Nigeria is set to head to the polls in an unpredictable presidential election amid a backdrop of heightened insecurity, increasing poverty, and endemic corruption, NGS Risk Analyst, Edward Bach, considers the likely outcome of the election and the wider implications on the security and business environment below:
Saturday 25 February sees Africa’s most populous nation head to the polls to elect a new president after the end of Muhammadu Buhari’s constitutional limit of two terms. The election comes as Nigeria is situated at a crossroads; the combination of heightened insecurity, a stagnating economy, and endemic corruption has created a sense of malaise amongst Nigerian nationals. The election will also see the addition of 10.5 million registered new voters of which 85% are between 18 and 34. These circumstances have created an unpredictable contest with three main candidates left in the running. The result of the election is extremely likely to aggravate the already volatile security environment, which in turn is likely to alter the business environment.
Bola Ahmed Tinubu
Tinubu of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) is currently best positioned to win the presidency, though this can be attributed more to the institutional advantage of representing an established party rather than Tinubu’s political acumen. The APC currently controls the governorship in 21 out of Nigeria’s 36 states, in doing so conferring on the party the advantage of being able to manipulate and coerce voters to uphold the APC’s position. Additionally, voting patterns in Nigeria are relatively static, privileging traditional party and religious lines over individual candidates’ ideology. This, again, will benefit Tinubu; his identity as a Yoruba Muslim from Lagos will endow him with significant support in the south-west of the country. Moreover, inheriting the APC ticket from Buhari, who himself is a Fulani Muslim from the North, should solidify Tinubu’s support in the traditional northern APC heartlands.
However, political convention states that should a presidential candidate be a Muslim, their running mate should be Christian and vice versa to safeguard against claims of marginalisation. Tinubu has violated this tacit charter appointing Kashim Shettima- a northern Muslim- as his running mate, in doing so jeopardising his chances in large swathes of the south. Nevertheless, Tinubu remains the favourite largely due to the party mechanics of the APC and the status of Buhari in northern regions.
Atiku is the presidential candidate representing the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who together with the APC has shared power since 1999. Atiku is a party veteran having contested every presidential election since 2006. Atiku is Fulani Muslim from Adamawa in the north-east, which may allow the PDP to gain ground in traditionally weak areas. Many northern communities vote for the candidate that is perceived to best cater to the interest of the North, which, if harnessed by Atiku, could prove decisive.
However, although Atiku may enable PDP to make gains in northern regions, the nomination of the Muslim Atiku has provoked a potentially fatal schism within the PDP. Subsequently, five PDP governors in Rivers, Benue, Abia, Oyo, and Enugu states have withheld endorsements to Atiku, undermining his hold on the party. Moreover, much of the PDP’s traditional support rests in the Christian dominated south-east and south-south; between 1999 and 2019 the PDP won every state in these regions with a combined 81% of all votes. Consequently, Atiku’s nomination may jeopardise these traditional PDP strongholds. If Atiku is able to ignite support in the vastly more populus northern regions (even if it is to the detriment of the traditional PDP southern strongholds), then he stands a realistic shot at the presidency. However, this is currently unlikely and he remains an outside shot.
Obi is the unpredictable outsider running on the ticket of the Labour Party having defected from the PDP in March 2022 for allegedly refusing to bribe senior party officials to endorse his leadership bid. Obi is seen by many to embody a change candidate challenging the established two-party system. Obi’s popularity is symptomatic of the dissatisfaction felt by many Nigerians, particularly amongst the country’s 37 million young people; this is particularly pertinent given his two biggest challengers are both over 70. Obi has galvanised an intense support base known as ‘Obidients’, who have characterised him as a humble candidate offering a path to genuine reform. Obi is also running as the sole Christian and Igbo candidate, which may enable him to attract swathes of the south-east and south-south, voters in the less ethnically homogeneous areas of the Middle Belt, and regions of the north-east and north-west which lie demographically outside the established ‘Core North’.
