Countdown Begins to Nigeria’s Crucial 2023 Elections
Countdown Begins to Nigeria’s Crucial 2023 Elections
People wait to collect their permanent voters cards at the INC office in area 10, in Abuja, Nigeria December 13, 2022.
People wait to collect their permanent voters cards at the INC office in area 10, in Abuja, Nigeria December 13, 2022. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Q&A / Africa 17 minutes

Countdown Begins to Nigeria’s Crucial 2023 Elections

Nigeria’s forthcoming general elections, with four presidential candidates of note, will be hard fought. In this Q&A, Crisis Group outlines what is at stake and how key actors are preparing for the polls.

Why are these elections significant, and how do they differ from Nigeria’s other post-1999 polls?

On 25 February 2023, Nigeria will hold presidential and federal parliamentary elections, followed by gubernatorial and state legislative elections on 11 March. After eight years in office, 80-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) is due to step down, as are seventeen of the 36 powerful state governors.

The end of Buhari’s presidency marks 24 years of unbroken democracy in Nigeria – which made a transition from military to civilian rule in 1999 – and the longest such period in the country’s experience. It will also be the second time during this period that a Nigerian president has peacefully left office after two terms, as required by the constitution (the first was Olusegun Obasanjo’s exit in 2007). Goodluck Jonathan’s peaceful exit after a single term in 2015 was another landmark in Nigeria’s democratic progress. But the public is understandably unexcited by these milestones; many are increasingly disenchanted with the government, with politicians and, indeed, with the way democracy has worked – or not worked – in Nigeria. Many view the promise of Buhari’s presidency, once celebrated, as sadly unfulfilled. A recent poll, moreover, found that 77 per cent of Nigerians are dissatisfied with the quality of the country’s politics, particularly the failure to curb corruption and improve livelihoods. Thus, while the 2023 polls will in one sense be an affirmation of Nigeria’s electoral democracy, many voters will also be looking at it as an opportunity for a reset, nurturing hopes that new leadership will commit to reforming the country’s governance, restoring its security, which has deteriorated badly on Buhari’s watch, and rebooting its development.

The high-stakes elections promise to be notably different from previous polls in several respects. First, the number of credible presidential candidates is higher than in the past. Since Nigeria restored democratic rule in 1999, presidential polls have essentially been two-horse races between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which held the presidency from 1999 to 2015, and various opposition parties. The latter, which eventually merged to form the APC, won the presidency in 2015 and 2019. This time around, in addition to the major-party candidates, Atiku Abubakar (PDP) and Bola Ahmed Tinubu (APC), two other parties are also fielding popular contenders for the top job.

The Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, who at 61 is younger than his main rivals, has particularly energised voters, precisely because he is seen as a counterweight to what many regard as the political establishment’s venality and greed. The New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) candidate, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, is also notable, as he too offers voters an alternative to the APC and PDP, particularly in the North West and North East geopolitical zones. This novel situation, in which four presidential candidates are drawing significant attention, means that the 2023 race is less predictable than past polls, even if the incumbent APC enjoys a strong advantage.

Nigerian youth are excited about the vote.

Secondly, and relatedly, Nigerian youth are excited about the vote. A twelve-month registration drive captured over eleven million new voters, 84 per cent of whom are aged between eighteen and 34. The main driver of this trend is the sense of political agency that millions of young, tech-savvy Nigerians derive from using social media. Observers say this feeling comes largely from the #EndSARS protests against police brutality in 2020, when social media helped galvanise a nationwide mobilisation that eventually led to change (though perhaps nominal, in that abuses have persisted after Buhari disbanded the unit responsible for the worst ones). But another reason for the higher interest among young voters is frustration, particularly with Nigeria’s economic doldrums, which pushed about eight million people below the poverty line between 2020 and 2021, with five million more joining their ranks between January and September, according to World Bank estimates. Job prospects for young people have dwindled rather than expanded during Buhari’s tenure, while food prices have risen at the fastest rate in seventeen years. The National Bureau of Statistics reports that 63 per cent of the population of approximately 210 million is now “multi-dimensionally poor”.   

