The Stage Is Set for Nigeria's February 2019 Presidential Election

Current PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar speaks with current President Muhammadu Buhari of the APC in Lagos on December 11, 2014, when both were contesting for the APC presidential nomination. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters


--Nigeria’s presidential election is scheduled for February 16, 2019. The two largest parties, the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) completed their primaries last weekend. The APC unanimously selected President Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate, while the PDP picked former Vice President Atiku Abubakar by a large margin from a crowded field. In addition, three other prominent Nigerians have declared for the presidency as the candidate of minor parties: Oby Ezekwesili for the Allied Congress Party; Donald Duke for the Social Democratic Party; and Kingsley Moghalu for the Young Progressives Party (YPP).

Nigerian politics is dominated by the APC and the PDP, one “slightly to the left” (APC) and the other “slightly to the right” (PDP). Parties aside, politics is dominated by personality, not by issues, and politicians frequently and easily shift from one party to the other. For example, Atiku Abubakar was a member of the PDP when he was vice president and until 2014, at which point he left the PDP and joined the APC to challenge Buhari for that party's presidential nomination, which Buhari ultimately one. He then left the Buhari-led APC in late 2017 and will now challenge him again, this time as the PDP's presidential candidate. Minor party candidates can add ginger to the political debate, as Ezekwesili, Duke, and Moghalu are likely to do; unlike those of the two dominant parties, their campaigns are issue-oriented. But candidates from minor parties are highly unlikely to win the presidency.

All five candidates are viscerally pro-American, and all have strong connections there. Buhari earned a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Atiku Abubakar was deeply influenced by U.S. Peace Corps teachers and founded an American-style university, the American University of Nigeria, in his home town of Yola. Oby Ezekwesili earned a master of public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Moghalu earned a master’s degree at Tufts University in Boston and later was a professor there. Finally, Duke has a degree in admiralty law from the University of Pennsylvania.

All five have impressive backgrounds. Buhari was military chief of state in the 1980s known for his “war against indiscipline” and anticorruption drive. In 2015, he was the first opposition candidate to be elected president in Nigeria’s history. Atiku Abubakar was vice president of Nigeria for eight years under President Olusegun Obasanjo, was a senior official in the customs service, and is currently a major entrepreneur. Ezekwesili was a minister of education and mobilized the Nigerian public after Boko Haram kidnapped more than two hundred school girls with #BringBackOurGirls. She is a founder of the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International. She was vice president for Africa at the World Bank from 2007 to 2012. Like Duke and Moghalu, she is a vociferous critic of Nigerian politics. Duke was a notably successful governor of Cross Rivers State, and Moghalu served as a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.

There is an unwritten rule between the two major parties that the presidency should alternate every eight years between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south. It currently is the north’s turn, and the candidates of both major parties are therefore northern Muslims. The three minor party candidates are all southern Christians, but minor parties are not bound by this practice. It is too early to say whether the Nigerian political establishment will converge around Buhari or Abubakar—the principal presidential candidates—or if it will converge at all. Conventional wisdom was that the incumbent always enjoyed a significant advantage over challengers, but Buhari upended that trope with his victory in 2015.