The opposition candidate General Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) party won Nigeria’s Presidential, National Assembly and gubernatorial elections comfortably and are now the dominant national party. Editorial Director James Schneider, who was in Nigeria for the elections, analyses how they did it and what it means for the country’s politics and society.
Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) went into Nigeria’s presidential and National Assembly elections held on 28 March as favourites. The election was always expected to be close, but many non-aligned observers expected Jonathan’s so-called “power of incumbency” to give the president the advantage. New African heard the prediction that Jonathan would “just nick it” from several neutral observers in the week before voting.
Some PDP strategists were already plotting the post-election break-up of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). A mixture of incentives – political and otherwise – were to be employed to expose the cracks between the different factions of the opposition party, which is just over two years old.
The APC, although it had some positive internal polling, did not seem assured of victory. A pre-election rally held in Lagos on 25 March, attended by presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, his running mate Yemi Osinbajo and a number of other senior party figures including the “Godfather” of the party Bola Tinubu and Lagos governor Tunde Fashola, had a positive but not celebratory atmosphere.
The party was right not to be presumptuous of victory. The PDP massively outspent the opposition. The difference in advertising spend between the two parties was readily apparent. In the run-up to election day, Nigeria’s numerous newspapers were weighed down with an incredible quantity of adverts and advertorials supporting Jonathan and PDP candidates. For example, on 26 March, THISDAY, a major daily paper, included a 36-page A3 pull-out highlighting Jonathan’s achievements. APC adverts were relatively few and far between. Former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi, who headed the Commonwealth’s observer mission, said in response to a question from New African at a post-election press conference in Abuja that the Commonwealth “will make some recommendations” in its post-election report about party funding and regulation of election advertising.
The APC felt under pressure from partisan security services – several party chieftains went into hiding in the two days before elections, claiming harassment. Many within the party were concerned about the possibility of the military being deployed on polling day, which the Federal High Court in Lagos had ruled unconstitutional. The military’s impartiality had been called into question following its withdrawal of support for the original election date, 14 February, causing the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to postpone the elections for six weeks. The postponement was seen to have benefited Jonathan as the APC would struggle to fund six more weeks of expensive campaigning, and the president was able to regain some momentum and political capital with a successful military campaign – alongside Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin – against militant Islamist group Boko Haram.
The postponement was not the only pressure that INEC Chairman Attahiru Jega was placed under. The Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), a Yoruba nationalist organisation, held a Lagos rally on 14 March demanding Jega’s removal from his position before 28 March. Both the OPC as an organisation and OPC leaders received government contracts shortly before they pledged support for a Jonathan second term.
A number of highly dubious claims were made against Jega. On 25 March, just three days before the elections, THISDAY ran a full- page advertorial on its front page. The advertorial was sponsored by The Sentinel Group and ran with the headline “Exposed: How Jega plots to rig election for APC”. New African was unable to discover any details about the Group.
On the same day, PDP spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode called for the arrest of Sani Musa, whose company printed the Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) used to verify voters and introduced by Jega for this election. According to the PDP, Musa was an APC supporter and part of a plot to fix the election. An impartial onlooker might suggest that the PDP was trying to undermine the credibility of the PVC system entirely.
The PDP was right to fear the PVCs. The cards were instrumental in Buhari’s victory.
The turnout figure for this election, 44%, was down on the 2011 figure of 54%. However, this does not mean that significantly fewer genuine voters took part in this year’s elections or that the country was struck by political apathy – far from it. It seems likely that the introduction of the PVCs reduced fraud and the artificial inflation of voter numbers, especially in some states. This change had a profound effect on Jonathan’s chances of victory.
In 2011, turnout was 67% in both of Jonathan’s strongholds of the South-South and the South East. This year, this fell to 56% and 37% respectively. If turnout had been 67% in both regions, the additional votes for Jonathan would have closed the nearly 2.6 million voter margin of victory for Buhari and turned it into a Jonathan lead in the region of 500,000 votes, depending on how one does the calculation. Some in the PDP claim that this reduced turnout was due to the card readers malfunctioning. However, only 0.3% of card readers across the country failed to perform according to INEC. Only 4% of polling units across the country had to allow voters with Temporary Voter Cards to vote. Distribution of these malfunctions was even across the country and nowhere near sufficient to affect results or suggest any conspiracy.
Winning the swing
In order to win the presidential election, APC required a 9% average swing (PDP vote down 9% and APC up 9%) across the country from the 2011 elections, all things being equal. In particular, Buhari needed to perform well in the swing regions of the South West and North Central while advancing further in his core North West and North East regions.