Thirdly, the public’s confidence in the credibility of the polls is growing, which is likely to bolster voter turnout. Following amendments to electoral laws, the electoral commission introduced several changes to the voting system, the most significant of which is that polling stations will transmit ballots electronically to the commission’s headquarters in the capital city, Abuja, in real time. Despite lingering doubts about connectivity in remote parts of the country, many Nigerians believe these innovations will be helpful in preventing anyone from altering results manually at polling stations or state collation centres, as poll workers colluding with party agents and thugs had done in the past. Indeed, commission Chair Mahmood Yakubu has predicted that the 2023 elections will be the “best” in Nigeria’s history, citing as reasons for optimism the off-cycle elections in Ekiti and Osun states, in June and July, respectively, which reported significantly fewer polling problems and violence than in prior years. Yakubu has also repeatedly offered assurances that election preparations are proceeding as planned and on schedule.

Who are the presidential front runners?

The ruling APC’s candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is a former governor of Lagos state, which includes the eponymous city, Nigeria’s commercial hub. He was instrumental, if not pivotal, in securing Buhari’s 2015 victory and has supported him unwaveringly since then. Tinubu argues that, as he has helped others achieve their political ambitions over the last 25 years, it is now his “turn to be president”. As national leader of the APC, which presently controls 21 state governments, he has built a vast party-based network throughout the country. His backing seems particularly strong in his South West home base and among governors of the North West, whose seven states have the largest electorate (about 24 per cent) of the country’s six geopolitical zones.

Many Nigerians see the APC ... as having woefully underperformed.

Yet Tinubu’s campaign is plagued by recurrent allegations that he is misrepresenting his age, education and sources of wealth. He says he was born in 1952, but critics insist that he is actually older than 70 and visibly too frail for the job. Some fear that, should he be elected, Tinubu could be as lethargic as Buhari is widely perceived to have been. (Buhari faced medical problems throughout his two terms, which regularly led to his hospitalisation abroad, sometimes for months at a time.) As for his wealth, opponents accuse Tinubu of growing rich by keeping a grip on the Lagos state government’s finances since his days as governor, largely through the state government’s revenue consultant, Alpha Beta Consulting, which they say he runs through proxies – a charge he has repeatedly brushed aside. On top of these concerns, many Nigerians see the APC, the ruling party since 2015, as having woefully underperformed. Finally, Tinubu’s choice of a fellow Muslim, former Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima, to be his running mate has alienated many Christian voters, who, despite his disclaimers, see him as deliberately attempting to sideline them in national leadership.

Tinubu’s PDP rival is 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar, an astute businessman who served as Obasanjo’s vice president from 1999 to 2007. Though he has run for president five times before, without success, his supporters cast him as best placed to unify the ethnically and religiously fractured nation because he is “the most detribalised” of the hopefuls – a reference to his liberal disposition in employing workers and marrying wives across the country’s ethnic divides. Given frustrations with the APC’s performance, Abubakar’s prospects at first seemed bright in what was shaping up as a one-on-one contest with Tinubu.

His campaign has suffered major setbacks, however. First, the PDP has been weakened by internal feuds, particularly between its national chairman, Iyochia Ayu, an Abubakar ally, and a group of five governors led by the combative Nyesom Wike of the oil-rich Rivers state. Secondly, Abubakar is likely to struggle for votes in Nigeria’s south. Obi’s surprise emergence as a contender from the South East has sapped Abubakar’s support in that geopolitical zone, which has traditionally favoured the PDP. Moreover, many southerners (and some northerners as well) are loath to see a Fulani and Muslim from the North East succeed Buhari (also a Fulani and Muslim, from the North West), as that would violate an unwritten but politically stabilising convention of alternating the presidency between north and south. His choice of a running mate from outside the South East is likely to cost him further votes. Thirdly, given his age and long-time proximity to power, including a controversial stint as head of Obasanjo’s economic management team, many young voters view Abubakar unfavourably, as one of the generation of politicians who brought the country to ruin.

