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Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Election Outcome: Post-Mortem on the Opposition’s Tactical Moves

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The fragmentation of opposition forces and their tactical blunders may have been the decisive factor that shaped the outcome of the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria.

By Chudi Okoye

In the immediate aftermath of the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria, conventional wisdom both within the opposition parties’ high command and among their ranks seems to be that the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC), finagled a victory through concerted collusions with the electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). This belief is deeply held and it animates a continuing agitation, within Nigeria and beyond, against the results announced by INEC on March 2nd. It also informs the legal effort now forging in opposition circles to challenge INEC’s official election results.

In our febrile post-election environment, marked by what I might sympathetically call a revolution of rising palpitations, there has been much abounding ‘evidence’ floating in social media and elsewhere seemingly supporting the clamored allegation of an electoral heist. I examine the case and prospects for the emerging legal challenge in another Awka Times piece. Here, I plan to focus on a different issue which quite possibly impacted the election outcome in an even more decisive way.

Divided Opposition
Whatever might be said about the actions of the umpire, perhaps the more poignant story of the 2023 presidential election is the spectacular failure of the opposition to take advantage of the ambient conditions. This election should have been a cinch, an easy clinch for a united and focused opposition. The ruling party, APC, has thoroughly mismanaged the country, with an economy that is teetering and a society sundered to a level far worse than what the party inherited on assuming power in 2015. By any measure we can imagine, the ruling party has been an unmitigated failure, and it should have been handily defeated in the 2023 election.

And, in a way, it was. Except that the losses incurred by the ruling party, rather than accrue to a unified opposition, dissipated across three presidential candidates who once all belonged to the main opposition party, People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Let’s look at the numbers. The ruling party, APC, had won the last presidential election (in 2019) with 15.2m votes (a 55.6% vote share). In 2023, the party ‘won’ again – according to the currently disputed official results, but with 8.8m votes (36.6%), suffering a 42% vote loss. In contrast, the main opposition party, PDP, had a haul of 11.3m votes (41.2% vote share) in the 2019 election which it lost. In the 2023 election, however, the three PDP and offshoot opposition candidates – PDP’s Atiku Abubakar and two decamped stalwarts of the party: Peter Obi in the Labor Party (LP) and Rabiu Kwankwaso in the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) – together polled a total of 14.6m votes, amounting to a combined share of 60.7%. In other words, compared to 2019, the PDP splinter tickets had increased their combined votes by 29%. It would have been enough to easily dislodge the ruling party, had the PDP stalwarts remained united.

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. Kwankwaso decamped to NNPP in March 2022; Obi left two months later, as we reported in Awka Times, just before the PDP primary election got underway. He promptly snagged the Labor Party’s nomination.

These departures clearly wounded PDP, as the 2023 election results reveal. Consider, for instance, how PDP collapsed in 2023 versus 2019 in the five states in Obi’s South East geopolitical zone, as we show in the chart below. The most precipitous drop was in Anambra and Enugu, from 86.6% to just 1.5% and from 84.5% to 3.5% respectively. Zone-wide in the South East, PDP’s vote share tumbled from 76% in 2019 to just 4% in 2023. It was, to tell it as it is, a complete rout.

PDP Share of Presidential Election Votes in the South-Eastern States: 2019 vs. 2023

Compared to PDP’s annihilation in the South-eastern states, there was a milder yet noticeable slide in support for the party in Kano State, Kwankwaso’s stronghold. There, the party’s vote share dropped from 20.7% in 2019 to 7.7% in 2023. The major loss in the state was for APC, which saw its share tumble from 77.5% to 30.4%. Kwankwaso’s NNPP mopped up a 58.6% share in the state, hauling the highest state vote of any party in the entire election.

PDP also suffered significant losses in the states controlled by the so-called ‘G5 Governors’. These are a dissident cohort of PDP governors – in Abia, Benue, Enugu, Oyo and Rivers States – stirred by the seeming northern domination of PDP high command. The group was particularly critical of the violation of the party’s zoning arrangement which should have seen the presidential ticket go to the South in this election cycle. The G5 Governors tried without success to have other key party positions, specifically the chairmanship, ceded to the South, once northerner Atiku Abubakar had emerged as party flag-bearer. For this reason, the governors took it upon themselves to frustrate the party’s campaign in their respective states. Some flirted with the competition or surreptitiously worked against their party’s ticket. The effect is clear in the election results. We’ve already seen the heavy erosion in the two South-eastern states in the G5 cohort: Abia and particularly Enugu. In Benue State, PDP share dropped from 48.9% in 2019 to 16.9% in 2023; in Oyo State, from 43.8% to 22.6%; and in Rivers State, where gang leader Nyesom Wike holds sway, from 73.8% all the way to 16.9%.

