The 2023 presidential election in Nigeria promises to be a closely fought contest. A once-dominant political party, PDP, now languished in opposition, senses an opportunity in an anguished nation to re-take power from a tarnished ruling party, APC. But the challenger party itself has vulnerabilities that could be exploited by the ruling party to retain power. Strong geopolitical, institutional and personal factors are at work that seriously complicate the picture. What are the likely outcomes from the primaries, and what would explain those outcomes?
By Chudi Okoye
Political party primaries for the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria are currently going on, amid an extended deadline granted by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC). Results received so far, along with my own prognostications, suggest very strongly that the Igbos of the South East are losing out in the frenetic bustle of primaries horse-trading. Igbos have missed top-ticket nomination in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and they are poised to lose it too in the All Progressives Congress (APC), barring any last-minute surprise.
This is a depressing outcome for the Igbos who have been arguing, with insistent fervor, that it is their turn to produce the next president of Nigeria, based on principles of political and constitutional equity, on explicit zoning rules and unwritten conventions of the major parties, and as well on the ideal of power rotation long the aspiration and occasional practice of the Nigerian political system. This primaries outcome probably means that an Igbo person will not emerge as president in the 2023 election, except if Peter Obi pulls off a surprise win from the fringe pedestal of the Labor Party, where he seems to be mounting a momentous campaign.
Igbo loss in the primaries will be jarring to some, and it can be explained from the elemental framework of Igbo political marginalization which, sadly, continues to resonate. However, beyond this residual context, there could be a more compelling reason why the Igbos are losing, one rooted in the logic of rational choices made by the political parties to maximize their electoral advantage.
A rational choice explanation might be more helpful for an insightful post-mortem on the primaries. It also offers a more pragmatic framework for a pre-mortem on Igbo prospects for vice-presidential nomination after the de facto primaries.
Igbo prospect in the ongoing primaries may be disheartening for the Igbos, but the outcome is scarcely surprising. A careful reading of the antecedent dynamics should have revealed – and probably did reveal to some astute observers – the implausibility of the Igbo quest. I myself anticipated the outcome, based on basic quantitative modeling, the result of which I had shared privately with friends.
There are several rationally-intelligible factors, exogenous to the Igbos, which might explain the evolving primaries debacle confronting them. Let’s explore them below.
The most compelling exogenous factor is raw, dispassionate calculation by the political parties on how best to maximize their advantage in what is expected to be a highly competitive presidential election in 2023. The primary objective of most political parties is to win elections and retain power, so they can implement their agenda, whatever those may be. Parties may have other goals but most follow a vote-maximizing strategy. This means that at all times parties will prefer to field candidates who will secure for them the largest pool of votes in any election. On this score then, the question before the major political parties going into the 2023 presidential election is which candidate best guarantees them the largest haul of votes across the geopolitical zones. Given the individuality of Nigeria’s geopolitical zones, the major parties at least will be looking for presidential aspirants with trans-zonal appeal able to drive the utmost electoral penetration across the country. It is perhaps a tough comment to make but none in the lineup of South-eastern aspirants, either in PDP or APC, has the political stature or electoral potential to meet these parties’ strategic needs.
The current distribution of advantage between the governing parties makes this an imperative concern. Today, APC dominates in the North West and North Central where it controls 11 of 13 states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory. PDP holds only two states (Sokoto and Benue) in these politically hegemonic zones. APC splits the six states in the North East equally with PDP. In the southern part of the country, APC controls the entire South West, leaving only Oyo State for PDP. The reverse is the case in the South South where PDP controls all the states, except for Cross River which has gone to APC. In the South East, the major parties control two states each, while the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) controls one state, Anambra.
The electoral import of this distribution is evident. It is quite lop-sided. The current ruling party, APC, controls the FCT along with 22 states which include the economically and demographically dominant megalopolitan centres of Lagos and Kano, and the politically important states of Katsina and Kaduna. For its part, PDP controls 13 states, mostly in the South, which include the economically strategic oil-producing states in the South South. Each of these mass parties controls strategic areas the other covets which they will hope to defend. So there is a strong dynamic of both defensive and aggressive play to be expected in the upcoming presidential election.
This is more so because 2023 is likely to be a change election. Not to be giddy about it, given the abysmal condition of Nigeria with all socioeconomic indices plummeting, we could be at an inflection point similar to that which led to the ousting of PDP in 2015, with the defeat – for the first time in Nigeria – of a serving president. The ruling party, APC, dreads the moment. The opposition party, PDP, craves it. Each therefore will want to field a flag-bearer who best enables it to maximize its opportunity, whether to defend its own stronghold or to make an aggressive inroad into the opponent’s territory. This was the prime motivation for each party as they planned their presidential primary elections, a driving motivation superior to any other consideration, including any antecedent zoning arrangement or power rotation convention they may have erected. This electoral imperative explains, to a large extent, the choice of flag-bearers the parties have made or will make.
