‘We do not see voting patterns changing in 2023’
Ahead of Nigeria’s presidential elections in 2023, voting patterns identified after analysing trends since 1999 will last for at least another election year, according to Jiro Ejobe, Tijani Nwadei and Ikponmwosa Aikhionbare of Viisaus, the political consulting firm behind a first-of-its-kind report on voting patterns in Nigeria.
In this interview with Business Day, the principals of Viisaus shared several insights from their research.
What are the top trends you would say you noticed from your analysis of the election data from 1999?
JIRO: If I could use a word to answer this – I would say growth. In 1999, there were only pockets of resistance to the ruling Party, but since then, the regions have started defin-
ing themselves politically.
I know we’ve had individual gladiator strides across our Nigerian political universe, influencing groups of people here and there, but these people come and go. It seems as if our political character, while influenced by these gladiators, has formed an identity independent of them.
This identity seems to fall along the lines of religion and tribe/culture. In some ways you could say our political thinking has deepened into 3 groups – loosely associated with how Nigeria is separated into 3 by rivers Niger and Benue.
It appears to be a departure from the typical North/South political divide (from two Blocs to three) – it means more groups having representation and influence in how the nation is run – that is growth. These groups may yet change, depending on how things progress further in the future, but we do not see this changing in 2023.
I should add that within pockets of the nation we have observed that elections are much more accurate some of the macro numbers are more consistent with what we expect when checked against our models.
So yes, we are growing and moving in the right direction – are we there yet? No, we’re still a long way off, but it is a gradual process, as we get better at picking our leaders, things will improve, slow but steady.
TJ: At the presidential level, there is a strong sense of regional voter herd behaviour. As a people, we underestimate the effect of certain commonalities – language, religion, tribe (in a lot of cases) and contiguity of States.
The outcome after so many years of voting is that people in certain regions who are affected by similar socio-economic factors begin to respond alike to political interventions, representation, and inclusion. More interesting is that as opposed to binary ideology, Nigeria seems to have created political identities along 3 groups loosely associated with how Nigeria is separated into 3 by rivers Niger and Benue. These groups, we have called blocs and named them.
Why do you think there is a difference in mindset in the north and south whereby while the south believes their votes don’t count, the north believe otherwise?
JIRO & TJ: This was an interesting anomaly that we found in the data during our Presidential election research for our UNCOMMON-SENSE Voter Education Series (please note our research did not take the 2007 election into account heavily as we could not source publicly available, verified and detailed results). We were trying to find out why people would not vote. For the record – highest reason is inconvenience, however the figures reported that twice as many people in the northern regions felt as though their votes will count when compared to the southern regions. We would love to give you data that points to a concrete reason why that’s the case – but unfortunately, we do not have any.
As a people, we underestimate the effect of certain commonalities –language, religion,
tribe (in a lot of cases) and contiguity of States.
However, one of our theories lies in how we as Nigerians ‘see government’ and evaluate its performance. Our data shows that over the years our compatriots in the south tend to hold a dimmer view of government as a whole (regardless of the tribe or religion of the person in power). Whereas the further North you go, our compatriots gradually seem to have a better view of government performance.
Neither is right nor wrong – it is a classic case of is the glass is half empty or half full?. Thus, if you like what the government is doing – perhaps you are more likely to want to get involved in maintaining the status quo!
You identified three blocks in your analysis of voting patterns. The Rockies, Bible Belt, and Northern Alliance, what does the data say about the best combination of the three for a presidential election?
JIRO & TJ: The 3-bloc voting pat- tern forms the basis of a great deal of the political insights we provide our clients and customers. It would be wrong not to mention Ikponmwosa “IK” Aikhionbare, our senior political consultant who made the discovery in the first place. Firstly, please note that VIISAUS is 100% owned by the partners and is a non-partisan consulting firm.
Keeping that in mind, IK identified PDP as the only political constant from 1999 (as no opposition party in Nige- ria lasted two election cycles – until now that PDP is about to), he then discovered a distinct pattern in the behaviour of how states voted for and against PDP. We realized that while the opposition may change name, form, and reform, it is essentially the same people and a pattern emerged.
