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N/Central, S/South To Swing Presidential Poll

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Obi, Tinubu, Atiku

By OBINNA EZUGWU

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Nigeria’s February 25, 2023 presidential election presents a complex scenario; a departure from what has been the case since the dawn of the Fourth Republic in 1999.

As the country heads to the polls in less than three months, there are three contenders with very realistic chances of emerging victorious, and one with an unlikely outside chance, with two geopolitical zones of the South South and North Central positioned, better than any other, it would appear, to determine who eventually becomes president.

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It’s a race among three giants, and a midget, featuring Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, two septuagenarian political behemoths – representing, in many people’s reckoning, the establishment; Peter Obi, former Anambra State governor, who has emerged as a credible third force, often seen as a departure from the old order, and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, former governor of Kano State, who many say could have an outside chance.

But realistically, Kwankwaso, 66, candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party (PDP), may only succeed in taking a chunk of votes from his home state of Kano, Northern Nigeria’s most populous state, and perhaps a few other neighbouring Northwest states, namely Jigawa, Kebbi and Katsina, which could present an interesting scenario for the likes of Tinubu, 70, candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), and Atiku Abubakar, 76, his counterpart in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the country’s main opposition party, both of whom are laying claim to the region’s votes.

“Kwankwaso is strong in Kano, but I don’t see him doing very well in any other state,” said Monday Egwuda, a political observer in Lagos. “I think that in the end, he will take votes from Tinubu and Atiku, but I believe not enough to become president.”

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The 2023 polls present a scenario eerily similar to the 1979 presidential election which saw Shehu Shagari, a relatively political lightweight from Sokoto State defeat the more fancied Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Aminu Kano, the trio of whom cut their teeth as nationalists who fought for Nigeria’s independence, and subsequently in the First Republic between 1963 and 1966.

Awolowo, a widely popular figure in Western Nigeria, swept votes across Lagos, Ondo, Oyo and Ogun states to secure a total of 4.9 million votes out of the total of 16.8 million votes cast, but ultimately came short against Shagari who had 5.68 million votes. Azikiwe won in three states, namely Imo, Anambra and Plateau to come third with 2.8 million votes, while both Aminu Kano, from Kano State, and Waziri Ibrahim, from Borno State, won in Kano and Borno states, respectively, to finish fourth and fifth with 1.7 and 1.6 million votes.

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Historians have often tended to attribute Shagari’s victory to the fact of him being a northerner running against two top southern contenders in Awolowo and Azikiwe But a closer scrutiny of the 1979 election would reveal that his victory owed a lot to his performance in Rivers and Cross River states, which make up the bulk of today’s South South; as well as Benue, Kwara and Plateau, in today’s North Central.

Although the late Shagari, who became Nigeria’s first executive president in 1979, won the plurality of votes in such core northern states as Bauchi; his home state of Sokoto; Kaduna, and Gongola – today’s Adamawa and Taraba states – the numbers polled by Aminu Kano who won Kano by a landslide and did fairly well elsewhere in the north, as well as Waziri Ibrahim, who took Borno and shared a chunk of Gongola votes, meant that he could not have become president on the strength of ‘northern votes.’

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It was indeed Shagari’s performance in Cross River and Rivers, as well as Benue and Kwara in the north central where he swept votes, while also sharing numbers with Azikiwe in Plateau, another north central state, and with Awolowo in Bendel – today’s Edo and Delta states, that ensured that he edged out Awolowo to become president. In essence, votes from the South South and North Central made the difference for Shagari, and ahead of 2023, such scenario is looking likely to play out.

“Historically, when you have Hausa or Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba candidates contesting for power in Nigeria, it is often the minority groups that tip the scale,” said Chidi Anthony, a lawyer and political analyst in Abuja. “The advantage the north enjoyed in the First and Second republics is that they always found a way to win somewhere in the south and the Christian North Central.

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“The country has become a bit more complex now. The North Central, particularly the Christian areas, who prefer to be called Middle Belt, has largely left the north, and the South South or the Southern minorities, who had tended to align with the north in the past are not likely to do so going forward, because of alleged marginalisation. That might be interesting when you look at the candidates and their chances ahead of 2023. I think Obi has a edge there, if you ask me.”

Broadly speaking, Nigeria has five voting blocs spread across the six geopolitical zones, namely: the Northern Muslim bloc; the northern Christian bloc – the Middle Belt; the Southwest or the Yoruba bloc; the Southeast or the Igbo bloc, and the South South or southern ethnic minority bloc.

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It is expected that Tinubu would win the Southwest, which has second highest number of registered voters after the northwest, albeit with Lagos, a cosmopolitan state, accounting for a significant percentage of the total. The former Lagos governor, whose party controls most of the states in the north also expects to do well in the Muslim north, but there, he would have to contend with Atiku, a son of the soil from Adamawa, Northeast,, and Kwankwaso who is a real factor in Kano, a state that ideally delivers bloc votes.