PDP’s selection of Atiku Abubakar was based on a calculation that he offers the party the best chance of advancing in the North, where it currently controls only five of 19 states. The party probably considered that Abubakar, a wealthy and well-connected former VP who has been running for this office since 1993, has what it needs to defend its southern strongholds, to retake lost states in the North West and North Central, and to make incursions in the South West.
APC Calculus Atikulated
The emergence of Atiku Abubakar in PDP clarifies APC’s primary field, potentially narrowing it to a realistic option of three aspirants, each with specific strengths and unique weaknesses. Against initial permutations favoring Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu (which I never shared, by the way – see reasons further below), Atiku Abubakar’s emergence in PDP could likely lead APC to lock on Ahmad Lawan, the Senate president, or perhaps to bite the bullet and go with vice-president Yemi Osinbajo. Some permutations also favor Rotimi Amaechi, the transport minister.
Ahmad Lawan has certain advantages. Atiku Abubakar is from Jada in Adamawa State, in the North East. Lawan is from Gashua in Yobe State, also in the North East. So it might make sense for APC to pick Lawan, to give Abubakar a run for his money in his native zone. This will also enable the party, APC, better to defend its northern stronghold against the Abubakar onslaught. The risk here, however, is that it means the two major political parties will both have flag-bearers from the North, a highly unpalatable scenario after eight years of Buhari. Such an outcome will likely bolster Peter Obi’s insurgent campaign, as much more of the southern electorate might flock to him – perhaps far more than might have done otherwise, disgusted with the insensitivity of a northern-dominated field. It is perhaps for this reason that APC northern governors are reportedly demanding that the party’s 2023 presidential ticket be zoned to the South. Some initial reading of this public move sees it as a tactical intervention on behalf of Bola Tinubu against Buhari’s opposition to the latter. But I beg to differ.
The APC northern governors’ intervention, to the extent that it is effective, will likely favor vice-president Yemi Osinbajo or Rotimi Amaechi. Osinbajo makes sense, perhaps even eminently so. His selection would produce a palatable national field in the upcoming election. So we might end up with a frontline field comprising Atiku Abubakar from the North; Yemi Osinbajo from the South West; and Peter Obi from the South East. That would make the election a traditional three-way ethnic majoritarian contest.
The risk for APC in going with Osinbajo, however, is that it might enable Atiku Abubakar to make inroads in the North. A defensive calculus for the North dictates the choice of Ahmad Lawan. But of course there is the problem of perceived northern dominance mentioned above. There is, specifically, a non-trivial risk of APC alienating an aggrieved South West if its two leading lights are rejected. The question for APC is to decide which of its strongholds in the North and South West is at a greater risk following PDP’s nomination of Atiku Abubakar.
Some commentators have argued that APC will implode if Bola Ahmed Tinubu is not selected, the more so if he is discarded by disqualification. These observers claim that the South West will be “implacable,” and even that “Tinubu will be forced to enter into a deal with Atiku [Abubakar] that may end the chances of APC in the South West,” as one friend put it to me. Perhaps. But I myself do not in any way see APC imploding or the South West going rogue over a rejection of Tinubu, if that were to happen. A rejection of Tinubu will no doubt create some raw feelings in the South West, but this could be alleviated if Yemi Osinbajo is picked. Even if he’s not, I don’t really foresee a South-western implosion. The South West zone has just had a VP (Yemi Osinbajo) for eight years, and it has benefitted tremendously in the era of Buhari presidency, especially at the expense of the South East. Before the current dispensation, the South West also had eight years at the helm with Olusegun Obasanjo, a scion of the geopolitical zone, as a preeminent president.
The South West can certainly be pacified because it is currently focused on consolidating its position as part of Nigeria’s hegemonic duopoly, with the incipient minoritization of the South East. So why would it undermine its ascendant position and throw it all away if either of Osinbajo or Tinubu, or indeed both of them, were denied APC nomination? The South West is playing a long game, and it will not combust because of Bola Tinubu or Yemi Osinbajo’s defenestration. It will simply negotiate some concessions and bide its time.
At his current age of 65, a sprightly Yemi Osinbajo has a window to jump in again in 2027 were he not chosen this time, especially if Atiku Abubakar, who would be 81 then, wins the presidency in 2023 but is considered too old to seek re-election. Age was another exogenous factor that seems to have worked in Abubakar’s favor, against the putative claim of the South East. There was a demographic compulsion for Abubakar, and I expect that he might have leaned in hard to call in favors, knowing that this would have been the end of the road for him had he not been nominated. The South East had little chance against this conspiracy of demography.
