Voters in Africa’s largest democracy will go to the polls on Feb. 25, 2023, to pick a new president.
While voter turnout has been on a steady decline in Nigeria for two decades, a recent surge of interest in politics and improvements to the election process have meant that 93 million Nigerians are now registered to vote.
I have observed four Nigerian elections as part of domestic and international missions, and I also worked in the National Assembly shortly after the military stepped down in 1999. As an academic both at the University of Ibadan and now back in the U.S., I have researched Nigeria’s development, political history and electoral politics ever since.
Each of Nigeria’s elections since the military dictatorship ended has been important in its own way. For example, the 2015 vote held special importance when the newly formed opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). It was the first time in Nigeria’s history that one political party handed power over to another. Elections in 2019 overcame major logistical obstacles and security risks, and the swift passage of electoral reforms during Muhammadu Buhari’s second term increased public confidence in electoral processes.
The presidential vote scheduled for this month will be consequential for Nigeria’s economy and national security. Here are five reasons the 2023 elections are unique and critical.
1. Religion less of a mobilizing force
Nigeria is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, and religion plays a big role in electoral politics. For example, using a large national survey, I showed that Muslims were 56% more likely to vote for the Muslim candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, in 2015.
Religion is often a tool for political mobilization, since northerners are overwhelmingly Muslim and most southerners are Christian. This time around, the candidates from the two major parties are both Muslim, reducing the religious rhetoric on the campaign trail. Bola Tinubu of the APC and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP have therefore focused on other issues – such as insecurity and the economy – to mobilize voters and distinguish themselves from each other.
2. There’s no incumbent
This is only the second time ever that Nigeria has had a presidential vote without an incumbent running for reelection. This is good for democracy, since it suggests that presidents are yielding to popular support for constitutional term limits. It is certainly an improvement over President Olusegun Obasanjo’s failed attempt in 2006 to change the constitution so he could run for a third term.
However, this situation also alters the dynamics of competition. One analysis of 22 years of African elections finds that ruling parties are only half as likely to win when the incumbent president is not in the running. This improves the PDP’s odds.
3. Labour candidate has energized young voters
Peter Obi, who was Atiku Abubakar’s running mate in 2019, has emerged as a viable third-party candidate from the Labour Party. At 61, he is younger than the two leading candidates and hails from the overwhelming Christian southeast – where ethnic Igbos feel like they have been left out of presidential politics for decades.
Former president Obasanjo surprised the nation by endorsing Obi rather than the candidate from the PDP, his party during his two terms.
While some surveys targeting rural citizens show Obi ahead at the polls, conventional political science suggests he is unlikely to win. Nigeria’s electoral system, as in the U.S., makes it difficult for third-party candidates to succeed.
But Obi’s momentum has been no surprise to Nigerians under 35, who constitute a staggering 40% of newly registered voters.
4. Violence has spread across the country
In 2015, a key question for voters was: Which candidate is better suited to end the militant group Boko Haram’s insurgency? Nigerians’ resounding answer then, and again at the 2019 polls, was Muhammadu Buhari.
But during Buhari’s two terms, violence escalated and diversified. Where Boko Haram overwhelmingly targeted the northeast, today the region also faces the militant group Islamic State West Africa Provence, the “middle belt” states contend with cattle herders clashing with farmers, cattle bandits plague the north-central and northwest states, and secessionists in the southeast have attacked electoral offices and clashed with police.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations Security Tracker, Nigeria saw about 7,000 violent deaths last year, a decline from roughly 9,000 in 2021. Another credible source, the Armed Conflict Location Event Dataset, reports 10,600 violent deaths in 2022. The techniques for counting are slightly different, but the message is the same: Violence in Nigeria is a dire risk to democracy, especially on the eve of elections.
Furthermore, both data sources confirm that state attacks on civilians have also increased. Thousands of unarmed young people demonstrating in Lagos for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad SARS were shot at by security forces in October 2020. At least 48 people died in a single day at an #EndSARS protest in Lagos.
5. Electoral violence remains a threat
In December, Nigeria’s Electoral Commissioner said there were 50 attacks on their regional offices and other facilities since 2019. Armed Conflict Location Event Dataset data indicates this is a gross underestimate, with the minimum being 134.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently admitted it is unable to hold elections in at least 240 polling units because of violence.
Civil society groups in Nigeria such as Enough Is Enough, Situation Room and YIAGA Africa are spreading messages to deter electoral violence. The U.S., for its part, announced visa bans on Nigerians involved in undermining Nigeria’s elections. And former Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who has deep knowledge of Nigeria, will lead the election observation mission this month.
Democracy at stake
Nigeria’s political reformers have made progress over the past two decades. But more work needs to be done. Nigeria’s purchase of a billion dollars of American military assistance in 2022 suggests that reducing insecurity – like efforts to advance democracy – requires international collaboration around shared goals of peace and democratic participation.
The Biden administration highlighted during its 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that partnership needs to be based on equality and respect.
A free and fair election in February 2023 would be an important step forward. Should there be any setbacks – especially during a potentially contentious runoff election – I believe friends of Nigeria will need to unite quickly to sustain its democratic progress.
Carl LeVan is affiliated with the Centre for Democracy and Development.