We no longer needed two traditional parties (Democrats vs Republicans, Conservatives vs Labour, etc…) to work and this transformed our approach to analysing our political data.
With regards to the three blocs – The Rockies, the Bible Belt, and the Northern Alliance – what it basically says is that using historical information, we can predict to a relatively high level of confidence how Nigeria breaks into 3 groups of States during each presidential election.
Now the Bible Belt is (loosely) the region east of the Niger and south of the Benue. Consisting of states in mainly the South-East, South-South & eastern part of the North-Central geopolitical zones.
The region is generally considered to have the lowest occurrence of people who practice the religion of Islam in the country and has the highest concentration of Christians (hence the name Bible Belt which is used in other countries to describe similar regions). It has a pro-PDP stance (14 states here have never been won by any other party in 24 years). It is the bloc with the most registered voters – over 34m (this means that there are more people over the age of 18 here than every man, woman, and child in Ghana).
The Northern Alliance have an anti-PDP stance (11 states here have not been won by the PDP in 19 years). They have about 10 million less registered voters than the Bible Belt – but because they have such a high percentage of turnout, this bloc had the highest turnout in Nigeria. There are only 3 states in Nigeria that have never been won by the PDP in a presidential election and they are all in this bloc – Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara.
The Rockies are mainly states in the South-Western & western part of the North-Central geopolitical zones. This is where Islam and Christian populations have historically mixed and cohabited in large numbers.
They are loosely west & south of the Niger and have a swing stance – which means that they cannot typically be predicted. This unique behaviour associated with the Rockies that sees them swing one way or the other also means that, even though they have the lowest vote total, they always decide the election outcome. Let me explain – the PDP votes in the Bible Belt averaged around 9.7m in 2019, the APC votes in the Northern Alliance about 10.7 million.
With a difference that close, they tend to cancel each other out. It means you just need to add 2 or 3 million votes to either and you have won – and the Rockies has 6.6million swing votes to play with!
With blocs defined, one can then see how all except one Presidential ticket has reflected these blocks and their behaviour.
If APC wants to win – they have to continue to field a Rockies native on their ticket to woo votes from them to join the Northern Alliance. Same for PDP and the Bible Belt. Because of this, without a Rockies native on the ticket, you are almost guaranteed to lose.
This contributed to why Buhari could not win in 2003– he had a Bible Belt native as his running mate (Chuba Okadigbo), but the Bible Belt will NOT vote for anyone except the PDP. When he put a Rockies native on (Osinbajo), he was successful.
Even with Jona- than, his running mate was a Rockies native (Sambo). There is always a representative of two winning blocks on the winning presidential ticket, and one of those is always Rockies native.
There were about two million fewer votes in 2019 compared to 2015, where does your analysis show these votes were lost (in terms of the voting blocs) and can you guess any reasons for the fall?
JIRO, TJ & IK: To try to answer the question of the 2 million drops is to ask the bigger question of voting trends between 2015 and 2019. This is where the power of looking at Nigeria in three separate blocs really comes into play – it highlights how the depression impacted specific Parties and geopolitical groups.
Firstly, let’s state the facts: (1) the number of registered voters grew by 25% from 2015 to 2019 so the lower turnout was a surprise, (2) turnout is actual voters as a percentage of registered voters – i.e. if Lagos has 10m registered voters but only 5m (half) vote on election day – then Lagos has a turnout of 50% (3) turnout across the globe is dropping and it is typical to see drops below and up to 10% among Nigerian states between 2015 and 2019 (4) it is normal to expect that the 2 million drop in votes was distributed across states all over the country.
However, the drop in voter turnout was NOT uniform. So, if you look closely at the results, you’ll find that on average, the Rockies states dropped about 7%, the Northern Alliance
dropped about 6%, but then the Bible Belt states averaged around 15-16%, almost three times more than any- where else in the country! Of course, that immediately piqued our interest, and we had a closer look at it.
