If elections are any measure, Nigeria’s democracy — Africa’s largest — is in rude health. A second consecutive president will hand over power after an election, no small matter in the country’s history of turbulent transitions. The electorate seems highly motivated to vote on Feb. 25: 93.5 million, close to half the population, have registered, 40% of them under the age of 35.
In another break from the norm, the election will not be a straight fight between the two blocs that have long dominated Nigerian politics but a three-cornered contest. A maverick candidate, Peter Obi of the tiny Labour Party, is making a strong run against Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress and Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party.
Obi is an ethnic Igbo and former state governor from the country’s southeast: His ethnicity and region have both been underrepresented in the highest echelons of national politics. It is remarkable, then, that he leads most polls. In the latest survey conducted for Bloomberg News by Premise Data Corp., of the 93% of participants who said they’ve decided how to vote, 66% named Obi as their preferred choice.
For the most part, the election cycle has provided reassuring answers to questions about the state of Nigerian democracy. That has consequences beyond the country. “You look at the backdrop of democratic retrenchment all across the continent, and it is all the more important that Nigeria is advancing,” says Jeffrey Smith, founder of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit dedicated to free and fair elections and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.
But other searching questions will be asked on election day. Will the turnout buck the downward trend of recent years? It dropped to an all-time low of 35% in the last presidential election. A poll by Lagos-based media and data company Stears shows Obi’s chances of winning hinge on a big turnout, whereas a low turnout — which typically favors the machine politics of the establishment parties — will propel Bola Tinubu of the APC to the presidency.
Will the APC and PDP try to scupper Obi’s chances by intimidating his supporters into staying away from the polling stations, or use their deeper coffers to buy more votes? And if none of the candidates can win outright, what perils lurk in the uncharted waters of the country’s first ever runoff election?
Still other tests will loom when the final tally is announced. If the establishment parties lose, will they simply walk away? If Obi loses, how will his young supporters channel their disappointment?
“All those young urbanites are going to need therapy,” jokes Yemi Adamolekun, executive director of Enough is Enough, a coalition of Nigerian youth groups advocating better governance and political accountability. She reckons the Obi phenomenon is confined mainly to the urban educated classes, who have not historically moved the electoral needle by very much. Writer Gimba Kakanda is even more skeptical, characterizing the former governor as “largely a social media phenomenon [that will] unravel on election day.”
But the pessimists and optimists agree Obi’s campaign represents something completely new. “A third-party candidate, running against the godfathers of Nigerian politics — we’ve not seen that,” says Smith. “If he wins, that will send shockwaves across Africa and inspire others” to challenge entrenched, ossified political systems.
For her part, Adamolekun isn’t buying the narrative of Obi as an antiestablishment champion. She points out that, as governor of Anambra state, he joined the PDP and was its vice-presidential candidate in 2019. “Look closely, and you’ll see he’s no outsider,” she says.
But she allows that he has a relatively clean record in government, which is rare among establishment figures. He is also seen as personable and approachable, unlike his rivals, who are remote and surrounded by large entourages.
But Obi’s main attraction may be his relative youth. At 61, he is more than a decade younger than his main rivals, and is drawing on support from young Nigerians disenchanted with the gerontocracy and graft that characterize the political establishment.
If you squint hard enough, you can see the Obi candidature as the culmination of youth-led antigovernment movements spanning several years. These include the Not Too Young To Run campaignthat in 2018 led to the reduction in the age Nigerians can stand for elections and 2020’s mass protests against police violence, known as the #EndSARS movement, after the acronym for an anti-robbery squad.
“The momentum has been building for years,” says Mark Amaza of Yiaga Africa, one of the groups behind the Not Too Young To Run campaign. “Obi is benefiting from this.” He will need that momentum to keep building through election day. “The biggest question now is whether all his supporters will come out and vote,” Amaza says.
If they do push him over the finishing line, Obi will need to find answers to a whole new set of questions about his ability to tackle multiple crises — rising violence, reduced oil production, spiking inflation and slowing growth. Even if Nigeria’s democracy comes through the election with flying colors, much sterner tests lie ahead.