The Impact of the Third Force's performance in the 2023 Elections on Nigeria's Democracy

Barring any unprecedented legal decisions, Bola Ahmed Tinubu will be sworn in as Nigeria’s next president on 29 May 2023. This follows the 1st March declaration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of his victory in the keenly contested February 25th election. The runners-up of the contest have already submitted petitions to the courts protesting this declaration and, in this election of many firsts, there is palpable apprehension that an unexpected decision might be handed down. This is because of the strong performance of opposition parties, more so the ‘third force’ candidates, that stopped a winning candidate from getting the plurality of the vote for the first time in the Fourth Republic (1999 – date). 

Of the 37 sub-national units in the country, 13 of them were won by a third force candidate and they included the two most populous states in the country – Kano and Lagos. The strength in the third force’s performance is also mirrored in the close win margin among the first three front runners. Less than a million votes separated Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, despite the difference in established structures. Their performance resulted in the president-elect having the least ‘winning’ popular vote, 36.6% in the Fourth Republic (from 1999 – date). 

Fragmenting the vote across identity lines

While identity-based voting has been a usual feature on the Nigerian political scene, the emergence of third force candidates at the frontlines of the 2023 election increased its relevance. The ethnic and religious identities of the front runners – Bola Tinubu (Yoruba Muslim), Peter Obi (Igbo Christian), Atiku Abubakar and Rabiu Kwankwaso (Hausa-Fulani Muslims) – shaped the result of the elections as predicted. A quick review of the geopolitical zones won by each candidate will reveal this much. Tinubu won four of the six states in South West and was the only candidate to cross the 25% threshold in all six. Likewise, Obi won all five states in the South East and was the only one to successfully cross the 25% threshold in all five. Expectedly, the PDP ticket was most successful in the northern zones, including flipping Sokoto and Yobe – states that had never voted for it before. Implicit in the results of the presidential election are the lines (mainly ethnic and religious) along which Nigerians are now divided. Third party candidates were also primed to take advantage of these divisions based on their identities. Peter Obi, being the only Christian in the contest seemed to be the go-to option for Christian voters while Kwankwaso being the only candidate from the populous Northwest also excelled at the polls in that region especially in Kano state where he was a two-time governor.

Emergence of third force candidates also led to the proliferation of identity-based cross-party endorsements and alliances. The latter shaped the outcome of the presidential elections. For instance, Tinubu’s win in Rivers State cannot be explained without referencing the support from Nyesom Wike, Governor of Rivers state and leader of the PDP G5 governors who alienated themselves from their party’s candidate due to zoning-based dissent. They chose to support a candidate from the South over Atiku, their party’s candidate from the North. In a similar trend, the support Obi, a south-eastern Christian received from Northern Christian community leaders goes a long way to explain his strong performance in North Central states like Nasarawa and Plateau States.

An Increasingly Diverse National Assembly 

The results of the 2023 elections are also unparalleled for the National Assembly which, upon its inauguration, will have a strong minority caucus made up of different parties. This is because of notable upsets from candidates who displaced incumbents or well-known politicians from the two traditional parties (APC and PDP). With eight political parties represented in the house of representatives and seven political parties represented in the senate, the incoming National Assembly will be one of the most political party diverse in the Fourth Republic. 

Roughly a fifth of the senate, consisting of 21 of the currently declared 101 senators, are not from the two dominant parties. This is similarly replicated in the house, where 62 of 327 declared representatives are also not members of the established two parties. The major beneficiary of this push was the Labour Party, now able to call on eight senators and 35 representatives, despite previously having only one senator and no representatives. While the traditional dominant parties are expected to perform well in the outstanding supplementary elections to elect the remaining eight senators and 33 representatives, the incoming national assembly already differs significantly from what has obtained so far in the Fourth Republic. However, this dynamic may be short-lived given the propensity of Nigerian politicians to defect to more dominant parties. Nonetheless, the capacity of an effective third force minority to play a key role in negotiations ahead of floor votes, might counter the likelihood of defect for these politicians.

An interesting point was that this result came despite low voter turnout. Historically, upsets have come, or been expected, with higher turnout bringing out voters less likely to feel tied to previous voting patterns. The 2023 presidential elections recorded a 27% voter turnout – the lowest since 1999 – with possible migration patterns and voter suppression hazarded as reasons for these low numbers despite high voter registrations. Similarly, some posit that the socio-economic dynamics during the election season, such as the severe cash crunch and fuel scarcity, might have prevented many eligible voters from travelling to vote and tacitly disenfranchised them. The big question that will shape how these ‘third parties’ fare during this term, and if we begin using the term ‘fourth or fifth’ parties in the future, might be how effective they are keeping the momentum that led to such a promising performance this time round. 

By shaping the results of the election in an unprecedented manner, while reflecting the diverse make-up of the country in its fragmented incoming leadership, the third force has proven its viability on the Nigerian political scene. Tinubu’s term as president, granted his declaration is upheld by the judiciary, will be made or marred by how effective his administration interacts with these new groups. Besides the aforementioned divisions in the legislature, there will also be governors from five different parties for the first time since the 1979 – 1983 term. The influence of governors means that this administration might require more deft engagement with the different parties, rather than the usual dismissal of the opposition that ruling groups tend to exhibit. Ultimately, this ‘arrival’ of the third force could either lead to more protracted politics or a deepening of democratic dialogue and deliberation. The question remains which and, perhaps more importantly, how long this will last. 

Pelumi Obisesan-Aina is a doctoral candidate at SOAS, University of London and a visiting researcher at the Centre for Democracy and Development.

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