We realized that three states specifically drove this drop in turnout, the first was Rivers state polling from ~1.5m votes in 2015 to ~625,000 in 2019), then Akwa Ibom (from ~1.01m votes to~571,000 votes), and Delta (dropping from ~1.2m votes to ~815,360 votes). That’s a difference of approximately a 1.6million votes with the remaining 400k loss drop spread more evenly across the country. Furthermore, the contribution of these states to the total national turnout dropped from 41% in 2015 to 36% in 2019.
But it does not just stop there, that 15+% drop in the Bible Belt turnout means the bottom five states with the lowest turnout in 2019 all occur in the Bible Belt, i.e., they are all hard-core opposition states. Now that may make you ask the question; is that the reason APC won?
An unnatural drop of votes in opposition territory? It is worth pointing out that our data said APC would still have won, just by a lesser margin.
That votes depression is the reason for a lot of very strange things happening.
Usually, the growth in votes in a State like Rivers means it regularly contributes the most votes to the PDP presidential candidate – but in 2019, (because of the drop in these PDP front runner states) – the state to contribute the most was actually Kaduna with only 649,612 votes.
When a turn-out drop like that occurs it is normal to see power change hands, yet all these states were still won by PDP, just by much smaller margins. If you looked at the map of 2015 and 2019 regarding who won which states, you would not see much difference, but the lower win margins meant a lower PDP vote count total and this contributed majorly to their loss.
There is a lot more that was affected – you can look up our social media handles for more info – look for ‘UNCOMMON SENSE’ or for the real political junkies, send an email to sub- email@example.com to get info on how to subscribe to our data portal and get live data on who is looking most likely to win (presidential & gubernatorial and more…), what will life be like if they do, campaign watch, tracking polls, etc…
What would you say are the biggest eye-openers that your research has shown you about how the 2023 election is likely to shape out?
JIRO & TJ: The biggest eye-opener has got to be the predictability, the fact that there are up to 14 states that have never been won by any party except PDP since 1999. The fact that it does not matter the tribe, or region the candidate is from, anyone who is on the ballot for PDP, is guaranteed wins there and it does not look like that is going to change soon. We are expecting those states to stay exactly how they have always been; numbers might change but the victories and/or losses are guaranteed.
For the Northern Alliance, it was illuminating to stop seeing them as a Buhari pressure group and more as opposed to PDP. We do not expect that to change a lot.
When you can actually take groups of people and do individual statistics on them, that is when you get to see really interesting things.
That is how you know that for the Nigerian Presidential election, you cannot just focus on individual states or North vs South; impact and outcomes are targeted at Blocs. Our eyes have already been opened, but we feel sorry for the business community. In many ways, the business community is blind to a lot of this and that is why we are so excited that BusinessDay is doing this. The business community needs to engage more with the actual politics rather than gamble on the winner turning them into a victim or victor. We are glad to say for the first time in this election we have a few larger private sector players as clients.
These are people and teams who are forward think- ing enough to procure our ‘Political Risk’ package. All major corporates and HNIs with exposure to the public sector should really be doing some- thing like this right now. One of the key things that we do is predictive statistics /predictive analysis, and we have made over 5 predictions in the country.
We have been correct in each and everyone, and we have them all on our social media pages; we just predicted APGA for Anambra on LinkedIn and are getting ready for Ekiti and Osun. People should also be interested in what happens after a candidate wins. Did you know that Obasanjo introduced the highest number of naira notes?
As a military ruler, he introduced the N1, N5, N10, and N20 naira notes. When he returned as a civilian president, he introduced the N100, N200, N500, and N1000 bank notes in December 1999, November 2000, April 2001, and October 2005. There is a lot one can infer simply by studying the past. It’s not magic and this type of analysis happens in a lot of other countries; we hope our work can help professionalize the political space in Nigeria.
Do you think the youths who championed the #EndSARS protests will be a voting block to look out for in 2023?
JIRO & TJ: We get questions about #EndSars a lot. If People are expecting some sort of huge youth-led voting revival/revolution as a result of # EndSars, the data says they are going to be disappointed.
In our professional opinion, we like to look at the EndSars social movement/protest as a birth pang. The mothers may know what we mean if we say, Braxton Hicks. It is just like the contractions of a new Nigeria that is being born, but is it a critical turning point? A nexus? More importantly, will it have a massive impact on 2023?
