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What you need to know about Nigeria’s historic presidential election

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Picture: EPA – A man walks past posters of the main opposition presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, on a roadside in Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria, this week. The Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram has vowed to disrupt the country’s general elections tomorrow, Februeary 25, 2023.

By Rachel Chason and Adela Suliman

LAGOS – Nigerians are readying to head to the polls this Saturday in what promises to be a historic presidential election in Africa’s most populous country. The race is the most open – and most closely contested – since democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999, with a third-party candidate running neck-and-neck in the polls with the candidates from Nigeria’s two main political parties.

President Muhammadu Buhari is leaving office deeply unpopular, after two terms in which poverty and youth unemployment have surged and security crises across the West African nation have increased.

The frustrations of young people in particular – more than 40 percent of whom are unemployed or underemployed – have fuelled the rise of an outsider third-party candidate Peter Obi, who is promising to reform a system widely seen as broken. Despite the vast oil riches in Africa’s largest economy, more than 60 percent of its residents live in poverty.

This month, a currency redesign created a crippling nationwide cash shortage and led to protests that injected a new layer of uncertainty into the election.

Although some polls have placed Obi in the lead, analysts warn that he faces long odds against political veterans Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, the candidates representing Nigeria’s two main parties. Both have been in politics for decades and have strong bases and large fundraising machines.

Video: REF:schanenn/The Washington Post – Nigerians get ready to vote in a historic presidential election on February 25, 2023, as the country tackles a currency crisis, soaring inflation and high poverty rates.

Here’s what to know.

• Who are the main candidates?

Bola Ahmed Tinubu: A 70-year-old who served as the governor of Lagos from 1999 until 2007, he is representing the ruling All Progressives Congress. Known as the “Godfather of Lagos”, after decades as a kingmaker in Nigerian politics, Tinubu is running on the slogan “It’s my turn”. He has the support of Buhari and a strong get-out-the-vote machine behind him, predominantly in southwestern Nigeria. He has faced accusations of ailing health, not to mention corruption, which he denies.

Atiku Abubakar: A 76-year-old who was vice president from 1999 to 2007, he is on his sixth and likely final bid for the presidency. The prominent businessman, who represents the People’s Democratic Party and built his wealth in the oil sector, has a strong base in the populous North. He has also faced accusations of corruption, including figuring prominently in a case in which a United States congressman was convicted of a bribery and wire fraud. Abubakar denies those allegations.

Peter Obi: A 61-year-old who served as governor of the southeastern state of Anambra from 2007 to 2014, Obi is an outsider running with the tiny Labour Party after leaving the PDP. The millionaire businessman is campaigning as a reformer with a reputation for fiscal prudence, promising a government that is more accountable to citizens.

Popular on social media and with young people, he has received praise from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and former president Olusegun Obasanjo, among others. His supporters, who called themselves “Obidients”, view him as less part of the “old guard” of politicians than Tinubu and Abubakar.

• What is dominating the elections?

The economy is a massive subject of debate, with two recessions in five years, soaring inflation and a recent crippling shortage of cash because of a currency redesign. Despite being among Africa’s top oil exporters, the decision to end expensive gasoline subsidies, which cost $10 billion in 2022, according to Reuters, is a point on contention. About 63 percent of the population, 133 million people, are classed as “multi-dimensionally poor” by the government.

Young people have struggled to find work despite their qualifications, and many suffered last year during a strike by lecturers that closed Nigeria’s universities for eight months. The World Bank found that 52 percent of young Nigerians say they want to immigrate.

Many young Nigerians who back Obi grew politically engaged during the 2020 protests against brutality from a branch of police known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The nationwide #EndSARS protests, which garnered global attention, led to police opening fire on peaceful protesters and killing at least 15 people at Lagos’s Lekki tollgate.

Insecurity is a nationwide concern. Although threats from Boko Haram have decreased under Buhari in recent years, Islamic State offshoots in the region have gained prevalence. Communal violence, including clashes between farmers and herders, kidnappings, and banditry, as well as the mass abduction of schoolchildren, have increased.

• Is ethnicity and religion a big deal?

In a diverse, multi-ethnic country split between the mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, an unwritten agreement exists between the major political parties to ensure the presidency rotates between candidates from the north and south, and of both religions. The tacit agreement also means that the major parties typically ensure both religions are represented on their presidential ticket.

However, this year that may change.

Tinubu, a southern Muslim from the Yoruba ethnic group, has chosen a northern Muslim running mate, Kashim Shettima, creating a “Muslim-Muslim ticket”, which could prove unpopular nationally.

Abubakar, like Buhari, is an ethnic Fulani and northern Muslim. He has chosen a southern Christian Ifeanyi Arthur Okowa, as his running mate. If he wins, the presidency could remain with a Muslim rather than flipping, again upsetting the tacit agreement.

Obi, a southern Igbo Christian, has chosen as his running mate Yusuf Baba-Ahmed, a northern Muslim. If Obi wins, he would be the first Ibo president of Nigeria since it returned to democracy.

• Will Obi pull off an upset?

If Obi, seen as a wild-card candidate, wins top office it will be a monumental moment in Nigerian politics.

The ex-banker has been especially popular with young people who have praised his frugal handling of finances as governor of Anambra and for vocally supporting the #EndSARS protests. However, his support base remains largely in the south. He has also previously run alongside Abubakar for political office in 2019 and defected from the opposition PDP party to the smaller Labour Party, which some critics say paints him as an opportunist.

Some international observers have likened Obi to France’s President Emmanuel Macron, for breaking away from the two traditional political parties, to forge a third path. He has also been entangled in The Washington Post’s Pandora Papers investigation, which exposed global political leaders who used vast, secretive offshore systems to hide billions of dollars from tax authorities and creditors. Obi has denied breaking any laws and said the accounts were part of legitimate asset management.

“The elections are significant for Nigeria’s democratisation as no incumbent or ex-military is on the ticket of the main four contending parties,” said Leena Koni Hoffmann-Atar, associate fellow of the Africa Programme at the Chatham House think tank. “An upset is very possible,” she said, calling Obi’s campaign “audacious and popular”.

Nigeria’s election also has “generational significance”, she added and wider impact. “Africa’s biggest democracy delivering a clean and fair election will have massive ramifications for democratic change around the Continent.”

• How will voting work?

As well as voting for a new president, Nigerians will also vote for National Assembly parliamentarians on Saturday.

To vote, citizens will need a permanent voter’s card (PVC) and will rely on a new Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), digital tools that aim to prove identity and eliminate electoral fraud. Some 93.4 million Nigerians are registered voters, according to the country’s electoral commission (INEC), which also said it had established almost 60,000 new polling units allowing Nigerians “a more pleasant experience on Election Day”. Nigeria’s large global diaspora cannot vote.

• What is the threshold to win and when will results be announced?

A winning candidate will gain a plurality of votes and secure 25 percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. A presidential term is four years. The result is usually announced between three to five days after voting ends.

If there is no front-runner it could move to a runoff between the top two candidates, with a second round of votes held within 21 days. Ahead of the election President Biden commended the candidates for pledging to “accept the results of the election … and to support a peaceful transition of power”.

Elections for most state governors and members of state houses of assembly will occur on March 11.

Rachel Chason is The Washington Post’s West Africa bureau chief. Before becoming a foreign correspondent in 2022, she was a reporter on the Local desk, focusing on politics and government in Prince George’s County, Md. Adela Suliman is a breaking-news reporter in The Washington Post’s London hub.

This article was first published in The Washington Post