Another successful entrepreneur, Labour Party candidate Obi, is well positioned in certain ways to challenge both Tinubu and Abubakar. His 2006-2014 tenure as governor of Anambra state earned him a reputation as unusually accountable and thrifty with public money. His young supporters (who call themselves “Obidients”), aided by parts of the #EndSARS movement, are rallying behind his call to “take back the country” from the ageing political elite.

Although Igbos are generally regarded as Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group, the country has had only one Igbo president ... since independence in 1960.

As the only Christian among the four front runners, as well as the only prominent ethnic Igbo candidate, Obi enjoys strong support from Christian voters and the Igbo middle and lower classes. Some non-Igbos, especially among Yorubas in the South West and diverse groups in the northern zones, also endorse Obi on the premise that his election would promote equity among Nigeria’s major ethnic groups. Although Igbos are generally regarded as Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group, the country has had only one Igbo president, Nnamdi Azikiwe (1963-1966), and that at a time when the post was largely ceremonial, since independence in 1960. Many non-Igbos see an Obi presidency as a way of assuaging Igbo feelings of marginalisation in the Nigerian federation. Many more simply see the Labour candidate as different from the typical Nigerian politician – and thus a welcome break with the past.

Obi’s campaign still faces long odds, however. Most importantly, as his party does not hold a state governorship, he does not have the same access to state government coffers than Tinubu and Abubakar. Furthermore, although he has picked a northern Muslim as his running mate, he lags in the North East and North West, whose huge populations are predominantly Muslim. He is also running with a weak party, Labour, whose presidential candidate in 2019, Muhammed Usman Zaki, won only 5,074 – or 0.02 per cent – of the 28.6 million votes cast. In many states, the party has no gubernatorial candidate, a figure who is normally crucial to rallying voters – though it has deployed various means of generating grassroots support since Obi’s emergence. The Igbo South East, Obi’s home where his support is apparently strongest, accounts for only about 12 per cent of registered voters nationwide – though he will also win votes from many Igbos employed or doing business outside the South East, in cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt and Kano. His popularity with the Igbo elite remains unclear, as at least three of the five South East state governors – Chukwuma Soludo of Anambra, David Umahi of Ebonyi and Hope Uzodimma of Imo – have publicly thrown their weight behind other presidential candidates.

The least known of the four leading candidates is Kwankwaso, who has served as Kano state governor, federal defence minister and federal senator. Kwankwaso has a strong base in Kano and elsewhere in the north, where many perceive him as a prudent, charismatic populist. Still, he has little support in the key Southern and North Central zones, and his NNPP controls no state government, so his campaign does not enjoy access to state funds or facilities.

What is at stake for the main candidates and their parties ?

Given their advanced age, Tinubu and Abubakar are probably taking their last shots at the presidency. The stakes are also high for their parties. Having wrested power from the PDP in 2015, the APC coalition, made up of strange bedfellows, could splinter if it loses control of the federal centre. Meanwhile, the PDP, out in the cold for the past eight years, sees the faltering Buhari’s exit as its best opportunity to recapture the federal executive; losing a third presidential election in a row could threaten its future.

As for the Labour Party, Obi denies any yearning for the presidency for himself, but says he is desperate to see a better-governed and more productive country. Many of his youthful supporters view electing him as their chance to oust the older generation of politicians, whom they blame for the country’s woes, and to improve the quality of Nigerian governance. Many of these youths cannot even contemplate the possibility that Obi might be defeated – and their cause lost.

With the two mainstream parties challenged by Labour and other new forces, a clear winner may not emerge from among these three on the first ballot, which would prompt Nigeria’s first-ever presidential run-off. The desperation on all sides raises concern about how the parties, candidates and supporters of losing sides will react to defeat.

What could disrupt the elections?

Insecurity is already disrupting election preparations in many areas of the country and could mar the polls in several ways. Armed group attacks on communities in the North East and North West, as well as on the electoral commission’s offices – and the fear of more, especially in the South East – are putting a damper on campaigning in parts of these zones. About three million citizens have been displaced by conflict in recent years, which may lead to many being disenfranchised if they cannot reach their designated polling places. The national electoral commission has said it is making provisions for internally displaced persons to vote at their camps, but most of these people are scattered in various towns, living with kin or other hosts, not in specially designated areas. Finally, armed groups may depress turnout or even block the vote entirely in some places.

