Debates over the outcome of the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria seem to have taken a dark turn following the recent appeal court ruling on election petitions, with some critics rejecting the evidence of data, and others, not trusting the courts, apparently hoping for a forceful resolution.
By Chudi Okoye
The embers of disputation over the 25th February 2023 presidential election in Nigeria are still burning, re-inflamed by the controversial 6th September judgment of the appeal court’s Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT). And it will likely continue to smolder even after the Supreme Court has pronounced on the matter.
That is perhaps not unexpected, and maybe not untoward, in a vast, multinational and multifurcated polity such as Nigeria. What is disturbing, however, is that in the maelstrom of debate about the election, there seems to be not just disaccord but cognitive disagreement between the opposing sides. One side believes in the primacy of data, and derives its perspective from a strict application of rational and empirical logic. The other side, reflecting a long tradition of philosophy, appears to prioritize intuition and dogmatic belief. One side predicates its assessment on what is rational and provable. The other seems to believe that more fundamental truths about the election are revealed through intuition, and not necessarily empirical data.
This dichotomy was at play, to some extent, in the proceedings of the PEPT. But it is far more evident in the ensuing public debate over the PEPT’s ruling. The opposing sides in the debate seem to be based in parallel domains of cognition: one probing, analytic; the other dogmatic, full of certainty. It is, to all appearances, episteme vs. doxa, to invoke the ancient Greeks.
As the debate has unfolded, I have looked again at the 2023 presidential election result as announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), comparing it to data from previous elections. I specifically performed an analysis looking at presidential election results from 2011 to 2023, to assess the statistical impact of what one critic described to me as “the magnitude of the electoral fraud and corruption that happened.” I wanted to subject this stirring discourse of widespread fraud, seen in the petitions themselves but more truculently in wider debates, to empirical test.
We know from official results that the All Progressives Congress (APC), which was created in 2013 through a merger of the major opposition parties, had won power by securing 53.96% of votes cast in the 2015 presidential election. This was a significant improvement to the 39.81% that APC’s precursor parties had secured in the preceding 2011 election. The newly-formed party would improve its share of votes, though marginally to 55.60%, in 2019. However in the 2023 election, APC’s vote share took a tumble, plunging 19 percentage points to 36.61%.
Conversely, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – which hitherto had dominated the political space, winning the first four presidential elections of the Fourth Republic (1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011) with an impressive range of scores between 58.87% and 69.60% – would see its share of votes decline to 44.96% in 2015 and 41.22% in 2019, as the APC ascended. However, in the 2023 election, PDP, along with other opposition parties led by its renegade members (the Labor Party with Peter Obi and the New Nigeria People’s Party with Rabiu Kwankwaso), secured 60.70% of the votes, clearly gaining all the points lost by a shrunken APC.
I ran a statistical test (a two-tailed t-test) to compare these two arrays (APC’s vs. PDP/splinter parties’) and got a miniscule t-statistic of -0.03, with a p-value of 0.98 validating the null hypothesis of no difference (PS: the greater the value of a t-statistic, the greater the evidence against the null hypothesis which assumes no difference; but the closer this value is to 0, the more likely there isn’t a significant difference. Conversely, if p-value is higher than the standard 0.05, as in our test result, then the null hypothesis of no difference is not rejected.)
It wasn’t just a t-test that I deployed to evaluate the election results. I also ran a correlation (CORREL) test and, as expected, found that the two arrays are negatively correlated, with a coefficient (r) of -0.99. The t-test suggests that the electoral malpractices in 2023, such as there were, likely did not have a statistically significant impact on results; while the CORREL test indicates that the magnitude of change observed in the APC array correlates perfectly (and negatively) with that in the PDP/splinter parties array.
It would have been worrying if there were a statistically significant p-value in the t-test, or if the coefficient in the CORREL test were lower. Any of these would have indicated a distortion, suggesting that the opposition parties did not gain the same amount of vote share lost by APC.
These statistical tests show that whatever it was the APC got up to in the 2023 presidential election, the party ended up with a shrunken mandate, winning only because of the fragmentation of the opposition parties.
