A Decision for Nigeria: The 2023 Elections

Nigeria 2023 Elections
Peter Obi and Pat Utomi at the 2022 Labor Party Presidential primaries in Asaba. Photo by Arvinjnr.

by Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

The Upcoming Election in Nigeria

Voters in Nigeria are not much different from voters in any other country. Most voters select between two distinct strategies. The first prioritizes candidate electability. This approach veers toward established politicians such as a former vice-president or well-known national politician with years of experience. This voter wants their candidate to win and does not leave anything to chance. Patterns are studied, successful soundbites are reused and regular foot soldiers are marshalled to ensure that victory is assured. The other strategy wants something more than electoral success. They want to change the way the game is played. There is a devotion to a cause that money can’t buy. Latent skills become manifest, historical antecedents are reviewed and maps are redrawn. A loss is not entirely beyond the pale, but victory… might change everything. 

Nigerians will go to the polls in February 2023. Many voters will decide between these two strategies. Despite the presence of 18 presidential candidates, realistically only four politicians have the right level of name recognition and suitable financing to compete. And in reality, the race is really down to just two options. Most pundits still expect either the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) or the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to win the presidency. Yet, a growing amount of optimism and momentum fules the insurgent campaign of Peter Obi of the Labour Party. 

The Candidates

Longevity is a double-edged sword in politics. While a more seasoned politician is able to draw from a network of trusted allies and leverage increased name recognition, they also carry more political baggage. They often fall susceptible to adverse messaging from their opponents. This year’s frontrunners are no exception. Atiku Abubakar of the PDP and Bola Tinubu of the APC are among the most seasoned politicians for the presidency in Nigeria today. At the same time, a large overarching issue in Nigerian politics is the lack of any ideological structure. Too often parties are nothing more than vehicles for electoral power. The passengers have nothing in common except the desire to attain power at any cost. So, despite the promise that comes with some candidates, nearly all of them are merely products of the same process. 

Peter Obi, meanwhile, has run as a political outsider. He is a current nominee of the Labour Party. However, he was elected governor of Anambra as a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in 2006 and left the PDP on the eve of the presidential primaries earlier this year to pursue his personal ambitions. Before leaving, he was on the national ticket of the party in 2019 as the vice-presidential nominee. The man he was running with? Atiku Abubakar, who is now seeking the presidency for the second consecutive cycle as the PDP presidential nominee. His first foray into seeking the presidency in the current democratic dispensation was in 2007, where he ran on as the Action Congress nominee, a party largely propped up by…Bola Tinubu. The APC nominee has personally midwifed the evolution of the opposition through four parties leading to the current ruling party. 

Personality over Party

The 2023 elections will be a contest of personality over party. Tinubu has avoided questions on what significant difference his administration would bring in succeeding a government from his own party. Atiku and Obi, the major opposition candidates, have also avoided questions about their frequent party movements. Despite that, there is strong momentum for their candidacies, particularly for Obi who is the candidate of a party that has not produced an elected president before. He has assumed the support of young Nigerians frustrated by the current government’s policies. This is indicative of what this choice might mean to Nigeria’s democracy – an evisceration of party ideology in place of personality.

Nigeria is a federal republic, with 36 states and 774 local governments. When all elections at national and state level are considered,  just shy of 1,500 positions are contested. This means a campaign involves assembling a coalition of allies from different influential groups in order to win an election. It is especially difficult for candidates and parties relying on a single unified message, when more established rivals have perfected the art of selling whatever is necessary, to whoever is available, to ensure broad support.

Challenges for Peter Obi

These realities expose significant challenges for an Obi candidacy to succeed. For starters it is unlikely he can generate enough momentum to propel his supporters and fellow party candidates into office.  In the recent off-cycle governorship contests in Ekiti and Osun states, the winners were from the two major parties despite Obi’s appearance at rallies. Candidates of his own party did not even perform credibly. Others also point to the momentum built from candidates seeking positions across the ballot and across the country that often helps propel candidates to victory. Unfortunately for Obi, his party is not fielding candidates in every part of the country – which is a dangerous sign for anyone seeking to not just win the  presidency, but also govern effectively if elected.

Indeed, this leads to the second and even more difficult challenge – governing if elected. The last politician to inspire similar levels of optimism and excitement for a campaign was the man Obi seeks to succeed next May. President Buhari was elected on a promise to stamp out corruption and insecurity. Nonetheless, the challenge of forging an effective governing coalition when in power led to an underwhelming start. It took him six months to name a cabinet and he also had to deal with other politicians outmanoeuvring the party’s preferred candidates for leading the national legislature.

Buhari dealt with this within his party, which begs the question of how Obi might be able to do so if he has to engage in working with legislators and state governors from other parties. His supporters will point to a similar experience when he was a state governor, but governing one state is not the same as governing an entire country.

Idealism vs Realism

Every election comes down to several binary decisions – often based around a course correction or a doubling down. There are a range of viewpoints which include looking at how the contest will reveal generational shifts, ethno-religious considerations and even general determining factors that decide the results. But in understanding the unique nature of Nigeria’s 7th elections, it is clear that a prevailing notion is the argument between an idealist approach or a realist decision. The candidacies, the moment and the nature of this contest mean that it is likely that the decision of the electorate will shape Nigerian politics for quite some time. 

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development, where he works on the centre’s analysis and research for the coming elections. He is an Associate Editor of The Republic Journal and Managing Editor of the AFREADA Journal. His research interests include governance, civil service reform and the development of institutions. His writing has appeared in Stears Business, African Arguments, Africa is a Country, Culture Custodian and other publications. He can be reached on Twitter (@adekaiyaoja).

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