Is Nigeria Due for Another Electoral Upset?



The last, and only, time an electoral upset occurred at the national level in Nigeria was in 2015 when an incumbent president was defeated. However, there will be no incumbent on the presidential ballot next year. This will make it the second time—the first being 2007—when such will be happening in what by 2023 would be the seventh consecutive electoral cycle and 24 years of uninterrupted democratic rule, Nigeria’s longest democratic experience by more than a mile.

Even when there will be no incumbent to defeat and the next general election is still more than a year away, the possibility or, more specifically, the hope of an electoral upset is playing feverishly high in not a few minds. Or to put in the language of the times: an electoral disruption is thought to be in the offing. Some facts and assumptions support this disruption hypothesis: not having an incumbent on the ballot makes the presidential race a more open one; and the current president is unlikely to press the coercive apparatus of the state to checkmate those he doesn’t want or to impose his anointed as was brazenly done in 2007.

Other developments can be touted in favour of possible disruption. The ruling party, the All Progressives’ Congress (APC), will be bereft of the cult following of the vote talisman who all by himself literally carries 12 million votes in his breast pocket but the party will also ironically struggle with the baggage of being in office for eight years. The leading opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has yet to fully recover from being ousted from power after 16 years at the helm, has not used its time in the wilderness to reinvent and reposition itself and is indeed rent by internal divisions. Despite strident protestations by APC and PDP, the two parties have been cast in popular imagination as two damaged peas in a pod. A majority of the voters are mostly disillusioned, technology-empowered and agency-conscious young people who are desirous of a new order.

The vulnerability of the two leading political parties and the widespread angst against them ordinarily should brighten the chances of those who can project themselves as a clean break from the prevailing order. But having a bright chance is one thing, actualising it is another. For the status quo to be upturned, you need more than just hope. In fact, it can be argued that hope is not a strategy. You need a formidable political machine or movement capable of taking advantage of the obvious weakness of the established order, capitalising on the widespread discontent, and matching the status quo in grit and wiles for votes in the nooks and crannies of the country. I may be a bit rusty politically, but I am yet to figure out such a force or machine on the scene about a year to the next elections.

A legitimate counter to this submission is the story of the current ruling party. Another is the inspirational story of how Barack Obama emerged as the president of the US in 2008. These examples however confirm my point. By the time that APC unseated an incumbent in 2015, the party had 16 sitting governors in its fold (drawn from five legacy parties, including the nPDP) and had as its flagbearer a former head of state and a four-time presidential candidate with a mythical following. On his part, Obama ran for the presidency as a sitting US senator and was the flagbearer of the Democratic Party, one of the two parties that have been alternating power in the US for centuries, not from one of those fringe parties of ideas such as the Green Party, the Labour Party or the Peace and Freedom Party. It is almost a trite point in electoral politics that strong and viable platforms will always be critical.

To be sure, a day—not to talk of a year—is a long time in politics. Many things can still change. But my sense is that the prophesied electoral upset of the existing political order may yet happen sometime in the future, but not in next year’s presidential polls. If there will be an upset at the presidential level in 2023, it is most likely that PDP will upstage APC or that both parties will lose to a fringe (if you like, burner) party taken over by droves of disenchanted members of the two leading parties and with one of them with an existing national network as the candidate. If this happens, it will still be the APC/PDP folks with new masks, and not necessarily the fresh faces that some people pine for.

In my reckoning, the reported overthrow of the APC and PDP is a bit exaggerated as the odds still privilege the current duopoly. They do for some reasons. For a start, the presidential system, which we adopted in 1979, favours parties with existing footprints or networks across the country. To emerge as the president, candidates stand for votes all over the country, not just in one state or in one parliamentary constituency or by being the leader of the party with a majority of seats in parliament. The winning candidate must secure not just the highest number of votes across the country but must also fulfil the spread requirement: earn at least a quarter of the total votes in two-thirds of the states. This combination necessarily puts the fringe parties and their candidates at a disadvantage.

There is a place for name recognition, antecedents, credibility and messaging in electoral politics, but a national platform trumps all these in the permutation for victory in our presidential system. These other factors can only reinforce the primary of platforms, not replace it. Even when you take account of occasional manipulations and abuse of incumbency powers, a review of the nine presidential elections held between 1979 and 2019 indicates that the parties with existing presence and spread outperform others.

One good explanation for this trend is that Nigeria is a huge and diverse country whose size is amplified by infrastructural deficits and whose complexity is not fully captured by the caricature favoured by national and international media. Getting through and securing the required number/spread of votes privilege the parties that have the structures already or have the goodwill that will allow them to tap in existing structures in many localities across the country. In this game, structure is key, and it is easier for the big parties to build and sustain their own structures or to easily, based on prior history and social capital, plug into the structures of others.

The second factor against imminent disruption is that we now effectively have a two-party system. Even though we have 18 registered parties, the political space is dominated by APC and PDP. At the moment, APC has 22 governors, PDP has 13 governors and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) has the remaining one governor. Between them, the two leading parties have 97% of the states in their palms, a pattern reflected at the National Assembly, and likely to be slightly more at the subnational level, based on the maximalist nature of our politics. In theory we have a multi-party democracy, but in practice what we have is a supposed multiparty system with one or two dominant parties, a situation some political scientists call feckless pluralism.

This has implications for electoral fortunes of the parties and their candidates. The parties in power at the federal, state and LGA levels not only have unfair access to state resources and instruments, but they also have enhanced capacity to attract additional resources in cash and in kind from their elected and appointed officials, the individuals and entities that they have dispensed or promised to dispense patronage to and from their members and sympathisers. We have a party system that provides implicit incentives for the big to get bigger and the small to get smaller.

The big parties are better positioned to shoulder the heavy financial burden of running an effective campaign (a small hint: if a party earmarks N10, 000 for feeding and transportation of polling agents in the 176, 846 polling units on election day, that is N1.7b alone, and this is one of the lowest cost centres of presidential campaigns. How many of the smaller parties can muster such and prevent their agents from being compromised?) The big parties have the capacity not just to undertake the expensive, time-consuming and huge logistics endeavour of campaigning all over the country, but they also have foot-soldiers who can knock on doors after the song and dance of campaigns, and get the voters out on election day, to wait patiently in defiance of the elements, and stay behind religiously to protect their votes.

The third point is that our voters are largely risk averse: they place their bets not on hope but on who they think stands agood chance of winning. Yes, there are those who will vote on the basis of passion and ideology. And there are also those who engage in what is called negative voting: anybody but Candidate X, any party but Party Y. I am not sure this category of voters is in the majority. Most Nigerian voters (including those not induced and those doing negative voting) are not inclined to vote just to prove a point, or as they say, be willing ‘to waste their votes.’ Most voters weigh the flawed options put before them and make snap calls about those they think stand a good chance of being elected. Inevitably, most will choose between one big party and the other.

The last point is that neither the fringe parties nor the aspirants seeking to fly their flags have presented themselves as viable replacements of the status quo in terms of building formidable structures that can deliver the quantum of votes needed to win the presidency. People cannot simply disappear after one general election and reappear a few months to another election and think it will be a cakewalk into the presidency of Nigeria. I am aware of the efforts of certain aspirants and of some parties and groups to create an alternative to the ‘damaged Siamese twins’ but I don’t think they have demonstrated the heft needed to dislodge the two entrenched parties that presently control 97% of elected positions and all that goes with that. It will be easier for these smaller parties that collectively hold about 3% of elected positions in the country to make a dent on elections that do not require the scale of effort to win the presidency in Nigeria.