Less than 24 hours before polls open in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy is facing an unprecedented four-way race to the presidency marred by rampant Whatsapp conspiracy theories, fears of vote-buying, threats of violence against would-be voters, and at least one candidate assassination.
Nearly 100 million people in Nigeria are expected to vote Saturday to choose their next president and lawmakers in the National Assembly. Abuja’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) documented that upwards of 87 million people have already collected their voter cards, necessary to fill out a ballot, as of Thursday. INEC has documented 93.5 million registered voters.
To become president of Nigeria, a candidate must receive at least 25 percent of the votes in two-thirds of the country’s states. In Nigeria’s young republic – the country has only had elected presidents since 1999, and had its first peaceful transition of power in 2015 – the two establishment parties have typically vied for power only against each other, making that goal achievable in one round of voting. Current President Muhammadu Buhari, an elderly former dictator who accepted power in that first peaceful transition in 2015, is not on the ballot, leaving his party mate, Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), to campaign against the other establishment candidate, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Neither of the two candidates, both in their 70s, has had significant success moving the youth vote. Tinubu has been particularly abrasive to many voters, choosing a fellow Muslim as his vice presidential running mate – violating long-time etiquette that Christians and Muslims must share the tickets – and choosing as his campaign slogan the uninspiring “It’s My Turn”:
Vote APC #RenewedHope23 pic.twitter.com/zOyAFYKG68
— Bola Ahmed Tinubu (@officialABAT) February 23, 2023
Tinubu has not been able to take for granted Buhari’s voters – ethnic Fulanis and Muslims of all backgrounds – as Abubakar is a Fulani Muslim and is competing in many of the northern Nigerian states that went for Buhari:
Yesterday’s grand finale rally in Yola was amazing. The support that we got was magnificent and worthy of a homecoming. pic.twitter.com/K6wvdikPtj
— Atiku Abubakar (@atiku) February 19, 2023
A third candidate, Rabiu Kwankwaso of the minor New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP), is Fulani, was once a member of the APC, and hails from northwest Nigeria, thus siphoning votes from the two mainstream candidates.
That competition has left a wide pool of voters in the Christian-majority south, where Peter Obi, an ethnic Igbo of the minor Labour Party, has made tremendous inroads:
Earlier today, I campaigned at one of the largest markets in West Africa, Onitsha Main Market. I also visited the famous Ochanja Market, and the Relief and Mgbuka Markets in Onitsha. -PO pic.twitter.com/qDX8ETEpDE
— Peter Obi (@PeterObi) February 23, 2023
Focusing on youth voters, Christians, and disaffected Nigerians who feel unrepresented by the establishment, Obi has been topping public opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the elections. Those polls also show enough undecided voters to swing in any candidate’s direction, however, and the four-way race divided so starkly by region, ethnicity, and religion jeopardizes every candidate’s ability to meet the thresholds to win the presidency without a runoff election.
As of late January, a poll by the firm Nextier showed Obi with 37 percent support, about ten percent higher than the second-most-popular candidate, Abubakar. Abubakar and Tinubu appeared nearly tied, 27 to 24 percent, respectively. While Kwankwaso’s percentage of the vote is minor, about six percent, it is likely coming from voters who would otherwise choose one of the mainstream candidates, not Obi, thus debilitating the candidates with the most money and most sophisticated campaign ground games.
The Nigerian newspaper This Day declared the race “too close to call” as of Thursday, noting that growing support for Abubakar is likely swaying some would-by Tinubu voters, but it remains unclear if they will be enough to surpass Obi’s slice of the electorate.
“According to This Day findings, among those who vote based on religious sentiments, Obi will take up to 75% of Christian votes while Atiku, Tinubu and Kwankwaso will share the Musli[m] votes,” the newspaper observed.
Voter registration has increased significantly in a month, and young voters – overwhelmingly likely to be Obi supporters – have broken prior registration records this year. Their making it to polling stations on Election Day is not a guaranteed matter, however, particularly given the outsized levels of violence in the country, much of it politically motivated.
Every major political party has experienced campaign violence during this election cycle. According to the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), rallies have been attacked at least 60 times since campaigning began for the upcoming election.
