The Contest to Choose Nigeria's Next President

An interview with Professor Chidi Odinkalu on Nigeria’s historic election
A headshot of Chidi Odinkalu speaking in front of a gray background

The world watches as Africa’s largest country votes in a historic presidential election on February 25. Chidi Odinkalu, Professor of Practice in International Human Rights Law, sat with The Fletcher School to assess the electoral landscape, dispel international misconceptions, and describe the stakes for Nigeria, West Africa, and the globe.

The Fletcher School: This is the first Nigerian election since the return to democracy in 1999 without a candidate from the military on the ballot. What's the significance of that?

Chidi Odinkalu: This is huge in many ways. The military have run the country in or out of uniform essentially since 1966, and even when they appear to have retreated to the barracks, they’ve never really retreated from public space. Now with the retirement of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is term-limited, the country has the opportunity to produce civilian leaders who could build a country that promises something to everyone. I think the only thing that unites Nigerians at the moment is the understanding that nobody's happy with the country. Every part of the country is disaffected, and every part of the country is in conflict. This is an opportunity, probably the first since the country's independence, for civilians to determine the direction of the country.

Each of Nigeria's major regions and all three of Nigeria's largest national groups are represented in major candidates. Do you see this as a positive sign for pluralism in the country, or do you think that it instead brings Nigeria’s famous divisions to the forefront?

I like to look at Nigeria's so-called “divisions of diversity” as a positive. As discombobulated as Nigeria can sometimes look, it's the only African country that has never produced a “life president.” Nor has it produced a dictator. The longest any Nigerian ruler has served, military or civilian, is nine years. What the country does need is someone who can look at this diversity for what it is, an asset, and enable everyone around the country to see it as such. I do think, therefore, that the country gets an opportunity in the diversity of candidates. One thing is very clear: whoever wins will have a minority of votes. They will not have 50% of the votes cast. That means they should have an incentive to build a government that invites everyone in. I look at it as a positive.

Commentators believe that this election is hard to predict. Part of that is because different turnout models produce very different expected results. The Financial Times said that turnout has typically been low in previous Nigerian elections. Why do you think that is?

I really don't think turnout has been low in Nigeria, relative to global trends. The problem is one of statistical modeling. Nigeria has a voter register that is as good as Hotel California: you can check out anytime, but you can never leave. Why is that? Because Nigeria does not have accurate death records. Deceased people are thus never checked out of the voter register.

The current voter register starts in 2011. All the people who have died in Nigeria since 2011 are still there. When modelers do basic arithmetic to understand the number of voters who are truly eligible to vote, they should factor in Nigeria's annual adult death rate. The register has 93.5 million voters, but it should have 24 million fewer.

So in other words, it's actually a wide misunderstanding that turnout is low. That’s based on flawed data.

Yes, correct.

Does this mean that those high-turnout models that show success for candidate Peter Obi are impossible, that there's no actual way to get those turnout numbers?

Nobody knows for certain what turnout will be, not only because models use the wrong base number, but because models must incorporate projections about violence and insecurity. Insecurity in at least three geopolitical zones in the country is pretty bad: the northeast, the northwest, and the southeast. Security forces will be deployed to create corridors for voting, but we don’t know how effective that will be. My sense is that turnout will not be worse than it was in 2019, somewhere in the region of about 45-48%. That is not dreadful, by Nigerian standards.

Will security issues that affect turnout in specific regions benefit any one candidate?

Not necessarily. Bola Tinubu is the candidate of the ruling party and used to be the governor of Lagos State, in the southwest. Tinubu has little support in the southeast, which is the homestead of Peter Obi.

However, the Peter Obi electoral coalition comprises of three demographic sets. One would be ethnic Igbos, who have origins in the southeast but also have a huge population across Nigeria. Indeed, they have quite a substantial population in Lagos, Tinubu’s homebase. The second is the Christian population, who live across the south, in the middle belt, and as minorities in parts of northern Nigeria. There is a vast Pentecostal population in southwest Nigeria, within Tinubu’s home base. The third demographic is the educated youth. That's the Peter Obi coalition. So even if turnout is low in the southeast, it may affect Peter Obi’s ultimate numbers, but it won’t necessarily destroy those numbers.

As seen in news coverage and on social media, many Nigerian youth have put hope behind Peter’s Obi candidacy. Do you believe that the high hopes are well-founded, or is there bound to be disappointment even if he does win the election?

Every electoral outcome is an anticlimax. Invariably, what campaigns promise does not match what is possible when in power. Sadly, I don't think this election will be much different. It is a question of degrees of disappointment, rather than absolutes.

I’m also inclined to tamp down on the narrative about youth support. If you look at Nigeria historically, the country has often produced young leadership. During the Nigerian Civil War, from 1967 to 1970, the leaders of both sides were in their early 30s. Nigeria's best-known leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, ran Nigeria from 1976 to 1979, retired for 20 years, and returned to power in 1999. Even after his 20-year interregnum, he was still only 61. Nigeria's military ruler Murtala Muhammed, who was assassinated before Obasanjo first took power, was killed at age 37. The country has regularly produced leaders that are far younger than the candidates in this election.

