The general elections will be the country’s seventh since the end of military rule in 1999. And all signs are that voters are raring to go.
A surge in interest
Previous elections in Nigeria were marked by low voter turnouts.
Nationally, voter turnout was just 35.7%.
But this year, local media are reporting a surge in people registering to vote, and collecting their permanent voter cards.
In August, INEC announced that it had added 12.2 million voters to the roll during the continuous voter registration that closed on 31 July, bringing the total number of registered voters to 96.2 million.
The elections agency, which is now cleaning up its register, says it expects to end up with 95 million voters. This would be a significant increase on 2019 figures, when there were 84 million registered voters. This later dropped to 82.34 million after a similar cleanup.
There will be 176,846 polling stations for citizens of Africa’s most populous country.
What’s behind the rise in registration?
Analysts attribute the increased sign-ups, including by first-time voters, to a renewed interest by young Nigerians. This could also push up turnout.
Otive Igbuzor is the executive director of the African Centre for Leadership, Strategy and Development, a thinktank headquartered in the capital Abuja, and with offices around the country.
He said the enthusiasm of young people was “unprecedented”.
“There is an increase in awareness and more Nigerians developing confidence in the electoral process, especially with the introduction of the bimodal voter accreditation system,” he told Africa Check.
Igbuzor also attributed interest to the emergence of a “third force”, or alternatives to the mainstream parties. Two parties – the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – have dominated Nigeria’s electoral politics since the return of democracy in 1999.
But a new candidate is making electoral waves. (More on this later.)
Saleh Dauda, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Abuja, also predicted that turnout would be significantly higher than in the previous election.
“Many people are angry with the state of things in the country and they would be coming out to vote for an alternative,” Dauda said.
A unique risk of voter apathy
But the permanent voter’s card (PVC) is essentially a government-issued identity card, so there are concerns that people have applied for the card for purposes other than voting.
Voter cards should only be used for elections, INEC chairperson Mahmood Yakubu said at a public awareness event in Abuja in June.
“I want to thank you for making PVCs the most popular ID in Nigeria today. But when you collect your PVC, don’t use them for other things. They are for elections, not for the opening of bank accounts,” Yakubu told the crowd.
Political parties finalised the nomination of their candidates in June. On 20 September, INEC published the final list of candidates seeking presidential and national assembly seats. Campaigning started on 28 September.
The final list of people eyeing jobs as governors and in state assemblies will be published on 4 October. The official contest for these seats starts on 12 October.
Elections for governors will be held in 28 of the country’s 36 states. The election cycles for governors of the other eight states do not align with the general elections. This is due to legal challenges to election results, which led to court-declared winners starting their four-year term months and even years late.
Four candidates with a chance at the presidency
INEC has cleared 18 presidential candidates. Four of them are seen to be frontrunners.
- Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 70, of the ruling APC, a former Lagos governor
- Atiku Abubakar, 75, of the PDP, a former vice president
- The Labour Party’s Peter Gregory Obi, 61
- Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP).
A presidential candidate can only win the first round of voting if they get more than 25% of the votes in two-thirds of the country’s 36 states.
The importance of ethnicity, religion and geography
Many issues will affect the outcome of the presidential race, Igbuzor told Africa Check.
“Factors such as ethnicity, religion, security, the economy, corruption, the amount of money the candidates spend, party structure and young voters will largely determine who wins the election,” he said.
We take a closer look at a few.
Nigeria was united as a single British colony in 1914. Before that, it was divided into northern and southern protectorates. More than a century later, the division can still be seen: a Muslim-dominated north and Christian-majority south.
Before the party nominations, some religious, ethnic and political leaders said the presidency should go to the south. Current president Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner elected on an APC ticket in 2015, has been in office for eight years.
This influenced the emergence of Tinubu, a southerner, as the APC’s presidential candidate. Obi, who left the PDP for the Labour Party just before party nominations, is also from the south.
But the PDP’s Abubakar and the NNPP’s Kwankwaso are from the north.
The politics of zoning
Beyond its other divisions, Nigeria has six geopolitical zones: three in the north and three in the south.
The northwest zone has seven states, and the northeast and north-central zones six each.
The southwest and south-south zones both have six states, and the southeast five.
The zoning argument would favour the southeast, which zoning supporters argue has been marginalised at top levels of government for years. But no candidate from the southeast won the presidential nominations of the major parties, the APC and PDP.
