Nigeria’s Presidential Candidates Are Deeply Uninspiring

Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar. Image via Punch


Last month, the ruling All Progressives Congress party in Nigeria settled on a former governor of Lagos state, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, as its flagbearer for the 2023 elections. Slightly over a week earlier, the largest opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), had chosen former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as its own. Both choices ended the possibility that the next president of Africa’s most populous country would be someone belonging to an emerging—rather than dying—generation. Tinubu claims to be 70, although his opponents say he’s at least 80, while Abubakar is 75.

To be sure, older presidential candidates are a familiar sight in many countries, not least the United States. But the average age in Nigeria is just over 18, making the contrast with geriatric contenders even sharper. The problems don’t end there, though. A third candidate, who is currently generating excitement among young people disenchanted by the last decades of rule by the two major parties, is Peter Obi of the Labour Party, a relatively youthful 60-year-old. The Labour Party, created in 2002, was not a major player in national elections until Obi defected from the PDP in May. As a member of the far larger opposition party, he ran in 2019 as Abubakar’s vice presidential candidate. His biggest handicap, a lack of nationwide political organization that matches the two established parties, is being mitigated by a groundswell of urban support, especially on social media. His relative youth and considerable charm have given his campaign a boost—but so has his ethnicity, a constant factor in Nigerian politics. The Igbo, his ethnic group, haven’t held the presidency since 1966.

Nigeria pays lip service to the idea of deemphasizing ethnicity in national politics. After the civil war of 1967-1970, fought over the independence of the Igbo-led Biafra region, a National Youth Service Corps was established in 1973 to blend young people of multiple ethnic groups and create a stronger sense of integrated identity. But ethnic allegiance has stubbornly persisted, and the three leading candidates now mirror the country’s three biggest ethnic nationalities. Abubakar is Fulani from the north, Tinubu is Yoruba from the southwest, and Obi is Igbo from the southeast.

An informal agreement in some of the parties arranged that the next president after Muhammadu Buhari, the current president, should be from the south, but the PDP reneged on it to make way for Abubakar’s ambition—his third attempt at the presidency. People concerned with the rise of extremism in the north and the rise in attacks on farming communities by herdsmen worry that Abubakar’s ambition will only fuel more attacks by those who think that power should remain in the north, with its majority-Muslim population.

There are plenty of problems with Tinubu, most notably his health. Over the last couple of years, he has spent months abroad on medical vacations, just as Buhari has, fueling fears that the rigors of the job might prove fatal. Umaru Musa Yar’adua, president from 2007 to 2010, died on the job. Videos of Tinubu speaking on the campaign trail show his hands shaking, among other physical and verbal stumbles. His supporters point to his knack for discovering and mentoring talented public servants and his role in turning the country’s largest city, Lagos, into a prosperous and livable state as his biggest strengths, but they ignore credible accusations that the state is run on crony patronage.

It is true that Tinubu is a savvy politician who has been instrumental, as he himself proudly admits, in the emergence of many governors in the country’s southwest over the last two decades. His political connections helped in getting the current president, Buhari, into office, after at least three earlier attempts. As a member of the National Democratic Coalition during the dark days of the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, Tinubu led protests that helped speed up the demise of the junta, and he suffered exile for his efforts. He was rewarded, after civil rule, with the governorship of Lagos, through which he consolidated political power.

Yet his allegiance to democracy faced the biggest test in October 2020 when soldiers sent on orders from the federal government opened fire on peaceful protesters against police violence in Lagos. Tinubu responded by blaming the protesters, after denying the culpability of the federal government. It was widely seen as a cynical political play to remain in the graces of the federal government—a marked departure from his reputation, during the rule of Olusegun Obasanjo of the PDP, as a staunch defender of federalism and an opponent of federal and military impunity.

