Nigeria’s Presidential Election- Two Septuagenarians, Numerous Pretenders, and the Race to Nowhere

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”


It has been suggested that a country can be judged by the attitude of its car drivers. If that is true, one trip to Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, will convince anyone of the natural impatience of Nigerians. Almost everything is a competition, and there is always a sense of urgency to outduel others. Politics and governance have not been spared from this impatience, and, in this case, it is usually a duel of mediocrity. As an election year, 2019 was always going to be interesting for Nigerians, and the level of political awareness in the country adds to the spectacle, as many citizens are not able to distinguish between facts and propaganda. Like previous elections, this election is pitching two strong candidates against one another, along with numerous bystanders with an almost non-existent chance of posing a meaningful threat to the front-runners.


The Septuagenarians

In a country not lacking of distinguished intellectuals in their field of study, Nigeria has managed to present as leading presidential candidates: two men who are very similar, yet very different.

President Muhammadu Buhari is a former military dictator who made three failed attempts at the Presidency in 2003, 2007, and 2011. In 2015, he teamed with other opposition leaders and, running on an anti-corruption campaign, successfully unseated then President Goodluck Jonathan. It was the first time in the history of Nigeria that a sitting president lost a re-election bid. Three and half years later, there are indications that he may suffer the same fate. His harshest critics rightly point to the fact that he appears clueless and does not understand even the basic principles of governance. His anti-corruption mantra has left many bewildered, as there has been no significant improvement in that regard. On the contrary, he appears to protect his friends and associates accused of corruption. He has repeatedly violated constitutional provisions and court orders. For example,, he sanctioned the suspension of the Chief Justice on the basis of an unconstitutional order by quasi-judicial court under the control of the executive arm of government. His strength is in his popularity in the northern part of the country where, despite his clear lack of performance, he still commands a massive followership.

Abubakar Atiku served as Vice President between 1999 and 2007. Prior to joining politics, he rose through the ranks at the Nigerian Custom Service, and has been accused of corruption throughout his career. There is a general perception that, although he may be corrupt, he has proven himself to be a shrewd businessman who understands the need to build an economic structure that encourages foreign investment. His weakness lies in his reputation for corruption, his inability to remain in one party for a substantial period, and his running on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, which was castigated for 16 years (1999-2015) on account of waste and misadministration.

Both Buhari and Atiku are from Fulani extraction (one of the largest ethnic group in West Africa, widely known for their nomadic pastoral lifestyle), in their seventies, and were formerly in the military. However, on one hand, Buhari is known for his integrity, but also his sheer incompetence. On the other hand, Atiku is believed to be blatantly corrupt, but talented and clever. This was exemplified by a recent analysis done by the Eurasia Group, which found the incumbent too weak to change the fortunes of the country, while the candidate of the major opposition will likely only serve to enrich his cronies [1].

However, this election is being wrongly framed as a fight between integrity and competence. The supporters of both parties have managed to argue on the strength of their candidate, while criticizing the weakness of their opponent. In reality, an objective view of both candidates is difficult to obtain, with no distinctive features that truly separate them. The candidate that preaches integrity governs over an administration that is accused of ethnic bias and is perceived to be fighting a selective war against corruption. For example, the recent suspension of the top judicial officer in the country further strengthens critics’ argument that the anti-corruption crusade of the President is discriminatory and laced with ulterior motives. While the Chief Justice’s misdoing deserves a thorough investigation, the speed it took for the allegation to be filed and punishment apportioned leaves the entire country with a stench of hidden agenda. Meanwhile, the candidate preaching competence was the Vice President of an administration that wasted inordinate time and funds on several projects with little results.

The election takes place this Saturday, and, regardless of who emerges victorious between the two main candidates, the narration of the country is not expected to change much. It will be very surprising if even 5% of educated Nigerians understand the socioeconomic strategies of their preferred candidate. This is mainly because both parties have not spent much time talking about their ideas on how to steer the country towards success. The masses that are expected to hold politicians accountable have been blindfolded by the attention paid to mundane things, such as the visa issues faced by Atiku (he is alleged to have pending corruption cases in the United States, and would therefore be unable to secure a visa to or visit the US) and the educational history of Buhari (there are allegations that the President never graduated, and therefore has no secondary school certificate), and these have taken precedence more meaningful issues.


The Pretenders

While not meant to be derogatory, there are indeed, in the Nigerian context, pretenders aspiring to the office of the President – the so called “third force”, a coalition of neutrals aiming to take over from the two major political parties. Former Education Minister and “Bring Back Our Girls” activist Dr. Oby Ezekwesili spearheads this movement. Initially creating some level of engagement and interest, they have since fizzled out. The politics of “I Over We” derailed any form of momentum that was built by the neutrals, who would rather have a vibrant and upright government than one of the two unappealing choices. The initial plan was to have a consensus candidate among them, but no one was willing to sacrifice his or her individual candidacy, hence citizens stopped taking them serious. It appears true that the current political structure cannot support the aspiration of neutral political actors. The sheer size and magnitude of resources needed to win an election in the country make it difficult for anyone outside the main political actors to get a foothold into the system.