In the South West, Buhari won 54% to 40%, which represents a swing of 18.5%. Jonathan put in a strong performance in Ekiti state, which had been won back to the PDP at the state level in elections last year, and reduced the margin of defeat in Osun state. However, Buhari performed strongly in the other four states in the region. The Ondo result was most striking with a massive swing of 34% getting Buhari over the line with 51% of the vote. The defection of the state’s governor, Olusegun Mimiko, from Labour to PDP seemed to backfire. Lagos, Nigeria’s economic powerhouse, witnessed hard-fought elections, which Buhari won on a low turnout. The PDP cried foul, arguing that irregularities had taken place at the result collation stage. Responding to a question from New African in a post-election press conference in Abuja, the European Union’s Chief Observer Santiago Fisas said Lagos’ results collation had been “quite disorganised and not dealt with in the best way.”
Buhari was expected to take the South West, although perhaps not by as large a margin, but his performance in the ethnically and religiously mixed North Central more than exceeded expectations. In the zone, the former military ruler won 57% to 39%, which represents a swing of 20.5%. This included victories in two states thought to be PDP-leaning – Kogi and Benue – and a predicted, but still dramatic for its scale, win in Kwara on a 38% swing.
Protecting the vote
Technology and civic activism helped secure the free and fair vote. Ordinary voters around the country and more organised election observers were able to record, albeit incompletely, how the election was progressing. The ability to rig the election was seriously curtailed by this effort. Voters could find out how many of them were accredited to vote at each polling unit, witness their polling unit’s vote being counted and then photograph the results sheet that was then taken up to the Local Government Area (LGA) level for collation. Observers and journalists were then able to observe LGA results being announced at the state level.
Access to this information led to a flurry of unverified results being released on social media on 29 and 30 March. While this created a confused scene of claim and counter-claim, it was possible to cross-reference the partial unofficial results announced online using a network of observers, as New African magazine did. This process assisted New African to be the first media in the world to project Buhari’s victory after INEC had announced results from 18 states.
The most efficient and advanced monitoring body was Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of over 400 civil society organisations across the country. TMG deployed observers to a representative, random sample of 1,507 polling units across the country. These observers fed their information to a situation room TMG set up at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel in Abuja. Around 50 analysts wearing matching purple polo shirts received and logged this data. With it, TMG compiled its Quick Count, which uses the official results announced at polling units to build up an image of what is taking place in a country. The Quick Count can then be checked against the official INEC results to see if the official results are consistent with ballots cast by voters. It confirmed that Buhari had received the most votes. However, it found that he did so by a larger margin than the official results suggested. Rather than the official 54% to 45% margin, Quick Count estimated, with a +/-2.3% margin of error, that Buhari really received 59% of the vote to Jonathan’s 39%.
The discrepancy is due to turnout figures in the South-South. TMG had observed turnouts in the region of 41%, broadly in line with the national average; the official figure was 56%. The implication is that turnout was artificially inflated to boost Jonathan’s vote count. According to TMG’s data, this appears only to have occurred in Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom states in the zone and not in Edo and Cross River.
It might seem peculiar that Buhari swept to power so convincingly – perhaps even more so that it was under the slogan “change”. He is a septuagenarian, former military ruler who had already lost three presidential elections – in the last of which, in 2011, Jonathan defeated him. He also had to contend with the impression that he was a stern man who would only represent his core constituency of northern Muslims.
But, the Buhari of 2015 was very different from that of yesteryear. For the first time, he had a genuinely national campaign structure. Four opposition parties merged in 2013 to form the APC, and several prominent members of the PDP joined the party later that year. In 2011, his Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) had little support outside of the north. In 2015, his party had resources, activists, staff, and crucially state governors in all six regions.
He was also presented as a fundamentally different candidate. Adebola Williams, co-founder of StateCraft, a political communications company that worked on the Buhari campaign, told New African that if the APC campaign slogan was to be “change”, “then he [Buhari] had to make the first move. He had to change.”
Williams decided that he had “to demystify” Buhari to voters, who “didn’t think he was a human being that they could touch, who could smile, who could cry, who could laugh.” So Williams and his team organised a photo shoot to create new campaign images for their candidate. Williams himself did the mood board and top photographer Kelechi Amadi-Obi took the images, with Uche Nnaji doing the styling. Williams explained that each image was meant to illustrate a different facet of Buhari. He was photographed in a suit to look “presidential”, in black tie to look “aristocratic”, in South-South and Igbo traditional dress to make him look comfortable across the nation, and with a young girl to represent his ability to connect across the generations.
In all the images, Buhari is doing something he was not previously known for, smiling. Williams says that this was “a big part of the shoot” and required to “break stereotypes” about him.
These images helped “people see him in a different light” and transform perceptions of him from “a sectional leader, to a national icon,” according to Williams.
Top left: “aristocratic Buhari”; top right: “South-South Buhari”; bottom right: “Yoruba Buhari”; bottom left: “Igbo Buhari”. Images courtesy of StateCraft.