I had earlier articulated this point in a post-mortem article I wrote for Awka Times in early March, shortly after the election:
It cannot be gainsaid that the opposition parties’ strategic blunder was the primary reason for their electoral misfortune in 2023. This fact gets forgotten in the fevered aftermath of the election, with the opposition parties and their enraged supporters focusing only on the possible collusion between the electoral umpire and the ruling party. In 2013, in order to take on then incumbent PDP, various political formations had come together – including Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), a breakaway faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) and a faction of PDP (nPDP) – and formed APC. The new party would win power in the 2015 election, toppling a 16-year incumbent. By contrast, in 2022, rather than join forces to face a fumbling incumbent, leading aspirants in the opposition PDP – uncertain about their prospects in a deeply machinated PDP primary process which was unfolding – fled to fringe parties where they could easily snag presidential nominations.
In the same article, whilst acknowledging what I described as “grubby electoral machination” on the part of the ruling party, APC, I also concluded:
The evidence is clear and the conclusion inescapable: it is not so much that the ruling party, APC, ‘won’ the 2023 presidential election; it is rather that the main opposition parties may have lost it. These parties saw electoral victory looming, but they reached in and pulled out an ostensible defeat.
This conclusion, which is self-evident, is nonetheless controverted by those who prefer to focus on flaws in the election process and the integrity of the results. The argument goes that we simply cannot trust the official data, and therefore that any statistical analysis based on such data would be – as one fellow eristic put it to me – nothing but “mad science.” In our debate over the 2023 election, this friend insisted that INEC had “manufactured its own result,” and that this was the reason it did not upload results in real time to the public viewing portal, IReV. He further argued that whereas INEC could not falsify “traditional figures” reflecting ethnic-based voting, which presumably would have been easily detected, the commission instead deliberately altered trend-breaking results, which made up the bulk of the total votes, “where candidates (like Peter Obi) made inroads outside their ethnic zones.” Such “true figures,” my sparring partner claimed, were “either not released, [or were] rigged or manufactured.” He claimed that the worst incidence of this electoral misfeasance occurred in states like “Rivers, Benue, Lagos [and] Edo”. He also argued that it required a patient, evidence-led inquiry to expose this “highly suspicious intervention” by INEC, but the PEPT merely “dismissed it [on] frivolous technicalities, [thereby] playing into the crooked INEC hands.”
I have taken the trouble to dissect the foregoing argument because it gets to the kernel of the issue. The formal petitions filed by the opposition parties made much the same argument, merely with more tactful vocabulary. The protagonist in my informal debate made the claim more forcefully, boldly concluding that “we know what happened [in] the 2023 presidential [and] the whole world reported on it.”
It is really hard to fathom, but important to engage, this deliberate flight from empiricism. While no one is disputing the charge of irregularities in the 2023 presidential election (really, how could anyone?), the question is whether these were modal and if they significantly impacted the ultimate results, as our electoral laws require for an election to be invalidated. Section 135(1) of the Electoral Act 2022 stipulates that an election should not be “invalidated” if the courts consider that it was “conducted substantially in accordance with the principles” of the electoral laws and – this is key – that “non-compliance did not affect substantially the result of the election.”
This provision, as I argued in a recent Awka Times article, evinces a conservative disposition in our electoral laws with regard to election nullification. The provision has a long provenance in our electoral jurisprudence, going back even to some 1970s military decrees promulgated to usher in the Second Republic (Section 135(1) of the Electoral Act 22 is an exact replica of Section 111(1) of the Electoral Decree 73 of 1977, as amended by the Electoral Decree 32 of 1979). To overcome this tilt in the statutes, an election petition ought to be prosecuted with the strictest adherence to empiricism and an abundance of scrutable evidence.
In its 6th September judgment, the tribunal dismissed all the petitions, in part because, it said, they were “vague, generic, imprecise and nebulous,” and that much of the evidence tendered by the petitioners were unspecific or inadmissible. But many partisan critics of the judgment will not confront this fact. It is as if they think the rules of evidence should not apply in these cases; that the substitution of fact with fervency should suffice to establish the impact of the observed irregularities in the electoral process.
Let me restate a point I made earlier: I do not in any way dispute the observed flaws and irregularities in the administration of the 2023 presidential election. Nor am I insouciant about their reality. Like many critics, I am outraged that the process was so untidy, more so because some of what we witnessed were evidently machinated.