The answer is No, it will not and why is that? The people who partook in this social movement to a large extent got what they wanted, a way to express frustration, a ban on the then version of SARS, etc. The people who put a lot of effort and time into this may not have moved on, but the protesters have.
However, the people perpetuating the current political state in the country have not moved on, for them, this is a full-time job, the End-Sars movement was a flash in the pan – 3 years? as against people dedicating their entire lives to politics.
People need to realise that Politics is a career, just like Law or Medicine – except the university is in the streets and elections are the final exams you use to graduate and get your certificate. Politicians are doing everything they can to ensure 2023 is predictable and that means working tirelessly to cancel out the effect of movements like #EndSars.
On a more positive note, let me add this – I do think there has been the significant emotional impact on our ‘future’ leaders. Some of the visuals, the experiences that young people had, will impact the new leaders being created now and they will reference #EndSars later on. So, it’s going to have an impact, certainly an emotional one, but to say that we are going to see a significant impact in 2023, we disagree.
Considering the performance of the current government and the fact that President Buhari will not be on the ballot next time around; do you think the pattern of voting in 2015 and 2019 would subsist?
JIRO: It is true to say that President Buhari drove a lot of the voting sentiments in the Northern Alliance states and was behind a great deal of their political activity. However, to say that he is the only thing uniting that group of people is untrue. In our minds, the northern alliance and that behavior will persist post-Buhari into 2023 and
People need to realize that Politics is a career, just like Law or Medicine – except the university is in the streets and elections are the final exams you use to graduate and get your certificate.
there are a few reasons for that; the first one is Buhari is still a factor even though he is not going to be president, you can tell by how he has moved and how politics is playing out, that he wields unprecedented power for an outgoing President of the ruling party.
The reason PDP will struggle to resurrect votes in the North once Buhari leaves is the lack of patronage.
Par ties live on patronage right across the world. If your party is in power, you expect there to be patronage, donations to enable the party to strengthen itself, etc. Once a party remains in opposition too long in a State, the party machinery on the ground gets progressively weaker.
The party machinery gets the vote out, campaigns, canvasses, etc. That is what perpetuates strongholds and if you inspect the opposing parties in strong-hold states, you’ll find they are low on infrastructure, income, and patronage and that does not just turn around, these things are there to create votes on election day.
Without infrastructure on ground, without the motivation, the patronage, the people, the influence, the innovation on one side, and with all those things on the other side, you can be sure the opposing party is not going to make a massive difference.
However, the Rockies is still relatively neutral, hence both parties have more equal infrastructure on ground.
TJ: I think, for the most part, the pattern will subsist.
As mentioned earlier, Buhari’s emergence came to post the coalescence of anti-PDP sentiments in the north in such a way that he became the poster for it. Those sentiments still exist except for pockets of resistance built on the back of strong PDP governors in charge and maintaining the PDP machinery.
In addition, Buhari’s absence from the ballot does not negate his ability to hold sway over his “followers” when he canvasses for a particular candidate. His political strength was in full dis- play with the emergence of the APC Chairman and all the activities that led to his consensus appointment.
Unfortunately, the reality of the ruling party’s performance over the past 8yrs will not be a critical enough factor in the voting pattern. As we have given context to and explained, the real key for the 2023 elections is with the Rockies. A candidate combination that maximizes the votes from that region is what would make the difference between the winner and loser.
What are the critical drivers you think may determine the voting pattern in 2023?
JIRO & TJ: We have a theory, and it revolves around the idea that political power in Nigeria revolves around three things – contiguous location, tribe/cultural affinity, and religion.
What we are saying is that the larger the group of active voters with these three things in common, the more political power they wield. Also, the less likely they are to swing from one party to another. We have identified two such groups:
Let’s talk about the larger and hence most powerful one – and this is the one based in the Northern Alliance. We know that there are many differences among the groups in that region, but when it comes to politics – they have the highest number of people in contiguous states with strong tribal/ cultural and religious affinity in Nigeria.
