Identity, Insecurity, and Institutions in the 2023 Nigerian Elections
In February and March 2023, Nigeria will conduct elections for 1,491 positions, including the president and 28 of the country’s 36 governorship roles. While 18 registered parties will contest these positions, 4 can be considered likely to secure the vast majority of votes: the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the Labour Party (LP), and the New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP). The next president Nigerians elect will lead the country into celebrating 63 years as an independent nation on October 1, 2023. In that time, Nigerians have seen attempts at democracy interrupted three times: in 1966, after a coup that led to a series of successive military regimes until 1979; in 1983, which led to a series of subsequent coups; and following the infamous June 12, 1993, elections until the return to democracy in 1999. The current democratic era is the longest uninterrupted period in the country.
Ahead of the coming elections, several issues have dominated the political landscape. The first of these is ethnic politics that has been brought to the fore by contestations around zoning. The second is the insecurity prevailing across all geopolitical zones of Nigeria and the number of non-state armed actors who could disrupt the process. Finally, the capacity of the institutions responsible for delivering the elections has been in focus, as there is renewed optimism that they are supported by a more robust legal framework—the 2022 Electoral Act—to ensure transparent and credible voting.
Nigeria’s political system, both at the federal and state levels, is characterized by prebendal patronage syndrome, where political actors capture state power and use it to advance the well-being of their respective ethnic or religious groups (as described in Richard Joseph’s seminal book, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic). As a result, state resources are unevenly distributed to the advantage of majority groups, thereby making political representation and access to power highly competitive in the country. In addressing these concerns, the political elite, across party lines, have adopted approaches such as power rotation and zoning to improve the inclusivity of minority groups. However, these zoning and power rotation rules were jettisoned by the PDP’s decision to throw open its ticket, which was eventually clinched by another northern Muslim, following eight years of the presidency being held by a northern Muslim. The issue of representation and access to power is set to be prominent in determining the outcome of the 2023 elections, especially regarding the presidential poll.
Firstly, on the grounds of ethnicity, the 2023 election presents a situation where the three leading presidential candidates—Ahmed Bola Tinubu of the APC, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, and Peter Obi of the LP—are from the Yoruba, Fulani, and Igbo ethnic groups, respectively. The candidates are expected to perform better than their opponents in their “home” geopolitical zones, while opposition party members may face repression from state and non-state actors in these areas. Religion may also be a prominent determinant of the outcome of the 2023 elections. The APC’s decision to run a Muslim-Muslim ticket of Tinubu and Kashim Shettima has heightened religious tensions in the country. Conventionally, leading parties have sought to balance their presidential tickets to ensure that both major faiths are represented. But the need to both secure access to political power and inclusive political representation along ethno-religious and regional lines has proven difficult for the APC to achieve in this election, and there are concerns about what a single-ticket victory would have for faith relations in the country. Ethnic, religious, and regional considerations at the national level may also affect voting behavior and election outcomes at the state level. So too could generational identity, especially since 39.7 percent of the more than 90 million registered voters are aged 18 to 34. Although Peter Obi’s candidacy seems to have gathered significant youth support, young people are not a homogenous group and their loyalties are spread across the four leading candidates.
The lack of a coherent national identity in Nigeria and the overarching reliance on ethnicity, religion, and regionalism for political identity has historically accounted for electoral violence and attendant insecurity. The interplay of several forces such as the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC, regional politics between the PDP G5 governors (also known as the Integrity Group) and the PDP leadership, as well as the ethnic profiling of the LP presidential candidate as a regional leader of the southeast and a Christian faith candidate, could each trigger ethnic and religious clashes. In the southeast, eligible voters of northern origin are at risk of persecution by armed non-state actors, while Christian populations are faced with similar risks from extreme religious groups across northern Nigeria. Ethnicity could also be a major driver of electoral violence in Lagos state, as well as the southeast, northeast, and northwest zones.
Preelection politicking within and between leading political parties across the country provides insights into the nature and dynamics of the 2023 elections. It highlights the importance of personalities over parties and the impact that intraparty squabbles can have on the election as a whole. It also reflects the emergence of a credible third force in this election and highlights the roles played by the diaspora and money in shaping the outcome.
Popular discontent among Nigerians over the failure of successive governments across party affiliations has birthed a new electioneering model of personalities over parties. Voters, particularly youth, are more likely to jettison their party affiliations and cleavages to vote for candidates based on their personalities, pedigree, and track record. It is more about who can deliver good governance to Nigerians. This trend can be linked to the growth of the “Obidient” movement, a group of mostly young Peter Obi supporters who are angry with the state of Nigeria and the politicians who have failed to make positive gains across all aspects of society in the last two decades. But it is not just voters who see personalities as more important than parties.
The prebendal politics of ethnicity and religion and the need for inclusivity and increased representation by ethnic and religious minorities has resulted in intraparty squabbles among the two leading parties—the APC and PDP. The Muslim-Muslim candidature of Tinubu and Shettima has faced internal challenges, with some Christian members of the APC displeased enough with the decision to either withdraw support for the party or outright defect to another party where they perceive their ethnic and religious interests to be better accommodated and protected. Similarly, the internal crisis within the PDP between the Nyesom Wike-led G5 group and the presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, has undermined party stability, splitting it into two factions both at the national and state levels, with outbreaks of violence between political factions.