StateCraft effectively harnessed the power of social media to promote their candidate. They brought Buhari to an “elite type” Lagos youth gathering. There, journalist and social media star Tolu Ogunlesi interviewed the former military ruler. Afterwards, they took a selfie and tweeted it. According to Williams, it got 2 million retweets.
Williams then arranged for Buhari to attend a Lagos socialite event, which is not Buhari’s natural milieu. When the APC flagbearer entered the room “it erupted.People were clapping, people were screaming. He didn’t believe it. He never thought that he would get into a Lagos socialite event, and people would be cheering and screaming,” says Williams. The 29-year-old former activist and brand strategist says it was a “wow, game on” moment for Buhari and his campaign.
APC national, PDP regional
The significance of these elections does not just rest with the presidential result. On 28 March, Nigerians cast three ballots, one for president and one for each house of the National Assembly.
The APC secured majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, marking a dramatic end to the PDP’s historical dominance over the federal legislature.
In the Senate, the APC got more senators than the PDP in 22 of the country’s 36 states. Each state elects three senators and the Federal Capital Territory elects one. Overall, the party returned 60 senators to the PDP’s 49.
In the House of Representatives, a similar picture emerged. The APC won 208 seats, the PDP 132 and smaller parties 8, with 11 results not officially confirmed.
Two weeks after presidential elections, 29 of Nigeria’s 36 states went to the polls. The PDP won little outside its regional strongholds. Prior to the vote, the PDP had 21 governors, one of whom, Mimiko of Ondo, had been elected on a Labour Party ticket. The All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), a small, mainly Igbo political party, had one governor. APC had 14, one of whom had won in APGA colours and four of whom had defected from PDP after being elected. Four PDP and two APC ruled states did not hold elections as they are on different term cycles. Three states had to re-run their elections on 25 April: Abia and Taraba, which were won by PDP and Imo, which APC held: due to irregularities on 11 April.
Come 29 May, when Buhari is inaugurated, APC will control not only the presidency but both houses of the National Assembly and 22 of the 36 governorships, including the most populous states Lagos and Kano. The only bright spot for the PDP was winning back Rivers state. The APC has governed the capital of Nigeria’s oil producing region since Rotimi Amaechi’s 2013 defection from PDP. Amaechi, who was director general of Buhari’s campaign, is likely to be compensated for his chosen successor Dakuku Peterside’s loss of Rivers with a senior role in Buhari’s administration.
The Rivers glimmer of PDP good news cannot hide the stark fact that the PDP now looks like the regional party to the APC’s national party. It remains overwhelmingly dominant in the South-South and the South East. However, the party has practically no support at any level in the North West, except for a pocket in southern Kaduna, which borders Abuja. The North West contains more registered voters than the South-South and South East combined. The PDP has some support but is clearly behind the APC in the three other regions.
The party that used to call itself “Africa’s largest party” is now only the largest party in the two smallest regions of the country. The PDP will now need to go through a period of introspection and rebirth to emerge as the viable opposition party most Nigerians would like it to be. APC officials, speaking to New African in the days after Buhari’s election, mentioned Sule Lamido, former governor of Jigawa state in the far north who is close to former president Olusegun Obasanjo, as a credible opponent.
How the PDP responds to defeat will play a big role in the future direction of Nigerian politics. Nigeria could develop two programmatic political parties, leaving behind the politics of patronage that has long dominated.
The APC faces challenges too. As a coalition of interests, it has internal contradictions. Now its primary purpose, defeating Goodluck Jonathan, has been achieved, those contradictions could come to the fore. The party’s broadly social democratic program may not be in line with the politics of some senior figures, and a rigorous anti-corruption drive could upend relations within the party.
Expectations are incredibly high. During the campaign, Buhari and his lieutenants trod the delicate line of playing down expectations while drumming up support. Buhari has said that if people “expect miracles in the next week or month” after 29 May, “it will be very dangerous.”
And miracles are unlikely. Nigeria faces a budget shortfall and downward pressure on the local currency, the naira, caused by lower oil prices. It may be a difficult time to be in government, but the initial signs are that the APC will have a honeymoon period. Goodwill seems to be high; the stock market is up as political risk reduced following the peaceful elections and currency traders and speculators have made positive noises about the naira.
Goodluck Jonathan is in some ways a victim of his own success. He appointed Jega to INEC and gave him just enough space to run elections sufficiently free to remove an incumbent from power.
If Buhari does not deliver for Nigerians, he too could become a victim of his own success. His victorious campaign has increased the belief in Nigerians that they, not their leaders, should determine their future. If the APC squander this opportunity, the party’s fall in four years’ time could be as dramatic as its recent rise.