Nigeria 2023: Will Peter Obi momentum end south-easterners’ voting apathy?

By Ben Ezeamalu

Posted on Tuesday, 24 January 2023 16:35
Supporters of Labour Party's presidential candidate, Peter Obi, attend a rally in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria October 1, 2022. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Nigeria's elections are often characterised by voter apathy, but the south-east region has always led the way in shunning the country's electoral process. 

After Darlington Johnson cast his vote in his hometown in Oguta, Southeast Nigeria, in 2019, he realised there were not many of them who were participating in the general elections in the community.

“The turnout was not impressive. I couldn’t count the number, but I know it was not reflective of the population of that particular community where our polling unit was situated in Egbuoma ward,” says Johnson, 46, an activist.

Nigeria’s elections are often characterised by voter apathy, but the south-east region has always led the way in shunning the country’s electoral process.

Nigeria is divided into six geo-political zones and five states – Abia, Anambra, Ebony, Enugu, and Imo – which make up the south-east zone.

Between 1999 and 2019, the number of voters declined from 30.2 million to 28.6 million, despite the addition of over 25 million new voters since 1999.

In the 2019 general election, which witnessed the lowest participation from the electorates in Nigeria’s history, the south-east had a 26% turnout, the lowest among the six geo-political zones. The average turnout across the country stood at 35%.

Two years earlier, during the governorship election in Anambra State, the voter turnout was 21%, the worst in the history of the election in Nigeria.

“The south-east has been neglected for a long time. People became disenchanted with the leadership process thereby leading to low turnout,” says Kelechi Njoku, a hotelier in Owerri, the Imo State capital.

“[It is] also [because of] the insecurity and agitations based on injustice, which made people feel not wanted in this country.”

Southeast Nigeria is inhabited by the Igbos, the ethnic group whose attempt to secede from the country led to a civil war in 1967.

In the years following their unsuccessful secession, the group routinely accused the federal government of marginalisation, both in citing key public infrastructures within their region and government appointments.

‘Obi’s momentum’

After the civil war, the Nigerian government launched a post-war “reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation” programme in an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted by the war.

Analysts say government efforts to reintegrate the Igbos using the programme fell short of expectations, causing a feeling of segregation and victimisation among the south-easterners.

Since the end of the civil war, no south-easterner has led the country. The closest the region had come was through the late architect, Alex Ekwueme, who served as vice president between 1979 and 1983 under President Shehu Shagari.

No south-easterner has been a front-runner in successive presidential elections since 1979 until the emergence of Peter Obi as the Labour Party candidate mid-last year.

Obi’s campaigns and public outings across Nigeria have consistently drawn a mammoth crowd, largely unusual for a man who joined the presidential race barely six months ago. He has also amassed a vast social media following within that period, with his online supporters identifying themselves as ‘Obidients’.

“It is reasonably expected that every Igbo man will vote for Peter Obi as the next president of Nigeria,” Basil Onuorah, president general, Ohaneze Ndigbo General Assembly Worldwide, tells The Africa Report.

Obi’s momentum has brought hope back, not only in the south-east, but in the entire country

“It is very obvious that the Igbos have been marginalised in various sectors of this current administration and with the level of turnout as witnessed so far by virtue of the campaigns we have seen, it is obvious that the south-east region is unanimously in support of voting [for] Mr Peter Obi.”

Obi, 61, a businessman and former governor of Anambra, is among the three frontrunners going into the 2023 presidential election.

The other two are Atiku Abubakar, a Fulani from the north-east and candidate of Obi’s former party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); and Bola Tinubu, a Yoruba from the south-west and candidate of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress.

Obi, who defected to the Labour Party last May, was Atiku’s running mate in the 2019 election. His emergence as the Labour Party’s presidential flag bearer has seen an upsurge in participation in the electoral process by young people, including in the south-east.

Njoku says Obi’s presence on the ballot will see voter participation in the south-east reach an all-time high on 25 February.

“Obi’s momentum has brought hope back, not only in the south-east, but in the entire country. People are now enthusiastic to participate in the election,” he says.

In Enugu, where he lives, Johnson runs a group known as The Shift Crew, a social enterprise focused on promoting sustainable development in Africa. A recent snap poll conducted by the group showed a high level of collection of voter’s cards in the city.

“The rate of awareness is quite high, people are eagerly waiting for this election. I’ve never really seen an election where our people are very enthusiastic about voting,” says Johnson.

Rising insecurity

Even so, such unprecedented enthusiasm to participate in the electoral process is threatened by the rising insecurity in the region.

The activities of the separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), have also aggravated the insecurity in the region. Although the group, whose leader Nnamdi Kanu is in detention, has repeatedly distanced its members from the bloody attacks in the south-east, armed men have continued to unleash violence in the region.

One afternoon in November last year in Agwa, a community in Imo State, hoodlums entered the palace of the traditional ruler, shot him and two of his aides. A few days earlier, gunmen had attacked and killed a soldier in the Amangwu community in Abia State.

In December, hoodlums set ablaze an office of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Imo State. At least one INEC office in three south-east states – Imo, Ebonyi, and Enugu – was attacked in 2022.

About 160 people were killed in attacks in the region between October and December 2022, the highest in Southern Nigeria, according to an analysis of media-reported killings by SBM Intelligence.

Despite the violence, analysts say the electorate in the south-east is determined to come out en masse to cast their ballot on 25 February.

“We thought that [the insecurity] in Anambra before the governorship election [would keep voters away], but in the end, people came out and cast their votes,” Njoku says.

Chilos Godsent, president of the Igbo National Council, says poor voter turnout would “badly affect” Obi’s chances at the poll.

“We are urging the various community town unions, the local government councils, state governments, and the National Orientation Agency to intensify civic and voters’ education and enlightenment campaigns in the zone before the elections,” Godsent tells The Africa Report.

Voter turnout

Poor voter turnout is, however, not limited to Southeastern Nigeria.

For the last five election cycles, there has been a steady decline in the number of people turning up on election day to cast their ballot:

  • 69% in 2003;
  • 57.5% in 2007;
  • 53.7% in 2011;
  • 43.7% in 2015;
  • and 34.8% in 2019.

Analysts say the decline in voter participation is partly due to electoral violence and the belief that the outcome of the polls had been predetermined.

In the 2019 presidential election, only 17.25% of registered voters in Lagos cast their ballots, the lowest in the country. In Abia, 18% of the registered voters turned out on election day.

Despite the heavy military and police presence during Nigeria’s elections, up to 4,000 people died due to electoral violence between 2006 and 2015, according to The Election Network.

The violence notwithstanding, a recent study by SBM Intelligence shows a high degree of interest in voting in the 2023 elections, with 90% of those who desire to vote trying to collect their voter cards “even if they have had to visit [INEC offices] up to six times to do so”.

“This cuts across both first-time registrants and voters who are transferring their PVCs [permanent voter cards] to new polling units closer to their current locations. All these indicate an electorate going the extra mile to ensure they can exercise their franchise in the 2023 general elections.”

Onuorah says the people now believe their votes would count and are determined to participate in the electoral process.

“The willingness is there and because of the sense of marginalisation that people are facing, they have also come to the reality that elections have to be determined by the strength of the votes cast,” Onuorah tells The Africa Report.

“So we expect that there is going to be a reasonable turnout and we are very confident that Mr Peter Obi is going to win come 25 February.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options