The Many Contests of February 25
Postscript by Waziri Adio
The day that once looked so far away when it was announced about a year ago is now so close we can almost touch it. 25th February 2023, the date assigned for eligible Nigerians to choose a new president alongside 469 federal legislators, is now just a matter of days away. Judgement Day 2023 is nigh. In deciding, the voters will do more than choose among the candidates. They will also be putting to test some issues and ideas that have been at the centre of disputations in this unusually long and quite raucous electioneering period. Today, I will highlight a few of the issues that I think make the 2023 presidential poll a series of contests within a contest.
The first issue is the accuracy of pre-election polling in predicting the preference of Nigerian voters in this electoral cycle. The 2023 presidential election will easily pass as the most polled in our century-long electoral history. The explosion of polling in this cycle is understandable: the stakes are very high, there is a lot of interests within and outside the country, there is some excitement about a likely upset, and there is also the luxury of time, given the space between the party primaries and the actual elections. At the last count, there have been more than a dozen publicised pre-election polls. Some of the pollsters have even conducted a series of polls, sometimes up to three in a series.
Most of the polls put Mr. Peter Obi, the presidential flagbearer of the Labour Party, in the lead. While a few of these put him in clear, unassailable lead (sometimes north of 60%), some others are more qualified. Those in the latter category either project a runoff (an issue we will return to shortly) or hedge that the results are inconclusive because of the sizeable percentage of respondents that could tilt the result in any direction: those who claimed to be undecided and those who would not disclose their preference. In some of these polls, the respondents with ‘unknown’ preference numbered between a third to half of the sample size.
Lots of energy have been invested in celebrating or berating these polls. Most times, those celebrating or dismissing the polls do so based on their obvious preference or bias. Sometimes, however, the different positions are based on competing knowledge of historical patterns and a sense of the current state of play. In a way, a contest between history and science. It has to be acknowledged that in this case neither the history nor the science is unimpeachable, as we are dealing with the most dynamic of creatures: humans.
For now, suffice to say that the two sides cannot be right on the possible outcome of the presidential election (except those who have applied necessary caveats). It is either that the pollsters and those supporting them are right or they are not. It is either that those interrogating the results of the pre-election polls are wrong or they are not.
Those relying on their knowledge of historical voting patterns or qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) on-field assessments may be too wedded to the past or may not be empirical enough to notice the shifts going on right under their eyes. Likewise, the pollsters may also be missing a sizeable slice of the current picture because of their sampling/methodology limitations or because they were misled by respondents who felt a need to hide their hands. In a 25th December 2022 article (‘Pollsters and the 2023 Presidential Poll,’), I identified some of the issues with pre-election polling even in a country like the United States of America, which happens to be the gold standard in public opinion polling. The pre-election polling in Nigeria may or may not be affected by these challenges. We will never know until the results of the actual poll are fully in.
The second issue that has generated some unusual buzz is the likelihood of a runoff in this year’s presidential election. This is hinged on the assumption that none of the 18 presidential candidates will meet the two conditions needed for a winner to emerge on the first ballot as set out in Section 134(2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. These two conditions are: score the highest number of votes cast and secure at least 25% of the votes cast in each of 24 states and the Federal Character Territory (FCT).
The worry is not that no candidate will score the highest number of votes—one of the candidates will, even if the margin will be just one vote. Rather, the concern is that the candidate with the highest votes may not meet the spread requirement. Commendably, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) says it has made contingency plan for a runoff.
Based on INEC’s expressed preparedness, the projections of some analysts and the acknowledged tightness of the race, the runoff thesis has taken a life of its own. In some quarters, it is now even seen as inevitable. If the election goes into a second or possibly third ballot, this would be a first, as no presidential election has ever gone into a runoff in Nigeria. The closest to a presidential runoff happening in Nigeria was in 1979 when we had our first presidential election.
In 1979, the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), which came second at the poll, challenged the victory of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) at the Supreme Court. UPN claimed that contrary to the requirements of Section 126 (2) (b) of the 1979 Constitution, NPN did not secure a quarter of the votes cast in two-thirds of the then 19 states. NPN had scored a minimum of 25% in 12 states but only got 19.94% in the 13th state (Kano). It was agreed that, mathematically, the 2/3 of 19 was 12 2/3. What was in dispute was whether the 25% requirement needed to be met in 13 states (since states are indissoluble) or in 12 states and in 2/3 of the 13th state. UPN argued the former position while NPN argued the latter. The Supreme Court found in favour of NPN. This was the famous or infamous 12 2/3 saga.
