What to Know About the Nigerian Election

Nigerians expect to go to the polls on Saturday to choose a new president — one of the most important elections happening anywhere in the world this year. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with about 220 million people, and what happens there reverberates across the continent and the globe. More than 93 million people registered for voting cards, the election commission said — the most ever.

The Giant of Africa, as Nigeria is known, is at an inflection point. During nearly eight years of rule by an ailing president, Muhammadu Buhari — a military dictator turned reformed democrat — the country has lurched from one economic shock to the next. Over 60 percent of the people live in poverty, while security crises — including kidnapping, terrorism, militancy in oil-rich areas and clashes between herdsmen and farmers — have multiplied.

Many Nigerians say they fear that violence could tarnish, or even postpone, the election. On Wednesday, one Senate candidate for the opposition Labour Party was killed, and the police blamed a separatist group.

In recent weeks, shortages of fuel and cash — the latter because of a rushed currency redesign — have caused widespread suffering. Even people with money in the bank cannot get access to it, and many are unable to buy food or pay for necessities. Protests in some cities have turned violent.

Many analysts said that the sudden currency redesign was intended to stop politicians from hoarding cash to buy votes. On Friday, the Nigerian police announced that they had arrested an opposition party legislator in southern Nigeria with nearly $500,000 in cash in his car and a list of intended recipients for the bills.

Many Nigerians see the 2023 election as a chance to start over and are planning to break with the two traditional parties to vote for a third candidate. Not since the rebirth of Nigeria’s democracy in 1999 has the country faced an election as nail-biting — and as wide open — as this one.

There is Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 70, who as the candidate of the governing All Progressives Congress has serious political machinery behind him. A canny, multimillionaire former governor of Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, Mr. Tinubu is a Muslim from the southwest and boasts that he brought Mr. Buhari to power. His catchphrase, “Emi lo kan” — Yoruba for “It’s my turn” — speaks to his record as a kingmaker in Nigerian politics, but alienates many young voters.

The former vice president and multimillionaire businessman Atiku Abubakar is the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, or P.D.P. Mr. Abubakar, 76, has run for the presidency five times since 1993, and this year could be his last shot. A Muslim from the north, he hopes to pick up far more votes there than he has in the past, now that he does not have to run against his old nemesis, Mr. Buhari, who had an ardent northern following.

The surprise candidate is Peter Obi, 61. Hailed as a savior by a large chunk of Nigeria’s digitally savvy youth, Mr. Obi — a Christian and former governor from the southeast who has hitched his wagon to the lesser-known Labour Party — has thrown this election open. His fans — mostly young, southern Nigerians walloped by economic hardship, joblessness and insecurity — call themselves the Obidients.

These are the three leading contenders among the 18 candidates in all. However, a fourth candidate worth mentioning is Rabiu Kwankwaso, 66. While unlikely to win the election, Mr. Kwankwaso, also a Muslim, could profoundly affect the result by splitting the vote in parts of Nigeria’s north, including the major state of Kano, where he has a huge base.

Several recent polls put Mr. Obi ahead of his rivals — some by a wide margin. But what many of these surveys have in common is that a large proportion of people polled refuse to say who they are voting for or say they are undecided.

One poll by the data and intelligence company Stears tried to solve this problem by making an informed guess about which way the “silent voters” would cast their ballots based on their profiles and how they responded to other questions.

Stears found that if there is a high turnout on election day, Mr. Obi would most likely win by a large margin. But if, as in 2019, few people show up at the polls, Mr. Tinubu would be by far the more likely winner.

Nearly 90 percent of Nigerians believe the country is going in the wrong direction, according to a recent survey by Afrobarometer — by far the worst perception it has ever recorded in Nigeria. For many, this election seems like a last-ditch chance to rescue their country.

A nation bursting with entrepreneurs and creative talent, Nigeria is held back by rampant insecurity, widespread unemployment, persistent corruption and a stagnating economy, which together mean that simply surviving can be a major struggle. Young, middle-class Nigerians trying to escape this life are leaving the country in droves.

Recent changes in the voting system — using biometric data to ensure voters’ identities and sending results electronically rather than manually — were put in place to prevent the tampering and vote rigging that have undermined previous elections.

There is no incumbent on the ballot, and for the first time in decades, there are major candidates from each of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups: Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani.

All the usual, if unofficial, rules of Nigerian elections have been blown apart:

  • 1: It’s a battle between the two established parties. Mr. Obi broke this one when he lost the P.D.P. ticket to Mr. Abubakar but insisted on running anyway, and joined another party.

  • 2: The presidency is supposed to alternate between the north and the south, and so parties should field candidates accordingly. Mr. Buhari is a northerner, so Mr. Abubakar was expected to let a southerner helm his party. But he did not, and he may pay the price by losing the P.D.P.’s traditional southern strongholds.

  • 3: There should be a Muslim and a Christian on the ticket. Mr. Tinubu, a Muslim, bulldozed through this rule by picking a Muslim from the northeast as his running mate. That could cost him dearly in the south, too.

An absolute majority plus 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the nation’s 36 states. If no candidate achieves this, the election will go to a runoff — which has never happened since democracy returned but which analysts now say is a distinct possibility.

Turnout is usually extremely low — around 35 percent of registered voters voted in the last election, because of insecurity, logistical problems and apathy. But this year, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission, more than 12 million new voters have registered, most of them young people. The election result may hinge on whether those new voters turn out or not. Of the 93 million in all who registered for voting cards, 87 million had picked them up and will be able to cast a ballot, the commission said.

Results are expected two or three days after the election.

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