As Nigerians have always done since the return to democratic governance in 1999, chances are that immediately after the 2019 election, citizens will forget politics and return to their daily lives for the next three years, only to realign themselves with a candidate in the lead up to the 2023 election. However, not all is gloomy. Nigerians hopefully will learn that politicians can never serve without adequate evaluation of their actions, and that it makes mockery of democracy to merely sit and wait for the next election cycle before seeking to change what is wrong.

There is an urgent need to set things in motion to truly change how politics and government are viewed and managed in the country. The political spectators need to be actively involved and engage their constituents; intellectuals and activists need to speak with a unified voice; candidate bystanders should unite and provide a viable alternative to the “family and friends” politics; citizens need to put aside prejudice and support the best candidate, regardless of their ethnic or religious status. This is how meaningful change for Nigeria must arise. Otherwise, the next presidential election will be as uninspiring as the current race.


Follow Oluwatosin Fatoyinbo and Usman Oyebamiji:

Usman Oyebamiji is a first-year student at Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He earned his Bachelor's in Economics at Lead City University, Nigeria. His experience spans management, investment risk, and policy consulting. He was a member of the team that drafted the visibility and communications strategy for the 2016 European Union Delegations in Nigeria. His areas of interest include international development, political economy, and government relations. He is a member of The Liberal Forum, a policy think tank in Nigeria. Oluwatosin Fatoyinbo is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He is in the Conflict Studies and Management track of the MPP programme. He holds a bachelor's degree in Law from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and qualified as a lawyer in Nigeria in 2014. He worked as an Associate at Banwo & Ighodalo, a full-service commercial law firm in Nigeria. His areas of interest include Illicit Financial Flow, Democratic Peace theories, Artificial Intelligence governance and Water Cooperation.

2 Responses

  1. Amaliya

    The authors should be commended for their brilliant take on one of the most important elections to be held on the African continent. As they preferred to introduce the main contenders of the election to a general audience, the article addresses quite accurately, the credibility deficits of the major candidates and also their failure to compete on the basis of sound policy proposals. To the remote observer, the impression is easily created that the problem with this election boils down to the individuals in question, the two gerontocrats, and a pretentious third force of irreconcilable politicos.
    However, the road to the presidency in Nigeria as it is with most African countries is rarely repaired when paved with candidates with good intentions. If anything, this year’s election in Nigeria saw at least 30 candidates registering with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to contest the February 16, elections. This was directly buoyed by a reduction in the constitutional age to run for office from 40 to 35 under the so-called “Not too young to run bill”. Of course, the mere influx of presidential aspirants does not ensure or safeguard against political demagoguery. It, however, suggests a problem that goes beyond candidate selection.

    In addition, a complex range of factors come to light when analysing Who gets What position, When and How. Given the complex role of geopolitical, ethno-religious, and patron/client influences in shaping public opinion and swaying political sentiments in Nigeria, it is perhaps reductionist to judge the process strictly by who is contesting. Any systematic assessment of Nigeria’s election since 1999 would reveal a political climate toxified by deep-rooted suspicion, elite-capture and counter allegations of corruption. As with all African countries, draining the political swamp would not suffice even if achievable. Complementarily, a strong civil society, critical public mass, professionally trained and resource- endowed security sector and a robust justice system are equally important. While the integrity of Nigeria’s current presidential contenders impact on the country’s future and indeed that of the sub-region, one will hope that the wider population of electorates will be guided by democratic tenets rather than blind partisanship when choosing their next president. After all, it is their vote that counts. To their credit, the authors intimate most of these concerns in their write-up even if they failed to highlight structural challenges affecting the electoral process.

  2. Tunji Adeyemi

    Excellent analysis guys. Well done. My real disappointment is with the ‘pretenders’. I’m not sure if they underestimated or just simply ignored what it actually requires to win a national election in Nigeria. For example, what is the plan to win the crucial North that has 18 States? Even the South, i dont see any plan tht will deliver most or even some States to them. As intellectualls, I would have thought that they would have fully analysed what it takes and come up with an effective game plan. I’m not one of those that believe they have no chance at all but their undoing is the inadequateness of their strategy. As I typically opine, it was just as difficult for a black man to become President but Obama’s political machinery (coupled with the fact that he was an excellent candidate) delivered the goods. We can’t keep saying our political class is dominated by non-intellectuals when these intellectuals can’t even come up with a clear strategy to give them a proper challenge.