There is a similar compulsion in the case of the South West’s Tinubu who, despite the alleged downward massaging of his age, would be 75 in 2027 and 79 in 2031. Tinubu is supposedly younger than Abubakar, but he’s in a far frailer frame health-wise. He’s also dogged by issues of personal hygiene, including a persistent suggestion of urinary incontinence which probably suggests an older age than he claims. It is interesting that the chairman of APC’s primary screening committee, John Odigie-Oyegun, made an elliptical reference to age when he submitted his committee’s report. He indicated that his committee could have disqualified more than 10 of the 23 aspirants it did, but he noted that the committee was keen to keep more of the youthful aspirants. At a robust 63 and with his education and solid experience, Ahmad Lawan probably offers a fine balance between experience and relative youth, a deadly combination to deploy against PDP’s septuagenarian nominee, Abubakar, in a close election. On this score, he does tie with Yemi Osinbajo who is in his age cohort. However, Lawan as Senate president is less tightly bound up with the multifarious failures of the Buhari administration than Osinbajo who, as VP, inherits the burden of the Buhari administration and would suffer that handicap in the general election. Some might consider that the vice-president would be better off returning as a top-ticket candidate after some temporal distance from the dismal record of his administration.
This is probably why some permutations favor the emergence of Rotimi Amaechi as the APC flag-bearer. The transport minister, aged 57, certainly has some cross-cutting appeal. He has purchased an endearment to the northern power brokers, not just with the pro-North spending of his ministry but also with his general pro-North political demeanor. He is also said to be Buhari’s personal favorite, whatever one can make of that claim. In addition, although Rotimi Amaechi has not particularly favored the South East with his ministerial spending or shown any pro-Igbo proclivity in his political disposition, he could be accepted by the Igbos nonetheless, merely as a matter of electoral pragmatism, although Peter Obi’s momentum limits the appeal of Rotimi Amaechi to the Igbos.
Tinubu’s Boo-boo in Abeokuta
One factor disposing in favor of Yemi Osinbajo (and Amaechi, by the way) is that he does appear to have a malleable character. This certainly recommends him to the northern power brokers who prefer having amenable figureheads in power (though Osinbajo’s religious fervor might be a concern). In contradistinction to this, Bola Ahmed Tinubu suffers particular ‘handicaps’ for having his own independent power base, being himself a power broker in the South West, having enormous wealth and being rather rashly disposed. All of these would worry the northern puppet masters who must fret over their ability to control Tinubu, were he to be invested with the enormous powers of the presidency. This concern has been a constant of northern politics across the vicissitudes of Nigeria’s democratic history. It prevented the global colossus that was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe from winning real power at the federal level. It prevented the political tactician and supremo of Western Nigeria politics that was Chief Obafemi Awolowo from ever becoming prime minister or president. It scuttled the presidential mandate of Chief MKO Abiola, a global giant with unimaginable wealth and contacts.
And it is a major handicap for Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. Northern power brokers would never allow a southerner they cannot control to accede to the awesome powers of the Nigerian presidency, if they can help it. A meek Goodluck Jonathan, yes. A gregarious Obasanjo, yes (esprit de corps and all that). But not a Zik, an Awo, or an MKO. Certainly not an Emeka Ojukwu. And most likely not a Bola Ahmed Tinubu. The Asiwaju unwittingly tickled these atavistic northern fears when he gave a rather arrogant speech in Abeokuta this week bragging about his political influence and his instrumentality to the emergence of Buhari and Osinbajo as president and VP respectively. He also touted his kingmaker status in the South West and his independent wealth. To cap it all, Tinubu insisted on his entitlement to the presidency, adding, for good measure, a threat about reprisals if he is not selected. It was a most ill-advised speech, politically infelicitous at any time but downright balmy in the middle of APC’s primary process. No wonder his team moved to clean it up 48 hours later. But the damage may be irreparable. I never rated Tinubu’s chances anyway, for the reasons given above. But the Abeokuta speech may have sealed his fate.
VP Nomination Pre-Mortem
There will be disappointments and ill-feelings all around whatever selection a party makes in a contested primary. It will be no different with the major political parties in the ongoing Nigerian primaries. But these parties can assuage whatever disappointments that arise from their choice of flag-bearers by following up with nimble VP nominations.
Unfortunately, here again the permutations do not particularly favor the South East.
