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By picking Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar as their flagbearers, the two main parties risk alienating younger voters and extending the political stasis
The ease with which Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar defeated their rivals to win their parties' presidential nominations for next February's elections highlights their similarities – super-rich politicians who have spent three decades building up their national networks. But neither has produced convincing strategies to address the country's worst security crises since the civil war in 1967, let alone the lengthening queues of unemployed youths.
Soon after the parties submit their lists of candidates to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on 9 June, they will start their campaigns and dominate national politics for the next nine months, side-lining many in the current federal government.
Their record in government is questionable but Tinubu and Abubakar are skilled at managing political parties. They have cocked a snook at rival barons in their parties, then quickly worked around any obstacles aided by vast amounts of cash.
On 8 June, Tinubu won the support of 1,271 of the 2,322 delegates to the All Progressives' Congress (APC) convention in Abuja – just under the combined total of all the other contenders. Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo trailed behind him. Ten days earlier Abubakar won the presidential primaries of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) with 371 votes against runner up Rivers State governor Nyesome Wike's 237 votes. It will be Abubakar's sixth run for the federal presidency and Tinubu's first.
Both in their seventies and calling on a half a century of political ties, Abubakar and Tinubu used a similar combination of cash, networking and canny deal-making to win their nominations. But Tinubu's feat was the more remarkable given that he prevailed – against the opposition of President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice-President Osinbajo, Senate President Ahmad Lawan and APC Chairman Abdullahi Adamu (AC Vol 63 No 8, Vice-President Osinbajo's bid challenges APC leader Tinubu and bank governor Emefiele).
Tinubu's game plan
Well aware that President Buhari would not endorse him, Tinubu launched a more discreet plan to win the party's nomination back in 2020. Most of his competitors harboured the illusion that at some point Buhari would endorse one of them, allowing them to emerge, with backing from enough state governors as the party's consensus candidate. But Buhari stood aloof from the competition within his own party (AC Vol 63 No 11, President Buhari's edict shakes up presidential race).
As the only contender without a full-time job in government, Tinubu spent his time canvassing for support around the country. That didn't involve grand strategy but shoring up old relationships and building new ones, Tinubu offering APC candidates support with their campaigns, even helping cash-strapped state governors. Sometimes it didn't pay off, usually it did.
Most of all, Tinubu adapted his transactional style of politics to the latest plot twists more quickly than any of his rivals. His power in Lagos State, the commercial capital with some 20 million people and the biggest tax base in the country, is key to his operations and regional influence.
That much was clear in 2019 when Tinubu pushed out Lagos governor Akinwunmi Ambode, backing Babajide Sanwo-Olu in his stead. This year Sanwo-Olu, endorsed again by Tinubu, faces no serious challengers in the governorship race. In return, Sanwo-Olu will have to work hard to get out the votes for Tinubu in the presidentials.
Across the south-west, Tinubu can expect strong support. Within hours of his winning the APC nomination, those governors and party officials who had not endorsed him earlier, offered their congratulations. As the Tinubu bandwagon gathered steam in recent weeks, more ambitious politicians and fixers jumped on board. Some may be attracted by the opportunities that an administration under another septuagenarian president, with flexible ideas of governance, could offer.
How Tinubu and Abubakar will measure up against each other in the rest of the south is less clear. Abubakar, who has made a peace of sorts with Rivers State governor Wike, will benefit from the PDP's stronger standing in the south-south and south-east regions.
Hailing from Adamawa State in the north-east, Abubakar must expect to win decisively there but the turnout and the victory margin will depend on security conditions. The main swing regions are set to be the north-central and the north-west, both of which Buhari won decisively in 2015 and 2019. And they now face the highest levels of kidnapping and armed attacks in the country.
A key question for both Tinubu and Abubakar is whether the Buhari vote bank is transferable in a bloc or will it break up into mercury-like globules next year. One important sign would be for Buhari to get over his earlier reservations about Tinubu's candidacy and endorse him in the north. At the same time, Abubakar will push his northern credentials hard in these regions, arguing all the louder that the security crises faced by the people there must be blamed squarely on the failures of the ruling party.
Costing the election industry
Against the backdrop of the country's deepest economic malaise since 2000, this election season looks like Nigeria's most expensive ever. One estimate reckons the contenders have spent over US$100 million on the campaign so far. Candidates reckoned to have the biggest war chests are likely to draw the most recruits.
It's easy to see how costs at the All Progressives' Congress (APC) convention on 6-8 June totted up. Delegates claimed they were being offered between $5,000 to $100,000 for their votes. Some state governors were said to be charging $1m for a public endorsement. One contender for the APC nomination, who later withdrew, told Africa Confidential about stratospheric levels of inducements being demanded by delegates. But these preliminary costs will pale beside the costs of what will be Nigeria's longest ever presidential election campaign, fought between two of its most experienced politicians. Bankers reckon the overall costs of Nigeria's elections could add total around 1% of its forecast gross domestic product of $445 billion this year.
Election logistics are formidable. There will be over 170,000 polling booths to serve the country's 774 local government areas in 36 states. With each party assigning three agents to every polling station, they will be recruiting and training over 510,000 election workers (AC Vol 62 No 16, Election bill deepens rivalries). That's on top of the parties' campaign staffers, putting out flyers and digital adverts as well as organising town hall meetings and mass rallies. Expecting a heavy pay day, election consultants, local and foreign, are already offering their services to the presidential candidates. We hear that at least five firms based in the United States have offered their services to the APC.
Then there are the officers, hired by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), operating at local, state and federal levels. INEC, which is due to close voter registration on 30 June, is still far off its target of 120m voters out of an estimated population of 210m. But the total should be much higher than the 84.1m registered voters in 2019 (AC Vol 63 No 1, President Buhari vetoes electoral bill, challenging National Assembly).
Another challenge, points out INEC chairman Mahmood Yakubu, is the low voter turnout: he says it has averaged 30-35% over the last three elections, one of the lowest in Africa. In some towns and cities, it has slumped to under 10% with respondents telling pollsters that they are too busy earning a living to vote.
That could be a particular problem for Bola Tinubu, whose base in Lagos state has the biggest bloc of registered voters in the country but one of the lowest turnouts, sometimes under 20%. Kano has the second biggest bloc of registered voters but with a turnout consistently over 30%. That explains why Kano's governor Abdullahi Ganduje has been so assiduously courted by the rival candidates.
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