However, the Labour Party won just 5,074 votes of the 28 million cast in the 2019 election, and currently has only two out of 360 members of the house of representatives. This means Obi lacks the crucial mechanisms on the ground which can play a vital role in determining the course of the election. Vote-buying, ballot-rigging, and intimidation of the opposition are all common tactics employed by established parties to uphold their dominance- this is likely to substantially hamper Obi’s victory chances. Moreover, Nigeria’s electoral system also casts doubt on Obi’s prospects: in order to win the presidency, the candidate must obtain at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. Despite currently leading many polls (though these should be treated with scepticism) Obi may struggle to acquire such a share in many northern states.
Though Obi currently leads the polls, these should be treated with a degree of scepticism. This is because it is unlikely Obi will have sufficient nationwide support to win 25% of votes in two-thirds of the 36 states necessary to be crowned outright victor. Consequently, this leaves Tinubu as the most likely victor, largely due to the benefits associated with running under the banner of the APC coupled with his personal appeal in the south-west. However, turnout in the previous election was just 35% and if Obi can galvanise Nigeria’s youthful population to come out on polling day, victory may be possible. The prospect of an unprecedented run-off can also not be discounted, in which case Obi’s former affiliation to the PDP may draw supporters away from Atiku, in turn bolstering Tinubu’s chances of victory.
Impact on the Security Environment:
The election is likely to act as a lightning rod that may motivate civil unrest as well as violent clashes. This would be consistent with previous elections in which localised skirmishes and civil unrest have been common. However, Nigeria’s generally deteriorating security environment coupled with the enflamed ethnic tensions seen throughout the election campaign mean political violence is extremely likely. This violence is likely to take two forms, ethnic violence and militancy.
The first is localised political violence motivated by the election result and its associated consequences. This has already been witnessed in the lead-up to the election, and following the vote is likely to incorporate an increasingly ethnically charged component to the violence. Such violence stems from the nature of Nigerian politics whereby ethnic and religious affiliations are privileged over ideology, meaning the victory of any given candidate can spark protests over the perceived marginalisation of members of a different ethnic or religious group. There is precedent for such incidents, most notably following the 2011 election of the southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan, whose victory led to riots in northern regions which culminated in at least 943 deaths. The prospect of this type of violence has been intensified due to the rhetoric utilised by several candidates during the campaign, many of whom have evoked ethnic and religious sentiment. This is likely to aggravate tensions and lead to violence on the election day.
Throughout his campaign, Atiku has claimed that the north “needs somebody who is from the north and also understands that part of the country… it doesn’t need a Yoruba or Igbo candidate”. Similarly, one of Tinubu’s most prominent election slogan has been “Yoruba lo kan.. Emi lo kan”, meaning “it is the turn of the Yoruba… and it is my turn”. In contrast to the other two candidates, Obi has refrained from evoking any ethnic or religious identities, instead seeking to run as a genuinely pan-Nigerian candidate. However, his status as the only Christian front-running candidate has led to his embrace amongst Christian groups; the Christian Association of Nigeria has called it ‘un-Christian’ to vote for Tinubu, instead urging supporters to rally behind Obi.
The rhetoric from all candidates in conjunction with the nature of voting patterns mean it is likely that ethnically charged political violence emerges in the weeks following the election. The nature of the violence is set to be determined according to the victor; should Tinubu win, violence in the Igbo regions of south-east is likely to intensify and be driven by Biafran separatists, whereas if Obi wins, violence is likely in Lagos and Osun in the south-west.
The second form of violence induced by the election stems from the presence of several competing armed groups who have contributed to an already volatile security environment. Such groups are likely to take advantage of the election to intensify violent attacks. This has already been witnessed in the weeks preceding the election, where there has been an uptick in violence as groups vie for control of election related services (such as coercion of voters, intimidation of opponents, rigging ballots, etc) to alter the course of the vote. The Nigeria Election Tracker has already logged 408 violent events leading to 962 fatalities in 2023 alone, many of which can be attributed to the election. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the body which oversees elections, has also reported over 50 attacks on its offices across 17 states.
