This Saturday’s presidential election in Nigeria is a highly anticipated event that could shape wider global politics. As the elections near, it is important to understand the key voting blocs that could have a significant impact on the outcome. In this article, we will explore the five most important voting blocs in the upcoming election: Northern Muslim voters, Northern Christian voters, ethnic Yoruba voters, ethnic Igbo voters, and Southern Ethnic Minority voters. This article will examine the demographics, historical voting patterns, and key issues that could influence voting decisions and their impact on the final result.
The 2023 Nigerian presidential election campaign season has been marked by a series of controversies, gaffes, and key events, making it one of the most tumultuous and closely-watched elections of the year. While there are eighteen candidates, only three have a clear chance of victory: Bola Tinubu — the former Lagos State Governor who is the nominee of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC), Peter Obi — the former Anambra State Governor who is the flagbearer of the relatively small Labour Party (LP), and Atiku Abubakar — the former Vice President who is the nominee of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Tinubu has long been categorized as a kingmaking godfather in Nigerian politics; now going for the top job himself, he has faced immense issues with party discipline along with incessant criticism over corruption allegations, a Chicago-area drug trafficking case from 1993, and his questionable personal history along with questions over his health status and connection to the unpopular incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari (APC).
Meanwhile, Abubakar entered the campaign hoping to be boosted by dissatisfaction with the Buhari administration but has been dogged by allegations of corruption, and perceived desperation for political power in his sixth presidential run under his fourth party banner. Abubakar has also been lambasted for violating the zoning principle of regional rotation by running for the presidency despite a fellow northerner (Buhari) having just served in the office for two full terms. Obi is the wildcard of the election; recent Nigerian politics has been a clear duopoly of the APC and PDP but after withdrawing from the PDP primary, Obi decided to continue his presidential candidacy in the small Labour Party.
Immensely popular with online young people, Obi has turned that base into genuine grassroots momentum and has led most publicly available polls. However, it remains to be seen if he can translate this into votes on Election Day, especially considering the lack of LP “party structure.” A fourth candidate, Rabiu Kwankwaso — the former Kano State Governor who is the nominee of the minor New Nigeria Peoples Party — has a strong base of support in his home state of Kano and neighboring states, but is unlikely to win the election overall due to his lack of broader support outside of his regional base.
Major themes include increased voter interest in the election, with over 10 million new voters registering in the year before the election. However, there have also been fears of electoral violence and potential vote-buying, a problem that has plagued past Nigerian elections. Campaign issues have centered on the economy, violent crime, and corruption. During Buhari’s tenure, the country has struggled with high levels of unemployment and inflation, but crime has also become a major concern, as violence from a litany of criminal and terrorist groups has worsened over the last few years. Corruption has long been a problem in Nigeria, and voters are once again looking for a candidate who promotes transparency and accountability in government. While these themes have been important to the campaign, specific voting blocs have very different interests and to understand an election in a political system often dominated by identity, we must examine these groups.
Northern Muslim voters
Across most of Northern Nigeria — a vast expanse covering 19 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Islam is the largest religion, having been introduced about a millennia ago via northern and western trade routes. Today, the diverse Northern Muslim electorate is one of the largest voting blocs in the nation and for the first time in years, the race for its vote is competitive. This group has not been a swing demographic for twenty years, as now-President Muhammadu Buhari (APC) had won the bloc in every presidential election since 2003. However, the term-limited Buhari is not on the ballot and even if he was, the Buhari administration’s unpopularity amid rising crime and economic stagnation has reduced his support in the region to all-time lows. These factors have opened up the race for Northern Muslim votes.