Conversely, the smallest group of people who have these three things in common are the Igbos, and those are the contiguous southeast states which have strong tribal/cultural affinity and are dominated by the same religion and language. But when it comes to raw voting numbers, it does not come close to the Northern Alliance with the southeast contributing less than 25% of total Bible Belt votes in 2019.
The Yorubas are not dominated by one religion (and perhaps add to the swing nature of these states) and the Ijaws do not seem to dominate contiguous states.
We see these drivers remaining a force in 2023, so we expect the winning party to leverage this “free” knowledge in candidate selection.
The clamor for (& against) restructuring is strong in the north & south. To what extent will this influence the behavior of Nigerians at the polls?
JIRO: Tough one to answer really, I mean, which candidate will be brave enough to make it part of their manifesto? Education has a large part to play here – for some, the word restructuring means Nigeria splitting apart.
The risk of being misinterpreted is too high thus we doubt it will be a major campaigning issue of any candidate. That said, if it does become front and center, it will make for interesting debate and permutations.
Fundamental issues like that have the potential for creating huge political shifts as changes like that are likely to motivate a lot of people who may previously not have voted. But like I said, it is our position that it will not be a front and center issue of any of the mainstream candidates.
In the 2015 and 2019 general elections, the power of money was noticeable. There were cases of vote-buying and compromise of electoral officers.
With the high level of poverty in the country right now; do you not see the possibility of a repeat of such even with the amended Electoral Act law that has come into effect?
JIRO & TJ: VIISAUS is fascinated by vote-buying. We have been investigating the effects of vote-buying across different levels of elections in Nigeria for the past six years and can tell you that the impact tends to be isolated, its success or failure has cultural connotations and it does not guarantee success.
Overall, we find it far more effective during the primaries, where a great deal of vote-buying occurs but in a general election, we find it tends to be less effective.
Can we put figures on that? maybe around 10%, and definitely not more than 20%. Poverty in the country has always existed; rigging and vote-buying have always existed and yet the political machinery still produces new candidates, surprises, and shocks every single time. After all – no vastly unpopular candidate has been able to buy their way to the presidency against a very popular candidate yet.
Let us talk a little bit about the INEC and put our opinion out there. VIISAUS operates election day situation rooms (you may have seen the one we did on TV for Edo 2020), so we have a lot of first-hand experience of INEC election operations.
We are big supporters of this INEC management team and we think the impact of some of the changes that the team has made with regard to technology adoption and how much work has been done to try and deal with the rigging that happens at collation has had a real impact, massive in some places.
So let us put it this way; there will be an impact because of poverty-yes, there always is, but I suspect the impact will be isolated, and not around 15% – not enough to turn the election we are heading into.
Read also: How each bloc has voted since 1999
Cases of voter apathy have been growing in the polity over trust deficit in leaders. How can this be addressed?
JIRO & TJ: Voter apathy is a really tough one. I was in a Twitter space the other day and someone said to me that eight million people have registered, and surely that’s a sign that the #EndSars movement is causing an increase in registered voters and we should see that increase in actual votes.
But there are a couple of reasons why we do not expect that to happen; one is this strange depression of votes that happened last time – there’s no guarantee that that will not happen again. Secondly, the areas of the country that show very large registration typically show quite a low turnout when it comes to voting.
I mean Lagos is projected to top seven million registered voters, which is more than the population of some small countries yet if turnout continues to drop as projected, (I think it was like 16% the last time), less than 500,000 Lagosians will vote in the next election – out of 6.5 million potential voters.
So, you can do the mathematics, it’s a big problem. I know you say trust deficit in leaders has a part to play, but actually, the BIGGEST reason people do not vote in Nigeria is “convenience”. I mean in other climes people can actually post their votes.
There are all sorts of innovations being created in fintech in Nigeria – but what about politics? We have to make it easier to participate and we have to make it safer. We have to get a situation where it does not take too much out of you to choose your leader, without risk to your life, without risk to your property, etc.
There has got to be a way where we can change this and that is where things like technology have to be taken into consideration. We are glad about the way INEC is moving, but more can be done – people want to vote, it is just not convenient, people want to vote but it’s fear for safety and those can be addressed jointly by efficient, technology-enabled remote voting.