A Crisis Group tally that has been corroborated by reports from reputable Nigeria-based NGOs shows that at least 10,000 Nigerians were killed in armed conflict and over 5,000 abducted from January to mid-December 2022. Other data indicate that at least 550 of 774 local government areas saw incidents of armed conflict between January and mid-December.

Jihadist militants continue to destabilise parts of the country.

Jihadist militants continue to destabilise parts of the country. Though weakened by military operations, and by their own violent rivalry, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and its parent jihadist group Boko Haram remain a threat in parts of the North East, especially in the north east and south east of Borno state. The North West and North Central zones have seen a proliferation of deadly criminal gangs, and the growing presence of ISWAP and Ansaru, another jihadist group, is compounding the insecurity. According to security officials and Crisis Group’s other on-the-ground sources, militants have established cells in Niger, Kogi and Nasarawa states, all of which abut Abuja. ISWAP has claimed responsibility for two attacks in Abuja in July, as well as four in Kogi state over April, May and June.

As for other serious threats, deadly herder-farmer conflict, aggravated by longstanding ethnic and religious tensions, persists in parts of the North Central zone. In the South East, government forces are battling many groups, apparently a combination of pro-Biafra separatists (the Indigenous People of Biafra, and its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network), impostors claiming to be them and other criminal bands. Since early 2021, these armed groups have killed scores of security personnel and burned down several police stations and administrative offices, including those of the electoral commission.

Finally, with the electoral commission’s newly introduced safeguards against vote rigging, politicians have reportedly devised new schemes to buy more votes – and even voter cards – from poor and vulnerable citizens, on a larger scale than in the past. The risk of such shenanigans is exacerbated by the widespread misery across the country. In November, a nationwide survey by an Abuja-based institute, NOI Polls, reported that 26 per cent of registered voters said they would be willing to sell their votes for monetary or other material gain. That means about 24 million votes could be up for sale. Massive vote buying would deeply compromise the election’s integrity and undermine confidence in the result.

Against the backdrop of the challenges noted above, campaign-related tensions are already stoking violence in many states and could cause deadlier incidents during or after the polls. Verbal altercations among the three main parties and their supporters have already triggered local skirmishes. On 11 November, the president’s national security adviser, retired Major General Babagana Monguno, said police had recorded 52 incidents of election-related violence in 22 states since campaigning started on 28 September. There have been many more deadly instances since then, including assassinations of party officials and candidates in such states as Kaduna and Imo.

There are other aggravating factors. Misinformation, disinformation, hate speech and bullying on social media are prevalent, and have the potential to stoke real world violence as the elections approach. Vigilantes and hired thugs could also join the fray. Some state governors are reported to be deploying the security organisations they established to harass opponents or intimidate voters.

Which areas are particularly at risk?

Many of the 36 states are at risk of violence around the presidential, gubernatorial and legislative elections, depending on the actions of key political actors, local intercommunal relations and dynamics around the polls. States where voters are polarised along ethnic and religious lines seem at special peril of turmoil, along with states where support for candidates of differing communal identities is high or where outgoing governors seem bent on installing hand-picked successors. Other states where incidents could occur are those where separatist agitators and other opportunistic groups have been increasingly violent. Violence could also erupt after the polls, particularly where the elections suffered significant lapses or where tallies are close, with losing candidates either stirring up protests or refusing to calm their supporters. The most troubling indicators seem to be in Lagos, Rivers, Kaduna and Kano states, but also in South East states such as Ebonyi and Imo. 

In Lagos ... pro-APC thugs attacked polling stations in opposition strongholds during the elections in 2019.