Tinubu is from the southwest zone, Abubakar from the northeast and Kwankwaso from the northwest. But Obi is from the southeast.
Religion and the north-south divide
Religion is also a key factor. Nigeria’s north is predominantly Muslim while the south is largely Christian.
But his party, the APC, chose two Muslims for the presidency: Tinubu from the south and running mate Kashim Shettima from the north. This prompted mixed reactions. Some leaders have argued that for religious balance, Tinubu should have chosen a Christian from the north as his running mate.
On the PDP side, Abubakar is a northern Muslim. He picked a Christian running mate from the south-south zone. The NNPP’s Kwankwaso, a Muslim, also chose a Christian running mate from the south.
Of the four frontrunners, the Labour Party’s Obi is the only Christian. His running mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, an economist and politician, is a Muslim from the northern state of Kaduna.
How the zones voted in previous elections
The APC’s historic victory in 2015, which ended the PDP’s winning streak, owed much to how the zones voted.
That election was largely decided by the northwest, which has the largest voting population and is where Buhari is from.
But the APC also attracted southwest voters, and turned the previous PDP stronghold of north-central.
Voting data shows the APC held much of its ground in 2019.
The ‘third force’: alternatives to the main parties?
This trend suggests that the two parties are still the ones to beat. But analysts say the Labour Party could eat into this in the south, and the NNPP may chip away at northern votes.
Gains for Obi are likely to come at the expense of the PDP, while Kwankwaso could be a threat to some of the APC’s strongholds.
So a run-off is not the far-flung possibility it once might have been.
A wealthy businessperson with a reputation for frugality, he has dominated online polls, although these rely on volunteers and an internet connection. But there have also been opinion polls. One put Obi eight percentage points ahead, stoking sharp criticism from his rivals. Another gave him an eye-raising lead of 26 points.
The merits of these polls and the actual outcome on election day aside, there’s little doubt Obi is appealing to younger Nigerians and people weary of mainstream parties dominated by 70-something-year-old candidates.
Insecurity, the economy, and a divided country
Insecurity, a struggling economy and national unity are some of Nigerians’ most pressing challenges.
A candidate with a track record of managing public funds would have an advantage. That’s according to Tukur Garba, a professor of development economics at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University in Sokoto, northwestern Nigeria.
“Nigeria’s economy is in a difficult situation with debt servicing exceeding revenue,” he told Africa Check. “Corruption is at the root of Nigeria’s economic woes. Even the insecurity, which is impacting agriculture and trade, is linked to corruption in the security agencies.”
The survey calculated a social cohesion index of 44.2%, indicating that “the country has become more divided along ethnic, social, political, economic and religious lines, thereby threatening the social fabric, unity and peaceful co-existence of the country”.
So an ability to unite the country would appeal to many voters.
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s presidential elections are rarely issue-based, Dauda said.
“So the pertinent issues of security and the failing economy will not have as much impact on the outcome of the election as ethnicity, religion and regionalism.”
Disinformation schemes influencing the election
Previous elections have seen disinformation campaigns to influence voting behaviour.
An example is the Cambridge Analytica operation ahead of the 2015 presidential election. This targeted individuals and groups with false narratives about Buhari, then an opposition party candidate.
Misleading narratives about candidates are already spreading. Since announcing the election schedule, Inec has had to debunk several messages misinforming Nigerians about the registration, polling and conduct of the elections.
Misinformation and disinformation would play a significant role in this election, Dr Theresa Amobi, a senior lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Lagos, told Africa Check.
Amobi has recently researched the spread of misinformation in Nigeria.
“Disinformation around the election has already taken a life of its own. We are seeing different types of disinformation. Some have been spread to incite sections of the country against a presidential candidate,” she told us.
“For instance, a photo of a young man dressed in the colours of the Biafran flag stepping on the Nigerian flag was circulated with a claim that it is Obi’s son. That was done to associate Obi with the Indigenous People of Biafra, which would damage his candidacy among undecided voters, especially in the north. That claim has been debunked,” she said.
Nigerian fact-checkers write open letter to the country’s politicians
“Generally, where there is limited information, misinformation thrives. Candidates need to provide accurate information and debunk false narratives. Even though debunking false information may not completely erase its impact, it helps a great deal,” she said.
Africa Check is part of a coalition of Nigerian fact-checkers who have written an open letter to politicians, urging them to avoid making false claims and to debunk false or misleading information related to their parties or candidacies.