The APC and PDP dominated the last two election processes, but the clamor for a third force and the emergence of Peter Obi on the LP ticket threaten to change that in 2023. This will all depend on whether Obi’s youthful support base, which has been mobilized across social media, turns out to vote. Those who remain skeptical point to his movement’s minimal presence in the northwest—the zone with the largest number of registered voters in Nigeria—and the presence of another non-mainstream candidate, the NNPP’s Rabiu Kwankwaso, who is likely to receiving significant backing in those states. Similarly, the northeast is a political stronghold for Atiku from Adamawa state, as well as APC vice presidential candidate Shettima from Borno state. As a result, the likelihood of the emergence of a third force in the northeast is relatively low in a region that will be keenly contested by the APC and PDP. But in the southeast and south-south, Obi has a better chance. Undoubtedly, his growing popularity increases the likelihood of a presidential run-off for the first time under the 1999 constitution.
The rise of the Obidient movement and increasing popularity of Obi’s candidacy has also provided impetus for other political actors at the state level to jettison from the established APC and PDP political parties to form new alliances in pursuit of their political interests. The case of Senator Magnus Abe, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) governorship candidate for Rivers state, is one example of this trend. He decamped from the APC following internal wrangling, and observations suggest that Abe will contest with the PDP candidate in the March polls, with the APC, weakened by his defection, a distant third. Another impact of the emergence of Obi as the third force in the presidential election can be seen in the instances of cross-party affiliations; candidates contesting for state-level and national assembly elections on a non-LP ticket have publicly endorsed Obi as their presidential candidate. This implies that smaller political parties are seeking to ride on the wings of Obi as part of their campaign messages to appeal for support from the electorate.
For all candidates, seeking election money is an inescapable requirement. The distribution of gifts by political leaders, disguised as philanthropy, to communities, traditional rulers, and religious leaders represents a strategy of vote buying aimed at winning the support of beneficiaries for positive electoral outcomes. In the 2019 general elections, two main types of vote buying were employed by the main parties. Pre-vote buying consisted of paying voters or providing voters with goods in exchange for their promise to vote for the party’s candidate. In the off-cycle Osun governorship elections, votes were purchased for between 10,000 NGN (22 USD) and 20,000 NGN (44 USD). Post-vote buying was, however, far more prevalent, as it is difficult to ensure that people follow through on their pre-vote commitment. In post-vote buying, party representatives at polling stations pay voters after they show proof of having voted for their party’s candidate(s). These voters were usually given between 3,000 NGN and 5,000 NGN in the Osun governorship elections. However, a demonetization policy recently introduced by the government is aimed at curtailing vote buying in the elections. As part of the policy, the central bank of Nigeria redesigned the 200, 500 and 1,000 NGN bills and put them into public circulation on December 15, 2022.
Insecurity and Non-state Actors
Since the return of democracy in 1999, Nigerian elections have never been devoid of violence perpetrated by non-state actors. The 2023 elections will be no different, as heightened competition between political actors for access to power will see non-state actors mobilized to help achieve political aims. More so, the 2023 elections are to be held within the context of state fragility, as several areas across the country have become ungovernable spaces due to preexisting localized and regionalized conflicts which could undermine security and impede the free and fair voting process. This includes regional security threats such as terrorism led by Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the northeast, banditry in the northwest, ethno-religious tensions in north-central Nigeria, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led secessionist agitations in the southeast, separatist movements in southwest, farmers-herders clashes in at least 20 states, and militancy and cult clashes in the south-south.
Large swaths of the country, particularly in the northwest and southeast, remain inaccessible for election logistics and the transportation of materials, making it next to impossible for Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) personnel to conduct elections in a safe and secure way in some areas. In Zamfara state, for instance, bandits control significant chunks of territory across several local government areas. This fragility provides fertile ground for non-state actors to be easily mobilised by political actors to perpetrate electoral violence. The insecurity could also fuel apathy in an election projected to witness increased turnout.
Ethnic militia groups have increasingly become key actors in the electioneering process in Nigeria due to their ability to instigate political violence. In previous elections, militant leaders in the south-south played key roles in deciding who gets elected to political offices. Some have now become political godfathers themselves, sponsoring candidates to elective positions by means of wealth acquired from their control of illicit oil bunkering economy and social capital secured from the communities they are from. Militant leaders have the potential to influence the outcome of the elections in the region, especially given their existing relationships with state government officials that reinforce their power and position. In the southeast, the increasing spate of attacks by the IPOB’s militia wing—the Eastern Security Network (ESN)—and other groups of “unknown gunmen” on INEC offices, as well as a heavy-handed security response, make the region a likely flashpoint for violence during the elections. It is estimated that 20 percent of all attacks on INEC facilities have been in Imo state. Power battles between factions of the IPOB, including the ESN, are also highly likely and could contribute to election disturbances throughout the southeast region.
