The 2019 Presidential Election: Predicting the Outcome, By Jibrin Ibrahim

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Governance in Nigeria is very poor and the worst levels of poor governance are found at the State and local government levels. Whenever general elections occur however, the attention of Nigerians, and indeed the world is focused almost entirely on the presidential election, which is invariably a two-horse race. It’s the same for the 2019 general elections in which high hopes for a better “third force” was rife up until about six months ago. Since the party primaries however, it has become clear that once again, the race is between two candidates, both in their seventies and both of northern Fulani stock. Nigeria has so far been able to develop a new generation of leaders so we are left with current President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Of course, there are dozens of other candidates but no one seems to pay them much attention.

During the 2015 elections, Buhari was the beacon of hope that galvanized Nigerians to vote out an incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. Today, after nearly four years, the hope has dimmed following his inability to deliver on his very clear campaign promise of security, jobs and effectively combatting corruption. His rival, Atiku Abubakar, who has had Presidential ambitions for the past thirty-five years might finally have his chance. Clearly, this is his best chance so far.

In October, the Economist Magazine articulated the view that it might indeed be his time given his pledge to curtail joblessness and revive the economy gives him an edge over President Buhari with a few months to the elections. The Atiku campaign organization jumped on the prediction: “As the Economist rightly states, the issues in 2019 are popular frustration over the rise in joblessness and poverty (two of the biggest voter concerns) on Mr. Buhari’s watch, as well as growing insecurity in central Nigeria. No other candidate has the capacity to address these challenges, like Atiku.” Atiku is presenting himself as a successful businessman poised to translate the significant success he has made in his private business empire to the public sector.

In its latest edition, the Economist Magazine changed its mind and believes now that President Muhammadu Buhari would win next year’s election. They also came out with the view that the opposition coalition may collapse before the general election. Not surprisingly, the upset PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar came out to say that this time round, the forecast of the London-based magazine failed to meet the attributes of objectivity, balance and fairness.

Foreign predictions about the 2019 electoral outcome has become a game with the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research unit of The Economist, and a multinational banking and financial services company, HSBC coming out with pro Atiku predictions. The Buhari side then had to re-read a report by the United States Institute of Peace claiming they have predicted a Buhari win. The Institute had to come out with a statement captioned: “Correcting a Media Error: USIP Makes No Prediction on Nigerian Election.” They explained that “that the Institute’s 20-page report on risk to a peaceful election in Nigeria, predicted victory for Buhari was false.” The problem with all these predictions and non-predictions of electoral outcomes is that they tend to draw on so-called objective factors of performance or non-performance. Elections however are not about objective factors, they are often about the sentiments of voters.

Atiku’s choice of Peter Obi as his running mate for example has created two currents of sentiments that are affecting his campaign negatively. South East Governors have been furious that he went above their heads to select his running mate and are not putting their State party machines in his support. In much of the North, Peter Obi is seen as an ethnic bigot with an anti-Hausa track record and that in itself is working in Buhari’s favour. At this time, it is very difficult to predict the outcome of the 2019 presidential election. The two candidates have strengths and weakness that are being played out in ways that could still swing the outcomes.

President Buhari has a number of weaknesses that are affecting his campaign. His biggest weakness is that he has lost his 2015 coalition with many key players such as Atiku himself, Senate President Saraki, Speaker Dogara, Governor Tambuwal and so on defecting back to the PDP. Buhari has also lost a lot of his financers who assumed winning would provide financial rewards for them and that simply did not happen. Buhari has also lost the support of much of the Northern technocratic elite who are of the view that he has not shown sufficient competence in governance and has in addition allowed his key ministers – finance, budget, power and works to allocate more resources to the South West than the North East and North West. His party, the APC has also been very concerned that Buhari has consistently refused to make political appointments in favour of his party and that too many of Jonathan’s appointees have been retained over the four years. This has created a significant lack of enthusiasm and commitment to the campaign among many of his supporters. This might reduce his support within his own base.

President Buhari has a number of strengths however that work in his favour. His core support in the North West and North East has remained with him and still consider him a good man, even if as many of them say, is surrounded with bad advisers. They therefore disregard his alleged non-performance blaming it on others. 

Atiku’s greatest weakness is that he is not well liked in his own base in the North East and North West. He does not have the type of love and charisma that Buhari enjoys in the zone. Atiku has also alienated the zone by articulating his campaign on restructuring the country, which is pleasing to the South. Atiku is also considered by too many people as having a long track record of corruption. Even those who are complaining that Buhari has not performed as much as he could have on the anti-corruption front are worried that Atiku would be much worse.

Atiku’s strength is that he has built significant support from the South and the Christian community. He is the beneficiary of the terrible farmers-herders conflict that has turned much of the middle belt against President Buhari, who many in that zone believe allowed mass killing to spread unhindered. Atiku also has a vast network of friends and associates supporting him all over the country and has been able to keep his friends while Buhari has lost much of his own. The PDP machine also has the capacity to generate a lot of financial support for the Atiku campaign and one of the greatest unknowns of the elections is whether the PDP money would flow, if it does, it would be a great boost to the Atiku campaign. The Atiku campaign has strong support in the South East, South South and what is known as the cultural or Christian Middle Belt. He is however another Fulani man so it’s not clear whether voters  there would come out en masse to elect another Fulani man.

The South West would be the arbiter of the elections. Would they vote for Atiku who has promised them the restructuring they love or would they vote for Buhari who has given them the Vice Presidency and powerful ministers? Clearly, the votes would be split but the margins of difference could be decisive. The media, social media and overtures that would be made in the coming weeks would all play a major role. President Buhari has a difficult but feasible chance of winning the 2019 elections. It would however require that he is able to quickly mends fences with supporters he has hurt or ignored and is able to mobilise against apathy. Atiku Abubakar also has a difficult but feasible chance of winning the 2019 elections if his campaign structure grows in coherence and is well funded and is above all able to carry the South West with the promise of restructuring.

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