In 2019, Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent president, from Katsina in the Northwest, polled high numbers in the zone and the Northeast, both of which comprise the bulk of the Northern Muslim bloc, to ultimately undue Atiku of the PDP, who held sway in the Southeast and South, while making significant progress in the North Central and Southwest.

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Tinubu, who is running on the same political platform as Buhari, expects to ride on the alliance between his Southwest and the Northern Muslim bloc, which combined, account for about 50 percent of the country’s total number of 91.9 million registered voters going into 2023.

However, it is highly unlikely that the former Lagos governor would match Buhari’s 2019 numbers against Atiku in the North, given that he is a southerner and Atiku a northerner, even as Kwankwaso has thrown himself into the mix. This means that the three candidates are likely to cancel one another out, and present a scenario where the candidate with highest votes in the neutral zones will emerge president.

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Obi, the Labour Party candidate expects to win his native Southeast, and do well in places like Lagos and Abuja, among others, where there is significant population of people of Eastern origin. Indeed, the former Anambra State governor is popular among the younger population across regional lines, and have continued to trounce his opponents in opinion polls leading up to the election.

Overall, with the Southeast as Obi’s base, and and the Southwest as Tinubu’s home turf, and Atiku and Kwankwaso expected to ensure that the Muslim north, the most populous of the five voting bloc, is split, the Christian north and the South South, which have no dog in the fight, could then decide who becomes president, should they deliver bloc votes.

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Returning to the 1979 presidential election, southern Nigeria gave Shagari 1.77 million votes, a significant proportion of his total haul of 5.6 million votes, the bulk of which came from today’s South South, while the North Central gave him 1.1 million, and his core north, comprising of today’s northwest and northeast, gave him 2.9 million.

On the flip side, the entire northern region contributed only 514, 762 out of Awolowo’s 4.9 million votes, with the core north, accounting for 331, 863 votes, mostly from then Gongola and Kaduna states; and the north central accounting for 182,899, more than 80% of which came from Kwara.

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Nigeria's February 25, 2023 presidential election presents a complex scenario; a departure from what has been the case since the dawn of the Fourth Republic in 1999.
1979 presidential election

Thus, with Aminu Kano and Waziri who, between them, shared 3.3 million votes, Shagari could have easily been beaten by Awolowo if he had relied on ‘northern votes,’ or more specifically, the Northern Muslim bloc votes.
Going into 2023, Obi, on paper, appears to be the favourite to edge his opponents in the two neutral blocs, namely the northern Christian bloc, and the South South bloc, which given the possibility of him doing well elsewhere, puts him at an advantage.

Indeed, as noted earlier, Obi is popular among the youths; has continued to lead in opinion polls, and is evidently the favourite candidate of many educated and progressive minded individuals across regions.

“Peter Obi has got the Competence, Capacity, Capability, Character, and Integrity to provide the right leadership and sense of direction needed to pull this country out of the doldrums,” noted Hassan Stan-Labo, retired Army General.

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Regardless, Obi’s major handicap is that he is running under a relatively small political party, with practically no structure on ground, even as he is unlikely to muster enough financial muscle to match his opponents.

As PDP candidate, Atiku’s has strong footing in the Southeast and South South. The party remains dominant in the zones, and he will be a lot more competitive in the Muslim north than he was against Buhari in 2019. The PDP also now has two states in the Southwest, which could boost his chances in the region.

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However, Obi’s wide acceptance and growing popularity in the traditional PDP zones is a key challenge for the Adamawa politician, who may now have to seek new base in the north.

Recent endorsement of the former vice president by some leading APC stakeholders who are opposed to the party’s Muslim-Muslim ticket, led by Yakubu Dogara, former speaker of the House of representatives, will be an added boost to his chances among Christians in the north. But an initial endorsement of Obi by Babachir Lawal, former secretary to the government of the federation, suggests that the group is no longer on the same page. And Obi’s popularity among northern Christians appear to be growing.

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Tinubu, as candidate of the ruling party, is on a very strong footing. His Southwest base is not so much in contest, even if the PDP has two states and Obi is generally popular among a segment of the population, as confirmed by recent polls. His party is control of the Northwest and the Northeast, which will ensure that he is very competitive in both regions.
Regardless, his decision to opt for a Muslim-Muslim ticket has alienated the Christian population in the north, a significant voting bloc, and with the Muslim votes expected to be split, the former Lagos governor may find things more difficult than he may have anticipated.

Again, Tinubu, from available feedback, doesn’t have a good chance in the strategic blocs of the South South and the Christian North, but will hope to pick up the pieces after what could be a contest between Obi and Atiku.

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Kwankwaso, the NNPP candidate, has vowed to push ahead and not step down for anyone. It’s difficult to see a possible route to Aso Rock for him, but he could have a say in who gets there by dividing Northwest votes.

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