We are now in the era of permanent campaigns; elections are no longer quadrennial events, each begins the moment the other ends. As we prepare for Buhari's inauguration, we must begin planning for the four years that will come after him. We must ask what Nigeria will look like, so that we can align our expectations. As a matter of fact, permutations for 2023 have already begun.
Here are just four assumptions—based on the 2019 results—that may prove key over the next four years.
Assumption One: There is no King in the North
Buhari has consistently pulled millions of votes, hitting highs of 12 million in 2003 and 2011 before his victory in 2015. In doing so, he has developed a reputation as a powerhouse in the North, which some mistake as the APC's popularity. But is Buhari really the King in the North and does his party reign supreme in Northern Nigeria?
Making allowance for election malpractice, there has been one major factor influencing each election outcome for Buhari: Northern opposition. Let’s look at his track record; he lost in 2007 when the Northern Yar’Adua was supported by the incumbent PDP, lost in 2011 against a popular Southern incumbent, won in 2015 against an unpopular Southern candidate, and defeated a less popular Northerner as the incumbent in 2019.
Yar’Adua was a strong candidate with a pedigree as a Governor and a popular family name—his most formidable Northern challenger. In 2019, even though Atiku was from the North, he was not the formidable candidate he appeared to be (barely winning his own state Adamawa), with a record of cross-partying and even losing the 2015 APC primaries to Buhari. This raises questions about his ability to command a victory on his own accord.
As far as the APC is concerned, we will need to redraw the electoral map ahead of 2023 to account for Buhari's absence. The 2019 Gubernatorial results showed that states like Bauchi and Sokoto which voted for Buhari at Presidential level did not support APC in the Gubernatorial races. Buhari’s supposed northern appeal has always inferred a guarantee of votes from the heavily populated region, so who do these votes go to in 2023?
Assumption Two: The Parties of 2019 may not be the powers of 2023
For the APC, the unifying balm of Buhari will no longer be present. Instead, a plethora of governors and politicians are likely to jostle for the presidential ticket. Meanwhile, the APC was formed with the primary purpose of dislodging the PDP. Absent this objective, it remains to be seen if the party can survive the wheeling and dealing of an open campaign.
Over at the PDP, we are likely to see the first campaign without an incumbent or former President or Vice-President. This may be their best chance to create a “new PDP” image. The party could go in many different directions. The South-East continues to agitate for the presidency; so will the PDP emerge as the custodian of this dream or will APGA finally shed its regional toga and form an alliance to become nationally relevant?
And let us not forget third-party movements.
2019 showed the importance of established bases and the work the third force still needs to do. Yet they recorded support in the South-West region, with ADP winning in Oyo. Improved showings can restructure the way electoral maps look in the next polls.
Traditional and non-traditional parties alike are in flux, which means the landscape may look very different come 2023.
Assumption Three: The way we choose our leaders will change
We saw an increase in the quality of debates and a greater focus on issues—third party (and younger) candidates trended because of their ability to tap into social media and share opinions on the issues being debated.
Meanwhile, Buhari’s administration has an office dedicated to digital engagement, candidates are engaging with voters online, and PR firms are being paid to help hone their candidate’s message. How will this shape future campaigns? Will they drive better engagement and voter turnout?
And will all this help Nigerians get the leaders they deserve?
The trend may threaten Nigeria’s political elite. We saw it already with the dethroning of Saraki in Kwara and Akpabio in Awka Ibom, and the defeat of Governors aiming to move into the Senate. Falling data prices, increasing internet access, and a stronger focus on the grassroots may provide a template that allows Nigerians to choose a different class of leaders.
Assumption Four: Elections still won't be free and fair
The issues that afflicted the 2019 elections have tainted many victories. While we still have questions like who or what actually determines when an election is free and fair, we still have a long way to go before we can compare our democracy to other prominent examples.
Many of INEC’s structural issues will not be addressed by 2023.
Incentives remain misaligned as prominent parties are unlikely to alter already perfected rigging formations by decentralising and strengthening INEC. Another four years may pass before we get new regulation to make our electoral body more independent. By 2023, the lauded high of 2015 may feel like an age away.
Regardless of the drama and subplots that continually distract our politicians, we need to remember that for many people, elections are really a do or die affair. Consultants and thugs, loyalists and defectors, and even general observers are heavily affected by which way power flows in our country.
Nigeria takes elections seriously.
What matters is making sure that we create a system that determines an outcome that moves the country forward, regardless of who it is that does the moving. The opposite is one in which the actors determine the system, and that simply means maintaining the dangerous and deleterious status quo.