Abuja, Nigeria – This weekend, the governing party and leading opposition in Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, are holding presidential primaries as the race to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2023 general elections heats up.
Buhari, who is serving a second four-year tenure, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office.
The governing All Progressives Congress (APC) has fixed May 30 and 31 for its primaries while the main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will hold its primaries on May 28 and 29. Both primaries will hold in Abuja, the nation’s capital.
Officially, there are 18 registered political parties but none of the others is expected to pull off an upset in 2023, due to the extensive grassroots structure of the main two.
For both parties, the candidates could come from any of the country’s six geopolitical zones but it is widely expected that both parties will settle for someone from the three zones in the southern region.
This is because the incumbent is northern and an unofficial power-sharing principle of zoning or “federal character” has existed in Nigerian politics since the return to democracy in 1999.
Even in the south, the southeast is clamouring for the ticket on both parties, as it has not produced a democratically elected president since independence in 1960 and is decrying its political marginalisation – one of the grievances of separatists in the region.
A clean break?
In the APC, the leading contenders are Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, his erstwhile “political godfather” Bola Tinubu who is also the party’s national leader and Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi.
There are two dozen others including Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Kayode Fayemi, governor of the southwestern state of Ekiti and chair of the influential governors’ forum.
In an unprecedented turn of events, central bank governor Godwin Emefiele secured the presidential nomination form but later withdrew from the race.
Some supporters of former President Goodluck Jonathan who was in power from 2010 to 2015 on the PDP’s platform, obtained an APC nomination form on his behalf, but he has denied authorising the decision.
Having previously spent one four-year term in power, Jonathan, a southerner, is eligible for only one more term and would have been a favourable option for power brokers in the north seeking a return of power to the region soon.
In his former party, the PDP, three contestants lead a pack of 15 after this week’s resignation of Peter Obi, former governor of the southeastern state of Anambra, from the party.
Followers of Obi, who is more popular among younger voters, speculate that he was forced out by party elements uncomfortable with his frugal style of politicking when campaign spending is often frivolous and unregulated.
This weekend, the party delegates will pick one of the leading trio: former Vice President and serial contestant Atiku Abubakar; Nyesom Wike, governor of oil-rich Rivers state and former Senate President Bukola Saraki.
Analysts have said the electorate is disgruntled with many of the available candidates, who they see as being recycled within the system.
“Nigeria needs a clean break,” Damimola Olawuyi, a Lagos-based political analyst told Al Jazeera. “President Buhari has been involved in every major national inflection point going back to the civil war. Atiku first ran for political office in 1989, Bola Tinubu in 1992.”
Taking the stage
For now though, one of the two candidates who emerge this weekend is all but guaranteed to be Nigeria’s next president after the elections next February.
But the winner will have to deal with a myriad of issues plaguing the country.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has been waging a war in northeast Nigeria; thousands have been killed and nearly six million people displaced, according to the United Nations.
This has dominated conversations around Nigeria but Africa’s biggest economy is also facing pastoral conflicts in its Middle Belt, increasingly violent separatist movements in the southeast and raging bandits masterminding mass abductions in the northwest of the country.
There is also persistent inflation, rising unemployment and the latest iteration of an energy crisis that led to electricity cuts and jet fuel shortages even as the naira continues to plummet against the dollar.
To that end, the 2023 elections could be crucial for Nigeria’s stability and across the nation, younger people are clamouring for new blood in power.
Voter apathy has been on the rise in recent electoral cycles, partly due to violence, ballot snatching and other logistics, but also because of growing discontent with politicians’ failure to deliver on their promises.
“Take for instance the abysmal 39 percent in the 2011 elections, 30 percent in 2015 and a downward 28 percent in the 2019 election, when we have over 84 million registered voters,” Mike Igini, INEC’s resident electoral commissioner for Akwa Ibom state, said last April in an interview. “Nigerian politicians have failed to allow democracy to give the Nigerian voter the satisfactory utility that an axe gives to the farmer.”
In advance of the 2023 polls, analysts have said voter turnout could be even lower if the APC and PDP prop up members of the same old guard again.
“Apathy has been on the rise in Nigeria’s recent elections, and it’s clear the way the wind is blowing,” Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at Lagos-based sociopolitical advisory firm, SBM Intelligence said.
“The country’s youth are sick of a political class that have promised so much of the same at every turn and delivered so little. Essentially, we’ve reached a point where the political elite has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the young, so the elections are going to see an even lower turnout than the 2019 elections,” he added.
“While newer doesn’t necessarily mean better, it is very clear that Nigeria hasn’t faired well under these men,” Olawuyi told Al Jazeera. “It’s time for different faces to take the stage.”