In Lagos, Tinubu’s home base, pro-APC thugs attacked polling stations in opposition strongholds during the elections in 2019. There are fears of similar incidents in 2023: the thugs may orchestrate more violence or other disruptions in areas where many Igbo (pro-Obi) voters live in order to depress turnout there. If Tinubu loses the election, these thugs could also attack predominantly Igbo residential areas or businesses in retaliation.

In Rivers state, the governor, Wike, has vowed to vanquish the opposition, and to “crush enemies” within his own PDP party, in a bid to instal his preferred candidate, Siminialayi Fubara. There have already been armed attacks on opposition candidates, on one hand, and supporters of his own party’s presidential candidate, Abubakar, with whom he feuds bitterly, on the other.

In Kano state, the incumbent APC governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, is strongly backing Tinubu, while his two predecessors – Kwankwaso and Ibrahim Shekarau – are the NNPP’s presidential candidate and an Atiku ally in the PDP, respectively. With these heavyweights pulling in three different directions, elections in the state will be bitterly fought. The APC’s Kano state chairman has said the party will “capture” the state “by hook or crook”. The majority leader in the federal House of Representatives, Alhassan Ado Doguwa, who hails from Kano state, added: “On election day, it’s either you vote for the APC or you are dealt with”. Although Doguwa subsequently downplayed this comment as “political sloganeering”, the risk of violence remains high.

In Kaduna, which has a long history of ethno-religious strife, voters are divided along Christian-Muslim lines. Christians (mostly in the southern part of the state) see the APC’s Muslim-Muslim gubernatorial ticket as insensitive to the state’s religious diversity; many Muslims (mostly in the northern part) are strongly opposed to the Labour Party candidate, James Asake, who hails from the predominantly Christian southern Kaduna and was, until recently, president of the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union. Amid the long-running tensions, a tight electoral contest could easily degenerate into violence, especially after the polls.

What can be done to prepare for credible and peaceful polls?

The first priority is to soothe campaign frictions, which have been the main driver of violence. To this end, parties, candidates and their supporters need to tone down the incendiary rhetoric, including online, that has characterised the campaign thus far. Parties and candidates should honour the peace accord they signed at the national level on 29 September, and in some states after that, under the auspices of the National Peace Committee, a group of eminent personalities. These agreements lay out a code of conduct for all parties, including a commitment to civility and non-violence in the countdown to the 2023 elections. Although mudslinging is an inevitable part of political campaigns, the more the candidates can focus on key substantive issues – particularly plans to battle insecurity and salvage the beleaguered economy – the better they will serve the electorate and the higher the chances of smooth, peaceful polls. They should also all sign the second peace accord expected in February 2023, committing to accept the election results or, should they dispute them, to do so in court, not on the streets.

Social media companies must ... block or remove incendiary messages, which come from various political camps and are extremely dangerous.

Social media companies must also bear some responsibility – to block or remove incendiary messages, which come from various political camps and are extremely dangerous. On 14 December, the minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed, disclosed that Meta (the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), had pledged measures to combat misinformation, make political advertising more transparent and protect the integrity of the electoral process before, during and after the polls. These platforms should make good on this promise. Others, like Google (which owns YouTube), ByteDance (TikTok), Twitter and the Telegram Group, should similarly take steps to curb online misinformation and hate speech around the elections.

A second priority is for the electoral commission to firm up arrangements for delivering credible elections. It should make sure the voter register is clean, in order to avoid disputes that may arise, particularly from underage voting. It should also strive to minimising logistical and technical hiccups that could mar the polls or create grounds for contestation of results. In particular, it should rigorously test its procedures for uploading results electronically in real time, so as to ensure that they work seamlessly throughout the country on polling days.

Thirdly, to limit vote buying, Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies (the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Independent Corrupt Practices Commission), along with the Department of State Security, should intensify surveillance of politicians and banks, to look out for large transfers of cash around the elections.

Finally, the federal and state governments should enhance public safety by stepping up security operations in areas where armed groups are active, especially the North West and South East. They should strengthen arrangements to secure electoral commission offices and election-related materials countrywide. They should also prosecute without delay those already arrested for election-related violence, and their aiders and abettors when chargeable, in order to deter others who might make trouble during and after the polls.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.