“In the last quarter of 2022, violence targeting political parties reached its highest point since the previous general election in early 2019,” the CDD documented, according to the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust. “In total there have been 60 attacks recorded on political rallies, resulting in nine fatalities since the start of campaigning on 28 September.”
The CDD concluded, the newspaper relayed, that “politically sponsored violence could also be a determining factor in the outcome and acceptance of the polls” – citizens who fear dying in an attack on a polling station of being killed for exercising their vote may not show up on Saturday.
Obi’s Labour Party suffered the most high-profile incident of violence of the election this week with the assassination of Senate candidate Oyibo Chukwu on Wednesday.
“He was shot dead and then set ablaze in his vehicle with his driver,” southern Enugu state Labour Party chairman Chinwuba Ngwu said. “It is a devastating development for us. We are suspecting political assassination because he is favored to win the election.”
In Rivers state, Nigeria’s southernmost state, unknown assailants unleashed a string of bombings against known supporters of the Abubakar campaign and the PDP.
“Bombed with dynamites were the homes of former Managing Director of Rivers State Microfinance Agency, Dr. Ipalibo Sogules, and a gas plant in Port Harcourt, yesterday night,” the newspaper Vanguard reported, “while DC Lounge, a hospitality hub owned by Ikechi Chinda, former PDP Chairman in the state, suffered [the] same fate and Christian Ikiroma, whose home was also bombed.”
Sogules told Vanguard that “three boys” hurled dynamite into his home and ran away.
Kwankwaso also noted on Thursday that he faced threats of violence in his home state of Kano, where he previously served as governor.
“We went around Nigeria, we went to the south, and the east without problems until It was time to come to Kano. Last night, someone called me from the government house saying they are holding a meeting and planning to stop me by all means from entering Kano,” Kwankwaso claimed. “The party wrote a letter to them saying we are coming and we heard a meeting was held at the government house and they arranged to attack us and destroy our vehicles.”
Radio France Internationale (RFI) described wild scenes of “mobs wielding machetes and clubs” attacking Kwankwaso supporters in Kano, burning down cars in the process.
In addition to fielding threats of violence, the candidates during this election cycle have spent much of their time denying a variety of falsehoods, from simple incorrect claims to fabricated audio and images of them. Abubakar, for example, explained on Friday that a doctored audio clip circulating online where he allegedly claims he will rig the election is “utter rubbish.”
“In this age of artificial intelligence technology, even dead people can be portrayed as delivering speeches. This is nothing new,” Abubakar communications staffer Phrank Shaibu lamented. “The APC and the Labour Party must note that elections are not won on social media but at the polling units.”
Shaibu compared the incident to longstanding rumors that Muhammadu Buhari died. Buhari, who made frequent trips to London for medical treatment while president, and sometimes disappeared from the public eye for extensive periods, has faced rumors for years that he died and the man making public appearances claiming to be the Nigerian president is allegedly a Sudanese national named “Jubril Aminu.”
Buhari described the theory as “not funny” in a recent interview.
Obi faced a bizarre accusation in a letter spreading on social media last week in which an alleged pastor claimed that Obi was buying the votes of Christians in churches. The pastor allegedly signing the letter, later approached by reporters, said that he had no knowledge of where the letter came from, did not write it, and had no information of any alleged bribery by the Obi campaign.
Nigeria’s Premium Times documented several other bizarre falsehoods circulating about the candidates, most revolving around claims that they are not who they say they are. Kwankwaso has had to deny that he is secretly an ethnic Igbo. Bola Tinubu has also been accused of identity theft, while Abubakar has been accused of being Cameroonian. Obi has faced allegations that he is a supporter of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), a radical terrorist group run by a self-identified Jewish man, Nnamdi Kanu, seeking to secede from Nigeria. IPOB is headquartered in southern Nigeria, Obi’s stronghold, but no evidence exists that he has any ties to or supports the group. Obi has, however, called for “dialogue” with the terrorist organization.
IPOB has not formally endorsed any candidate and threatened to kill anyone participating in elections in the south. A coalition of traditional leaders in the region published a statement urging voters to defy the IPOB and “go out en masse to vote for their preferred candidates during the elections and to ignore any order for sit-at-home.”
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