Community-based, self-help armed groups and state-level or regional security outfits established to respond to, and defend ethno-religious territories from real or perceived expansion by alleged Fulani-based militia banditry and herders’ encroachment could play key roles in influencing conflict outcomes before, during, and after the 2023 elections. In response to the proliferation of banditry in states across the northwest, local communities have established Yan Sakai—self-help defense militia groups—while regional-based security outfits such as the Benue Volunteer Guard, Onelga Security and Peace Advisory Committee, and Ebube Agu have emerged to protect local interests. These so-called armed vigilante groups can be readily mobilized by political actors, especially incumbent state governors, to suppress and intimidate opposition parties.
The Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) has raised alarm that insurgency across the country could undermine the conduct of the 2023 general elections, with states and regions already weakened by state fragility becoming flash points. Ensuring that these areas are reached, and that the millions of internally displaced Nigerians can cast a ballot, will also be important for longer-term security, as it will reduce any sense that a winning candidate was imposed on them in an election they were unable to participate in. For example, disenfranchised or disgruntled youth are more susceptible to be recruited by terrorist or bandit groups.
The success of any electoral process is dependent on the credibility, transparency, and efficiency of stakeholders that manage, regulate, and secure the process. Saddled with the responsibility of establishing the rules of play and conducting the 2023 elections, INEC is a central election stakeholder. . While the introduction of the 2022 Electoral Act, which supports the use of technology such as the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) (a facial recognition system aiding voter accreditation), and the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV) have boosted confidence in the Commission, but overall trust in INEC has declined. Furthermore, the decision of the election petition tribunal quashing the win of the PDP governor in Osun on grounds including overvoting and non-synchronization of the BVAS has somewhat dampened citizens’ confidence in the ability of technology to solve Nigeria’s election challenges. The management of the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) collection exercise has also led to citizen discontent, with many alleging that INEC staff in key strongholds of either ruling or opposition parties are denying citizens the ability to collect their voter cards.
The scope and extent of insecurity that the country currently experiences is already hindering INEC’s ability to conduct elections in some areas, especially in Nigeria’s northwest and southeast. At the same time, the ability of the over 2.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) to cast a ballot is also in question. Whilst INEC has an IDP policy, it may be difficult to implement considering how scattered IDPs are across many host communities. This challenge is compounded by the refusal of state governors in the northwest and southeast to officially declare an IDP crisis.
Amid prevailing insecurity, the question of how INEC will guarantee its staff’s safety in violence hotspots remains unanswered. There has been a total of 134 attacks against INEC facilities and officials between 2019 and 2022. At the same time, while the commission is trying to assiduously improve its credibility and transparency, some INEC staff still intentionally try to undermine the process for personal gain and to curry the favor of politicians. In the lead-up to Osun’s gubernatorial elections in 2022, the police arrested INEC staff, including a supervisor, over alleged manipulation of the distribution of PVCs. To this extent, it is necessary to distinguish between responsibilities at the institutional and individual levels. It nevertheless remains valid that INEC is responsible for its staff’s conduct and should ensure that failure to abide by policies and conduct codes is followed by penalties for compromised staff. In previous elections, the ruling party has sought to exercise its influence on federal institutions to tilt the electoral scales in its favor.
This includes the judiciary, which handles pre- and post-electoral disputes. Ahead of the 2023 elections, there have already been several complaints against the judiciary, ranging from allegations of partisanship on the part of its agents to judicial compromise of the legal system. As many as 1,200 cases have already been filed in relation to these elections, revealing a litigious contest that may produce last-minute decisions that hamper INEC’s preparations, according to the author’s interviews with the commission. Saddled with the responsibility to ensure the security of the electoral process by deterring voter interference and protecting voters, security agencies are essential to the smooth running of the forthcoming elections. Around 400,000 security personnel working under the auspices of the ICCES will be deployed for the elections. The all-important role of securing the electoral process necessitates an efficient, neutral, and apolitical security infrastructure. However, in previous elections cycles, security agencies have been implicated in partisan enforcement. They have been accused of undertaking electoral violence at the behest of politicians or of looking the other way while thuggery erodes order. In addition, the police’s reputation for brutality and citizen intimidation has led to increasing distrust and suspicion from citizens.
The 2023 general election will be a defining moment not just for Nigeria but also for West Africa. The region has suffered a democratic decline and experienced coups and countercoups in the past three years. However, this is not a task that will come easy, with over 93 million registered voters set to cast their ballot across 176,846 polling units. The legitimacy of the results of the elections and the hopes of the emergence of transformational leadership that will change the country’s fate will be determined by deep-rooted and complex political and socioeconomic factors. With the emergence of a strong third force, the 2023 election presents a unique opportunity for the growth of democracy in Nigeria. However, the style of its emergence and the nature of the Nigerian state presents the third force as not just a solution but also an outcome that complicates the political space in the face of heightened ethnic division and increased insecurity.
Idayat Hassan is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.