Nigeria General Election 2019: Female candidate creates new vision of Nigeria

Published on 4 February 2019

Rebecca Webb

IDS MA Development Studies alum

In Nigeria, party politics are characterised by a structure reliant on funding, male domination, and a tendency to violence. In eleven days’ time Nigeria will elect its new president. What do the events leading up to it tell us about who will win?

Just over a week ago, 55-year-old female candidate Obiageli ‘Oby’ Ezekwesili withdrew her candidacy from the process altogether, promising to set up a new coalition and create long-term change in Nigeria. With Oby out of the way, individual agendas of the two dominant male candidates will lead to maintaining the current, outdated political structure.

The ‘two-horse race’ between two Fulani Muslims from northern Nigeria has resumed. This is a battle between two barely-distinguishable candidates; the incumbent President, 72-year-old Muhammadu Buhari of All Progressives Congress (APC) and 75-year-old Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Despite 73 parties fielding candidates at this month’s election, the APC and PDP, armed with war chests other parties can’t compete with, are once again likely to come out top (they have backed every president since the end of military rule in 1999).

However, despite the odds, Oby Ezekwesili became a prominent anti-establishment candidate, offering a break from the past and promising to ‘lift Nigerians out of poverty’. This blog analyses what her candidacy and recent withdrawal tells us about the result of the upcoming election and the longer-term future of Nigeria.

Who is Oby Ezekwesili?

Oby has been the most prominent Nigerian woman to run for presidency so far. She co-founded and led the #BringBackOurGirls campaign after 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok, northern Nigeria in 2014 and has served as both Minister of Solid Minerals and Federal Minister of Education. She has also served as Vice-President of the World Bank’s Africa Division from 2007 to 2012.  ‘Project rescue Nigeria’, her campaign mantra, promised freedom from ‘an evil ruling class’. Following consideration for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for her anti-corruption work, she has been described as ‘Obama-like’ and labelled by her party, the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), as the ‘hope’ candidate for 2019. From southern Nigeria, she appeals to those who do not currently have a voice; women, youth and those in the south who feel left behind by their government. Why did she pull out of the race? What happened? Understanding the key issues can help us understand why just two candidates remain.

Religion, region, resource, restructure

Ranked third after Iraq and Afghanistan on the 2018 Global Terrorism Index, the threat of Boko Haram (an Islamic Terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda) is a critical issue in Nigeria.  Over the past nine years, more than 27,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million displaced by Boko Haram. Whilst Buhari has claimed to have ‘technically defeated’ Boko Haram on 23 December 2015, violence continues.

Herdsmen-farmer conflicts have also become a key issue for voters. The latest 2016 record revealed approximately 2,500 farmers have been violently killed amidst the conflicts and displacement. The attacking herdsmen are migrating south due to desertification, insecurity and loss of grazing land. The conflict has become politicised and is likely to detract from Buhari’s campaign with many criticising the incumbent president for not punishing the herdsmen as they are from the same Fulani ethnic group as himself, a claim he denies. The government responded by launching air attacks against the herdsmen, ending the lives of innocent civilians. Amnesty International condemned this action as ‘totally inadequate, too slow and ineffective, and in some cases unlawful’. Whilst running for president, Ezekwesili reassessed this issue, questioning, ‘is that [counter-terrorism] strategy working, is that strategy broken, is there need for us to completely abandon this strategy and find a different one?’

Restructuring involves changing the structure of the 36 federal states of Nigeria which share sovereignty with the Federal government. Whilst the two main candidates, Buhari and Atiku, both advocate some degree of decentralising powers and resources to sub units of government, Atiku has a more radical stance on the issue, which is deemed to stand him in favour with southern states, the most enthusiastic proponents of restructuring. The north of the country is thought to be over-represented with 19 states, yet this is countered by those who argue that population and land mass make the overrepresentation a suitable plan. Many are critical of Buhari’s government who have taken no steps to the ‘restoration of true federalism’ that was promised in the 2015 constitution. Breaking with the rhetoric of this debate, Ezekwesili stated, ‘restructuring alone will not solve Nigeria’s problem’. The fundamental problem, according to Ezekwesili, is governance failure. Changes to the structure of the federation will not bring about the necessary changes to the current, outdated, political structure.

Who will win?

On 16 February the decision will be made between Buhari and Atiku. However, the character of politics remains a major challenge to politics itself. The 2019 election showcases the need for a leader who can determine a better future for Nigeria. Oby Ezekwesili has demonstrated the need to tackle corruption in the form of vote buying and lack of neutrality amongst key state institutions. Moreover, she has captured international attention. Her message? The style of governance and management of the economy, which has only grown very slowly since the 2016 recession, cannot continue.

Eliminating a political opponent is still the easiest tactic in an environment where political parties are not serving as bridges linking women with political leadership. It is possible Ezekwesili knew this institutional weakness would hold her back, hence announcing her candidacy before affiliating herself with a political party.  Unable to work with the current process, Ezekwesili’s withdrawal laid the ground for either Buhari or Atiku to take control. No matter who has the edge on the day, it is likely, given Atiku previously ran for APC, that neither leader will create meaningful change on the issues that matter to Nigerians in the current, outdated structure. We will wait with interest to see what Oby’s ‘broad coalition for a viable alternative’ will mean for the future of Nigeria.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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