Towards 2023 Elections: Nigeria’s presidential candidates criss-cross the nation

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Of the 18 candidates contesting to become Nigeria’s next president, just one is female. But she, along with 13 others, does not have a realistic chance of winning. Most analysts agree that only four candidates – Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC); Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP); Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP); and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) – can win or shape the destination of the presidency in February next year. Despite the clamour for leaders from a new generation, Peter Obi is the youngest of the quartet at 61. They all know each other, and Nigerian politics, well.

Mr Obi was elected governor of Anambra as a member of the All Progressives Grand Alliance in 2006 and left the PDP on the eve of the presidential primaries earlier this year to actualise his ambitions. This was a similar path towed by Rabiu Kwankwaso, who was twice elected as governor of Kano as a member of the PDP but left to help form the NNPP as a vehicle to seek the presidency. He also contested in the 2015 primaries that produced incumbent President Buhari as the APC flagbearer. The man he beat into third place, Atiku Abubakar, who is now seeking the presidency for the second consecutive cycle as the PDP presidential nominee, had Mr Obi as his running mate in 2019. His first foray into seeking the presidency in the current democratic dispensation was in 2007 when he ran as the Action Congress nominee, a party largely propped up by Bola Tinubu. The APC nominee himself facilitated the evolution of opposition through the merger of four parties which created the current ruling party.

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What are they promising?

Nigeria is currently faced with an environmental crisis, with floods subsuming parts of the country and displacing millions. Coupled with security and economic challenges, the parties have elected flagbearers with government experience. All four frontrunners have served as fixtures in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, three as state governors and one as vice president.

One of the most recent platforms for campaigns was an interaction in Kaduna with the Arewa Joint Committee – which includes the Arewa Consultative Forum and Northern Elders Forum among its six organisations. In keeping with his reputation for largely eschewing associating himself with the Northern elite, Mr Kwankwaso did not attend. However, the other three candidates were present and set out their agendas.

Atiku focused on security, employment, industry and transport infrastructure. But the PDP nominee’s response to a question about why the north should trust him was interpreted as being divisive in nature and insulting to the regions endorsing candidates from other parts of the country. His claim that the North does not need a Yoruba or Igbo president, direct jabs at two direct rivals for the presidency, has not helped suggestions that he will pander to the populous North to get elected.

Mr Tinubu also focused on security, power infrastructure projects, improved education, and oil and gas exploration and discussed the need for a diversified economy with planned investments in agriculture and solid minerals in the region. His response to a question on climate change, where he appeared to lay responsibility on the west to provide investment and financial support to enable the countries that are taking the economic hit, despite contributing little to climate change, was a narrative that circulated extensively online.

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Before Mr Obi made his address, he was the source of some controversy as the Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, accused Mr Obi of using security officials to block his movement during the Anambra governorship elections in November 2013. In his remarks, Mr Obi made promises to deal with insecurity, boost the economy, fight corruption and improve agricultural investment in the north. He also mentioned addressing out-of-school children in the region and promised to lead an all-inclusive government and ensure nationwide development.

The evolving dynamics of the campaign season

All four candidates will remain in the spotlight in the run-up to the election. Videos and statements of their public comments are being unearthed to either support or denigrate their campaigns on social media. However, an often-ignored area in the campaign process is that it is in many ways a referendum on the performance of the ruling party. Mr Tinubu will be expected to receive the support of the electorate backing the ruling party, but increasing criticism of the government’s performance in economy, security and environmental issues has bolstered the opposition. So too has the government’s, now lifted, ban on Twitter and response to the #EndSARS protests, particularly among Nigeria’s ever-growing youth population. Mr Obi seems set to benefit most from this youth disgruntlement, a probable advantage of fewer years in partisan politics compared to the other three who assumed elected office when democracy returned in 1999, yet his chances of winning are complicated by the lack of a strong national structure.

But what remains to be seen is whether the decision of the electorate is anchored around manifestos and promises or if ethnic and religious considerations continue to take centre stage.

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