Let’s look at the case of PDP. The party selected Atiku Abubakar as its flag-bearer, among several reasons, for a more competitive play in the North. But although PDP will expect Abubakar to make inroads in the North, it cannot expect an unimpeded incursion into APC strongholds there if APC makes a defensive choice by nominating Ahmad Lawan, a fellow northerner. For this reason, whilst seeking inroads in the North, PDP will want to shore up in the South: to defend its stronghold in the South South; remain competitive in the South East; and make an inroad in South West. Its chances in the South will depend a lot on its VP nomination. If the party wants to play a defensive game in the South, it might choose a VP nominee from the South South – perhaps governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State who has a pinch of Igbo heritage, or even governor Nyessom Wike of Rivers State who had a barnstorming performance in the presidential primary with his haul of 237 votes, to the winner Abubakar’s 371. If the party feels sufficiently secure in its control of the South South and considers that it can fend off likely APC incursion, it might gamble with a VP nominee from the South East. It has a smattering of workable choices there, including Senator Ike Ekwerendu of Enugu State, or, as some have suggested, Emeka Ihedioha of Imo State. But the compulsion of a South-eastern VP nominee is unclear to me.
The South East is a highly competitive political zone. It has the least number of states; yet, whereas all other zones (barring the North East) are one-party dominant conglomerates, the South East is home to all three governing political parties. There could be even further fragmentation of electoral franchise in the South East with the defection of Peter Obi and other political middleweights to the Labor Party. There are certainly pockets of opportunity in the South East that might persuade PDP to select its VP nominee from that zone. But the zone is so volatile and schizophrenic that it is hard to think of any dominant political figure or tendency that could impose enough order to maximize the electoral yield for any one party. PDP might well decide that it cannot brook the South East’s multiple personality disorder and that it might be better off investing in a vice-presidential nominee elsewhere. It will remember that this is a geopolitical zone where Obasanjo beat Ikemba Odumegwu Ojukwu (in every single state) in the 2003 presidential election, and where Buhari was defeated despite running with zonal stalwarts Chuba Okadigbo and Ume-Ezeoke in 2003 and 2007 respectively! The South East is a stout beast! Very hard to grasp.
The question of the geopolitical origin of a VP nominee is also non-trivial for APC. If the party does not choose vice-president Yemi Osinbajo as its flag-bearer, it could play defense and choose its VP nominee from the South West, to assuage any general raw feelings in its mainstay but also specifically to fend off any disruptive moves by an aggrieved Bola Tinubu. On the other hand, it might want to play offense and choose someone from the South South, taking the fight to PDP. Cross River State governor, Ben Ayade, might be a consideration in this regard. But it is unclear what appeal he has in the zone beyond his own state. The governor’s likely poor performance in the primary makes him an unlikely VP prospect. A more interesting choice might be Rotimi Amaechi, if he does not land the top ticket himself. The party might choose to pair him with Lawan or with Osinbajo. Much of this will depend on his primary performance. The transport minister will certainly be helpful in defending APC’s advantage in the North (given his favored profile in the North), and he is alleged to have significant financial wherewithal which could counter the famed financial clout of PDP’s Nyessom Wike.
APC might briefly consider picking a VP nominee from the South East. It might perhaps weigh up former Senate president Ken Nnamani, who is also a presidential aspirant. Alternatively the party might consider Ebonyi State governor, Dave Umahi. However, I don’t see APC nominating either man as VP candidate. At 73, Nnamani would be too old to serve as vice for any of the party’s three presidential prospects: Osinbajo (65), Lawan (63), and Amaechi (57). It’s also unclear if Nnamani has much residual political clout. As for Umahi, switching from PDP only very recently, it is unclear if he can deliver any other state beyond Ebonyi, if that even! Given all this, I think that APC might give the South East a pass in terms of VP nominee.
If APC goes with Yemi Osinbajo or Rotimi Amaechi as flag-bearer, it might be compelled to choose Ahmad Lawan as VP nominee to counter PDP’s Abubakar juggernaut in the North. An Osinbajo/Amaechi ticket is improbable because it will leave the party’s northern flank vulnerable to Atiku Abubakar. One crucial consideration here is that Osinbajo cannot again be VP, he can only move into a top-ticket role. In this sense, he is different from Lawan and Amaechi who can serve in either role. So if APC wishes to pay homage to its South-western mainstay, and if Lawan is needed to shore up its northern flank, the dictates of game theory will compel an Osinbajo/Lawan ticket, as opposed to an Amaechi/Lawan ticket.
For its part, having selected northerner Atiku Abubakar for the top ticket, PDP might want to play defense by choosing a VP nominee from the South South. The party might consider a VP nominee from the South East, to scoop up opportunity left by APC’s rejection of the zone. But Peter Obi’s momentum in the South East will likely make the zone less an attractive option, all things being equal. This leaves the South South as the more probable (and more sensible) option for PDP’s VP nominee.
From the foregoing, we can see that geopolitical logic and other considerations disfavor the choice of a presidential flag-bearer from the South East in either of the two major political parties. Political calculus also disfavors the South East in the selection of VP nominee, although the zone has a slight chance with the PDP. All of this adds fillip to Peter Obi’s insurgent campaign on the platform of the Labor Party. This is a subject I explore in the third and final installment of this primaries series.