Despite the declining popularity of Buhari and the governing APC, Tinubu and his team has been wary of distancing him from the President or his northern allies (even when criticizing administration policies). Important to note is that the APC was formed from the amalgamation of Buhari’s northern base and Tinubu’s southwestern base in 2013; without both groups onside, neither can win the presidency so Tinubu has clung to his party banner when in the North. For his running mate, Tinubu selected Kashim Shettima — a Northern Muslim — forming an immensely controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket in a clear attempt to hold APC support in this demographic. The selection came in the wake of rumors questioning Tinubu’s religiosity, which were only amplified later in the campaign when he repeatedly failed to properly recite the fatiha. Poor Quranic recitations aside, the failures of the Buhari presidency alone would have opened a lane in the demographic for Abubakar. Despite being a Northern Muslim himself, Abubakar has historically fared poorly in this electorate but is surging in support this year. Abubakar has been boosted by the fact that he is running against two major candidates from the South, along with the failures of the Buhari administration in terms of security and the economy. He has also employed a healthy dose of ethnic sectarianism, telling a northern forum that Northerners should reject ethnic Igbo (Obi) and Yoruba (Tinubu) candidates for one of their own.
For Obi, he has failed to clearly make significant inroads among Northern Muslim voters, but his strength among online (mainly urban) young voters has given him a tiny foothold in the demographic. However, the fourth candidate — Kwankwaso — has a significant role to play in this electorate, potentially making or breaking campaigns based on his performance. While it cannot be definitively concluded whether Kwankwaso voters—his “Kwankwasiyya” support base—would prefer Tinubu or Abubakar, most agree that they would be unlikely to vote for Obi, thus every Northern Muslim vote that Kwankwaso receives inadvertently helps Obi’s chance of victory.
Given these factors in addition to polls that show significant inroads in Northern Muslim areas by Abubakar, Northern Muslim voters are expected to be closely split between Abubakar and Tinubu with Kwankwaso also obtaining a significant share of the vote while Obi trails in fourth. While Buhari’s (at times questionable) support of Tinubu could keep some “Sai Buhari” (Only Buhari) diehards in the APC, Abubakar’s increased popularity and Tinubu’s blunders could also play a significant role in the outcome.
Northern Christian voters
Mainly practiced by smaller ethnicities, Christianity is the second most commonly practiced religion in the North. Nonetheless, the power of Northern Christian voters is not to be underestimated as a good performance among the group can be the vital anchor to a Northern campaign. Previously a competitive demographic that tended to lean towards the PDP, the unique and idiosyncratic landscape of this election has significantly altered the campaign calculus for Northern Christians.
Much like their Muslim neighbors, the Christians of the North are immensely diverse and populous but, unlike Northern Muslims, the demographic rarely sees national power with its last leader being the Civil War-era dictator Yakubu Gowon, who was President from the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s. This feeling of exclusion was only exacerbated during the Buhari administration when herder-farmer clashes often wrecked many Northern farming communities that are predominantly Christian. The government’s continuous lack of proactive response led to accusations that the administration either did not care about the violence or was passively siding with herders, who often are ethnically Fulani, like Buhari. The final nail in the coffin for the APC was Tinubu’s selection of Shettima as his running mate. As custom dictates, presidential candidates should pick a running mate from a different region and religion; it was expected that Tinubu, a Southern Muslim, would select a Northern Christian to balance his ticket. However, Tinubu disregarded the tradition, instead picking Shettima, a Northern Muslim. The move led to immediate protest by Northern Christian groups and greatly hurt APC support in the community.
On the other hand, Abubakar is a fellow Northerner who received a significant share of the Northern Christian vote in 2019 but crucially, Abubakar is an ethnic Fulani and Muslim. In the wake of eight years of the Buhari administration, reports suggest that some Northern Christian voters are concerned about the implications of an administration led by another Fulani Muslim. These joint factors — APC unpopularity and Abubakar’s nomination — have provided a massive opening for Obi: as the only Christian major candidate, Obi has received key support in some Northern Christian communities. He has also targeted his Northern campaign towards these voters, regularly stopping by mainly-Christian areas — from Southern Gombe State to the Sabon Gari neighborhood of Kano — during his campaign throughout the North. Although Obi has been careful not to cast his candidacy as one based on religious identity, polls noted that some voters may perceive it that way as a SBM survey found that Plateau State — a predominantly Northern Christian state with high religious polarization — had a plurality of respondents that stated that religion was a factor in their vote.