But there are two points of punctuation here. One is to ask if the observed flaws do rise to the level of substantial non-compliance required by our laws for an election to be overturned. Many have cited critical election reports produced by observer teams from the European Union and the African Union, among others. There’s no question these are useful reports, but of course they have no probative value. The petitioners also presented a plethora of evidence, but the much admitted by the PEPT was considered by that tribunal to be deficient. We will see if the Supreme Court thinks differently.
A second point to ponder relates to the impact of the observed irregularities on election results. Each of the main petitioners, Peter Obi and Atiku Abubakar, claimed that they’d won the election. However, as the tribunal pointed out, they did not provide an alternative tabulation of results to support the claim. Besides, there seems to be little justification for such claim from an inspection of the results. With APC shedding a huge 19 percentage points in the 2023 election (in effect, a 34% decline from its share of votes in 2019), it is difficult to see how the umpire, INEC, could have manipulated results substantially to favor the ruling party. This point gets glossed over by many of the critics.
Another insight from the official results that is discountenanced by critics relates to the spread of votes. My debate partner mentioned above claimed that INEC only released authentic results showing “traditional figures” (read ethnic votes) and manipulated the “true figures” reflecting votes gained by candidates outside their ethnic zone. But this claim is patently false. The official results show significant penetration of non-native zones by all the major candidates. Take Peter Obi, for instance, who was specifically mentioned to support the claim. Obi’s command of nearly 88% of the votes in his native South East geopolitical zone might give the impression that only his authentic votes in that zone were released by INEC. But his vote haul in the region represents only 32% of his total votes across the country. It is the same with the other major candidates. APC’s Bola Tinubu won 54% of the votes in his native South West zone, which represents 26% of his total national poll. For his part, PDP’s Atiku Abubakar won 51% of votes cast in his native North East zone, but this represents only 25% of his national total. It is only NNPP’s Rabiu Kwankwaso who picked up a meager 19% of the votes cast in his native North West zone, this comprising a whopping 85% of his total votes, thus confirming NNPP as a regional party. So, the claim that INEC corrupted the candidates’ national votes and released only their authentic ethnic votes is not supported by the official data, which the critics have refused to accept.
This refusal by critics to confront the actual election data is really a form of vincible ignorance, as it’s been characterized in moral philosophy since Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and Origen in the 3rd. Along with the unwillingness to seriously engage the election tribunal’s legal reasoning, it does a lot of damage to the case being made. It gives the impression of an election challenge based not fully on facts but on dogma, the critics sometimes making their case with religious fervency.
But what we are dealing with here is not religion. It is competitive politics. It is election. It is law and the courts. We have to shed our dogmatic beliefs and come to court with empirical evidence. The justices are not our priests, providing unction to salve our wounded egos and shattered expectations. They are there to apply evidence to the provisions of law.
Some critics, upset with the conduct of the election and the appeal court’s ruling, are now calling for international sanctions and the pariahrization of Nigeria. Others, in subtle and not-so-subtle words, are even inviting military intervention, already convinced that the Supreme Court’s adjudication of the election petition would not be favorable. I guess it was alarm about this dangerous drift, and perhaps a belief that Nigeria cannot afford a political crisis in addition to a deepening economic crisis, that prompted Prof. Wole Soyinka’s intervention last week, overtly validating the 2023 election result and warning about surreptitious efforts to invite the military into our democratic disputes.
I share this concern with Prof. Wole Soyinka. However, I profoundly disagree with his claim – in pushing back against the insinuations to military intervention – that Peter Obi’s Labor Party has dissolved into a “regional party.” The election results do not bear out such claim, as I showed above. Yes, Obi cornered a commanding share of ballots in his native South East, but that haul represented only a third of his total votes across the country. I explained in another article why the South-easterners, who in previous elections voted overwhelmingly for candidates outside their zone, often against homegrown prospects, this time voted overwhelmingly for Obi, largely because of a perception that he had national appeal.
Prof. Soyinka erred in labeling Labor as a regional party. But his refutation of the claims about the 2023 presidential election, and his subtle warning against a dalliance with military intervention, cannot be so easily dismissed.