However, the mathematical ambiguity has been removed by the fact that the 2/3 of the present 36 states is 24. But there is a wrinkle: The constitution says the winner must poll at least 25% in 24 states and the FCT. Based on the regional and other dimensions of the 2023 race, some pundits and observers posit that the candidate with the highest vote may not meet the spread requirement and the candidates who may meet the spread requirement may not secure the highest votes. This was how the runoff idea sneaked into the frame and dominated the picture. However, there are those who feel strongly too, based on different permutations, that the election will be won at the first ballot and that the idea of runoff is floated largely by those who see it as their sole path to victory. Both sides cannot be right. We can only know the winner of this conceptual contest after the results are fully in.
However, something seems not to be in contention: this presidential election is poised to be the closest since 1999. For the first time in the Fourth Republic, the presidential election looks certain to go beyond the usual two-way race. It has been projected that the presidential election might be as competitive as the one in 1979 when the proportion of the votes scored by the top three candidates were: 33.77%, 29.18% and 16.75%. Since 1999, the lowest a winning candidate polled was 53.96% of the valid votes. It is unlikely this will happen this time around.
Still on the issue of runoff, it is important to highlight two points contained in Section 134 of the 1999 constitution: one, the runoff will not necessarily be between the candidates with the two highest vote tallies but between the candidate with the highest number of votes and the candidate with the majority (more than 50%) of the votes in most of the states; and the winner of the runoff must, in addition to getting 50% of the votes, still meet the spread requirement, otherwise the election goes into a third ballot where only a simple majority applies. As INEC talks up its preparedness for a runoff, it also needs to factor in the likelihood of a third ballot and needs to increase public awareness on who gets on the runoff ballot and the conditions that must be met for a winner to emerge.
The third issue that will be tested in this electoral cycle is the contest between two conceptions of the electoral path to victory in a presidential election in Nigeria. To simplify things, let’s call this a contest between the traditional conception and the revolutionary conception. The traditional notion leans on history. It looks at the oversized roles that governors and other elected officials play in elections and at the extent of the presence of the political parties not just at the different tiers of government but also across villages and even hamlets in the country. It submits that the race remains between the two dominant parties.
But the revolutionary conception disagrees. According to this now popular school of thought, structure doesn’t matter. Or it now matters less than other things, especially with the effectiveness of recent electoral reforms. To simplify again, the revolutionary view submits that a candidate who resonates with and inspires significant segments of the electorate is the surest path to getting elected president and upstaging the entrenched status quo. Despite running on the platform of a ‘structureless’ Labour Party, Mr. Obi is widely popular among the youths and in some zones. This has given fillip to the idea that the individual may be more important than the platform.
There is a ready counter to this. It is in the example of the now term-barred President Muhammadu Buhari who despite enjoying an almost cultic following in two zones of the country fell short in three electoral cycles, including in 2011 when he ran on the platform of a new political party formed around him. Buhari’s dedicated 12 million votes did not make much difference until he forged a cross-regional alliance and ran on the platform of a coalition of parties already in control of certain states. Of course, there are different ways of causing electoral upsets.
At the core, the contest between these two conceptions is about which group can assemble the winning coalition, given the dynamics and requirements of Nigeria’s presidential elections. The past may be a good predictor of the present. But it may not, as a new history may be in the making. If the success indicator is victory and not performance, it is unlikely that both conceptions will be right at the same time. We will not know who is right until the results are in.
There are a few other issues at dispute in this electoral cycle as well: the contest between the old and the new, the potency and homogeneity of the youth vote, and the importance of power rotation, ethnicity, and religion to Nigerian voters. With these too, we can only do proper assessments when the results are fully in.
This analysis is anchored on two assumptions: that the elections will be free and fair and that the contestants and their supporters will operate according to the established rules of the game during and after the polls. So much will depend on INEC, the security forces and the politicians. But so much more will depend on the rest of us too.