Nigerians Vote In Most Unpredictable Election In Years

Nigerians will vote for a successor to President Muhammadu Buhari on Saturday in an unprecedented race between three frontrunners battling to govern Africa’s most populous democracy.

After eight years under Buhari, Nigeria still faces huge challenges, from attacks by jihadists and separatists, a sluggish economy and growing poverty, leaving many Nigerians desperate for change.

The February 25 election will be closely watched after coups in Mali and Burkina Faso knocked West Africa’s democracy and Islamist militancy spread north of Nigeria’s Gulf of Guinea neighbours.

Megacity Lagos may have put Nigeria on the map for the world’s second largest movie industry Nollywood and for Afrobeats that produced global music stars Burna Boy and Wizkid.

But the new leader of Africa’s top oil producer and its largest economy will inherit a bewildering set of security and financial problems.

Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress or the APC is fielding Bola Tinubu, 70, a long-time kingmaker who points to his success as Lagos governor and claims “It is my turn”.

Touting his business acumen to “rescue” Nigeria, opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate former vice president Atiku Abubakar, 76, is on his sixth bid to claim Aso Rock’s presidential villa.

But a surprise third candidate, Labour Party’s Peter Obi has upset the APC and PDP’s dominance with an appeal to younger voters and opened up the most unpredictable election in years — and the possibility of a run-off for the first time since the end of military rule in 1999.

Another development has been sudden cash shortages at banks after the central bank ordered old naira currency notes to be replaced by new bills to curb corruption and inflation.

The cash scarcity just days before the vote has left many Nigerians angry with Buhari’s government as they struggle to shop at markets and travel to work.

Long lines outside banks erupted into riots in several cities, and the crisis deepened splits in the APC, where some see a political plot to undermine its candidate.

“I don’t know what is happening to the country,” said businessman Mohammed Badawa, trying to get cash in the northern city of Kano. “We just have to endure it and in the election vote in a new government.”

– Run-off round? –

Nigerian elections have often been marred by violence, political and ethnic tensions as well as logistical problems.

In 2019, the Independent National Electoral Commission or INEC, delayed voting for a week hours before polling stations opened.

Despite warnings about violence from armed groups, and fuel and cash shortages, INEC’s chief says Saturday’s vote will go ahead on time.

More than 93 million people are registered to vote on Saturday in the presidential election as well as parliamentary and senate ballots.

Nearly 10 million new voters have registered, most of them under 34 years old, a younger electorate who will play an influential role if they turn out.

In 2019, voter turnout was only around 35 percent.

Polls will open at 8:30am (0730 GMT) on Saturday and close at 2:30pm. Results are expected from Sunday onwards.

To win the presidency, a candidate must secure the most votes and also win at least 25 percent in two thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states and the federal capital area.

That reflects the makeup of a nation split between the mostly Muslim north and Christian south and with three main ethnic groups: Yorubas mostly in the southwest, Hausas in the north and Igbos in the southeast.

With such a close race, some experts are already forecasting a possible, unprecedented second-round run-off, which would be held in 21 days.

“We are not confident enough to call the election for any candidates,” Nigerian researchers SBM Intelligence said.

– ‘Godfather’ vs ‘Obidients’ –

Known as the “Godfather of Lagos”, Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim from the southwest, can count on his own deep Lagos support and APC’s powerful governors who can marshal backers.

But he has also faced questions about his health, corruption allegations and his ties to the Buhari, who many critics fault for Nigeria’s frail state.

Buhari steps down after serving the two terms allowed in the constitution.

PDP’s Abubakar is an equally seasoned operator. Supporters say while he is a northern Muslim and Fulani like Buhari, he has a network that cuts across ethnic and religious lines.

But he has also faced graft scandals and the PDP was split by a dispute with powerful southern governors over the decision to select a northern presidential candidate.

Both Peter Obi’s septuagenarian rivals are seen by younger voters as offering little new, something the Labour Party candidate hopes will propel him to presidency.

The only Christian frontrunner, the former vice presidential candidate whose supporters call themselves the ‘Obidients’ may take some traditional PDP votes in the south and dent Tinubu’s Lagos power base.

But critics say he and Labour do not have the structure or national reach to score strongly in the north, where key block of voters reside.

Nine out of ten Nigerians feel the country is going in the wrong direction, a survey by pan-African group Afrobarometer said this month, the worst outlook in a decade.