Issues and Identity in Nigeria’s 2019 Elections

Nigeria’s presidential election is now in full swing, with President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) running for re-election. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) recently chose former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, as its candidate. Recent polling suggests that Africa’s most populous democracy is headed for a close contest, and a detailed analysis of the 2015 campaign in my new book offers some important lessons for parties in 2019.

Data from NOI Polls make clear that Buhari enjoyed a rather brief honeymoon after his election. Every month since he took the oath in 2015, Nigerians were asked whether they approved or disapproved of his performance; the graph below breaks it down into three-month averages. In the most recent September poll, Nigerians are evenly split, with 43% approving and 42% disapproving of Buhari. Importantly, 15% are undecided. Can the PDP capture that 15% and convert voters now loyal to Buhari? If it did, this would be Nigeria’s second “electoral turnover,” which comparative research associates with democratic consolidation.

A critical fact about the upcoming election is that both candidates are northern Muslims. This means that religious cleavages will play a smaller role – though they won’t disappear.  In my new book, Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror, I find that religion predicted voter preferences even more reliably than ethnicity in 2015. Specifically, in Chapter 5, I show that a survey respondent’s self-identification as a Muslim corresponded with a nearly 56 percent decline in support for Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent, Christian president from the PDP. The results are statistically significant at the 99% confidence interval, and the model controls for a respondent’s income, education, gender, age, and whether they dis/approve of the governor in his or her state. (Ethnicity was excluded from that particular model due to collinearity with religion.)

In 2019, the two candidates will have to rely on issues, ideas and other tools for motivating and mobilizing voters. Nigeria is thus embarking on an important experiment in its political campaigns: without an electoral strategy drawing upon religion or large regional cleavages (north and south), how will the PDP distinguish itself from the APC? And what are Buhari’s best chances for holding on to power?

As in 2015, the incumbent party is vulnerable on the economy. The initial dip in Buhari’s approval ratings (above) corresponded with a deep recession; Nigeria’s economy contracted by 1.6 percent in 2016. Though oil prices have recovered, and the World Bank’s forecast for 2018 is about 2.1 percent GDP growth, this is hardly a strong basis for a re-election campaign, and inflation remains high – around 11 percent.

Can the PDP win with “economic voters”?

Yet the opportunity for the PDP to run on the economy, as the APC did in 2015 (according to my analysis of campaign rhetoric), is not a simple strategy for two reasons. First, my statistical analysis of voting outcomes across states in 2015 found that citizens’ evaluation of past economic performance, their self-reported level of wealth, and their expectations for which party would improve the economy, all strongly correlated with voting intentions in 2015. In short, poorer, more economically pessimistic voters rallied to the opposition candidate, Buhari. But it is not clear that Nigerians are turning on Buhari’s approach to the economy: an Afrobarometer survey conducted April-May 2017 reported that while 60% said the country’s economy condition was “very bad” or “fairly bad,” a similar number (57%) described their own subjective position as “fairly good” or “very good.” Moreover, 82% believed the economy would get “better” or “much better” over the next 12 months. Though this last question on economic hope is not framed with two alternative candidates like the survey data I used, the incongruity between these indicators (subjective condition vs. future economic performance) is notable here since they performed similarly in my empirical analysis of voting in 2015.

Posters from the APC convention in 2018.

Second, Buhari apparently remains credible on anti-corruption. That same Afrobarometer poll reported that 59 percent of Nigerians believe Buhari’s government is doing “fairly well” or “very well” fighting corruption. BudgIT, the transparency and corruption civil society watchdog, noted this June: “For the second time within a month, Justice Adebukola Banjoko sentenced another ex-Governor, Joshua Dariye, to imprisonment. He is to serve 14 years in jail. Jolly Nyame of Taraba State received an equal sentence.” Though there was a curious delay in delivering on the sentence, they are both now in reportedly prison — a rare victory for rule of law in Nigeria.

The problem for Buhari is that in contrast to 2015, the economy overall, rather than corruption specifically, appears to be a much higher priority for citizens. For example, in a January 2015 US Government-sponsored survey, respondents ranked corruption second – after insecurity – in an open-ended question asking about the country’s top priorities (about 20% compared to 39% for insecurity). However, in the 2017 Afrobarometer survey, insecurity was not even a blip in response to an open ended question about the biggest challenges facing Nigeria. Instead, 53% mentioned unemployment and 35% management of the economy; corruption came in fifth, (with 23% mentioning it somewhere among their three top concerns).

In 2016 I interviewed Atiku Abubakar for my new book from Cambridge University Press,, “Contemporary Nigerian Politics.” At the time he was a member of the APC. Changing parties three times since 1999 could be a factor that challenges his credibility in the 2019 presidential election.

This means that Buhari will likely retain an advantage over the PDP when it comes to campaigning on corruption. But corruption so far seems less important than strongly negative assessments of the economy overall. And on this, Atiku’s status as a civilian entrepreneur just might provide the right contrast with the ex-general.

Finally, it is worth nothing that Atiku’s pick of a former governor from the southeast, Peter Obi, was a clever move. Despite the opinion, popular among ethnic Igbos, that Buhari has a “northern agenda” and he is secretly in cahoots with Fulani pastoralists, PDP politicians I interviewed in Imo and Aba planned to support a northern candidate in order to beat Buhari. (Meaning, not all northerners carry the “northern” agenda.) This however comes with an understanding that the Igbos will “have a turn” in 2023. As we saw in 2015, when Goodluck Jonathan decided to run for re-election after supposedly agreeing in 2011 not to do so, this is a tough bargain to enforce.

To learn more about those bargains, check out Chapter 2 of my new book, which details the “pacts” that facilitated the 1998-99 transition. For example, PDP elites agreed upon the idea that the presidency should alternate between north and south. I conclude that the erosion of those deals weakened the PDP heading into 2015. Once again, the PDP will have to weigh the tradeoffs between in the principle of fairness advanced by rotating the presidency on the one hand, and Nigerians’ demands for open competition on the other.

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