Nigeria will be holding its presidential election in February against a backdrop of negative sentiment in the country about the state of the economy.
Overall, Nigeria is by far the largest country in the world with religious identities evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, and the nation’s presidential elections have always split the country along ethno-religious and regional lines.
This, says John Paden, professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and official biographer of President Muhammadu Buhari, raises the question of the relationship of religious identities and voting patterns.
Presidential elections can be influenced by a myriad of factors: the personalities and charisma of the candidates, regional, ethnic and religious loyalties to parties, ideological considerations of the electorate, party platforms, candidate debates, the dominance and influence of the media, partisanship, incumbency and more, including, ‘nature of the times’.
The short-term performance of the national economy tends to have an impact on voting patterns. Voters tend to respond to negative changes in the economy but not to positive changes in the economy. Real personal income also tends to be the most important economic variable in determining the influence of the economy on presidential elections. Thus, the effect of income fluctuations on the vote would be greater in elections preceded by declining real income.
The World Bank says that, Nigeria’s accelerated inflation growth has eroded the N30,000 minimum wage by 55 percent and widened the poverty net with an estimated five million people in 2022.
“The cumulative inflation between 2019 and 2022 was 55 percent, households’ purchasing power has slumped and the real minimum wage in 2022 after discounting for inflation is N19,355 while in dollar value is $26 after discounting for both inflation and exchange rate depreciation,” Alex Sienaert, chief economist at World Bank, Nigeria said in December 2022 at the launch of the Nigeria Development Update for December 2022, and the Country Economic Memorandum.
Read also: Insecurity may mar 2023 polls – SBM report
Nigeria’s economic performance has continuously weakened since 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari assumed office as leader of Africa’s largest economy.
Nigeria, says a December 2022 World Bank report, “is in a challenging and deteriorating economic situation with lowered growth projections. To reduce its vulnerability to crisis and rise to its potential, Nigeria has to choose among markedly different paths”.
It is these decidedly dissimilar pathways that the presidential candidates are marketing, as they make their economic cases before voters less than a month before Nigerians decide who would be the next president.
A badly flagging economy no doubt works more to the political favours of the leading opposition candidates who have latched on to the current awful economic indicators to persuade voters to their vision of a different Nigeria.
“The Nigerian economy is barely growing”, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of the main opposition peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, told the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG) Presidential Dialogue on the Economy earlier this month. “Per capita income,” he added, “a measure of citizens’ well-being, has progressively fallen since 2015 because of declining output and a fast-growing population. Our people are worse-off today than they were in 2015.
“Under the current (Buhari) administration our people are not working. More than 23 million people are out of jobs. In just 5 years between 2015 and 2020, the number of fully employed people dropped by 54%, from 68 million to 31 million people. This is frightening in a country of 200 million people”.
Atiku told Nigerians that he has a plan to turn the economy around.
“My economic growth and development agenda are aimed primarily at stimulating the growth of the economy. It envisions an economy that is modern, dynamic, and competitive, capable of joining the top 20 economies of the world,” he said.
“We anticipate growth from our policies that seek to revitalise the real sectors including agriculture, manufacturing and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
“We will rebuild our infrastructure and reduce the infrastructure deficit in order to enhance the carrying capacity of the economy and unleash growth and wealth creation”.
For the flagbearer of the reinvigorated Labour Party (LP) the answer lies in the question.
“How did we (Nigeria) plunge into such economic decline that we have overtaken India as home to the biggest pool of the absolute poor in the world?” He pondered, adding, “while the poverty rate in India is about 16%, that of Nigeria is about 63% with about 133 million Nigerians classified as multidimensionally poor! This is unacceptable and needs to change!”
“What Nigeria needs,” he posited, “is a Great Escape as the 2015 Noble prize winner in Economics Angus Deaton of Princeton University elucidated, that what separates poor and rich is attributable to Health and Education”.
It is this large bouquet of dreadful economic indicators that has rattled the presidential candidate of the ruling All Peoples’ Congress (APC) and forced him to take on the current government which his party controls and which he helped to bring to power.
In late January, he accused the Buhari administration of using the raging fuel scarcity and recently-introduced naira notes and cash handling policies of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to blunt his chances at the ballot box next month. He assured his supporters at a rally in Abeokuta, that neither the elections nor his own victory can be stopped.
“You’re hoarding fuel and hoarding the naira,” Tinubu said during a campaign stop in Abeokuta. “Still, we will vote, and we will win this election”.
“Whether you change the ink of the naira or spend money till you are in debt, things won’t turn out as you hope, we are the ones who will win the election, and our opponents will fail,” he vowed.
It is increasingly clear that for many voters, the economy will simply matter less in this election as in past presidential contests.
Unsurprisingly, elections in Nigeria are not necessarily about issues but about ethnicity, religion and regionalism.
The sordid state of the economy was not a strong headwind for Buhari in 2019. He still won in large parts of the North and in the Southwest, both strong political bases.
Official figures on the 2011 presidential elections show that in the twelve far northern states, Muhammadu Buhari won with 64 percent of the vote. In the southeast and south-south, then incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan won with 97 percent. The mixed states of the Middle Belt (north central) and the southwest voted for Jonathan, but at a more modest 58 percent.
The far northern states are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the southeast and south-south are just as clearly Christian. The religiously mixed states of the north central and southwest are also politically mixed.
According to research by University of Ilorin political science scholars, Atanda Ishaq, Oluwashina Adebiyi and Adebola Bakare, “this result indicates the impact of ethnicity on the voting pattern of the electorate during the election. The announcement of the results triggered unprecedented post-election violence in the northern part where Buhari had overwhelming support, particularly in the North-East and North-West. The supporters of the CPC presidential candidate believed that the election was rigged in favour of the incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan. Despite the fact that the 2011 general elections were described by both local and international observers as free, fair and credible, the outcome of the presidential election portends the danger of ethnic bloc voting in future”.
In the 2015 presidential elections, the two presidential candidates again squared against each other. Each candidate secured more bloc votes from their various geo-political zones compared with other zones.
Muhammadu Buhari secured 7 115 199 votes from the North West geo-political zone of the country which includes Katsina, his home state. Goodluck Jonathan on the other hand secured 4 714 725 votes from the South-South zone.
“Again,” Ishaq, Adebiyi and Bakare noted, “it can also be observed that the APC presidential aspirant made a tremendous impact on other parts of the northern zones. In the North-Central and North-East geopolitical zones, Muhammadu Buhari received more than double the votes of his counterpart, Goodluck Jonathan. In the South-East geo-political zone, Goodluck Jonathan secured a landmark victory with close to five million votes compared to Buhari’s 198 248.
“The significance of this is that approximately 79% of Buhari’s winning votes came from the Northern geo-political zone. In the same vein, Goodluck Jonathan received approximately 88% of the total votes he scored to come second with 12,853,162 votes from the Southern geo-political zone. The exception was in the South-West where both candidates gained a considerable number of votes. However, APC candidate Buhari received 611 777 more votes in this zone than his PDP counterpart, with 2 433 193 compared to his opponent Goodluck Jonathan’s 1 821 416.
“The analysis above clearly indicates that both Muhammadu Buhari and Goodluck Jonathan received bloc votes from their ethnic bases. The bloc votes garnered by the contestants from each candidate’s geo-political zone can thus be described as being influenced largely by ethnic affiliation”.
Ethnicity cross-cutting the politics of religion is still alive and well and could be the major determinant of voting for many voters in February.