Overall, the Northern Christian vote is likely to go to Obi. While this will not entirely make up for his total lack of support among the more populous Northern Muslim electorate, it could still be the key to an Obi victory. To avoid a runoff, a candidate needs to win the most votes and also obtain 25% of the vote in ⅔ of the states. Overwhelming wins among Northern Christian communities could get Obi over that line in nearly a dozen Northern states.
Ethnic Yorubas, which form the majority population in seven states and significant minorities elsewhere in Nigeria, have historically been a key swing demographic in Nigerian elections. No candidate has won the Yoruba-majority South-West region and proceeded to fail to win the presidency since 1999. While Yoruba areas voted for Buhari in 2015 and 2019, his administration is now very unpopular in the South-West; that low approval rating and the long campaign appears to have pushed the Yoruba electorate into competitiveness.
As mentioned earlier, the APC was formed as a combination of Buhari’s northern base and Tinubu’s southwestern base. Now that Tinubu — who has long been considered the preeminent political godfather of the South-West due to his extensive network of powerful allies — is on the ballot himself, it was initially expected that he would sweep Yoruba voters. However, his support base has waned due to both the failures of the Buhari administration and dissatisfaction with Tinubu’s wider campaign issues. Many people feel that Buhari has not done enough to address crime and economic issues, which has resulted in an overall decline in support for the APC in the region (as seen when comparing 2015 to 2019). In an effort to win back those Yoruba voters, Tinubu has resorted to ethnic identity politics by emphasizing his own Yoruba heritage. However, this strategy may not be enough to win back the full support of a Yoruba electorate that has become increasingly disillusioned with the APC.
Despite the faltering APC, Abubakar has not clearly risen among Yoruba voters compared to 2019. His disregard for zoning, which mandates that the presidency should alternate between the North and the South, has hurt him among many Yoruba—six of seven Yoruba-majority states are in the South. Additionally, disunity within the southwestern PDP has resulted in several prominent Yoruba PDP figures refusing to support Abubakar, further damaging his chances with Yoruba voters.
On the other hand, Obi has made significant inroads into the Yoruba voter base. Voters that are disillusioned with the APC but also support zoning and regional power rotation favor Obi. Furthermore, Obi’s young online base is at its strongest in the Yoruba-heavy megacity of Lagos, and his nationwide Christian strength has translated into higher levels of support among Yoruba Christians. All these factors contribute to his potential appeal among Yoruba voters.
Most polling has shown a narrow Tinubu lead in the Southwest, implying that he has retained some of his Yoruba support; however, a small margin of victory in this demographic may not be enough to offset APC hemorrhaging in the North. For Obi, the question centers on whether he can translate his urban Yoruba support into wider southwestern support that could secure that 25% mark in the seven Yoruba-majority states, and potentially challenge Tinubu for the lead in several of them (especially Lagos). Abubakar is a bit of a wildcard. As the only major candidate that is not being completely blown out anywhere in the nation, he can afford to lose these states. However, failing to get 25% in these states will greatly hurt his chances of victory and preclude any chance of avoiding a runoff if he does win the first round.
Ethnic Igbos make up the vast majority of the population in the five states of the South-East region and have significant minorities elsewhere in Nigeria. In the past, Igbo voters have not been a swing demographic, as the PDP presidential nominee has always won all Igbo-majority states in every presidential election since 1999. However, Abubakar seems to be doing relatively poorly among Igbo voters in the upcoming election.
One of the primary reasons for Abubakar’s poor showing among Igbo voters is his disregard for zoning. Not only is Igboland in the South, many Igbo voters contend that it is specifically the turn of the South-East to produce the next president. Also, division within the southeastern PDP hurts Abubakar’s chances as several prominent Igbo PDP figures — including both PDP governors in the South-East — have refused to support him. Abubakar attempted to appeal to Igbo voters by picking Ifeanyi Okowa — the Delta State Governor who is ethnically Ika Igbo — as his running mate and promising to hand over power to an Igbo successor if elected president, but these concessions have not been enough to hold onto old PDP support among Igbo voters. Coupled with the intra-party crisis and the Obi rise, the longtime Igbo support for the PDP has cratered.