Meanwhile, Abubakar is a perennial runner for the top job, since his relationship with his former principal Obasanjo soured after their tenure. According to Obasanjo, his erstwhile deputy is a man of dubious character who should never be trusted with power. The PDP’s own reputation is in tatters, with the party having mostly mismanaged the economy during the reign of its last president, Goodluck Jonathan. Many of its former ministers have ended up in jail or are under investigation for corruption. Insecurity from the Boko Haram militant group had moved the populace to vote out Jonathan in favor of Buhari. There are other foreign allegations of corruption against Abubakar, none of which was helped by the suggestion that he had been placed on a U.S. visa ban for years and was only able to enter the country in 2019 because of the intervention of Trump administration officials who found him a temporary waiver. Abubakar stayed at the hotel in Washington owned by then-U.S. President Donald Trump during his visit, and he has not returned to the United States since Trump’s defeat. People already worried that he is seeking the country’s highest office just so he can get diplomatic immunity to travel have yet found no reason to change their opinion.

Abubakar also has other ideological baggage. In May, after the extrajudicial killing of a student in Sokoto state over allegations of “blasphemy” in a WhatsApp group, a hasty condemnation of the act was published on Abubakar’s Twitter, then quickly deleted. A day later, in a Facebook post written in Hausa to his core supporters, Abubakar said he did not authorize the tweet. After eight years of worsening insecurity under Buhari, the country doesn’t seem to want to continue on that path. Boko Haram has not gone away, and new groups, from so-called bandits to killer herdsmen to fundamentalist mobs, have held sway in the country, kidnapping citizens and attacking government and transportation infrastructure, without any decisive resistance from Buhari’s federal government, leading to the general opinion that the president belonging to the ethnic group of the culprits, the Fulani, is a compromising factor. Even the current vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, a southern pastor and law professor, did not escape guilt by association for the totally incompetent handling of the country’s security crises, losing badly to his political benefactor, Tinubu, in the primary.

And so, in 2023, in a country of about 200 million people with a widespread and successful diaspora, the choices available in the next election are two undesirable candidates with shady or complicated reputations and a young(er) populist candidate with a vision and visibility, but with no stable political base nor, as yet, a believable chance at national success.

Obi’s supporters invoke Barack Obama’s unlikely path to the presidency in the United States. But Obi’s hands are not clean when it comes to abuses of power, either. He is allegedly thin-skinned and has been accused of being associated with acts of impunity by the men who once populated the government paramilitary agency known as SARS, whose killings and kidnappings spurred protests in 2020. However, his candidacy seems to carry the best hope for a change of guard to a new generation, having energized millions of ordinarily apathetic citizens to mobilize for his candidacy all around the country. His win would be a victory for grassroots mobilization and a triumph of will, but also a gesture at a final rehabilitation of the Igbo into mainstream Nigerian political life after the ostracism of the civil war of 1967-1970.

Yet key parts of a new vision are still missing. None of the candidates has laid out credible plans to tackle the insecurity around the country, including the vicious killings by suspected herdsmen in the north or suspected militants of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra in the east, or the indiscriminate killings in the south. None of them has addressed the 2015 anti-gay law that criminalized both sexual orientation and association in Nigeria, and none was loud enough, if they commented at all, when Twitter was banned last year. (It was eventually reinstated, but a new social media regulation code is in the works.) For a culture that produced women entrepreneurs and heroes from Dora Akunyili to Ameyo Stella Adadevoh to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (current head of the World Trade Organization, former minister, and a highly qualified individual), to mention but a few, there are no women running for president on any major ticket, although it is still possible one could be picked as a running mate. It is easy for voters to become cynical.

Nigeria’s challenges require a president capable of meeting them with urgency. The Academic Staff Union of Universities has been on strike for a few months now, and students are at home with no answer to the direction of their future. Inflation is high, and the conflict in Ukraine has skyrocketed food prices across the continent without easy solutions at home. Insecurity haunts the country, and the social welfare net, such as it is, is faltering under attacks by insurgents and the pressure of foreign loans. The next elections will be consequential, but the options do not inspire confidence.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, writer, and author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He was a Fulbright scholar from 2009 to 2010. In 2016, he became the first African awardee of the Premio Ostana, a prize for language advocacy, presented by the Chambra d’Oc in Italy. He is currently a Chevening research fellow at the British Library in London, working on the African language print collection from the 19th century.