What to expect from the 2019 presidential election in Nigeria

An official records finger prints of a person during voter's card registration for the country's 2019 presidential and general election, at the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Karu district in Abuja, Nigeria January 31, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde - RC17CD6DFB00

Nigeria’s presidential election scheduled for February 16, 2019, will be the country’s sixth since May 1999, when the military handed over power to a democratically elected civilian government. Though there are 73 political parties fielding candidates in the election, the race is generally believed to be between the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president of the country from 1999 to 2007, of the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP’s).

A major feature of the February 2019 election is that, unlike in 2015, the two leading candidates are Fulani Muslims from northern Nigeria. In 2015, religion and region played major roles in determining the outcome of the election because Buhari was pitted against Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the minority Ijaw ethnic group in the South. In contrast, it is expected that religion and region will play insignificant roles in determining the outcome of the February election.


Buhari’s style of governance and management of the economy will be big talking points. However, judgment over whether Buhari has performed well in these regards will depend on political leanings. While those sympathetic to Buhari and the APC can list the government’s achievements, their opponents will equally list reasons why Buhari does not deserve re-election.

An important driver of the elections will be what Nigerians call restructuring—a reference to the structure of the country’s federation, a contentious issue championed mostly by politicians and activists from the South. Restructuring means different things to different candidates—from changing fiscal relations between the units of the federation to geographic restructuring, which proponents argue could better balance power between the overrepresented North and the South.

Many prominent politicians from the North are opposed to restructuring, especially geographical restructuring, arguing that given the North’s population and land mass, the current structure is suitable. Atiku Abubakar broke ranks with this position by promising to restructure the country, though details of his plan remain unclear. This promise, however, has endeared him to several groups in the South.

The Boko Haram crisis remains a key issue, which has led to more than 27,000 deaths and 1.8 million displaced people between 2009 and 2018. Though Buhari declared in December 2015 that his government had “technically defeated” the group, in the past several months there has been a surge in attacks by Boko Haram. A major concern with the upsurge in attacks is their trajectory and whether elections can be safely conducted in many parts of the states of Borno and Yobe. The United States has also warned that Boko Haram plans to disrupt the election by launching series of attacks during the period.

An important driver of the election is the enduring conflict between herdsmen and farmers in the central and southern states. Herder-farmer conflicts, which predate the Buhari government, occurred in at least 22 of the country’s 36 states, with over 2,000 killed and tens of thousands displaced, in 2016. The media often allege that the government treats attacking herdsmen lightly because most are from the same Fulani ethnic group as the president—allegations the president denies very strongly.

Vote buying is also expected to be a major issue in the election. Though it contravenes the country’s Electoral Act 2010, vote buying has played an increasing role in determining the outcome of Nigerian elections and was widespread in recent governorship elections in the states of Ekiti and Osun as well as in the party primaries of both the APC and the PDP.

Another crucial issue is the neutrality of key state institutions like security agencies, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which is routinely accused of selectively targeting opposition elements. Recently, opposition groups protested against INEC’s appointment of Amina Zakari, alleged to be a relative of Buhari, to be in charge of collating the results of the election. Similarly, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose government was accused of massively rigging the 2007 presidential election, recently wrote an open letter to President Buhari accusing his government of plans to rig the forthcoming presidential election.

A new dimension in this election is the PDP and APC’s use of the 2023 presidential election as bait to both the Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups. Atiku Abubakar chose Peter Obi, an Igbo, as his running mate, suggesting that the Igbo would produce the president in 2023. Within the APC, Secretary to the Federal Government Boss Mustapha promised the Igbo a shot at the presidency in 2023 if they supported Buhari’s re-election, while the Minister of Power, Works, and Housing Babatunde Fashola and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, both Yoruba, made the same offer to the Yoruba.


Who will come out on top after the 2019 election? Buhari is often said to have cult followership in the North, especially the Northwest, which has the highest number of registered voters at 18.5 million as of January 2018. It remains to be seen how he will fare in the region against a fellow Fulani Muslim from the North. The only previous time he faced a Northern Muslim as his main opponent, in 2007, they split the North’s votes almost evenly.

In theory, since the Southwest, inhabited by the Yoruba, is the second-largest voting bloc with 14.6 million registered voters as of January 2018, APC will benefit more from ethnic baiting. However, given that the Igbo are the most dispersed ethnic group in Nigeria, often constituting the second-highest population next to the indigenes in most communities, this group also has significant voting strength.

It is not clear how the politicization of farmer-herder clashes, especially in Christian-dominated parts of the North and in central Nigeria, will affect Buhari’s support, or how the resurgence of Boko Haram and increasing insecurity will impact his appeal in the North. It is equally unclear how the general perception in the South that Buhari overwhelmingly favors northern Muslims in key political appointments will affect his electoral fortunes. Furthermore, while Atiku Abubakar’s support for restructuring may have endeared him to some people in the South, it remains unclear how it will impact his support in the North, where restructuring is viewed with suspicion.

Both the ruling APC and the opposition PDP appear to have serious internal issues that are impeding their campaigns. There is lingering disaffection in several states following the APC’s primaries to select its governorship, senatorial, and House of Representatives candidates. The same is also true of the PDP following the selection of Obi as their vice presidential candidate.

Who will win? APC currently controls 24 states of the federation while PDP controls only 11. Additionally, the APC has a strong presence in the two zones with the highest numbers of registered voters in the country, the Northwest and the Southwest. APC equally has the advantage of incumbency, conferring them the ability to deploy key state institutions to serve partisan objectives. Based on this, Buhari appears to have a slight advantage going into the election. However, this advantage is not a guarantee; Goodluck Jonathan lost the election in 2015 despite having similar advantages.


Regardless of who wins the election, Nigerians are likely to have a tough time this year. In December 2018, Buhari told a meeting of the country’s 36 governors that the country’s economy was in bad shape. With increased hardship and likely labor protests, the government may become more repressive, which will in turn fuel more agitation, including from separatist groups. With dips in the price of oil, which the country depends on for almost 80 percent of its revenue, and with over 50 percent of Nigeria’s revenue being used to service debts, it is unlikely there will be quick fixes.

Note: Jideofor Adibe is an associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria; and the founding editor of the SCOPUS-accredited quarterly academic journal African Renaissance (published consistently since 2004). He is also co-editor of the triennial, peer-reviewed periodical, Journal  of African Foreign Affairs; a weekly columnist with the Daily Trust, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers; and the publisher of Adonis & Abbey Publishers, a London and Abuja-based publisher of academic books and journals. He can be reached at [email protected].