Also, the young are not a homogeneous group in Nigeria. Young people are northern and southern, poor and rich, Christian and Muslim, educated and uneducated, male and female. I'm skeptical that young people can ever show up as a cohesive voting bloc.

You mentioned Obasanjo, the towering figure in recent Nigerian history. He has backed Peter Obi’s candidacy. Does this undercut the popular image of Peter Obi as an anti-establishment outsider?

I don't think Peter Obi is anti-establishment. There isn't much that’s that different, quite honestly, between the platforms of the three major parties in Nigeria. I think it's more a matter of style and narrative. Though this is the first time Peter Obi is running as a presidential candidate, it is the second time he's been on a presidential ticket, having been the vice presidential running mate to Atiku Abubakar in 2019. Atiku is now running again, for the sixth time. Tinubu is running for the first time, but he has been a constant in the Nigerian political firmament since 1992. So, all three of them are old timers. Every one of them has been elected previously as a state governor.

What's different is the way Peter Obi has tried to pitch himself. Part of his narrative relates to the other dimension of Nigerian politics, the identity dimension. Peter Obi is Igbo, from the group of people who fought to separate during the Nigerian Civil War and have not historically been given a chance to run for the presidency. From that perspective, he is an outsider.

You’ve suggested that many common narratives about this election are wrong, or at least oversimplified. Have you been disappointed by the international coverage?

Nigeria can be very confounding because there are multiple layers of confusion that must be peeled back. It's also the fact that historically, Nigeria has not been good with numbers. Democracy is ultimately about numbers. It's about counting people, counting votes, counting money, and counting the relationship between those three things. To make this work for the people, you need systems, processes, management, and leadership. On those matters, unfortunately, Nigeria has not scored highly over the years. I think that's part of what confounds the international media.

I genuinely think that the underlying structures of Nigerian politics have not been fundamentally shifted by this election. I could well be wrong. But I suspect that when the results are announced around Tuesday of next week, that's going to show up.

Do you think that the outcome of this election, whatever it is, will impact Nigeria's foreign relationships?

Yes, absolutely. Nigeria is an anchor country in West Africa and an anchor country in the world. It sits on the “trigger finger” of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea. Whoever the next president is, the person needs a lot of political capital. I don't think the next president necessarily needs to be a genius, but the person needs to have the networks and legitimacy to call on the best talents available, from across Nigeria’s regions and religions. If the person can forge a Nigeria in which every part of the country has a stake, Nigeria stands a chance. When that happens, Nigeria's neighbors will take notice, and the world will take notice. Nigeria can then begin to punch its weight internationally, which is important when Africa is getting destabilized.

West Africa faces serious instability. Burkina Faso has been turned into a contest between soldiers and Islamists. There’s a military coup in Guinea, Mali is under military rule, and there are skirmishes in Niger. Wherever you look, there are challenges in the region. Africa needs a stable West Africa, and West Africa needs a stable Nigeria.

So as other West African countries look at this election, their priority is security?

I think so. Nigeria's priority also is security, because the next president must manage a country that is grappling with fragmentation on different fronts. Even more than the economy, it is Nigeria's biggest challenge.

The countries you mentioned in the Sahel have taken steps away from democracy. There are also examples of movement in the other direction, as in Zambia. It will be a complicated picture across 54 countries, but on balance, how would you evaluate the state of democracy on the continent today?

I don't think there's a single narrative. There's some progress, and Zambia is a good example. Malawi is another good example. Botswana has been quite stable. Kenya has just come through difficult elections with no incidents. Since the events of 2008, Kenya has built a new constitution, respectable institutions, and has made a lot of progress. That's on the “income” side.

On the “expenditure” side of that balance sheet, you've got places like Uganda, which has regressed quite seriously under President Yoweri Museveni. Tunisia is not doing well. There are so-so situations like Sudan and South Sudan. Libya awaits reconstruction and transitional actions. South Africa is struggling from crises within the ANC, the only party that has a realistic chance of forming a government.

In the past, Africa counted on its anchor countries: in southern Africa, South Africa; in West Africa, Nigeria; in East Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia; in North Africa, Egypt and Algeria. Today, nearly all of those countries face serious challenges.

This is why Nigeria's election is so important. Nigeria needs to get it right. If anchor countries can get it right, as Kenya is doing, we can look to an immediate future that offers hope and inspiration to the rest of the continent. But if Nigeria doesn't get it, right, we are in deep trouble.

We've talked about the challenges Nigeria faces with fragmentation and security. But Nigeria offers quite a contrast to some of the examples on the “expenditure” side. Against these examples, does the Nigerian picture provides some optimism?

This is precisely what I like to tell my people of Nigeria. When you take a long view of the trajectory, the Nigerian situation is not as hopeless as we can portray it from within the country. The Nigerian trajectory in the medium term may well hold promise.

There are things the country must manage. The fragmentation is real. Another challenge is demographics. Nigeria's population is growing at about 3.2%, making it the fastest growing population in the world. Nigeria has just overtaken Brazil to become the sixth-most populous country in the world. Within 20 years, it will overtake the United States and become the third-most populous country, after only India and China.

Now, how is the country preparing for that? Where are the new schools, hospitals, infrastructure? Nigeria’s leadership needs to confront this reality, with the world’s help. If Nigeria does not get it right, the situation will be tricky.