Whilst election day itself and the time period immediately around it are likely to witness a degree of violent unrest, it is also likely that the insurgent groups fighting ongoing conflicts with Abuja may identify the election as an attractive target given that security services are likely to be deployed at the polls. The universal rejection of democracy amongst several of Nigeria’s warring armed factions also contributes towards the high likelihood of an attack at a polling station or election facility. The prospect of such attacks is significant given the deterioration of the nationwide security environment in Nigeria: throughout 2022, over 10,000 people were killed and 5,000 were abducted across over 3,000 violent incidents in 500 of the 774 local government areas. Several groups operating in Nigeria have geographically expanded their frontiers beyond their traditional strongholds to the extent insecurity now engulfs much of the country.
The principal security concerns emanate from established violent groups: Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has been able to geographically expand to increasingly conduct attacks in central and southern states. Boko Haram has also increased the frequency of its attacks in north-eastern regions, generally preferring to utilise smaller raids as a common modus operandi to evade detection. In the south-east, agitation amongst the previously peaceful Biafran separatists (IPOB) has morphed into an armed struggle against the Nigerian government, and coordinated attacks against state actors have increased by an alarming amount. Moreover, in the north-west, disparate groups of bandits have capitalised on the security environment to conduct numerous violent raids resulting in the murder and kidnap of civilians.
There is likely to be an uptick in violence during the election period that is related to ongoing security issues. The groups’ universal rejection of democracy and desire to attack the levers of the Nigerian state mean the election is likely be identified as an opportunity to launch attacks. The strain on security resources to secure polls means militant groups may capitalise by launching heightened attacks elsewhere. Moreover, the deployment of security forces to election facilities such as polling stations represent attractive targets which are also likely to be targeted. Overall, this means it is very likely attacks are set to increase during the election period. This is especially likely in the Igbo-majority south-eastern states, where IPOB has already conducted several coordinated attacks on election facilities.
Impact on Business Environment:
A deterioration in the security environment as a consequence of the election (particularly in southern areas where much of Nigeria’s economic, industrial, and technology hubs are situated) is likely to have significant impact on Nigeria’s operating environment. This is particularly pertinent given the threats Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is already exposed to; theft, corruption, and the construction of illegal pipelines mean that 108,000 barrels of oil are stolen daily, equating to 7% of total production. This has prompted several companies to divert from onshore to offshore drilling, which has led to a decline in production and caused Nigeria to lose its status as Africa’s top oil producer. Though all three main candidates have pledged to intensify oil production, this may not be possible should the security environment deteriorate.
This is because much of Nigeria’s oil infrastructure is concentrated in the restive south-eastern areas where attacks on infrastructure are common. This is partly fuelled by the perception amongst many living in the south-east that the current system does not fairly distribute wealth to the south, a perception which has deepened during Buhari’s tenure due to his identity as a northern Fulani Muslim. Should Obi be defeated in the election, the perception of marginalisation amongst those living in the south-east is likely to intensify and manifest itself through increased attacks on oil infrastructure. This will ensure the difficult operating environment persists.
The operating environment has also deteriorated due to the ongoing Naira crisis, where a botched attempt to replace the 200, 500, and 1,000 Naira notes has created a currency crisis. The crisis is most obviously felt in Lagos, where withdrawal limits on ATMs have meant many residents can neither access their own money nor officially use the original currency they possess. This has led to an uptick in attacks on banks and their staff as many people cannot complete daily tasks and small businesses have had to temporarily cease operations. Given that the election can act as a spark to trigger violence, the ongoing ire felt by many in Lagos due to the currency crisis may trigger violent protests in the weeks immediately following the election. This would also have a substantial impact on Nigeria’s operating environment given it is the country’s financial hub.
The election represents a pivotal moment for not only Nigeria, but Africa as a whole. Following a sharp decline in democracy across the continent, a free election would send a significant message. Amid the backdrop of heightened insecurity, increasing poverty, and endemic corruption, the election represents a beacon of hope for many Nigerians that it can mark a turning point. However, the election is unlikely to be uneventful: in the immediate leadup to polling day, there is likely to be a deterioration in the security environment stemming from clashes and attacks centring on election facilities. Regardless of the election result, there is a high likelihood of violent ethnically motivated clashes, the locations of which are contingent on the result. The long-standing insecurity ongoing in several regions is also likely to see an uptick in violent activity throughout the election period. There is also a serious prospect of an unprecedented runoff, in which case the insecurity is likely to persist for weeks until the final result of the election is determined.
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
Author: Edward Bach, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
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