All about Nigeria's upcoming presidential election

Peter Obi.
Peter Obi. Illustrated | AP Images, Getty Images

Nigeria's presidential election is taking place on Feb. 25. It is slated to be the largest democratic election in Africa and different from usual, with three potential candidates rather than usual two from the ruling party and the opposition. Here's everything you need to know:

What's happening in the Nigerian election?

Sitting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is set to leave office in May 2023 at the completion of his second term. He leaves behind a legacy that has caused "a lot of frustration and anger" to Nigerians, according to analysts. He promised free and fair elections and even opened the race to succeed him earlier than previous presidents, giving the candidates the longest campaign period since 1999, Reuters reports. The election has been called "a battle for the soul" of Nigeria, with the nation's economy, security, and governance emerging as major talking points in the campaigns, reports The Washington Post.

All presidential candidates signed a pact ensuring a peaceful campaign, a tradition that started in 2015 and has continued ever since. This is to combat the violence that has often occurred during Nigerian general elections. For example, at least 58 people died in election-related incidents in 2019, the Post continues. Just ahead of the election, eight police officers were killed in separate attacks.

Nigeria, like the U.S., has had a two-party system since its democracy was restored in 1999: the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP). Among the 18 candidates running for the presidency are candidates Bola Tinubu, 70, of the incumbent APC, and Atiku Abubakar, 75, of the main opposition, PDP, reports The EconomistHowever, in a surprising twist, a third candidate has emerged as a contender for the presidency. Peter Obi, 61, is a member of the Labor Party.

Who are the candidates to watch?

The candidate from the ruling party APC is 70-year-old Bola Tinubu. Tinubu is the former governor of Nigeria's Lagos state and has a stronghold in the southwest of the country. He helped raise the revenue of the region while governor, with supporters advocating that he'll do the same for the rest of the country.

However, others claim that the state's infrastructure was left in disarray following Tinubu's tenure. He has also faced corruption allegations with accusations of money laundering, fraud, and tax evasion, which he denies. Tinubu is also incredibly wealthy and has been accused of using money to buy votes. "If I have money, if I like, I give it to the people free of charge, as long as [it's] not to buy votes," he said.

The opposition party's PDP's candidate is 75-year-old Atiku Abubakar. Abubakar is running his sixth campaign after five previous failures. He served as vice president between 1999 and 2007 where he ushered reforms in the telecommunications, pensions, and banking sectors that led to job growth. Nigeria is currently battling a high unemployment rate and inflation, which supporters believe Abubakar's business prowess can fix.

Abubakar was also a founding member of the APC party along with Tinubu but is now running for the opposition. During his vice presidency, he was accused of appointing acquaintances to positions of power despite their lack of qualifications. Abubakar has also faced investigations regarding state funds being funneled into personal business ventures, BBC reports.

The third candidate, 61-year-old Peter Obi of the Labor Party, has the world wondering whether the upcoming election will be a major upset. Obi previously served as the governor of Nigeria's Anambra State between 2006 and 2014. He was also the vice presidential candidate for Atiku Abubakar in 2019. Obi switched from the PDP to the Labor Party (LP), popularizing it and garnering support, This Day Live reports.

Obi has taken a stand against Nigeria's political elite, appealing to many younger voters. A decade younger than his competitors, he is active on social media and actively denounces political corruption. In an interview with BBC, he called the election "old against the new." His supporters, known as "obi-dients," point to his investment in education during his governorship as well as how he left large amounts of state savings at the end of his term.

Critics claim that Obi is a political imposter who is also not free of corruption and mishandling. His name appeared in the leaked Pandora Papers, a cache of files that exposed the hidden wealth of the rich and powerful in 2021, and was accused of not declaring offshore accounts. While he was governor, he was accused of investing state funds into a company he was working with, a claim that he has denied.

How do the polls look?

Many polls are currently placing Obi ahead, in some cases by a wide margin, according to The New York Times. However, there is a significant number of undeclared voters, which could swing the election. Data and intelligence company Stears posited that the undecided voters would likely vote for Obi if there happens to be a high voter turnout. However, if voter turnout is low, they determined that Tinubu would be a more likely winner.

There are also more factors at play like religious affiliation and the uncertainty of the Labor Party. Nigeria is a country split between Muslims and Christians. The outgoing president as well as Tinubu and Abubakar are Muslim, while Obi is Christian. Obi could potentially have an edge in the sense that the country may not want another Muslim president. Abubakar has chosen a Christian running mate, but Tinubu did not, which angered some Nigerians because it is customary to have both on the ticket.

Obi's Labor Party is also not well known in the political sphere and was only popularized by the candidate himself. "The only major factor that is an 'issue', and will influence many votes, is the hunger for a change in direction which millions of young and middle-aged voters have, and for that reason support Obi. Will that be enough to propel him to victory? That's the X-factor," commented Kingsley Moghalu, a Nigerian political economist, to CNN.

What does this mean for Nigeria?

Nigeria is facing a myriad of economic problems that much of the youth attributes to a stagnant political system. Nigerians are poorer than they were ten years ago and despite being the most populated African country, a large percentage live on under $1.90 a day, reports the Economist. The pandemic also sparked a recession in 2020 and the country has been unable to keep up with the rising oil prices. Income inequality is also high, World Bank explains. A survey found that over 90 percent of Nigerians believe the country is moving in the wrong direction.

The election will also feature a new voting system requiring biometric data for identification in order to prevent any rigging. The problem is the electoral commission may be operating at its peak capacity and is subject to violence because of corruption, The Wall Street Journal writes. This is the first election in decades that has no incumbent candidate on the ballot, which could usher in a new era of Nigerian politics.

The rise in Obi's popularity signals just how tired Nigerians are of government officials not following through on promises. Sitting President Buhari had promised to eradicate widespread corruption, which did not come to fruition. Also, according to the Economist, Nigeria should be wealthier given its huge oil, gas, and mineral reserves, and its availability of fertile land. However, bad politics and corruption have seemingly prevented any progress from being made. Jihadist terrorism and gang violence have also been huge problems, which Obi has claimed will be his "number one priority."

"This election is extremely difficult to predict," Moghalu said. "While many still believe one of the two [APC or PDP] will come out on top ultimately, the fact that several scientific opinion polls have put Obi in the lead means that the possibility of an upset clearly exists."

Election results are expected two to three days after votes are cast.

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