Nigeria 2023: Can Peter Obi, Kwankwaso spark a presidential runoff

By Eniola Akinkuotu

Posted on Friday, 26 August 2022 18:21
Rabiu Kwankwaso
Rabiu Kwankwaso (photo twitter: @KwankwasoRM)

Nigeria currently has four frontline presidential hopefuls ahead of the 2023 poll. This means the presidential election may not be won on the first ballot. How might this play out?

The upcoming 2023 elections are unusually open for Nigeria: the two main parties have been joined by two viable ‘third forces’, says a US think tank, making the possible outcomes hard to predict.

During the 1979 election that ushered in the 2nd Republic, Nigeria had three main presidential hopefuls: Obafemi Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Nnamdi Azikiwe of the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP).

Although Awolowo and Azikiwe got the majority of the votes in the southwest and the southeast respectively, Shagari had the votes of other states in the north except in Kano State where another presidential candidate, Aminu Kano of the People’s Redemption Party (PRP), enjoyed a cult following. A fifth candidate, Waziri Ibrahim of the Great Nigeria Peoples Party, also won Borno State.

According to the 1979 Nigerian Constitution, for a candidate to be declared the winner on the first ballot, he had to have received not just a majority of votes nationwide, but also at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of the 19 states in the country at the time.

The emergence of Peter Obi […] and Rabiu Kwankwaso […] as viable ‘Third Forces’ has excited many young Nigerians

However, this historic poll could not produce a clear winner as all the major candidates won overwhelmingly in their respective strongholds and none could meet the constitutional requirement. Even so, the electoral umpire still announced Shagari as the winner instead of a presidential runoff.

Feeling aggrieved, Awolowo sought legal redress, but the Supreme Court controversially decided that although no one met the constitutional requirement, Shagari was the closest having polled the highest number of votes and ruled that based on the doctrine of “substantial compliance”, he should be declared the winner of the election.

Runoff this time?

Fast forward to today, Nigeria’s jurisprudence has deepened while its electoral laws have expanded ahead of another historic election. This time around, Nigeria now has 36 states and a much larger voting population, but the dynamics remain similar.

The presidential candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, is the most popular politician in the southwest and is expected to win the region convincingly just as Awolowo did in 1979.

Atiku Abubakar of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is banking on northern votes to help him to win just as Shagari did while Peter Obi, from the southeast, is getting massive support from the region and may be on the verge of replicating Azikiwe’s feat.

A fourth candidate, Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP), also enjoys a cult following in Kano State – just as Aminu Kano did in 1979 – and is expected to win in Kano overwhelmingly. So could there be a runoff?

[…] I think it is too early in the day to see how the election will play out.

The National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute in the US seem to think so. The delegation of the NDI/IRI led by Secretary of State for Ohio, Frank LaRose, said in July that the candidacy of Obi and Kwankwaso could alter the modern history of Nigerian presidential elections. The institute noted that for the first time since 2007, the presidential election will be an open contest with no incumbent.

“The emergence of Peter Obi — former Anambra State governor and presidential candidate for the Labour Party — and Rabiu Kwankwaso — former Kano governor and presidential candidate for the NNPP— as viable ‘Third Forces’ has excited many young Nigerians. If a third party draws sufficient support, a runoff presidential election could be a real possibility for the first time since the transition to democracy, adding complexity to the 2023 elections,” the institute says.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has already earmarked N27.1bn ($64m) for a possible runoff for presidential and governorship elections next year.

How states may vote

The 11 states in the south-south and southeast regions of Nigeria, which are populated by mostly Christians of Igbo extraction and other ethnic groups, have been voting for the PDP in presidential elections since 1999. These states are Abia, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Ebonyi, Edo, Enugu, Imo and Rivers.

However, Obi, who is from the southeast, may just make history by winning substantial votes in these states, thereby weakening the PDP’s advantage and giving the APC an edge.

Although Tinubu will be expected to win the six states of the southwest, he may not be able to take a substantial number of votes in Lagos State which is known for its large Igbo population.

At least five of the 20 local government areas in Lagos are densely populated by the Igbo and indigenes of the south-south. They are Ojo, Amuwo Odofin, Surulere, Ajeromi/Ifelodun and Oshodi/Isolo local governments. They will be expected to vote for Atiku and Obi.

When you see the pattern, you see a close gap between the APC and PDP and then the Labour Party at a distance third

Local governments like Eti Osa and Apapa, which are cosmopolitan, may also give some substantial votes to Atiku and Obi, thereby reducing an advantage that Tinubu could have had. Furthermore, despite the fact that Lagos has the largest voting population of 7.1 million, the state usually has a very low voter turnout.

In the Christian parts of the north, which include Benue, Taraba, Plateau, northern Nasarawa, southern Kaduna, northern Adamawa and parts of Bauchi, the APC may find it difficult to make inroads due to the decision of the party to present an all-Muslim ticket. Protest votes may go to Obi or Atiku.

In the core northern states, which have large Muslim populations, Tinubu and Atiku will be expected to share the spoils in Kaduna, Katsina, Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, Jigawa, Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Bauchi and Yobe as well as Niger, Kogi and Nasarawa.

Kwankwaso is projected to win in Kano where he enjoys a cult following. Reports, however, suggest that he may work for Tinubu at the last minute; and since almost all the northern states are being ruled by the APC, it is assumed that Tinubu will win these states generally but not by a wide margin.

“Peter Obi can sweep the southeast and win south-south too and win some parts of the southwest, but by the time you add figures from the north, PDP comes first, the APC second while [the] Labour Party comes third. If you look at voter statistics across Nigeria, Labour Party will come [a] distan[t] third,” Professor David Aworawo, the head of the History Department at the University of Lagos, tells The Africa Report.

Aworawo argues that although the margin of victory will be slim, there will be no need for a runoff because the two main political parties will meet the constitutional requirement of getting at least a quarter of the votes in 24 states. He, however, adds that since the elections are still over five months away, anything could change.

“I don’t see a runoff. When you see the pattern, you see a close gap between the APC and PDP and then the Labour Party at a distant third. Kwankwaso is not a contender. He may not even win in Kano because he will have Atiku, Governor Ganduje and others to contend with, so I don’t see a repeat of the 1979 election,” he says.

Public affairs analyst and newspaper columnist, Jide Ojo, tells The Africa Report it is still too early to say if there will be a presidential runoff, but he believes it is likely.

“I don’t believe it’s a four-horse race, but a three-horse race and this means we may not have an outright winner based on the constitutional provision of having a majority of the votes cast and 25% votes cast in two-thirds of the state.

“I think Kwankwaso is overrated. Why I think we may have an inconclusive ballot is that people will vote based on ethnicity, but I think it is too early in the day to see how the election will play out. A lot can change in 24 hours, so if you ask me a week before the election, my opinion may be different,” Ojo says.

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