What to watch for in Nigeria's presidential election

Nigeria's 2023 presidential elections are coming at a point when the country is experiencing economic turmoil. An uphill task awaits the new president
A herculean task awaits Nigeria's next president
A herculean task awaits Nigeria's next president
Photo: Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images
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Nigerians are going to the polls in one of the most crucial times of their lives to decide who will lead the country’s affairs for at least the next four years. This election is one of the most important ones taking place this year. Nigeria—the most populous black nation with an unmatched international appeal—is the continent’s largest democracy. However, it has seen better days.

After being elected on the promise of reducing poverty, tackling corruption and insecurity, and creating a stable economy, Muhammadu Buhari is leaving the country worse than it was eight years ago. More than half of Nigerians are living in multidimensional poverty, security crises—ranging from insurgency to farmers-herders clashes to kidnappings—and corruption has thrived unchecked.

In the lead up to the election, the president—in the company of Godwin Emefiele, the country’s erratic central bank governor—ordered a currency redesign to curb vote-buying, a constant feature of the country’s election. The result? Excruciating unease for the citizens as they cannot access money kept in banks to meet their daily needs. The pushback has been fierce, with protests erupting nationwide, some turning violent.

These and more fuel the notion that a fundamental change has to occur this time. However “change” is defined, voters are taking to the poll with it in mind. Quartz looks at the frontrunners in what has also been dubbed the country’s most unpredictable election.

Who are Nigeria’s presidential election candidates?

Bola Ahmed Tinubu

The 70-year-old Bola Ahmed Tinubu is the presidential candidate for the All Progressive Congress (APC). The former Lagos State governor’s political acumen is evident. He makes no secret of his role as Nigeria’s most influential kingmaker and lists the victories that ensured Buhari served as president for two terms on his intimidating resume. Loosely translating his catchphrase “emi lo kan”, he’s the next in line to take charge.

His manifesto, ironically, has been rooted in repairing a country left in tatters by someone he handpicked. And his supporters point to the successes ascribed to his tenure as a governor of Lagos, the country’s commercial capital. But, unfortunately, none of this has inspired confidence in several people, especially the youth.

His campaign has been riddled with corruption allegations, struggling to shake off credentials falsification claims to the unearthing of a dark past. His health has also come under the microscope, slurring words amid several embarrassing gaffes at political rallies.

The former Lagos governor is an archetype of the old order and, by default, the man to beat. More than the other two primary candidates, he’s backed by well-oiled political machinery across his southwestern base and throughout the country. From experience, mobilization for Tinubu is local but rather practical, with leaders across several spaces such as trade, transportation, and youth organizations, complemented by an array of local party branches across the country, galvanizing support and garnering votes for him.

Atiku Abubakar

The 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar is the candidate of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and a former vice president. It is his sixth time running for the presidency since 1993, a record.

Abubakar has convinced voters of his ambition to unify a divided country and prioritize the economy’s health, pointing to his pedigree as a successful, multimillionaire businessman.

The seasoned aspirant has been pragmatic with his campaign. He patronizes his Muslim-majority northwestern core, the geopolitical zone with almost a quarter of the country’s votes. Also, he expects support from the south, given his running mate, Delta State governor Ifeanyi Okowa’s origin. And he can only hope his gospel of abundance resonates with voters from other regions, especially business-savvy citizens.

Likely his last attempt at the presidential seat, Abubakar’s messaging has sometimes reflected desperation. For example, at a town hall in January, he reportedly said that party members would only get appointments or contracts when he becomes president by delivering their polling units.

He faces the risk of a vote decimation in his northern base. Rabiu Kwankwaso, formerly the defence minister and a two-time governor of Kano state, is running under the newly-formed New Nigeria People’s Party as a fourth presidential aspirant. However, it is a lesser threat than the several times he’s had to run and split votes with Buhari.

Peter Obi

The relatively youthful Peter Obi has been the surprise package.

The 61-year-old left the PDP, where he was Abubakar’s running mate in 2019, to run as the leading candidate for the relatively small Labour Party (LP). Against Abubakar, his chances of securing a presidential ticket for 2023 were slim. Surprisingly, he has carved out a sizeable following, with a core of digitally savvy youths collectively known as the “Obidients.”

In Buhari’s regime, dissent including online dissent by Nigeria’s youth has been silenced or not translated into real-life changes. The administration stifled their voices, leading to deaths in October 2020. Obi’s mandate of restoring sanity across all fronts resonate with them. His radical cost-cutting approach has also won him admirers.

Nigerians generally vote based on ethnoreligious affiliation. Despite this, Obi, a Christian from the country’s southeast, has received support from across the political spectrum. However, analysts remain skeptical of the depth and breadth of such support.

Opposition parties mocked him as a social media presidential aspirant. However, it has since morphed into a huge online following, and his youth-core supporters have left a significant mark. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reported that out of 12 million new applicants that completed the voter registration process, 71% are people between 16-34. And of an estimated 93 million registered voters, 39.7% are youth.

Not everyone can vote, however. Some voter cards were not retrieved for reasons including huge queues at collection centers or traveling to states where registration occurred to cast ballots. Also, voter apathy has plagued Nigeria’s elections in the past, adding more concern to Obi’s cause, despite several polls calling for his victory.

Whoever wins this presidential election will have a herculean task ahead of them and the power to affect, for better or worse, the lives of millions for the next few years.