The crisis that followed this outcome has ricocheted across the cadres of the party’s leadership and several interest groups within the party. Many were outraged that the PDP could field Mr. Abubakar, a Fulani from the North. If he were to win the election, he would be succeeding Mr. Buhari, also a Fulani from the North after serving for eight years as President. Many believed this outcome has grave implications for managing the country’s diversity.
Read more, I will amend the constitution – Atiku
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Ironically, Mr. Abubakar, who also believes himself to be a unifier, touting his ability to leverage his experience to manage the country’s fragile unity has failed to unify his party after splinter groups emerged. These rebel groups have consistently worked against his interest through their activities and public verbal attacks.
Governor of the oil-rich Rivers State and one of PDP’s major financiers, Nyesom Wike, who also lost to Mr. Abubakar at the primaries, is leading one of the splinter rebel groups, consisting of five Southern Governors that believe the party’s decision to go North is an aberration. A fortnight ago, a new group calling itself ‘PDP for Peter Obi’ emerged to throw its weight behind the Labour Party’s candidate, Mr. Peter Obi. These groups’ sustained attack on the leadership of the party has proved lethal, sending Mr. Abubakar’s unifier mantra to an early grave. He is now focusing his campaign messaging on his experience as critics continued to question his capacity to unify the country if he could not unify his party.
The state of the race
Mr. Obi’s campaign has sustained momentum from the start. Long before he jumped ship to become Labour Party’s flag bearer, young people marched across the nation demanding that the PDP hand their presidential ticket to him. When the PDP called their bluff and Obi moved to Labour Party, the youths rallied behind him, holding mega rallies across major cities and promoting his candidacy with all the resources they could muster. The support has culminated in a fiery political movement known as the “Obidient Movement”. In every city, town, and hamlet, you will see pockets of Obidients mobilizing, tasking themselves to erect a billboard, print posters, and other campaign paraphernalia. On social media, the Obidient chatter has drowned those of the other candidate’s supporters. Obi’s popularity has soared and all the candidates have only played catch up ever since.
Obi’s acceptance has now transcended the youth demography. Church leaders now stop short of threatening their congregation not to vote for any other candidate but Obi. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is believed to see Obi’s candidacy as one of his last efforts to rescue the nation in his lifetime. Former military President Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida is also believed to be sympathetic to Mr. Obi’s aspiration.
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The Diaspora also does not want to be left out. Shortly after Obi got the Presidential ticket, he toured many cities in Europe and North America speaking to fully packed halls of Nigerians whom he sought their support to rebuild the nation. They have harkened to his plea by voting with their pockets – many lending their social media influential voices.
Several polls have shown Mr. Obi as the preferred candidate. In September, a Premise Data poll for Bloomberg, the Labour Party candidate picked 72% of the votes, while Mr Tinubu and Mr. Abubakar picked 16% and 9% of the polls respectively. On September 15, a Nigerian Pollster, NOI polls for ANAP Foundation, showed a significant lead for Mr. Obi with 21% and 13% each for Mr. Tinubu and Mr. Abubakar.
A follow-up poll released on December 21 by NOI Polls also showed Mr. Obi consolidating his lead with 23% – 2% higher than in September, while Mr. Tinubu and Mr. Abubakar received 13% and 10% of proposed votes respectively.
The Battles Ahead
Nevertheless, the coast is far from clear for Mr. Obi. His number one hurdle includes Labour’s limited presence or structure across the country. To win a presidential election in a large country such as Nigeria, your political party needs to have the required depth of spread. A candidate and his party need to command a certain level of popularity among the 47.2% of the rural population where voter apathy has been the lowest, but where it is also easier to sway outcome through inducement or other election malpractices.
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On Election Day, the party has to field an officer to represent it at each of the 176,846 polling units. Each officer must be paid. Mr. Obi’s Labour has always been a fringe party without this form of spread or strength of membership until Obi came along, and while Obi’s popularity has permeated the nooks and crannies of the country, they will still need a party structure to mobilise and convert Obi’s name recognition to actual votes. It remains to be seen if the few months of gunning for the presidency with Mr. Obi has done anything to Labour’s structure, especially in the rural areas.
Beyond the structure is the question of ethnicity. Historically, ethnicity has always influenced how Nigerians voted. Governments ended up as ethnic coalitions with leaders looking out for their own ethnic groups. To elect President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, the Hausa/Fulani in the North had to form a coalition with the Yoruba in the South West, while the South-South and the Southeast voted for the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. This voting pattern had disastrous consequences for the people of South East and South-South as it led to the near exclusion of two regions from the government after Buhari won the election.
However, in this election, no such coalition is likely because each of the major ethnic groups is represented on the ballot. Mr. Obi is Igbo, and Mr. Abubakar and Tinubu are Fulani and Yoruba respectively. Igbo have only produced a President only once, and that was after Nigeria became a republic in 1963 when Nnamdi Azikiwe became a Head of State in a coalition that saw the North producing the Head of the Government. This has led to talks of Igbo Presidency as many argue it is the turn of the Igbo to produce the President if the nation is serious about coexisting fairly as one nation.
But it is democracy and the Presidency cannot be handed to the Igbo on public sentiment. The people must decide on the ballot. The hurdle is that the Hausa/Fulani in the North have gotten used to voting their own and many rightly believe that they will vote for Mr. Abubakar. The Yoruba have proved to be the most educated and sophisticated voters and many have broken their ethnic shackles, yet the probability of Mr. Tinubu scoring more votes from the region is more than 80%.
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The path to the Presidency for Mr. Obi requires winning the South East and South-South votes outright and the required 25% from the North and South-West. Will he pull this off? Pundits believe he is on track, thanks to young Nigerians who are casting off old traditions and ethnic identities in the hope of a new Nigeria that Mr. Obi has promised.
However, many also fear that the youth, who has always been a political lightweight, may disappoint Mr. Obi. They have a reputation for playing football and watching movies on Election Day instead of enduring the inconvenience of queuing to be counted in the political process. Will they shed their inhibition this time to elect Mr. Obi? It’s only a matter of days now.