The internal combustion of PDP this election cycle has seen the party shrink even further from its formerly formidable size. In the 1999 presidential election, the first in the Fourth Republic, PDP ramped up 62.8% of the total votes with Olusegun Obasanjo leading its ticket. In subsequent elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011 which the party won, it secured respectively: 61.9%, 69.6%and 58.9%. In the two previous elections that the party lost, it saw its share of vote somewhat denuded, but nothing as precipitous as the loss in 2023. In 2015, PDP secured 44.9%, and in 2019 it garnered 41.2%. In 2023, the party’s share of votes slumped to 29.1%.

To be sure, the other wing of Nigeria’s erstwhile governing duopoly, APC, also took a beating this cycle. A party that commanded 53.9% of votes to win power in 2015 and 55.6% to retain it in 2019, managed to eke out a disputed victory in 2023 with a mere 36.6%. Whereas APC had won with a handy majority in the past, it only squeezed through this cycle – to an extent because the party had managed to contain its own internal crises, but certainly because of the folly of a hubristic opposition that could not join forces against a bumbling incumbent.

Inflated Expectations
When you think about it, the saga of the main opposition’s strategic failure seems almost Shakespearean. At the beginning of this election cycle, particularly at the onset of party primaries, there had been calls – including by me in a June 2022 piece – for electoral alliance between the main opposition parties. This would have required of course that some aspirants step down for a unified candidate. However, blinded by their burning ambitions, none of the contenders would budge. They all decided to fight the election from separate party platforms.

Why any of the dispersed opposition candidates thought they could win the election on their own, with dissipated forces, remains a mystery. What in the world, for instance, made Kano strongman, Kwankwaso, think he could win the presidency, being a completely unknown quantity in most parts of the country?

What made Atiku Abubakar think he could overcome a predictable erosion of support in former PDP strongholds now controlled by his estranged affiliates, Messrs. Obi and Kwankwaso? Or indeed that he could overcome the hostility of the G5 governors in their respective states?

Come to think of it, what made Peter Obi, a virtual upstart in the national arena, think he could romp to victory on the flank of a fringe party with not a single seat at any level of government? I had warned about this in a June 2022 piece for Awka Times in which I expressed skepticism that Obi’s “flight to the fringe will foster the presidential quest of the South East geopolitical zone, [or] prove a successful strategy for him personally.” Whilst acknowledging Obi’s insurgent promise, I wrote that “it is doubtful if any politician, not even one as fortunate and formidable as Peter Obi, can win the presidency from the periphery of Nigerian politics.”

In yet another piece in 2022, I wrote as follows: “The political ascent of Peter Obi is evident; some even think his presidential quest is providential. Does Obi have a date with destiny, or will ‘Obistructionist’ forces rise up to impede his progress? The wind may be in Obi’s sails, but there may be ‘Obistacles’ ahead [that] he and his supporters should prepare to confront.”

A few days to the presidential election, I returned to the same theme, writing that:

“The unspoken issue in Nigeria’s impending presidential election is the tension between who ought to win and who might actually win the election.”

I pointed out again that there could be resistance to the change momentum embodied in Obi’s political surge, and that field manipulation tactics could be employed to prevent what ‘ought to be’ from actually ‘becoming’. This appears to have played out in the unfolding reality of the election.

Peter Obi deserves enormous credit for what he has accomplished for Labor, a party one couldn’t find hitherto in a haystack. With Obi’s star power and unquestioned diligence, Labor chalked up a string of National Assembly seats in the just concluded elections (seven Senate and 34 House of Representatives seats), and it seems to be poised for a winning streak in the upcoming state elections. Obi may have broken – for now at least – the dominance of the governing duopoly; and with his populist appeal and post-primordial rhetoric, animated previously politically inert sections of the population, particularly the youths. In my opinion, Peter Obi is the undisputed star of the 2023 general elections.

Even so, however, there are structural constraints which, as dazzling as he is, Obi could not overcome in one election cycle. By moving away from PDP, Obi abandoned the norm in Nigeria of a path to power based on elite negotiation and chose instead a populist approach. Nigeria has never tolerated a populist path to power, whether under colonial rule or military regime, and not even in civilian dispensations. That move, thus, signaled danger to the ruling elites, which must be stopped by all means necessary. The electoral frauds allegedly perpetrated in this past election were undertaken in service of that objective, as I had predicted.

Though the outcome of this election was somewhat predictable given the main opposition’s tactical choices, it is to be regretted that the challengers could not have worked together to preempt the logic of that outcome. Consider, if you will, what might have happened had the PDP got its act together and stayed intact as one party, avoiding the egofest that led to ticket fragmentation and self-sabotage. Had the party managed to contain its fissiparous forces, Nigeria might today be celebrating a second instance of a ruling party losing to the opposition – an advance in our democratic journey – rather than the spectacle of an underperforming incumbent party retaining power through what seems like grubby electoral machination.

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. Sad.


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