In regards to Obi, he has picked up most of the former PDP voters. Being an ethnic Igbo and a Christian himself, Obi is helped by religious and ethnic identity politics along with his messaging of a new type of politics focused on reform and change. Obi’s young online base is also very strong in urban areas in Igboland, and Obi’s nationwide Christian strength has translated into high levels of support among practicing Igbo Christians. All polling data shows that Obi is leading the South-East by a large margin, making it very likely that he will win the region. However, southeastern turnout has cratered in the last two elections from 67% in 2011, 37% in 2015, and 25% in 2019. Obi appears to have changed this, with a forecast from SBM Intelligence projecting “High” or “Moderate” turnout in all five southeastern states and polling from Stears showing that southeastern respondents were the most likely to state that they plan on voting and more interested in this election than previous races.
To round out the major candidates, Tinubu has gained several notable Igbo endorsements in the South-East, including from some rebel PDP members. However, the Buhari administration’s poor performance and perceived discrimination towards Igbos has kept APC support in the South-East very low. Tinubu, like Abubakar, is hoping to get just enough Igbo support to get the all-important 25% in the southeastern states. However, given the current polling, it seems unlikely that Tinubu or Abubakar will be able to win significant support from the Igbo electorate as Obi is likely sweeping the demographic.
Southern Ethnic Minority voters
People who could be labeled as “Southern Ethnic Minorities”—southerners who are not ethnically Igbo or Yoruba—make up the vast majority of the population in the six states of the South-South region and are significant minorities in most of the other eleven southern states. Just like in the South-East, the PDP presidential nominee has won all six South-South states in every presidential election since 1999 but this year, the Southern Ethnic Minority demographic does not look likely to keep that PDP-supporting streak.
In another parallel to the Igbo electorate, Abubakar appears to be doing relatively poorly among Southern Ethnic Minority voters compared to past PDP nominees. His decline among the Southern Ethnic Minority voters resulted from his disregard for zoning and disunity in the South-South PDP. The South-South has been the epicenter of the anti-Abubakar PDP rebellion, with dissident leader Nyesom Wike being the Governor of the populous Rivers State, the largest in the South-South. With Okowa—a South-South governor—as his running mate and a several other loyal PDP Southern Ethnic Minority surrogates, Abubakar has not fallen in this group as much as he has with Igbo voters; however, he is still struggling to maintain even half of his support from 2019.
On the other hand, Obi has picked up most former PDP voters now disillusioned by the Abubakar campaign. Obi, who is helped by religious and regional identity politics along with his reform-focused messaging, is expected to win the Southern Ethnic Minority vote by a substantial margin. For Tinubu, it is a similar story as the South-East, having gained several notable endorsements in the group but being dragged down by the regionally unpopular Buhari administration. Tinubu and Abubakar hope to get just enough Southern Ethnic Minority support to get 25% in the South-South states. That is a possibility, as even if Obi wins all six South-South states, it will be difficult for him to get such a high percentage of the Southern Ethnic Minority vote that it would preclude Abubakar from getting 25% in at least three states.
Before concluding, I must note that these are broad generalizations with notable overlap and a couple omissions. For example, there are millions of northern Muslims who are also ethnically Yoruba; the outlook of a closely contested Northern Muslim electorate does not really apply to this group as they seem to be pro-Tinubu. Similarly, the section on Southern Ethnic Minorities focused on the people of the South-South region, who will vote differently to smaller ethnic minorities in the South-West like Egun or Lebanese Arabs in Lagos. Aside from the caveats, the five aforementioned blocs cover the vast majority of the Nigerian electorate.
In a highly contested election with three major candidates, reviewing important voter groups gives unique insight into where the election will be won or lost. The North, with over 53 million voters, is hotly contested with Obi challenging PDP Christian strength while Tinubu, Abubakar, and Kwankwaso fight over the vote of the Muslim majority. While most projections agree on Tinubu winning the Yoruba and Obi carrying the Igbo and Southern Minorities, their margins of victory could make or break all of their chances of success in a first round.
Overall, the presidential election in Nigeria is expected to be very close as the campaign period winds down and Election Day nears. It remains to be seen which candidate will come out on top, but looking at these voting blocs could reveal where some may stumble and others will thrive.