Nigeria’s political evolution? Reflections on the 2023 elections

Elections do more than determine who serves in elected positions, they also act as a referendum on the path forward for the country and shed light on how the country’s politics is evolving. Despite ongoing contestation of the results announced following the February and March polls, with particular criticism levelled at the electoral body and security agencies, it is important to review what these initial results tell us about Nigerian politics in 2023.  

Divided Opinions

A major takeaway from the election is that the country is politically divided. All four presidential frontrunners won at least one state, while the winning candidate failed to break the 10 million vote barrier for the first time in the Fourth Republic. The three states with the most registered voters - Kano (NNPP), Lagos (LP) and Rivers (APC) - were split between three different parties for the first time. The story of this election was one of a shifting political landscape.

During the 2019 elections, of the 29 states that participated in all elections, 23 voted for the same party in the presidential, gubernatorial and majority of National Assembly races. That number reduced to 11 in 2023. Furthermore, of the 13 states and FCT that had always voted for the PDP presidential nominee since 1999, only three – Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Taraba – continued on that course. On the flip side the PDP was able to win the presidential vote in Sokoto and Yobe for the first time in its history, and the vote in Katsina for the first time since 1999. And whilst the APC was able to take the vote in Rivers for the first time in its history, Kano voted for another party after being a reliable vote bank for the APC. 

The National Assembly polls also produced greater political plurality, with seven parties represented in the incoming senate and eight in the next house of representatives. With 33 seats yet to be declared, owing to inconclusive declarations and yet unscheduled supplementary elections, no party can lay claim to an absolute majority in the 360-seat house of representatives, which, if sustained, means there will need to be negotiations to form a governing coalition. Coupled with an expected keenly contested race for the senate presidency, the next administration will need to work overtime to garner consensus on the legislative agenda. 

People Over Parties

In 2019, only three states – Bauchi, Plateau and Sokoto – voted for governors from parties different from the presidential candidates that won the state. However, that number increased fivefold to 15 in 2023. Nine APC governors won in states that other parties had carried in the presidential vote – Gombe, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto and Yobe which voted for the PDP presidential aspirant and Cross River, Ebonyi, Lagos and Nasarawa who supported Obi and the LP. Whilst six PDP governors achieved the same feat taking Oyo, Rivers and Zamfara from the APC and Delta, Enugu and Plateau from the LP. There are three dimensions that can explain citizens voting for people over parties. 

The first argument is that voters simply related more with candidates, as opposed to remaining devoted strictly to parties themselves. This ties in with National Assembly results which, more than the presidential results, proved to be a more accurate predictor of governorship results. Eighteen states elected governors from parties that produced most national legislators: 11 for APC – Benue, Borno, Cross River, Ebonyi, Jigawa, Katsina, Kwara, Lagos, Niger, Ogun and Yobe; 5 for PDP – Akwa Ibom, Bauchi, Plateau, Rivers and Taraba; and 1 for NNPP – Kano and LP – Abia). Of the ten outliers, seven elected governors from opposition parties to their preferred presidential candidates (Enugu, Delta, Gombe, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Oyo and Zamfara). Sokoto has undeclared legislative results, while the elections in Adamawa and Kebbi were declared inconclusive. 

The second explanation is that people decided not to vote for person, despite their preference for a party; that the perception of performance by citizens might have played a role in shaping result outcomes. Notable examples include the seven outgoing governors who lost their bids for senate seats or, in the case of Zamfara’s Matawalle, re-election altogether. Looking deeper we can see that in some cases, voters in the state still backed candidates from the same party of the unpopular governor. The outgoing governors of Cross River, Enugu and Taraba lost senatorial bids, even though candidates from their party were elected governor. In Zamfara, APC candidates won the presidential and National Assembly votes, but this did not exempt Matawalle from losing his bid at re-election. Whilst governors losing senatorial bids in Abia, Benue and Plateau also saw successors elected from different parties. The change of political control of these states suggests that popular frustration at their governors performance had wider implications. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, voters might have decided to cast their ballot for a party because of a person. There will be eight senators, 35 representatives and a governor from the LP party in Nigeria’s new political dispensation, which represents one of the biggest increases in terms of party strength. Peter Obi was an instrumental part of his party’s wider success. In the governorship elections LP potentially suffered from the fact that in a third of the sub-national areas won by Obi during the presidential polls, no sub-national polls took place – three were off-cycle elections and one was the FCT, which does not elect a governor. But all the senators are from states Obi won the presidential vote, while the house of representative candidates elected also benefitted from his presidential performance. The last politician with such a strong personal following was Muhammadu Buhari, who was able to maintain his appeal through three unsuccessful campaigns before winning two terms in office. 

What Did We Learn?

First, the reality of identity-related politics was laid bare as each candidate got the majority of the votes from their ‘home’ zones. This translated further down ballot, where most national legislators won seats off the strength of their parties in their zones, with notable examples being the APC taking 15 of 18 senators in the southwest and the LP winning six of its eight senators in the southeast. Second, a more engaged electorate can reward or punish elected officials through the ballot box. The usual governor-senate highway was largely blocked during this cycle, with seven of ten governors seeking senate seats losing their bids – an eighth is involved in an undeclared result. Finally, perhaps the biggest lesson of this cycle is that voters appear to be more interested in voting personalities instead of being tied solely to parties. More states, and citizens, did not vote ‘top to bottom’ for a particular party for the first time in the Fourth Republic. 

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja  is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development.

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